This coming Tuesday evening, I will have the great pleasure of giving an academic lecture on the meaning of progressive music as best expressed in the work of Big Big Train. Unfortunately, this lecture will not be open to the public. I will, however, make an audio recording–should any progarchists be interested.
For the same event, I’ll also be giving two lectures on the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and one on the same of G.K. Chesterton.
So excited about this!
Greg Spawton comments:
‘Prog is a prison': Mr Fripp in Classic Rock. I prefer to think of it as a broad church.
I’ve been thinking about this for much of the year. 2014 seems like a very different year for prog—especially when compared with 2011, 2012, and 2013.
The incredible music of 2014 in the prog world—from John Bassett, Newspaperflyhunting, Fire Garden, Tin Spirits, Arcade Messiah, Andy Tillison, Cailyn Lloyd, Galahad (Stu Nicholson), Salander, Fractal Mirror, and a host of others–further convinces me we’ve entered into a new wave of prog, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post.
Andy Tillison and Brian Watson have convincingly argued in favor of dividing the history of prog into three waves, the third wave beginning around 1994 or so.
If Tillison and Watson are correct, and I suspect they are, I believe we might have entered what we could call the fourth wave.
The turning point came in 2013 with grand and profound releases from Big Big Train, The Tangent, and Glass Hammer. These albums were so excellent, perhaps the best in prog history, that they might very well have represented the apex of third-wave prog.
Take a listen to any of the above mentioned artists in 2014. Their music, especially when compared to the releases of the previous several years, offers something much more experimental and reflective. The story telling is less narrative and more punctuated, the lyrics more imagistic.
Anyway, I’m thinking (and typing) out loud. I’ll give it more thought.
Danny Manners, uprightbassplayer and keyboardist extraordinaire, is stating this as of today:
TUE 30 SEP, 10:40 – The dust settles…
We are pretty much sold out for the August 14th & 15th gigs.
An additional matinée performance on Sunday 16th August is likely: we’re in the process of deciding. Assuming we go for it, it would still be a couple of weeks before tickets went on sale. They would be available to everyone, not just this group.
A Big Big thank you from the band for your enthusiasm, and for the willingness of many people to travel long distances to see us. We had better be good after this…
Once again, apologies for the slightly chaotic way tickets became available. (King’s Place are not a regular rock venue and hence not really set up to handle pre-sales/restricted sales.) Luckily, their policy of not making balcony seats available until the stalls are filled, which might be rather annoying in itself, ensured that there were still some tickets available for people who only checked FB at the appointed hour on Monday morning.
The important thing is that the vast majority of tickets went to members of this group.
Looking forward to meeting many of you next August….
Big Big Train
You may have heard the news already. . . in fact, I’m guessing almost no one in the prog world has NOT heard the news. . . . but tickets for Big Big Train live, King’s Place, August 14-15, 2015, have gone on sale. To purchase your tickets, go here: http://www.kingsplace.co.uk/big-big-train.
As most of you probably know, progarchy.com started, in very large part, as an unofficial fan site for BBT, so we’re especially proud of the band and their desire to explore their music in a live setting.
[My own desire was for them to come to the U.S., but I’m happy to have them play live anywhere. I worry a bit that I might have played a role in their deciding to play in the U.K. rather than the U.S. Several years ago, I made Greg Spawton promise that if they played live in the U.S., they would do so sporting ZZTop beards as well as offering a performance of a double-length BBT blow out version of 2112. It’s quite possible that my then-forced promises are coming back to haunt me.–ed.]
Seriously, what wonderful news. Passengers (that is, the name of BBT fans on Facebook) have flooded Greg Spawton’s announcement of the sale, which he posted 20 hours ago. Considering that BBT represents the highest and best not only of the prog tradition, but of the rock and bardic traditions, the outpouring of enthusiasm from the prog world is quite understandable.
It is with great pleasure that I share with you a truly excellent prog metal album. Between July 1 and July 4, I selected my four favorite releases of the year thus far; over the past few days, I have been sharing them with you. I conclude that series of posts now with the album that I suspect will end up being ranked by me as Album of the Year when December rolls around.
Son of Aurelius was a technical death metal band that has now grown into an innovative and unique prog metal band. Actually, what they do defies genre categorization. They even engage in a critique of the entire notion of “prog” here in the lyrics to track six, “Attack on Prague” (a clever variant spelling of “Prog”):
Freedom from impulse
has never been required more
than it is in relation to the state we’re in,
and it will take so much more
than progressive metal can hope to achieve
With all of its intention and spacey themes.
The band’s first release, The Farthest Reaches (2010), stuck solely with the genre’s usual monochromatic death metal vocals over top of technically accomplished metal. Now on this sophomore release, they have evolved musically and exited from the sub-sub-genre ghetto of death metal but incorporated the best of those sub-sub-genre tropes into a much, much greater musical accomplishment. I am struck by the level of transformation here, and to use an analogy that Progarchy readers will understand, it seems to me something like the difference between Rush’s first album and their second album. Under a Western Sun (2014) appears to be Son of Aurelius’ Fly by Night. In case you miss my point: with this release, we are now in the presence of true musical greatness.
There are fifteen tracks on this entirely independently-produced release. The old death metal screams and growls are incorporated here only as a smaller part of the full palette of an astonishingly dynamic range of vocals. Rather than death metal vocals for the sake of death metal vocals, Riley McShane’s screaming here is intelligently deployed simply as part of the emotional variation within the songs. The impact is incredibly effective and gives the sonic experience a unique range and power.
I think of the album’s fifteen tracks in three groups of five. First, there are five lengthy, mind-blowingly epic prog metal tracks:
2. Chorus of the Earth (7:11)
3. The Weary Wheel (6:46)
6. Attack on Prague (6:03)
13. Long Ago (6:53)
14. Under a Western Sun (7:15)
The technical virtuosity is amazing on every one of these tracks. If you want to have an experience similar to being a teenager listening to Neil Peart for the first time, listen to what Spencer Edwards does with his drumming: you will be astonished to discover that a human being is capable of making sounds like this on a drum kit. It is hard to pick a favorite track, because everything here is truly superb. Cary Geare on guitar and Max Zigman on bass will blow your mind with their unbridled excellence. There are even acoustic guitars and keyboards here and there, which showcases the musical intelligence and compositional skill of the band as they create prog soundscapes on an epic scale.
If I had to single out a favorite moment and a favorite track, it would be track 13, “Long Ago,” where Riley McShane at 4:09 holds the last syllable of the last word he sings in the chorus in an extended rock and roll yell over top of the blistering guitar power chords and the enfilading fire of the drum kit. It’s a truly transcendent moment, because it takes a few seconds for you to realize that Riley is not letting go of that note… and then he just keeps on going and going, for a whole twenty seconds! Unlike Roger Daltrey’s famous yell in “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” which telegraphs what it is about to do, this yell sneaks up on you instead. But it too delivers a truly great rock and roll moment that is no less classic.
Every one of these five lengthier tracks is a mini-masterpiece, and together they actually add up to the length of a regular vinyl album of five-star rank. But the band is kind enough to share more music with us, and so we get a CD that is 72:15 in total length. Let me tell you about the rest of it, which is like having ten bonus tracks added on to an already five-star classic prog metal album.
The second group of five tracks includes four instrumentals, and one more track, “The Prison Walls,” which, unlike the other vocal tracks on this release, is nothing but growling death metal vocals, and hence it harkens back to the old style of their first album:
1. Return to Arms (2:42)
7. Flailing Saints (1:19)
11. The Prison Walls (5:55)
12. Submerge & Surface (3:03)
15. Strange Aeons (2:29)
Personally, I find these exclusively growling death metal vocals completely boring and I can barely stand listening to track eleven. I feel my I.Q. dropping as the dumb growls plod on and on — although the demented riffing on the track does make for some great crazy metal music. There is an excellent instrumental break at about the three-minute mark, and so usually I just fast-forward to that, if I don’t skip the song entirely. I guess this track is a sop to the fans who loved their first album, but I just think it is time to grow and move on and leave this sort of thing behind. It works when it is deployed in very small doses as part of an escalating dynamic range, as within the five epic prog-length tracks, but on its own it is musically very dull.
“Flailing Saints” and “Strange Aeons” are brief fade-in and fade-out instrumental outtakes, but “Return to Arms” and “Submerge & Surface” are fully coherent instrumental wholes that are very, very impressive. If you want a quick sample of the band’s virtuosity, try out those two tracks. I especially love the bass solo on “Submerge & Surface,” because it explodes into an unexpected burst of feedback at the end. The instrumentation and arrangement is top-notch on these purely musical tracks. They work well in bringing variation and interest to an already stellar album.
The last group of five tracks consists of carefully-crafted songs that are shorter in length, but still packed with the musical virtuosity that is the hallmark of Son of Aurelius:
4. Coloring the Soul (3:56)
5. The Stoic Speaks (4:46)
8. A Great Liberation (5:27)
9. Clouded Panes (4:28)
10. Blinding Light (4:15)
“Coloring the Soul” and “The Stoic Speaks” give us lyrics sung from the perspective of a Marcus Aurelius character who seems to be standing outside of time. “Coloring the Soul” even sings at the end a quote from the Emperor’s actual Meditations:
The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.
The band gets its name from the successor Emperor, Commodus, who on their first release was changed by the lyrics into a fictional, super-powered lunatic. But on this release, the “son” of Marcus Aurelius could be anyone listening to the album who is spiritually attuned to what the lyrics are singing about — a “spiritual son” of Marcus Aurelius, in other words. Perhaps something of that vision even informs the lyrics to the epic track “Long Ago,” which could be giving voice to the album’s Marcus Aurelius character, standing outside of time, viewing the trajectory of the Roman Empire, and lamenting the way the world has gone.
Tracks eight, nine, and ten are all very different, but yet each one finishes up with a highly creative outro. Each outro is very satisfying and unexpected and impressive. “A Great Liberation” has screaming death metal vocals throughout, but while the growling ones on track eleven, “The Prison Walls,” are boring, these screaming ones at least have an interesting expressive dimension, and they actually work very well with the incredible music that comprises “A Great Liberation.”
The track “Clouded Panes” is a good short introduction if you can only play one short song for someone to show the truly amazing range of which Son of Aurelius is musically capable. Again, it’s hard to pick any favorites, but one of mine is “Blinding Light,” which for the first few minutes sounds exactly like it could be a Big Big Train song! But then, at the transition into the outro, power chords come ripping in unexpectedly, and Big Big Train turns into… Son of Aurelius! It’s an awesome moment. The vocals by Riley McShane are really great here, especially his quiet clean vocals which then erupt into rock singing. This is the stuff of greatness.
Son of Aurelius are the real deal. Don’t miss this album. It’s a special accomplishment and will doubtless be our Prog Metal Album of the Year.
Son of Aurelius — Under a Western Sun
Max Zigman – Bass
Spencer Edwards – Drums
Cary Geare – Lead Guitar
Riley McShane – Vocals
Progarchist Rating: 10/10 ★★★★★
Big Big Train News
PROGRESSIVE MUSIC AWARDS NOMINATION
Big Big Train has been nominated in the Anthem category of the 2014 Progressive Music Awards which will be held in September at the Globe Theatre. Listeners can vote for their choice of Anthem and for their favourites in the other categories online at: http://awards.progmagazine.com/
BIG BIG TRAIN IN SESSION AT REAL WORLD
The band are spending a week at Real World studios in August 2014 where they will be rehearsing for live shows and filming performances of a number of songs for release on DVD and Blu-Ray. The band will be joined by Rikard Sjöblom of Beardfish who will be assisting with guitar and keyboards. Live shows will follow in 2015 and an announcement about the dates will be made in the autumn.
Some short films of the bands preparations and rehearsals for the Real World sessions are now online at: https://www.youtube.com/user/EngElecRecordings
Big Big Train has been working on a number of new songs and it is expected that a new album will be released in 2015. Work also continues on the Station Masters retrospective collection.
LP’s AND TEE-SHIRTS
English Electric Part One and Part Two are both available as double LP’s on 180gm vinyl.
Big Big Train tee-shirts are available from our merchandising retailer, The Merch Desk:
Andy, Danny, Dave, David, Greg and Nick
Big Big Train
Follow the band on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/bigbigtrain
Join our Facebook group at: www.facebook.com/groups/bigbigtrain
Driving across the grass seas of western Nebraska and eastern Colorado this past week, I made sure my listening list was quite specific and quite orderly. Across the western parts of Nebraska, traversing the mighty and winding Platte several times, I listened to Big Big Train, ENGLISH ELECTRIC PART ONE. Not FULL POWER, but the original PART ONE. Back to this in a moment.
Once the Platte split into north and south, I took the south fork, and I went for The Tangent’s THE MUSIC THAT DIED ALONE. Andy always inspires me. But, the combination of Andy and Roine Stolt as my car flew (legally, of course) through such nearly forgotten towns as Julesburg, Ovid, and Sedgwick proved perfect. Andy never fails to find the beauty in lost hope.
A bit of patriotism hit me after The Tangent finished, so I went for Kansas’s THE POINT OF NO RETURN. Amazingly enough, the entire album took me from the ending of THE MUSIC THAT DIED ALONE to our brand new house in Colorado. Truly, as we driving up to the house in Longmont, the final notes of “Hopelessly Human” played.
As promised, back to BBT, ENGLISH ELECTRIC PART ONE (EEP1). First, its pastoral tone fit the Nebraska countryside beautifully. The skies, not surprisingly, were as broad as were deeply blue—the kind of blue one finds only in the Great Plains on a summer day. But, the grasses were a treat as well—variations of greens and golds, generally quite tall and swaying under the pressure of the continental winds.
Second, I’ve not listened to EEP1 for at least a year. Indeed, once ENGLISH ELECTRIC FULL POWER (EEFP) came out, I considered it the definitive edition, putting away PART ONE.
I won’t in any way, shape, or form suggest I had any thing at all to do with the final ordering of EEFP. Such a claim would be nothing but hubris. And, it would be completely false. This was not, however, for want of trying. I bugged Greg openly on the internet and privately through emails about this. I interviewed him about it, and, as a friend, tried to put him in a corner. Greg, the quintessential English Stoic gentleman, quietly (though not in quiet desperation, I pray) took the suggestions of this overly eager and earnest American (overly eager and earnestness are two of our defining traits as a people) with kindness. Thank you, Greg.
I know there was some debate among the progarchists whether or not Greg and Co. were messing with a work of art unnecessarily by re-arranging the order of things and filling in the corners with EEFP. But, from the beginning, I was on Greg’s side. It’s his creation, and he can do with it as he will (and the rest of the members of the band, of course).
Listening to EEP1 this week only confirmed my thoughts. It is a stunningly beautiful, calming, and mesmerizing work. Like all great works of art, it demands full immersion by the participant. Pastoral, it is also equally humane and cinematic. It is a part of the English bardic tradition at its very best. A community of minds and talents produced this album, and we are blessed indeed to exist in a world that allows such works of art to emerge and flourish.
But, for me, especially as a historian, EEP1 is now an incomplete yet intriguing part of a puzzle. It belongs in the archives now, a glorious blueprint, but not quite the complete thing.
This discussion, I think, is not mere mental wrestling. BBT is not just another band, and EEP1, EEP2, and EEFP are not just mere new releases. BBT is a definitive band of prog’s third wave, and EEFP is possibly the finest statement of music over the last two and a half decades. It is the legitimate successor to Talk Talk’s SPIRIT OF EDEN.
How the album came together, how it evolved, and how it is received is not merely academic. It’s now a critical part of our history as lovers of music, art, and human genius. It is now an integral part of the western tradition. Long may it continue.