Beyond Prog: The Authentic Voice and Art of Big Big Train
by Brad Birzer
To me, ‘progressive’ is a term which describes a genre of music. That genre emerged from the rock and pop music of the 60’s and became fully defined in the early 70’s. But what I think may be the sub-text behind your question is whether bands writing and performing music in the progressive genre need, by definition, to be striving for some sort of statement of originality in everything they do. I think not, but I am aware that many others take a more absolutist view of things and this has caused an endless debate. In The Music’s All That Matters, Paul Stump makes some very interesting observations. Early on in the book, he correctly identifies that the main problem with progressive rock is its name (he calls it ‘the most self-consciously adjectival genre in all rock’.) Another point that Paul Stump makes is about what unites the musicians of the genre. He says they have ‘a hankering after the transcendent’. I really like that phrase as it can take on a broader meaning than ‘progressive’. In Big Big Train, we combine our influences in a way, which is often original. But trying to do something different isn’t the be-all-and-end-all. What we are really trying to do is to make extraordinary music.–Greg Spawton, Summer 2012
I must admit, I’m a little lost for words when it comes to reviewing the new release from Big Big Train, English Electric Vol. 2 (officially out today). And, as my wife, my kids, my friends, and my students can attest, I’m almost never at a loss for words. I’m sure there are times when they’d like me to be!
My problem is this. The music is so very good, so very much beyond the bounds of normal description and descriptives, and I want in the worst way for the quality of my writing and my thoughts to do it justice. Frankly, I’m not sure I’m capable. Not being shy enough or humble enough, I will just jump in. . .
When I first heard The Underfall Yard, I thought music could get no better than this. Especially listening to Longdon’s voice. Schnikees. Could that guy get any better? And, those lyrics. Who wouldn’t want to visit the Victorian Brickyard, meet Mr. Delia, dive into that watery purgatory below Winchester Cathedral, or watch electrical storms moving away from England?
Then, I heard Far Skies Deep Time. Ok, they’d reached the top this time, for sure. They have to have done so. Where could they go after this? Again, such wonder. If I caught a plane to England, might I still be able to see Fat Billy just before he died on that beach, a bloated alcoholic with the waves calling him home? Or, how about that English girl who tore my heart out or that other one with the berry-stained lips? No, too late. But, maybe, just maybe, I can be reminded that if we only have love, we have enough.
Then, I heard English Electric Vol. 1. Ok, what to do was my first thought? Everything I’d known and believed about music was blown apart. Nothing had so moved me since I’d first listened to an advanced copy of Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden back in September 1988. Oh, Mark Hollis, where art thou?
I try to walk at least four miles a day. I’ve been doing this much of my life, and I find the time walking absolutely necessary to keep my mind focused when I’m writing, to de-stress when I need to de-stress, to listen to fiction on my ipod, and, especially, to have alone time with my favorite music.
Last summer, I will never forget listening to EEv1 for the first time. As I walked near the downtown of my little southern Michigan town, A Boy in Darkness came on. Though it was a fairly warm and humid day for this part of the U.S., I just sat down on the curb of a brick street, next to the ambulance station. I couldn’t move. I was paralyzed as I listened to the story of abuse, first in the mines of the nineteenth century, and then of a modern-day boy. That boy couldn’t tell a soul! Even his mother. Filled with anxiety, I wrote to David Longdon immediately. David, this isn’t autobiographical, is it? No, he very quickly and politely assured me, it wasn’t. Still, BBT’s music filled me with righteous anger. Bono can yell at me all he wants about greed, but when it comes to motivating me to do something some right and just, give me David’s words, lyrics, and voice any day.
But, as I’m sure all readers of this review understand, there is an instant calming with Hedgerow. Hedgerow. What can one say about the glories of this song? Big Big Train at its creative best. This is over eight minutes of pure joy. Throw in a little Byrds, a little Beatles, some deep strings, and a whole lot of Greg, Andy, Danny, Dave, David, Nick, and Rob, and you have nothing less than one of the finest single songs in the rock era. Who could not love this song? And, what an ending. You’re standing on the edge of eternity, looking in. And, best of all, your dog is with you. Who knows who’s waiting on the other side? If Heaven sounds anything like this, I want in.
Here in English Electric Vol. 1 was everything that made the previous two albums so special, but there was something more here as well, something that I think will forever remain somewhat intangible to even the best of imaginations: a sort of chemistry among friends that only the rarest soul can understand for any longer than a brief moment. You can feel it in every note and lyric of Big Big Train’s music. Greg and Andy aren’t just brilliant as individuals, they’re specifically even more brilliant because David and Dave and Danny and Nick and Rob have entered their artistic and personal orbits. The influence goes every direction. Greg brings the best out of Dave, Dave brings the best out of David, etc. There’s a maturity in BBT that is as profound as the absence of that seemingly ever-present eroding ego so pervasive in so much of this fallen world.
It doesn’t stop here, though. The moment we listen to a BBT song, we recognize the sheer greatness of it. But, perhaps even better for those of us who know and love BBT, we also know we’re being invited–at some deep, perhaps unfathomably mysterious, level–to enter into the very act and art of beauty itself.
We’re participants and listeners all at once.
We’re never alien to the music. Neither alien nor alienated.
Instead, we’ve been invited to immerse ourselves in it. Yet, unlike so much modern art, especially music, BBT never panders, it never dumbs down. It never serves as some diabolic demagogue asking us to embrace the lowest common denominator. It speaks to us with a voice of equality, but it is an equality of purest excellence. Here we are, BBT’s music says. We’ve made this thing, and we’ve done more than our best. We’ve given everything we’re capable of, as individuals and as BBT, and then some. Now, please join us and let us inspire you to do the best at whatever you do best. Oh, and when you get the chance, let us know what you do. You see, we’re interested in nearly everything.
BBT leavens, never lessens.
One only has to look at the community that has formed around BBT on the internet. They’re not groupies or sycophants, they’re truly interesting and imaginative folks. Fiercely dedicated and loyal, but dedicated because each person–from all walks of life and from every part of this rather bewildering world–embraces an excellence that resides only temporarily here, but reflects some idea that exists truly only somewhere in the Platonic spheres of the heavens. English accountants, Argentine artists, Spanish intellectuals, Canadian philosophers, Kiwi IT guys, Swedish counseling Vikings, and a a whole myriad of others make up this fascinating community.
And, then English Electric Vol. 2 arrived. No way it could be better than English Electric Vol. 1. No way. Of course, where was my faith, you might gently or not so gently ask? I’d thought the same thing with the arrival of each previous release. I’m a historian by profession. Shouldn’t I see patterns in things? BBT does a brilliant thing, never rests, then does something even more brilliant–defying reason and imagination. But, there have to be limits to imagination and greatness and truth and beauty and goodness and all such things, right?
The opening song, complete with a quote from Zola. East Coast Racer. Ok, Greg is really well read. Wonderful. Then, there’s that new guy, Danny Manners, who, as Pete Blum has said, sounds like he walked right off the hippest, coolest ECM experimental jazz album from the 1970s. So gently does his piano begin, as some strings slowly emerge around 14 seconds into the song. 38 full seconds worth of Manners and strings.
Then, bam–at 39 seconds into the song, a sigh of steam from David, Nick’s pounding drums come in with a driving beat, Dave’s guitars start circling my head, and, there’s Greg’s longing bass–we’re here, we’re here, it thumps.
Harp, cornets, violins, trombones, cello, tuba, viola, mandolin, and a twelve string greet the listener with an almost childlike joy.
Yes, I’m in BBT heaven.
“Shaped for speed,” roars David’s glorious voice. And, the song becomes a metaphor for the album as a whole. A glorious appraisal of excellence, the engineers, the laborers, and the visionaries come together, all demanding technological speed and precision, not for the sake of efficiency, but for the sake of beauty. With the most modern of production, so ably handled by the Phill Brown of our day, Rob Aubrey, we experience a wondrous 15 minutes of 1938 England through the eyes of men who might as well have been Anglo-Saxon demigods. Depression be damned, human ingenuity never dies! “Men as giants feed the engine . . . He sees love. . . into legend she flies.”
The second track, Swam Hunter, penned by Longdon and Spawton, again sees a praise of honest labor and the virtue of solid work. Again, Manner’s keyboards are just stunning, especially with d’Virgilio’s drums, Spawton’s bass, and Gregory’s guitar. A powerful song, evoking a dark past, but a past better somehow, despite (or perhaps because of) the struggles of the era.
More working men–again all virtuous despite the struggles of life–appear in the third track, Worked Out. Rather than working as a visionary engineer as in East Coast Racer or a seaman and merchant in Swan Hunter, these men work in the underground, extracting the coal necessary to power England’s genius. Generation after generation dug and dug, offering a legacy often unrecognized by the larger society that benefitted so greatly from the work.
One of the most beautiful string arrangements imaginable begins the fourth track, Leopards. Rather than it resolving by the thundering drums of d’Virgilio, as done at the 39 second mark in East Coast Racer, a rather harmonious acoustic guitar appears at 19 seconds into the song. This is, by far, the most gentle song of the album, and it’s a wonderful and precious affair, a love song of sorts, but not a sappy one. It, too, involves labor–but labor of a different sort. It has a Beach Boys (think, Pet Sounds) meets late XTC flow to it.
While the entire album is simply excellent (if it’s not clear yet, let me just be totally blunt: this is my favorite of all BBT albums), the best part of the album begins at the first second of track five, Keeper of Abbeys. The album never wavers in intensity from this second to the very last second of the last track. The opening to this Spawton-song, though, is deceptive, to say the least. It begins with a kind of happy, jazzy, pop feel. “Keeper of abbeys, his name was carved in the grey stone, it was the angel of the north.”
At 18 seconds, the song changes. Once again, d’Virgilio’s spectacular drumming marks the change. The song becomes decidedly rock, upbeat, and driving at this point. Greg has explained in his blog who the keeper of abbeys is. But, I must admit, with this song, I prefer my imagination to run wild. In my mind, this is a song about the monks of Lindisfarne and the other monasteries so crucial to preserving Plato, St. Augustine, and the many greats of western civilization during the horrors of the Middle Ages, each desperately hugging the coastline of the North Sea. Just as so many of these great Anglo-Saxon religious gave the entirety of their lives to preserving the memory of a culture nearly dead, so do the men of BBT offer us the memory of the best around us, stories of those gone.
The song changes again at 3:08, becoming full-blown prog. But, if this be prog, it’s the best prog that ever existed. Every member of BBT shines here, but no one more so than Dave Gregory. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to praise Dave Gregory as one of the finest guitarists of the rock era. As you know, wherever two music lovers are gathered, three opinions are also present. What about Hendrix? What about Clapton? What about Knopfler? Well, I challenge anyone. Listen to Gregory’s guitar playing during the last three minutes of this song. If he’s not recognized as the guitar god he is, there’s simply no justice in this world.
And, this song proves my earlier point. Every member of BBT shines in this song. But, they do in a way that doesn’t say: “look at what I can do.” Instead, every member is thinking (as I imagine it): look what I can do that makes him do what he can do.
With track six, The Permanent Way, we continue with the theme of the dignity of labor, a look at all the working men, but especially those who have remade the landscape of England through farming or some form of horticulture. We get a brief glimpse of Uncle Jack through the music and the theme of the Hedgerow. This begins as a lulling, gentle song, seemingly bucolic and a bit fairy-ish. Manners piano work here is nothing short of stunning, and it provides a perfect accompaniment to Longdon’s intentionally hesitate vocal work here. I was surprised at the vocal work on my first hearing, not knowing what was coming. As soon as famous famed poet John Betleman (1906-1984) begins to recite his poetry, it becomes completely obvious why Longdon has been performing in such a manner. As a true gentleman and artist, he’s leading us to the work of B. Once Betjeman has finished a stanza, Longdon answers in his normally strong confidence, bringing us back to EEv1. Betjeman returns with another stanza. Narration is always a bit tricky, especially in prog songs. As much as I appreciate, for example, Anathema’s most recent release, “Weather Systems,” I found the narration toward the end of the album to be so distracting as to damage–rather severely–my view of the entire thing. Nothing could be further from the case here. The poetry recitation fits so perfectly, it’s as if the poet wrote his poem anticipating the imminent arrival of Spawton and co. Not only does the poet breath life into “The Permanent Way,” but BBT gives a new life to the poet as well. I can’t imagine ever hearing this song too much. It will continue to grow in majesty for me.
The final track, Curator of Butterflies, looks at the labor and wonderings (and wanderings) of the natural scientist and natural philosopher. Again, Manners plays so beautifully, holding together so much of the music and BBT. It’s a melancholic topic, as the Curator’s preservation of beauty means the capturing and destruction of the life of the beautiful as well. Her life comes into question as well. BBT brings in full strings and brass here, and it all comes together in a kind of perfect autumnal bliss. We never know the ending of the Curator.
Looking over the edge
where the sky meets the waves
so far out of reach;
with just one step
She’d be free.
–Greg Spawton, “Curator of Butterflies,” 2013
Everything presents itself perfectly–every note, every lyric, the art work, Aubrey’s masterful production, and, of course, the six full-time members of Big Big Train. I’m fairly convinced that Sir Betjeman is a member now as well, even if in absentia.
EEv2 is not just another release in a long line of releases. It’s not the Beach Boys, it’s not Yes, it’s not Genesis, it’s not retro-prog, it’s not Talk Talk, it’s not XTC, and it’s not Mew.
It’s Big Big Train, the best of the best of the best.
It’s truth. It’s goodness. It’s beauty. It’s meaning. It’s essence. It’s as good as its gets in this world. We listen to BBT not to kill time and not as musical wallpaper with which to decorate our lives. We listen to Big Big Train because we know we’re better women and men at the end of each listen. Greg and Co. don’t make us so, they invite us to be so.
EEv2 is beyond Prog. Which, of course, means it’s exactly what “prog” should be. It is, at this point in history, uncategorizable, in the same way that Spirit of Eden was in 1988. Only in hindsight, a quarter of a century later, do we understand that Spirit of Eden was the beginning of post-rock. The same will be true of English Electric as a whole. Twenty-five years from now, some modern music critic will see EE in its proper place, understanding it as time-full and timeless.
A few months ago, I teased Dave Gregory on Facebook. I certainly don’t know Gregory personally, though I’ve been listening to him for three decades now. When I saw the brilliant picture Willem Klopper took of him (the top picture in this post) in a really wild hat, I asked him if he was emulating Slash?
No, he responded with great humor and sincerity. “This isn’t GnR. This is B*B*T.”
Amen, Dave, amen.
Posted on March 2, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged Andy Poole, Big Big Train, Danny Manners, Dave Gregory, David Longdon, English Electric, Greg Spawton, Nick D'Virgilio, Progressive rock, Willem Klopper. Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.