Classic Album Sundays’ Colleen Murphy listens to Blue Bell Knoll

I cannot imagine I am the only female who as a teenager sat in her bedroom listening to the Cocteau Twins, making up my own “words” and inventing my own sounds in an attempt to mimic Elizabeth Fraser’s inimitable glossolalia.

I know, it screams of stereotype but there was good reason partially due to the fact that one did not have to learn any proper lyrics or follow a dictated narrative or theme. Instead the listener could envelope themselves into the mood, the experience, and the world of the Cocteau Twins using their personal imagination to make it their own. Isn’t this where most teenagers would like to be – in their own world? I confess, I still do.

The Cocteau Twins’ albums have been private companions throughout various phases of my life with the lush and soaring “Treasure” and “Aikea-Guinea” scoring my moody high school years. “Victorialand”, a predominantly acoustic effort from Fraser and partner guitarist Robin Guthrie minus multi-instrumentalist Simon Raymonde, accompanied me in my move to New York City where I was to attend university. The album’s musical sparseness was a counteractively fitting and somehow reassuring accompaniment to my first few exciting and confusing months in my new urban surroundings.

However, their follow-up was much different and not only because I did not have to shell out the big bucks to buy the 4AD import from the UK. This was the first Cocteau’s album to have a US release (via Capitol Records) and luckily the major had the budget for a hefty promo mail-out. By this time I was Program Director of one of America’s most significant college radio stations and the gatefold sleeved vinyl promo with which I was awarded still sounds stunning today. To my ears, “Blue Bell Knoll” is sonically superior to their previous albums possibly because the band were able to tweak to their hearts’ content given the alleviated economic and temporal pressures of recording in their own studio.

From the album’s opening metallic notes of the harpsichord ethereally chiming over a rooted kick drum, one can hear the Cocteau’s change in course. Compared with the vulnerable bareness of “Victorialand”, the dense layers of “Blue Bell Knoll” feel edgier and more foreboding albeit still dreamy. Fraser’s beautiful soprano is sporadically tracked and embellished by simple musical lines of guitar. Her vocals seem to have a new force and gravitas and dominate the first half of the song.

However, this is a song of two parts. Midway through, the guitar climactically breaks free and we are treated to an onslaught of beautifully melodic feedback and a Guthrie “guitar solo” that is less concerned with the number of notes played with more emphasis placed on the sound of those notes. Somehow the layers of treated guitar do not create an acoustic soupy mess as all of the sounds still manage to be separate and distinct. It is a gorgeously powerful and cathartic contrast to the delicately ominous beginning of the song.

I would venture to say that “Blue Bell Knoll” was a key inspiration to a host of new young bands that would later suffer from neck pain. The newly formed Chapterhouse, Ride, Swervedriver and Slowdive (and their “swirling” guitar sound) obviously took a musical cue. The album was also an apt forebear to another future classic that would be released two months afterward: My Bloody Valentine’s debut “Isn’t Anything”.

Whether you took inordinate interest in your footwear or not, there is much for which to admire the Cocteau Twins. This September is the 25th anniversary of the record they themselves called their first “real” album so why not celebrate by playing “Blue Bell Knoll” in its entirety and as loudly as medically advised.

 If you can’t make this event, grab a decent copy, turn down the lights and listen in full at home.


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