Author Archives: Russell Clarke
It was just the other day that Greg Spawton posted the latest fly-on-the-wall snippets of Big Big Train’s vocal rehearsals for their upcoming and eagerly-anticipated (slight understatement there) DVD recording in Peter Gabriel’s Real Worls Studios on the band’s Facebook page.
I’d just got over the excitement when – lo and behold, there’s another update, this time from the massively-talented multi-instrumentalist and BBT drummer – Nick D’Virgilio.
Enjoy the booms and crashes. I certainly did!
Greg Spawton has posted another video snippet on the Big Big Train Facebook page of the band’s preparations for their upcoming live recording at Real World Studios. If you’re a Passenger, it’ll be compulsive viewing!
Some of you may have detected that a few of us Progarchists have, shall I say, a smidgen of rabid adoration for a British beat combo calling themselves Big Big Train.
BBT (for that acronym is how they are known to us!) are preparing for a live recording at Real World Studios in August of this year, and the chaps have just started posting videos of their preparations.
If you have heard BBT’s music you’ll certainly know how complex and multi-layered it can be, which is a potential challenge to bring to the stage, so it’s going to be fascinating to see how they’re going about it.
The first video sees Danny Manners and Andy Poole talk about how their keyboard rehearsals are going.
It’s very, very cool :)
I was browsing the extremely cool progstreaming.com site the other week and stumbled across a band called Flaming Row. I’d never heard of them, so like all curious progheads, I thought I’d give their album “Elinoire” a spin*.
What I found was a great story wrapped in a wonderfully-realised piece of symphonic prog rock opera pomposity, but with some interesting twists that made it a lot more enjoyable than your run-of-the-mill release.
“Elinoire” was released in 2012. How it passed me by, I’ll never know. I’m eternally grateful to the progstreaming chaps and chapesses for making it possible for me to hear it.
Anyway all you really need to know is that THIS ALBUM KICKS ASS!
If you like Arjen Lucassen’s Ayreon material, then you will love this. It’s symphonic, heavily electric, melodic, beautifully-written, with superb vocals and wildly varied in its instrumentation. You won’t always get big ballsy guitars and power chords, and that makes listening to this album very refreshing. In many ways this release is less ponderous that some of Arjen’s material, making it much more fun to listen to.
And that’s what hooks me into this album. It’s not your standard, run-of-the-mill prog metal rock opera (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) There’s lots of fun to be had here due to the wide variety of genres on display – metal, country (!), funk, good old fashioned pop, but it’s all beautifully woven into the greater story, which still sticks to the big-theme melodrama that makes our favourite genre so uplifting. With song titles as varied as “Overture”, “Do You Like Country Grandpa?” and “Rage of Despair” you know you’re in for an eclectic experience!
A warning to you delicate snowflakes – there are Cookie Monster vocals in the second half of this album – in my opinion, too many – but I must admit that they’re appropriately used given the story being told.
Anyways, this one’s definitely worth a purchase. You can have a listen, and buy it here.
*This may sound like a metaphor in this day and age of digital music, but somewhere that music is on a hard disc, and that disc is spinning at some outrageous rate of revolutions per minute. And failing that, if it’s on SSD, then there’s some electrons spinning even faster, so don’t give me your pedantic nonsense, mister!
If you haven’t already bought IQ’s recently-released “The Road Of Bones” here’s a public service announcement:
MAKE SURE YOU GET THE BONUS DISC TOO!
CD1 is absolutely stonking (that’s British for ‘good’,) and while most ‘bonus’ discs are rarely a bonus (instead usually filled with oddities and detritus) IQ has actually released something that’s absolutely the opposite.
I consider the The Road Of Bones bonus disc (bones disc? – hur hur!) to be absolutely essential listening. It’s difficult for me to understand why this wasn’t released as a double album – there’s so much top-notch material on these 2 CDs!
For GBP4 on top of the single CD (which is selling at GBP10) you get the bonus disc too. You won’t regret it!
Get it here.
Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!
Indeed, what music they make!
The highest accolade I can grant music I adore is to lovingly transfer it to my car’s MP3 player and then purposely drive to work during the height of rush hour, thereby being left alone with it for extended periods of time at a blistering number of decibels.
And that’s precisely how my Thursday morning went.
IQ has gone back in time, finely minced up all of its previous material, strained out all the dull bits, distilled the concoction, added many tricks and traps, clicked the heavy button, and produced a breathtaking piece of work.
So does the above suggest there’s nothing new to listen to here? Well, a lot of it will be familiar territory for IQ fans…but that’s why we’re fans…right? And there’s still plenty of new stuff going on, and new approaches to old stuff, and old approaches to new stuff and…oh I’m sure you get the point!
To (mis)use a food analogy, this is IQ steak tartare. All flavour, no filler, and no buggering about with stoves.
For you vegetarians there’s no analogy that could possibly apply so I’ll just move on.
In line with most of IQ’s material, things are pretty downbeat thematically. The title is the first clue that this isn’t children’s party music (unless you really don’t like children, in which case it could be kind of fun to play it at volume 11 outside a kindergarten.) The Road of Bones is the Russian Kolyma Highway, built by political prisoners exiled by the Stalin regime between the 1930s and 1950s. Nice chap. Thousands died during its construction – not exactly bright and breezy subject matter. Slavery, mental illness, relationship breakdowns and violence all make an appearance in various guises, producing some dark moments that make this release all the more effective, moving and somewhat disturbing. The album artwork sets the scene for what’s to come.
First, the rhythm section is absolutely on fire! Tim Esau’s bass work is superb – punchy, intricate and up front in the mix – just the way I like it! There’s also a ton of bass pedals, which gives proceedings an immense kick in the low frequencies…so to speak.
Paul Cook’s drum work provides a solid backbone on every track, with fewer intricate and noodly distracting flourishes than on previous albums. This is a good thing.
This album has been variously described by some of the Big Big Train Facebook group stalwarts as ‘synth-heavy’ and I’d have to agree. Neil Durant has done a great job on keyboards. There’s some powerful stuff here, with bass, synths and guitar producing walls of sound that are simply irresistible.
Michael Holmes is in great form as usual, although there aren’t as many standout solos from him as I’d like. But he’s ever present alongside Tim’s bass doing the heavy stuff, and he gets a chance to let loose on plenty of occasions with some soaring work. I always enjoy his playing, and he has certainly added plenty to the atmosphere of this album.
Peter Nicholls’ voice is like my loudspeakers – great when driven hard. On previous albums I’ve not been so keen on his quieter vocals but at higher energy levels there’s a howling edge in his voice that always brings chills. Thankfully the vocal energy across the album is high and he hits the mark (and my spine) many, many times, and even in the quieter moments he still sounds damned good.
The album was recorded and engineered at Rob Aubrey’s Aubitt studios in Southampton, and Rob’s engineering wizardry is once again very evident, bringing a nicely-expansive sound that, to my poor tinnitus-damaged ears, makes the most of the band’s extensive talents. I’m a sucker for bass, and it’s positioned right up front – what’s not to love!
Much of the album is very percussive – there’s always punch in various forms (all good) and even the quieter material has a real presence to it. Expect to uncontrollably tap your foot in the ‘Restless Leg Syndrome’ manner that only a true prog fan can muster.
Time signatures are (as is mandatory for IQ) extremely variable throughout. This makes the punchiness even more fun and appealing, and I defy you to resist headbanging at the heavier moments – but only when nobody’s watching, of course.
So here goes – a brief review, including the bonus disc, that you can still buy here in case you forgot.
Tracks – CD1
From The Outside In
Opening with suitably-spooky atmospheric synths and a special guest appearance by Bela Lugosi (isn’t he sounding well?) things soon get going with some solid pumping basslines backed by synth flourishes and Peter’s voice cutting through it all. There’s more atmospherics to come, before a return to the pumping rhythms. A great opening track. But wait, there’s more…
The Road Of Bones
A slow-burner this one, opening again with synths and piano. This is a particularly haunting track, and Peter’s lyrics and vocals are astounding. “For now the need is met, I almost hate myself. Almost. But not quite.” And cue the slow, understated bass-driven buildup to an eventual and very welcome musical kick in the face.
You’ll find this track on IQ’s website.
I was fooled by this track the first time I heard it. The first couple of minutes I found pretty uninspiring, but during its nineteen minutes it morphs several times through much more interesting territory, and ends up going all over the place quite brilliantly. This is actually quite common right across the album, which is what makes it so appealing. There’s always something unexpected around the corner.
One of the less-energetic tracks on the album, there’s power, warmth and intricacy that carries it along quite nicely to a satisfying conclusion.
Until The End
Another stunner, starting slow with plenty of atmospherics, eventually getting going with synths taking centre stage, giving way to Peter’s vocals with some great bass work around the 7 minute mark and a storming performance by all personnel, coming to a very poignant piano and acoustic guitar-led conclusion.
Tracks – Bonus Disc
And on to the bonus disc. You need to own this! Did I mention you can get the 2 CD release here? I’m sure I did…
This is the first of many excellent reasons why you should get the package including the bonus disc. A brooding combination of drums, bass and synth open, cutting to acoustic guitar and Peter’s voice. And then all hell breaks loose. Play it loud, people!
Hateful, vengeful numbskull.
This one starts off with some very triumphant and very nicely sampled orchestra and choir, and then immediately dives into the sort of complex IQ rhythms that we know and love – it always puts a big smile on my face. I defy you not to play air drums! This track’s an instrumental, and while I usually prefer my songs to come with a big dollop of lyrical goodness, this one just keeps me wanting more.
Electronic rhythms open this one, making it sound rather intriguing right from the first bar. There’s a feeling of frantic energy, which eventually moves into something less so, but once again eventually more epic territory via a brief-yet-urgent (and great fun!) mid section.
Fall And Rise
Fall and Rise is the only song that doesn’t sound immediately to me like IQ, and while I love their signature sound, there’s no harm in moving in a different direction. So after all that punchy heaviness of previous tracks, this one features fretless bass, acoustic guitar, gentle synths (and is that a banjo?) and a much smoother, yet no-less fun ride. Think Japan and you’re not a million miles away.
Ten Million Demons
When I first heard this opening I was reminded of….well every song Muse has ever recorded. I considered that a black mark, but thankfully things very quickly turn a corner and transcend the aforementioned unmentionables, becoming another really solid tune with a great, chugging bassline, once again full of atmosphere and surely ending with a delightful nod to
T Rex? (Actually it’s Chicory Tip! Thanks to Stephen Pieper for the correction!)
More punch for the final track, starting slightly weird and ethereal, but then grabbing you by the ears, with stabs of synth over a bouncing bassline, into a quiet passage and we’re into long instrumental territory. A nice, if somewhat subdued way to end the second disc.
I am a big fan of IQ’s past material, but the consistently high quality of every single track across 2 CDs makes this their strongest release to date.
Finally, a small challenge to you, Dear Reader. Given the second CD is a bonus disc, how would you re-sequence both CDs to create a classic double album?
Best answer gets my undying admiration.
Look at all those ‘T’s in the title. Beautiful! Alliteratively awesome! You don’t know how long it took me to come up with that!
I must admit to being slightly uncomfortable about dropping the ‘and’ though. It’s so…ahem…un-British.
The things I do for my art. Ho hum.
Anyway as we are fast approaching the last day of the ISO8601-designated year Two Thousand AND Thirteen (phew, payback!) it’s time to reflect on the high points of the past solar cycle. Life’s too short to dwell on stuff I hate, therefore this post won’t contain anything about politicians, rap or raw celery. Yes – only raw. Cooked is nom.
If my ears could talk* (or access a Twitter account) they would no doubt mention the fact that 2013 has been a fantastic year for them. My tinnitus definitely not included, some truly virtuous vibrations have occupied my ossicles, careened around my cochleas, camped in my cortexes (insular, cingulate and prefrontal, naturally,) harassed my hypothalamus and hippocampus and attacked my amygdala. They have emancipated my endorphins and endocannabinoids, drenched me in dopamine and nurtured my nitric oxide. Laughter, tears and all that lies in between have resulted.
Now, I’ve always been an albums kind of chap. My particular brand of OCD means I must listen to an entire album from end to end. I distrust the very concept of track shuffling, mixtapes and best-ofs – it just seems wrong, somehow disrespectful to the skipped tracks and to the artists. Perhaps it’s just my egalitarian nature – share the love!
This year, however, I am going to go against my nature. Here I present my list of favourite individual tracks from the past just-under-365-and-a-quarter-days.
Yes! Mr Clarke lives on the edge like this every day of his life…
Anyways, without further ado, I present my list of fave choons from this year!
…OK…just a little more ado.
My ranking system is simple. It’s a list of n tracks (where n is a number probably,) presented in no particular order. To get into this list, a song must:
- Be released in 2013.
- Still be played regularly by me.
- Make me grin / laugh / cry / dance (!) / drive erratically.
- Ermmm…that’s it.
Right, no more ado. I promise. All the ados have been used up. They’re all gone. Yes, no more ados whatsever. No siree Bob! This is now an ado-free zone! What’s an ado, by the way?
Big Big Train – East Coast Racer
Yes she bloody does!
Camelias Garden – Some Stories
While the entire album ‘You Have a Chance’ is a great listening experience, there’s something about the opening track that’s so warm, so inviting, and so delightful, that it has wormed its way into my brain, settled there, laid eggs and had a very large family. It has since built an extension onto its bungalow. And then the grandchildren came along…
I don’t really begrudge that it’s not paying rent.
Big Big Train – The Lovers
This was first released on the Make Some Noise EP, and then soon after on the utterly sublime English Electric: Full Power album which, if I was doing a Two Thousand Thirteen Top Ten Albums post, (which I’m obviously not…) would have easily taken at least the first 7 positions.
The track starts off relatively sedately and simple with acoustic guitar and flute, but soon builds into the most incredible listening experience. The instrumental break (surely meant to portray a love scene – which it does so well!) is just legendary – Danny’s electric piano, Greg’s bass and Nick’s drums doing something absolutely amazing to my brain – and then Dave’s guitar – oh the guitar! On it goes before reaching a very satisfying climax (so to speak) via sweeping melloton and David’s soaring vocals. So! Damn! Good!
Cosmograf – When The Air Runs Out
If you haven’t heard how good the Cosmograf album ‘The Man Left In Space’ is, you must have been left in space.
‘When The Air Runs Out’ is a track I can’t get enough of. Its a brooding epic – its musical acrobatics send a shiver down my spine every time I hear it. Actually I get a shiver every time I think about it. It’s definitely my favourite sad moment of 2013 – oh come on, we’ve all got to have one!
The rollcall of the ‘giants of their time’ is quite sobering – we’re all brilliant until we’re not – so what should we do when the air runs out?
A true tragic gem.
Thieves’ Kitchen – Of Sparks And Spires
There’s something about this song that got stuck in my head the first time I heard it, and it’s still there. It’s such a delightfully-put-together track with a real earworm of an organ riff. Lyrically this song tugs at my (admittedly somewhat idealised) view of an England far away in time and place. And what a great, uplifting finish! It’s crescendo almost takes the crown from the closing track of their 2008 masterwork The Water Road. Brilliant!
Spock’s Beard – A Treasure Abandoned
Uplifting and bombastic. And just when you thought you were fully lifted up and bombasted, it lifts you up and bombasts you even more.
This track seems to use every move in the prog playbook so in some ways I feel I’ve heard it all before but it’s just done so beautifully all is forgiven!
The Beard’s latest album ‘Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep’ has been a welcome return to a form that’s been missing for me since their last great album – V.
Big Big Train – The Permanent Way
I still remember the moment I first heard this track, and exploded in laughter and tears, pretty much all at the same time. I adore ‘Hedgerow’ from EE:Part 1 – I can’t sing along to ‘That is where you will find me…’ without choking up. Hedgerow perfectly captures so many of the feelings I have about my erstwhile homeland. Every time I hear it I’m taken back to happier, simpler times. So imagine my surprise and delight when the same refrain made an appearance in TPW!
Boom! It was an amazing moment to find so much new meaning in a phrase that had already become an old friend. Kudos, BBT!
Haken – Pareidolia
‘The Mountain’ surprised me this year. We were on holiday in Europe when I first heard a snippet of it and couldn’t wait to get home to order it. The album’s opening tracks ‘The Path’ and ‘Atlas Stone’ are immensely, arse-kickingly satisfying, but the standout track for me is Pareidolia. The roiling opening moments of bass, sitar, guitar, tabla build to what must be the most yellable chorus of the year:
Be the moon and sun
Be the wind and cross the storm
See the stars begin to swarm
Read the writings in the stone
Go on, try it!
Big Big Train – Seen Better Days
What can I say about this song?
Quite a lot actually.
Big Big Train’s four most recent albums have dealt pretty-much exclusively with the country in which I was born and raised – a country that I grew to dislike and then hate, and eventually in 2001 leave in a bit of a huff.
9 years pass…
…and so to the reconciliation…
I was very fortunate to stumble across BBT’s The Underfall Yard. Through listening to that album I faced and (mostly) resolved the disdain I had for my homeland, projected from the shores of New Zealand, where I now reside. Music is a very healing thing, you know! English Electric Parts One, Two, and now Full Power brought more stories of the amazing and the ordinary, of epic and personal themes, all of which I felt I have a strong connection to. So what does all that have to do with Seen Better Days? Well, to me it takes everything from the past 4 BBT albums and distils their essence to what, for me, is a most compelling story of greatness, decline, love and loss.
I don’t need to mention the incredible level of musicianship on display here as you all know BBT are second-to-none in that department, but I must give special props to Greg’s bass playing on this track. ‘MAJESTIC’ is the only word that’s appropriate.
Anyway that’s my list. Thanks for reading. Have a splendid December however you choose to celebrate whatever it is you celebrate. Personally I will be celebrating not having to go to work.
…ok not finally!
2013 has been a very special year, mostly because of Scott and I schlepping across the Equator to Europe and the UK (yes, the Brits don’t like to think they’re part of Europe. At least they and Europe agree on something.)
I may have mentioned this a few times, but The Big Big Weekend was a simply fantastic couple of days spent in the south west of England. Thanks to everyone for making it such a special occasion – the memories stay with us and I hope we can all get together again one day.
If, dear reader, you are one of the few who have managed to miss my incessant spamming of Facebook with these videos, it’s your lucky day. Never has Youtube contained video of such a delightful bunch of chaps and chapesses. And if you have seen it all before, watch it once more just for shits and giggles!
Mary Christmas! Whoever she is.*Rest assured, if my ears did start talking I would have them removed immediately, kind of van Gogh-like. The voices I already have in my head – the ones telling me to eat celery (raw), listen to rap and politicians – are more than enough to keep me company thank you very much indeed.
The moment you’ve all been waiting for!
Day 2 of The Big Big Weekend saw us head South of Winchester to Southampton to visit Rob Aubrey’s Aubitt Studios. There we met Andy Poole and Rob for a fascinating couple of hours learning how the astonishingly splendid track ‘Judas Unrepentant’ was crafted.
With a guest appearance from Steve Thorne, a sneak preview of the Make Some Noise video a week before it was released, and a sample of the Big Big Train Beer, this was the perfect way to end an amazing weekend among friends.
You can find video of Day 1 here… http://progarchy.com/2013/09/25/the-big-big-weekend-2013-day-1-in-video/
What happens when a bunch of fans of the critically-acclaimed progressive rock group Big Big Train get together in a beautiful, ancient English city?
The inaugural Big Big Weekend took place on the 14th & 15th September 2013 in Winchester, in the United Kingdom.
A celebration of the music of Big Big Train and its many ties to Winchester, the weekend was organised by the amazing Alison Henderson via the BBT Facebook page and well-attended by fans from across the world. Several members of the band (plus a few guests!) also attended, making this weekend a very special and memorable event.
This video shows the highlights of the first day – a walk around Winchester guided by Alison and Greg, followed by a traditional prog curry!
On day two we headed down to Rob Aubrey’s hallowed Aubitt Studios in Southampton for a candid and fascinating chat about about how BBT’s albums are crafted, with special focus on the rip-roaring fan favourite “Judas Unrepentant”. Stay tuned for a video of that day – coming soon!
Over 50 musicians were involved in this progressive space-opera rock extravaganza. Guitars, Drums, Synths, Organs, Trumpets, Saxophone, Viola, Violin, Cello, Theremin, Glockenspiel, and a Latin singing choir were all recorded on this one. Peru Percussionist Alex Acuña (Weather Report) appears as a special guest percussionist and Rich Mouser (Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic, Tears For Fears) mixed and mastered the album.
Imagine having that many people involved and managing to keep things together! There sure is a lot going on in this album but whether that’s for better or worse is in the ear of the beholder. I think the decision to use so many instruments worked some of the time, but sometimes not so much.
The eponymous 15-minute opening track is a great example of a surfeit of variety. It opens with a moody cello, which adds some nice gravity (hur hur, space rock, geddit?) and eventually leaps, Latin-esque into what reminds me of V-era Spocks Beard. Brass, congas, funky! Soon the instrument tally is rapidly increasing, and past the 9 minute mark I actually lose count. Most of it works well but a few choices are somewhat jarring to my delicate ear. Sometimes less is more and…well…more is too much. But it’s still a great opening track. Could it have been a bit shorter? Yes, they could have brought things to a close at the 9-ish minute mark after the wonderful soaring synths, and as most of the instrumentation super-sizing seems to be post-9 minutes I’m not sure the track would have lost much if they had chopped it off then. Anyway it’s still a very strong opener.
And this is where things get a little disappointing. Between tracks 2 and 6 the album has too much of a recurring “Ooh baby I love you and miss you” theme, disguised with some proggy flourishes. Granted, many of those flourishes are pretty nice – symphonic, melodic, blood-pumping (you name it, they have it – and of course they certainly have the instrument inventory to pull it off…) but it leaves me with an overall feeling that there is nothing lyrical I could enjoy. Lyrics-wise, I’m of the opinion that too much of the same thing soon becomes stale, especially when it comes to the ‘L’ word. As I am sure William Holden would tell you, were he able to speak any more, “Love is a many-splendoured thing,” (although he would omit the ‘u’ but I am English I so will spell it properly,) and maybe I’m sounding like a 9-year-old, but when every song is about luuuurve things get a bit…well…icky. This sort of thing (at least this sort of thing when repeated 5 tracks in a row) doesn’t float my boat. I look for higher themes in my prog, or at least lower themes dressed in frills. Or subtle clothing. The raiment on display here is neither spandex-clad and expensive-looking nor sufficiently-subtle and heartstring-tugging for my personal adulation. It has pop music lyrics. The astronaut (assuming that’s what he is) sounds like he should have failed his NASA psych evaluation.
So that’s quite disappointing for an album that started off pretty well.
And then the last track comes along, and I’m bemused once again. It has a great, atmospheric opening, and is really interesting to listen to. There’s some great guitar work, a full choir, and it nicely builds the momentum, eventually returning to some of the themes from the opening track. It’s a great way to end the album. It’s as if all of the banality of the middle 5 tracks didn’t happen. Damn!
In short, Time and Space is an album bookended by great tracks, but the middle is, for me at least, too weak to justify a purchase.
And if you are wondering about the band’s name:
Lobate scarps are widely distributed over Mercury and consist of sinuous to arcuate scarps that transect preexisting plains and craters. They are most convincingly interpreted as thrust faults, indicating a period of global compression. The lobate scarps typically transect smooth plains materials (early Calorian age) on the floors of craters, but post-Caloris craters are superposed on them. These observations suggest that lobate-scarp formation was confined to a relatively narrow interval of time, beginning in the late pre-Tolstojan period and ending in the middle to late Calorian Period. In addition to scarps, wrinkle ridges occur in the smooth plains materials. These ridges probably were formed by local to regional surface compression caused by lithospheric loading by dense stacks of volcanic lavas, as suggested for those of the lunar maria.
Big Big Train’s follow-up to last year’s highly-acclaimed English Electric (Part One), will be released on the 4th of March 2013.
The aptly-titled English Electric (Part Two) is now available for pre-order. Here’s the link! http://bigbigtrain.com/main/shop/ee2
Big Big Train continues its journey across the English landscape with an album of seven new songs which tell further tales of the men and women who work on and under the land. Along the way, stories are told of the shipbuilders in Neptune’s Yard, of a machine that burned its legend across the pages of the history books, of a keeper of abbeys and a curator of butterflies, and of a second chance at love.
Personally I can’t wait to get my hands on this release!