Big Big Train, Wassail (English Electric, 2015)
Tracks: Wassail; Lost Rivers of London; Mudlarks; and Master James of St. George.
As far as I know, I’ve never tasted Wassail.
Of course, I come from Bavarian peasant stock and possess, sadly, not a drop of Anglo-Saxon or Celtic blood in my veins. My wife, however, is blessed with Celtic as well as Swedish ancestry, and I’m more than happy to have played a role in passing those genes on to our rather large gaggle of children.
As far back as I remember, though, my very German-American family drank something that sounds quite similar, at least in essence if not in accidents, to Wassail, Gluhwein. Even the very word Gluhwein conjures not just the scents of warm cinnamon, cloves, and anise, but also the idea of heavenly comfort and satiation.
Much the same could be said of all of Big Big Train’s music. Not that it doesn’t have its share of tensions and darker moments within the music, but, it’s hard to imagine a band in the world today that better understands the goods and beauties of this world than does Big Big Train. They find glory in even the most ordinary of things. And, rightly so.
Wassail is a triumph, frankly. Not a huge triumph in the way The Underfall Yard or English Electric were each immense, almost overwhelming, triumphs, but a triumph, nonetheless.
A good, little truth.
In Greek, one would employ a word that has become utterly perverted over the last hundred years to describe Wassail best: a “dogma.” Literally, translating it from Greek to Latin, a dogma means a “good little thing,” a thing good in and of itself whether we understand its relation to larger truths or not.
Such is Wassail. A good little truth, whether we understand its relation to anything else or not. Only four songs at 25 minutes and 39 seconds, Wassail ends all too quickly. And, yet, for those nearly 26 mintues it plays, it fills our souls to the brim.
The opening song, “Wassail,” is a sing-songy English folk tune, completely with poetic and thoughtful lyrics. Here is the apple—the symbol of the devil, the instrument that caused the Fall, and the fruit that, to this day, brings so much love and joy. How can one thing be so loaded down by so many meanings—from the very existence of the universe and our relation in it, to the very thing that serves at the heart of what our grandmothers make best? This is a Longdon song, pure and simple. It is, for all intents and purposes, the sequel to Hedgerow, but without the rock edge.
The second song, “Lost Rivers of London,” is as much a Greg Spawton-song as the first was a Longdon song. What remains of the ancient world under the very streets of the city that represents so much good and truth in this world? What has nature wrought, our ancestors cultivated, and our current generation forgotten? These are quintessential Spawton questions, and, of course, true to Gregorian form, he serves as our modern natural historian, our urban archeologist, and our prog bard.
The third song, “Mudlarks,” is also a Spawton song, but its fullness comes across as a Big Big Train song more than the song of any one person. On “Mudlarks,” every member of the band, contributes and plays his or her heart out. Of the four songs, this is the most pop-rock oriented, despite the use of a whole set of rather folksy strings.
The final song of the EP, “Master James of St. George,” reveals just how much the band has evolved since the song first appeared—rather gloriously—on The Underfall Yard. Recorded live at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios, this version of “Master James” is much more layered than the original. Whereas the original offered a folksy minimalism, this version is layered almost beyond reason. The new strings add much but what really comes to the fore in this version is Danny Manner’s keyboards.
The Wassail version of “Master James” in no way makes the original obsolete. Quite the opposite. This new version just makes those of us who love BBT justifiably a little prouder of them. For, really, this version shows just how truly alive their music is, how much depth it possesses, and long it will be remembered. . . long after any of us have vanished from this world.
Let us just hope when we get there (wherever “there” is), we know which apple to choose. It’s pretty clear that BBT wishes us well, and they’ve even kindly provided the soundtrack for that journey.
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
If you’ve not noticed before, we progarchists kind of, sort of, really, really like Big Big Train. So. . . it’s with much excitement that we report this.
The Classic Rock Society of the U.K. has just awarded BBT with three well-deserved awards: 1) David Longdon for best vocals; 2) “East Coast Racer” as the best track of the year; and 3) Big Big Train as Great Britain’s best band.
The progarchists of progarchy hq in central Hillsdale County of Michigan are doing a little victory dance for our friends across the Atlantic.
Congratulations to Greg Spawton, David Longdon, Nick D’Virgilio, Dave Gregory, Danny Manners, Andy Poole, and Rob Aubrey. And, of course, to Jim Trainer as well. Amazing and brilliant and wonderful.
Subtitle: “Or, How Plato Made Me Realize We Need to Love 2013. And, If We Don’t, Why We’re Idiots.”
A week or so ago, I had the opportunity to list my top 9 of 11 albums of the past 11 months. Several other progarchists have as well, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed looking at their lists as well as reading the reasons why the lists are what they are. I really, really like the other progarchists. And, of course, I’d be a fool not to. Amazing writers and thinkers and critics, all.
I’ve been a bit surprised, frankly, that there hasn’t been more overlap in the lists. I don’t mean this in the sense that I expect conformity. Far from it. We took the name progarchists—complete with the angry and brazen red anarchy sign in the middle—for a reason. We’re a free community—free speech, free minds, free citizenship, and free souls. We have no NSA, CIA, or IRS. Nor would we ever want any of these. And, we’ve really no formal rules. We just want to write as well as we can about what we love as much as we love. Any contributor to progarchy is free to post as often or as infrequently as so desired, and the same is true with the length of each post.
I, as well as many others, regard 2013 as the best year of prog in a very, very long time, perhaps the best year ever. I know that some (well, one in particular—a novelist, an Englishman, and a software developer/code guy; but why name names!) might think this is hyperbole. But, having listened to prog and music associated with prog for almost four decades of my four and one-half decades of life, I think I might be entitled to a little meta-ness. And, maybe to a bit of hyperbole. But, no, I actually believe it. This has been the best year in the history of prog. This doesn’t mean that 2012 wasn’t astounding or that 1972 was less astounding than it actually was. Being a historian and somewhat taken with the idea of tradition, continuity, and change, I can’t but help recognize that the greatness of 2013 could never have existed without the greatness of, say, 1972, 1973, 1988, or 1994.
In my previous posts regarding 2013, I thanked a number of folks, praised a number of folks, and listed some amazing, astounding, music—all of which, I’m sure I will continue to listen to for year to come, the good Lord willing. And, I’m sure in five years, a release such as Desolation Rose might take on new meaning. Perhaps it will be the end of an era for Swedish prog or, even, the beginning of an era for the Flower Kings. Time will tell.
So, what a blessing it has been to listen to such fine music. My nine of 11 included, in no order, Cosmograf, The Flower Kings, Ayreon, Leah, Kingbathmat, The Fierce and the Dead, Fractal Mirror, Days Between Stations, and Nosound.
And, there’s still so much to think about for 2013. What about Sam Healy (SAND), Mike Kershaw, Haken, Francisco Rafert, Ollocs,and Sky Architects? Brilliant overload, and I very much look forward to the immersion that awaits.
No one will be shocked by my final 2 of the 11 that have yet to be mentioned. If you’ve looked at all at progarchy, you know that I can’t say negative things about either of these bands . . . or of Rush or of Talk Talk. Granted, I’m smitten. But, I hope you’ll agree that I’m smitten for some very specific and justified reasons. That is, please don’t dismiss the following, just because I’ve praised them beyond what any reasonable Stoic with any real self respect would expect. No restraint with these two, however. Admittedly.
So, let me make my huge, huge claim. The following two releases are not just great for 2013, they are all-time great, great for prog, great for rock, great for music. In his under appreciated book, NOT AS GOOD AS THE BOOK, Andy Tillison offers a very interesting take on the current movement (3rd wave) of progressive rock.
The current, or third wave of new progressive rock bands is as interesting for demographic and social reasons as much as for its music . . . . Suddenly a wave of people in their late thirties began to form progressive rock bands, which in itself is interesting because new bands are formed by younger people. . . .
I’m not sure how much I agree with Andy regarding this. I’m also not sure I disagree. I just know that I’ve always judged eras or periods by what releases seem to have best represented those eras. Highly subjective, highly personal, and highly confessional, I admit. But, I can’t escape it. For me, there have been roughly four periods: the period around Close to the Edge and Selling England by the Pound; the period around The Colour of Spring, Spirit of Eden, and Laughing Stock; a little bit longer—or more stretched out—period around Brave, The Light, Space Revolver; and Lex Rex.
Of course, I’ve only listed three. We’re passing through the fourth as I type this. Indeed, the fourth is coming from my speakers as I type this. Over the last year and a half some extraordinary (I’m trying to use this word in its purest sense) things have happened, all in England and around, apparently, some kind of conflicted twins.
When asked about why he participated in latest release from The Tangent, Big Big Train’s singer, David Longdon, replied:
Amusingly, [Tillison] has said that The Tangent is Big Big Train’s evil twin.
In this annus mirabilis, does this mean we have to choose the good and the evil? Plato (sorry; I’m not trying to be pretentious, but I did just finish my 15th year of teaching western civilization to first-year college students. And, I like Plato.) helped define the virtue of prudence: the ability to discern good from evil.
Well, thank the Celestial King of the Platonic Realm of the Eternal Good, True, and Beautiful, we get both, and we don’t have to feel guilty or go to Confession.
Aside from being the Cain and Abel of prog, The Tangent and Big Big Train offer the overall music world three vital things and always in abundance of quality.
First, each group is smart, intelligent, and insightful. Neither group panders. The music is fresh, the lyrics insightful—every aspect is full of mystery and awe. The listener comes away dazzled, intrigued, curious, and satisfied, all at the same time.
Second, each group strives for excellence in every aspect of the release—from the writing, to the performing, to the engineering, to the mastering, to the packaging. And, equally important, to interaction with fans. Who doesn’t expect an encouraging word and some interesting insight on art, history, and politics—always with integrity—from either band?
As maybe point 2.5 or, at least, the culmination of the first two points, each band has the confidence to embrace the label of prog and to embrace the inheritance it entails without being encumbered by it.
In Big Big Train’s English Electric Full Power, there are hints of Genesis and, equally, hints of The Colour of Spring and Spirit of Eden. But, of course, in the end, it’s always Greg, Andy, David, Dave, Danny, Nick, and Rob.
In The Tangent’s Le Sacre du Travail, there are obvious references as well as hints to Moving Pictures, The Sound of Music, and The Final Cut. But, of course, in the end, it’s always mostly Andy.
Regardless, each gives us what David Elliott masterfully calls “Bloody Prog™” and does so without hesitation. Indeed, each offers it without embarrassment or diversion, but with solidity of soul and mind.
Finally, but intimately related to the first two, each band releases things not with the expectation of conformity or uniformity or propaganda, but with full-blown art. Each band loves the art for the sake of the art, while never failing to recognize that art must have a context and an audience. Not to pander to, of course, but to meet, to leaven.
Life is simply too short not to praise where praise is due. Life is too short to ignore the beauty in front of us. And, no matter how dreary this world of insanities, of blood thirsty ideologies, of vague nihilisms, and of corporate cronyism, let us—with Plato—love what we ought to love.
The Tangent and Big Big Train have given us art not just for the immediate consumption of it, or for the year, 2013,—but for a generation and, if so worthy, for several generations, perhaps uncounted because uncountable.
[Ed. note–if there are any typos in this post, I apologize. I’ve been grading finals, and I’ve been holding my two-year old daughter on my lap. She’s a bit more into Barney than Tillison or Spawton at this point.]
Set in stone. Chiseled, carved, done. Or, at the very least, set in digital stone.
For the ever-growing number of Big Big Train devotees (now, called “Passengers” at the official Facebook BBT page, administered by everyone’s most huggable rugged handsome non-axe wielding, non-berserker Viking, Tobbe Janson), questions have been raised and discussed as to how BBT might successfully combine and meld English Electric 1 with 2 plus add 4 new songs.
How would they do it with what they’re calling English Electric Full Power? Would they make it all more of a story? Would the album become a full-blown concept with this final version? Where might Uncle Jack, his dog, or the curator stand at the end of the album? Actually, where do they stand in eternity?
The members of BBT have already stated that EE as a whole calls to mind–at least with a minimum of interpretation–the dignity of labor. Would the new ordering and the four new songs augment or detract from this noble theme?
Somewhat presumptuously, many of us Passengers proposed what we believed should be the track order, and I even took it upon myself to email Greg last spring with a list. Well, I am from Kansas, and we’re not known for being timid–look at that freak, Carrie Nation, who dedicated her life to hacking kegs and stills to bits, or to that well-intentioned but dehumanizing terrorist, John Brown, who cut the heads off of unsuspecting German immigrants.
And, then, there’s the fact, for those who know me, that I can produce track lists like I can produce kids. No planning and lots and lots of results.
Or, that other pesky fact, that I’m so far into BBT that I could never even pretend objectivity. [Or, as one angry young man wrote to me after I praised The Tangent, “your head is so far up Andy’s @ss, you can’t even see sunlight.” Cool!; who wants to spend tons of time writing and thinking about things one doesn’t like? Not me! As Plato said, love what you love and hate what you hate, and be willing to state both. Guess what? I love BBT and The Tangent! And, just for the record, I’ve never even met Andy in person, so what was suggested is simply physically impossible.]
Admittedly, maybe I’m such such a fanboy that I’ve gone past subjective and into some kind of bizarre objectivity. You know, in the way Coleridge was so heretical that he approached orthodoxy. Or, maybe I’m just hoping that Greg and Co. will ask me to write the retrospective liner notes for the 20th anniversary release of EE Full Power. I’ll only be 66 then. Who knows? Even if I’m in the happy hunting grounds (I’m REALLY presuming now), I could ask the leader for some earth time. . . .
If you’ve read my bloviations this far, and you’re still interested in my thoughts on English Electric Full Volume, well, God bless you. A real editor would have removed the above rather quickly.
Back from the Blessed Isles of soulful prog realms. . . .
In my reviews of English Electric 1 and 2, I stated that these albums were the height of prog music perfection, the Selling England By the Pound of our day. I wouldn’t hesitate to proclaim this again and, perhaps, even more vocally and with more descriptives.
At the risk of turning off some of my friends, I would say that EEFP is even superior to its 1973 counterpart. How could it not be, really? Selling England is now an intimate and vital part of the prog and the rock music traditions, and it has been for forty years. Add that album and hundreds of others to the integrity, dedication,and purposeful intelligence, imagination, and talents of Greg Spawton, David Longdon, Andy Poole, Dave Gregory, Nick d’Virgilio, Danny Manners, and Rob Aubrey. Putting all of this together, well, of course, you’d demand genius.
You’d expect genius.
And, you’d be correct.
It’s the height of justice that Jerry Ewing of PROG awarded Big Big Train with the Prog Magazine Breakthrough Award.
That breakthrough started with that meaningful paean to British and western patriotism in Gathering Speed, reached toward sublime spheres in The Difference Machine, found a form of edenic Edenic perfection in The Underfall Yard and Far Skies (it’s hard for me to separate these two albums for some reason), and then embraced transcendent perfection in English Electric 1 and 2. Each member who has joined the original Greg and Andy has only added to the latest albums. Nick, the perfectionist drummer; Dave, the perfectionist guitarist; Danny, the perfectionist keyboardist; Rob, the audiophile. And by perfectionist, I don’t mean it in its modern usage, as without flaw, but rather as each having reached his purpose.
I don’t think this point can be stressed enough: these guys are perfectionist NOT against each other but with, around, near, above, and below each other. They are a unit of playful perfectionist individuals who become MORE individual, not less, in their community.
Looking at the history of art from even a quasi-detached and objective viewpoint, I think we all have to admit, this is more than a bit unusual.
Breakthrough, indeed, Mr. Ewing. Breakthrough, indeed.
Greg and Andy don’t become less Greg and Andy as the band grows beyond what they have founded, they become more Greg and more Andy. In the first and second wave of prog, how many bands are known for only getting better and better with each album? Those that did are certainly the exceptions. One of the most important differences of this third wave of prog is that the best only get better, even after twenty years of playing. Exhaustion and writers-block seem to be of another era.
BBT exemplifies this trend of improvement in this movement we now call the third wave of prog. And, not surprisingly, when BBT asks artists to guest with them, they invite those with similar trajectories–Andy Tillison and Robin Armstrong to name the most obvious.
Again, if you’ve made it this far in this review, you should be asking–hey, Birzer left out David Longdon above, what the schnikees?
Yes, I did. So, let me now praise famous Davids (with apologies to Sirach). I’ve not been shy in past writings (well, over the last four years) to note that I believe David is the finest singer in the rock world at the moment. He has some rather stiff competition, of course, and I reject the notion that he sounds just like “Phil Collins.”
No, David is his own man and his own singer. I do love and appreciate the quality of David’s tone and voice. He possesses a beautiful and talented natural one, to be sure. Nature or God (pick your theology) gave this to David in abundance, and he’s used his own drive and tenacity to bring his voice to the height of his profession.
But, what I love most about David is that he means every single thing he sings. These aren’t “Yeah, baby, let’s do it” lyrics. These are the lyrics of a bard (Greg’s lyrics are just as excellent, of course, as I’ve noted in a number of other articles; these are two of my favorite lyricists of the rock era–rivaling even Mark Hollis).
Longdon can make me as happy as one of my kids running to the playground on the first day the snow thaws (“Let’s Make Some Noise”); he can make me want to beat the living snot out of a child abuser (“ABoy in Darkness”); and he can make me want to start a novena for a butterfly curator.
In no small part, Longdon has a voice that makes me want to trust and follow him.
Put David and Greg together, and their lyrical abilities really knows no known bounds. They are the best writing team, to me, in the last fifty years. I know most would pick Lennon/McCartney, but I’m a firm believer that “electrical storms moving out to sea” trump “I am the walrus.”
So, what about this third manifestation of English Electric, English Electric Full Power? Well, all I can state with some paradoxical certainty, Spawton, Longdon, and five others, have now shown it is possible to perfect perfection. I’ll use perfect here in its proper sense: not as without flaw (though that would apply as well) but as having reached its ultimate purpose, as I noted above.
EEFP is still very much about the dignity of labor, and, as such, it has to deal with the dignity of the laborer, that is, the fundamental character of the human person in all of his or her stages.
The song order of EEFP, consequently, follows this natural logic.
The opening track, a new one penned by Longdon, celebrates the joys of innocence. David has said it was his goal to invoke the glam rock of his childhood. For me, it invokes the rock of my mother’s college days. A shimmering, pre-Rolling Stones rock.
The video that the band released just makes me smile every time I watch it. The video also confirms my belief that these six (and Rob, the seventh member) really, really like each other.
Rather gloriously, “Make Some Noise” fades into one of the heroic of BBT tracks, “The First Rebreather.” This makes “The First Rebreather” even better, especially when contrasted with the innocence of track one. After all, in The First Rebreather, the hero encounters beings from Dante’s Fifth Circle of Hell (wrath).
The second new song, “Seen Better Days,” begins with a strong post-rock (read: Colour of Spring) feel, before breaking into a gorgeous jazz (more Brubeck than Davis) rock song. All of the instruments blend together rather intimately, and David sings about the founders and maintainers of early to mid 20th century British laboring towns, while lamenting the lost “power and the glory” as that old world as faded almost beyond memory. The interplay of the piano and flute is especially effective.
The third track, “Edgelands,” begins immediately upon the end of “Seen Better Days,” but it’s short. Only 86 seconds long and purely a Manner’s piano tune, it connects “Seen Better Days” with “Summoned by the Bells.” If at the end of those 86 seconds the listener doesn’t realize the creative talents of Mr. Manners, he’s not thinking correctly.
The fourth new track, “The Lovers,” appears on disk two, after “Winchester” and before “Leopards.” The most traditionally romantic and folkish song of the four new ones, Longdon’s voice has a very “Canterbury” feel on this tune, and the tune provides a number of surprises in the various directions it takes.
What’s next for BBT?
Thanks to the delights of social networking, we know that Danny’s kids are concerned that he doesn’t look “rock” enough (he needs to show them some Peter Gabriel videos from Gabriel’s last studio album), and we know that Greg’s middle name is Mark.
Ok, yes, I’m being silly (though all of the above is true).
We do know that Big Big Train is working on a retrospective of their history, but with the current lineup. I don’t think any of us need worry that this (Station Masters) will be some kind of EMI Picasso-esque deconstruction of Talk Talk with a “History Revisited: The Remixes.” Station Masters will be as tasteful, elegant, and becoming as we would expect from Greg and Co.
After that, we know that BBT is writing a full-fledged concept album, their first since The Difference Machine. We know that the boys are in the studio at the very moment that I’m typing this (NDV included).
Perhaps most importantly, though, we trust and have faith that Greg and Co. are leading progressive rock in every way, shape, or form. EEFP is the final version of EE. At least for now. But, BBT is not just breaking through, it’s bringing a vast audience, sensibility, and leadership to the entire third movement of prog. And, for this, I give thanks. Immense thanks.
When it comes to BBT, perfection only gets more interesting.
by Craig Farham
Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. (Plato)
Is it possible that Plato was writing about Big Big Train’s latest masterclass of musical wonder, English Electric, Part 2 (EE2)? Probably not, but two millennia before locomotives, social networking, digital recording, the global network, or austerity measures in his beloved city state, Plato certainly knew a thing or two about the power of oscillating waveforms to connect people.
Did the members of Big Big Train read Plato before embarking on their epic journey to morph their observations of contemporary and historical people and events into oscillating waveforms of power and beauty? Again, probably not. But EE2 certainly fits Plato’s moral law to a tee.
Beautifully crafted from the opening piano chords to the final fade out of a single piano note, EE2 continues the journey begun on EE1, my album of the year in 2012, into the heart and soul of industrial England, its people, and the surrounding countryside. The album weaves tales of steam trains, ship-building, coal miners, a second chance at love, the custodian of a historical monument, the British landscape, and butterfly collections as a metaphor for life and death, with musical arrangements that range from sparse to massive, light-hearted to intense, but are always melodious and warm. The album has the same lush production and attention to detail as EE1, with exquisite use of brass band and strings beautifully complementing the electric instruments. The songs range in length from just under 4 minutes to nearly 16 minutes, and every song is exactly as long as it needs to be – no filler, bloat, or needless noodling.
The addition of Danny Manners as a full-time band member on piano, keyboards and double bass has lifted an already impressive ensemble another notch, and I’m delighted that the compositions on EE2 have given David Gregory more scope to develop his exceptional guitar solos. The rest of the band are also in fine fettle – Greg Spawton’s basslines are on a par with those of Gentle Giant’s Ray Shulman (and his compositional skills are equally impressive), Nick D’Virgilio’s drumming is peerless (he recorded the drum parts for both EE1 and EE2 in three days…!), Andy Poole has stepped forward from the producer’s chair to contribute backing vocal, guitar and keyboard parts, and Dave Longdon, who I think has the best voice in modern prog, contributes massively with his flute work and a wide array of sundry instruments, including banjo, keyboards, guitar, cutlery and glassware(!), in addition to his great songwriting. There is also a large cast of supporting musicians, including Dave Desmond, whose marvelous brass band arrangements are an integral part of the unique BBT sound, Rachel Hall on violin, and The Tangent’s Andy Tillison on keyboards.
Although EE2 is the second half of a double album released in two separate parts, it stands on its own as a superb example of the vibrance of the new wave of progressive music, which is finally lifting itself out of the shadow of the so-called “golden age of prog” in the 1970s. To listen to EE2 on its own, however, is to miss out on half the fun. EE1 and EE2 should be seen as a single body of work, a superb collection of songs and an important milestone in the history of modern music.
English Electric by Big Big Train is a moral law that demands to be upheld. To paraphrase a comment I made on the BBT Facebook site, these are albums to cherish – I’ll be listening to this music as long as my cochlear apparatus is capable of responding to their oscillating waveforms and connecting my soul to the universe…
[Dear Progarchists, thank you so much for letting us enjoy this four-day love fest of all things Big Big Train. It’s been quite an honor. Craig’s post–his inaugural post as an official citizen of the Republic of Progarchy, by the way–concludes our roundtable reviews of the latest BBT masterpiece, English Electric V. 2. To order it directly from the band, go to www.bigbigtrain.com/shop.–Yours, Brad (ed.)]
by John Deasey
Just looking at the artwork of EE2 and taking in the song titles is a pleasure all of it’s own.
I savour the industrial art and the titles such as ‘Swan Hunter, ‘Keeper of Abbeys’, Curator of Butterflies’, ‘East Coast Racer’ ……
To those with a passing knowledge of English industrial heritage, it goes without saying we are back in the land of The Underfall Yard, back to The Last Rebreather and back to the land and communities that so shaped our country.
Big Big Train with this, the second part of English Electric, take us further into the arms of working fathers, loving sons and warm families to extract beauty from industry and agriculture like no other art I know.
With a gentle piano introduction along with a typical BBT signature motif that will be repeated, we are soon driven by Nick d’Virgilio’s intricate drum patterns along the same tracks the famous Mallard steam train once flew. A stunning tour de force restlessly moves along evoking the men who rode the plates of this famous flying machine. The overall sound returns to the rich warm tones of The Underfall Yard, beautiful bass patterns underpinning a whole host of instruments including viola, tuba and cello.
David Longdon has never sounded better and the guitar fills from Dave Gregory are typically tasteful and restrained.
Big Big Train are masters at creating great soundscapes that swell and build and finally spill over into something quite beautiful. Think of the Victorian Brickwork ending where I defy anyone not to shed a tear as the guitar overplays the brass section to create a crescendo of beauty.
Well, at 9.24 into ‘East Cost Racer’ they only do it again, and do it better, and do it in such stunning style it really is hard not to find a tear escaping …..
If the album finished at the end of this 15 minute track I would be more than delighted – I would be ecstatic. But you know what ? The beauty just keeps on coming …..
Just as we’ve finished the great Mallard story we taken into the magical and harsh world of ship building at the Swan Hunter shipyard
A melodic and rather gentle opening, reminiscent of the whole feel of EE1, tells of the father to son continuity of such industries but with the sad caveat
Tell me what do you do
When what you did is gone
No one throwing you a lifeline
How do you carry on?
‘Swan Hunter’ is a stately track that has simple elegance in it’s phrasing and tones and once again has a gorgeous build-up and release towards the end combining brass, guitars and vocals.
From the shipyards we move to the coal face with ‘Worked Out’ and again we have this magnificent connection with time, place, community and industry. Father and son, working together, regular shifts, routine, warm and generous folk who forged communities but realise “.. we had our day, our day is over”
Despite the subject matter there is a real drive to this track with some sublime moments where viola, cello and guitar inter-act to build a warm wall of sound. Flute interjections from David Longdon lead into a real jam type session where Dave Gregory adds subtlety and skill proving that a masterful guitar solo does not need a million notes.
After such an astonishing triumvirate of tracks, some space is needed and breathe needs to be drawn.
We are given this chance with ‘Leopard’ which, if I am honest, does not work for me just yet. As a breathing space though, it is perfect ….
The pace picks up again with ‘Keeper of Abbeys’ – a joyous and infectious track in the style of Judas Unrepetant with a drive, vigour and melody to die for which at 2 minutes in, goes places where other musicians must dream about. A typically sweeping refrain with soothing organ and cello sweeps into a section where you could be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled into a Greek taverna or a Russian vodka bar. Stoccatto guitars, flutes, viola and an incessant drum beat will have you tapping along infectiously then you are swept up unknowingly into the most beautiful choral-backed guitar solo you have heard which builds and builds into something far greater than I have words for.
The next track, ‘The Permanent Way’ is a real surprise.
Big Big Train have a knack of returning to refrains throughout their albums – think of the opening to The Difference Machine, or Evening Star for example
A pastoral opening about the farmer working in the fields soon gives way to a soaring re-working of Hedgerow which takes you by surprise on first listen as you are suddenly thrown back to EE1 and thinking ‘Blimey – where did that come from !” It’s stunning.
And then – wow – we suddenly have the fantastic soaring refrain from The First Rebreather.
This is like a celebration of everything that is so warm, honest and true about Big Big Train. They are making music they love and it shines through like the brightest light.
‘The Permanent Way’ is an encapsulation of everything that is so perfect about Big Big Train – recurring motifs, connecting with land and industry, streams, hills, high moors, dry stone walls, far skies, the mark of man.
I cannot recall music that so connects with time, place or community that this does. As I live in an old industrial town surrounded by beautiful countryside filled with relics of a bygone age it maybe resonates clearer for me as it seems the music was set to to the sights and sounds that surround me.
Now if you thought ‘Hedgerow’ on EE1 was a good album closer, wait till you hear ‘Curator of Butterflies’
I cannot think I will hear any music more moving, relevant and genuine than this superb album for a long time.
That is all I can say. Simply stunning and beautiful.
by Ian Greatorex
A joy to listen to and, as always, a peerless evocation of English history, both rural and industrial.
The musicianship is impressive and the arrangements for woodwind, brass and strings are excellent.
David Longdon’s vocals are superb, so smooth and pitch perfect, but there are also many beautiful harmonies on this release.
BBT have an uncanny grasp of when and where to add the astonishing array of instruments being used; we have harp, violin, viola and cello; we have trumpet, trombone, euphonium, tuba and cornet; we have recorder and flute; we have piano, organ, mellotron and synthesizer; we have accordion, dumbek, cajon, marimba, vibraphone and tambourine; we have 6 and 12 string guitars, sitar and mandolin, banjo, bass and double bass. And even cutlery and glassware are played . It’s no wonder they never play live!!!
East Coast Racer – an epic 16 min track about the railway industry. I love the way the music captures the ‘feel’ of the workers at their craft and the sense of the Mallard’s speed. It’s almost as though you are on the train itself, racing through the English countryside.
Swanhunter – a story about the community impact of the shipbuilding industry on the Tyne. A very mellow track with stunning harmonies and beautifully arranged brass band.
Worked Out – we move to the coalmining industry; step up the marimba and flute; unusually rocky guitar and keyboard solos.
Leopards – a song about love, people and change. This is my favourite track on the album. At under 4 minutes, short by BBT standards. Arise the violin followed by acoustic guitar. This upbeat song is beautifully soft and gentle and includes some more marvellous harmonies. A magnificent piece of music. In the ‘70s this would have been a great single.
Keeper of Abbeys – based upon a real-life guardian. An accordion intro draws one in nicely (I love the accordion!); there’s a classic fast, folksy fiddling about in the middle section; and is that a sitar?….lovely stuff.
The Permanent Way – covering the everlasting and essential importance of people working on the land. A charming mix of song and narration; very atmospheric with some great mood changes.
Curator of Butterflies – with an exquisite piano opening and full of delightful melodies. This track has palpable emotional power and intensity (it’s a bit of a ‘hairs standing up on the back of the neck’ moment for me). Making this the concluding track was a masterstroke…a perfect ending.
Another wonderful journey into the world that is Big Big Train. One senses on every track a meticulous attention to detail in what are dense arrangements. It takes a number of listens for the beauty of this album to be revealed. Rob Aubrey’s production mix is superb with the ‘cornucopia’ of instruments all getting their fair share of the sound pie. A good hi-fi system or a set of quality headphones is essential. And don’t download as mp3 files as this music demands lossless format only!
There are exceptional musical skills on display on EE Part 2 and the story-telling is worthy and beautifully told. From a purely objective point of view this is an astounding piece of work, just like Part 1 and I found it an emotionally compelling experience. I am in no doubt it will be a contender for the Prog album of the year. If you liked Part 1 and wanted more of the same then it’s a huge understatement to say that this will appeal. Usually I like music that is both heavy and ‘edgy’ and explores the ‘dark side’ of human nature (I’m more an Oceansize man) but I was captivated by this album.
Music is an intensely personal experience and EE Part 2 pressed almost all of my buttons. However, I was hankering for something slightly different; a musical and lyrical progression of sorts. English Electric generally uses past events to discuss universal themes such as love; work; communities; unsung heroes; the importance of maintaining monuments of our past. I would really like the band to lyrically explore more contemporary social and political themes such as the internet age; globalisation; the aging population; business ethics etc. and hence produce an album that would naturally have a harder, ‘edgier’ feel. Of course they have the talent to do this and I believe this would attract a wider fan base by making their music more relevant to a younger audience.
None of my comments above can detract from the superb quality of this release. Lock the door, turn the off the lights and even close your eyes. Let nothing disturb you from enjoying the astonishing beauty of this album.
It Just Gets Better …
As great as EE Pt. 1 was, BBT might have exceeded its excellence with EE Pt. 2. The second half of this double album opens with the fantastic ‘East Coast Racer’, which is the only epic-length piece of the entire set. It’s a doozy too, with a lot of great dynamics and enough change to keep it interesting over its entirety. It’s my favorite piece of the EE set.
The next track, ‘Swan Hunter’, has a very melancholy feel, but also has some of the best lyrics on the album. This is one of the more emotional pieces on the album.
‘Worked Out’ follows, and has a more upbeat feel, and a great chorus. It also has a great instrumental break that includes some great flute playing and a Tull-like feel, and closes out with some good old fashioned proggy synth.
‘Leopards’ has a chamber music-like beginning before settling into acoustic guitar on top of some violin. It has a very lazy, easy feel too it, and gives me an image of lounging outdoors under a tree on a sunny and mild spring day.
The instrumental portion toward the end of ‘Keeper of Abbeys’ has an excellent mix of sitar and violin, and illustrates something at which BBT excels like no other – taking instruments not typically associated with music coming from England (e.g., the sitar here, the banjo on ‘Uncle Jack’) and integrating them into something that has an unmistakably English sound.
‘The Permanent Way’ reprises a few themes and lyrics from ‘Hedgerow’ and ‘The Great Rebreather’ and serve as a good reminder that EE Pt. 2 is part of a larger whole. In between there is some great proggy organ playing,
‘Curator of Butterflies’ closes out the album. Slow and mellow with a lot of string, it includes some nice guitar work to close out the song.
Overall, this is another outstanding effort, and will be at or near the top of many “Best of 2013” lists before it’s all over. I might quibble with ‘Curator’ being the closing track instead of its predecessor, but that’s a minor quibble to be sure. For me, this is at least as good as EE Pt. 1, and with the inclusion of ‘East Coast Racer’ at the beginning, I’d have to say its maybe a bit better. In either case, it’s a must-own, along with its counterpart.
by Craig Breaden
Bedeviled or blessed, progressive rock’s classic bands took it upon themselves to discover what can happen when rock frees itself from the restraint of the three-minute single. And because Procol Harum, Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, and ELP didn’t merely see what would come out of jamming, but meticulously planned and executed album sides worth of material, there was an idea that these bands were making some sort of…progress. Codified as “prog rock,” the body of work that emerged from the late 60s and early 70s continues to inspire failure and success in groups intent on recapturing the form, if not always the spirit, of progressive rock.
Forty-some years on, and thirty years after most of the original prog bands found that trimming their sound back to that three-minute (or so) mark could bring substantial commercial success, progressive rock is in the middle of a full-blown and full-length revival, international in scope and as layered and interesting as the first generation. Many of the musicians associated with prog today are less revivalists than rock veterans, pursuing for years their passion with little fanfare but with fierce fandom. One of their leaders appears to be Big Big Train.
A disclaimer: I am one of the few Progarchist writers who was not familiar with Big Big Train during the genesis of Progarchy, which owes its existence at least partly to the enthusiasm Big Big Train inspired in its editors. I tend to watch prog from the edges, my tastes running to the rougher cuts, the drones, freakouts and new music noise-fests. Classically-inspired keyboard soloing — noodling — isn’t really my thing. I like the dirty-ness of art’s residue, big messy riffs that fray at the edges with some punk abandon, like you might hear in King Crimson’s “Starless” or Amon Duul II’s “Archangels Thunderbird.” In other words, I probably lean more towards the rock than the prog in prog rock. Which is why early listens to BBT impressed me with the musicianship I heard and the obvious dedication of the group, but left me wanting…something. Read the rest of this entry