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.
Posted at Facebook today:
English Electric Full Power will be released in the early autumn and brings together the two English Electric CD’s as a double album with four new tracks and with a 96 page booklet which tells the stories behind the songs and behind English Electric.
The four new tracks will also be released as a separate EP at a low-price to enable those who already own English Electric Parts One and Two to purchase the four new songs on CD without having to buy the double album. A free download of the Full Power booklet will be available for purchasers of the EP.
Both the double album and EP will also be available as downloads (with downloadable booklets.)
Alongside the CD releases, English Electric Part Two will be released on 180g heavyweight vinyl by Plane Groovy. The LP is a double album and includes all the songs from Part Two plus the four new tracks from English Electric Full Power.
Big Big Train is gearing up for some live performances. In 2014 the band is spending a week at Real World studios for a full dress rehearsal with the brass quartet and string players. The rehearsal will be filmed for DVD and Blu-Ray release.
We know that many BBT listeners enjoy fine quality ales and the band has been working with Box Steam craft brewery to create the first Big Big Train beer which will be available in August.
Big Big Train has received two nominations (for ‘best album’ and for ‘breakthrough act’) in the Progressive Music Awards which will be held at Kew Gardens in September. If you wish to vote for BBT or for any of the other nominees you can find details of the awards here:
Nick is returning to England in September to do some more recording for the next Big Big Train studio album which will be released in 2015. Work on the 3 CD Station Masters retrospective is ongoing and we hope that Station Masters will be released in 2014.
Finally, a new tee-shirt to celebrate the release of the first BBT beer will also be available from The Merch Desk in August.
BBT on Facebook and Twitter
For the most up-to-date news and to communicate with the band and with other BBT listeners please find us on Facebook at:
and on Twitter:
Andy, Danny, Dave, David, Greg and Nick
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
by Brad Birzer
To me, ‘progressive’ is a term which describes a genre of music. That genre emerged from the rock and pop music of the 60’s and became fully defined in the early 70’s. But what I think may be the sub-text behind your question is whether bands writing and performing music in the progressive genre need, by definition, to be striving for some sort of statement of originality in everything they do. I think not, but I am aware that many others take a more absolutist view of things and this has caused an endless debate. In The Music’s All That Matters, Paul Stump makes some very interesting observations. Early on in the book, he correctly identifies that the main problem with progressive rock is its name (he calls it ‘the most self-consciously adjectival genre in all rock’.) Another point that Paul Stump makes is about what unites the musicians of the genre. He says they have ‘a hankering after the transcendent’. I really like that phrase as it can take on a broader meaning than ‘progressive’. In Big Big Train, we combine our influences in a way, which is often original. But trying to do something different isn’t the be-all-and-end-all. What we are really trying to do is to make extraordinary music.–Greg Spawton, Summer 2012
I must admit, I’m a little lost for words when it comes to reviewing the new release from Big Big Train, English Electric Vol. 2 (officially out today). And, as my wife, my kids, my friends, and my students can attest, I’m almost never at a loss for words. I’m sure there are times when they’d like me to be!
My problem is this. The music is so very good, so very much beyond the bounds of normal description and descriptives, and I want in the worst way for the quality of my writing and my thoughts to do it justice. Frankly, I’m not sure I’m capable. Not being shy enough or humble enough, I will just jump in. . .
When I first heard The Underfall Yard, I thought music could get no better than this. Especially listening to Longdon’s voice. Schnikees. Could that guy get any better? And, those lyrics. Who wouldn’t want to visit the Victorian Brickyard, meet Mr. Delia, dive into that watery purgatory below Winchester Cathedral, or watch electrical storms moving away from England?
Then, I heard Far Skies Deep Time. Ok, they’d reached the top this time, for sure. They have to have done so. Where could they go after this? Again, such wonder. If I caught a plane to England, might I still be able to see Fat Billy just before he died on that beach, a bloated alcoholic with the waves calling him home? Or, how about that English girl who tore my heart out or that other one with the berry-stained lips? No, too late. But, maybe, just maybe, I can be reminded that if we only have love, we have enough.
Then, I heard English Electric Vol. 1. Ok, what to do was my first thought? Everything I’d known and believed about music was blown apart. Nothing had so moved me since I’d first listened to an advanced copy of Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden back in September 1988. Oh, Mark Hollis, where art thou?
I try to walk at least four miles a day. I’ve been doing this much of my life, and I find the time walking absolutely necessary to keep my mind focused when I’m writing, to de-stress when I need to de-stress, to listen to fiction on my ipod, and, especially, to have alone time with my favorite music.
Medium-sized Egos, The Seventh Train, Lush Soundscapes, and Big Big Train: The 2013 Interview, Part II
N.B. AP is Andy Poole, DG is Dave Gregory, DM is Danny Manners, GS is Greg Spawton. Progarchy interview conducted by Brad.
Progarchy (BB): When you put EE1 and EE2 together, how do you expect the listeners to see the whole EE? Say, 20 years from now, few will have had the experience of getting one, then the other. It will most likely be just EE. Do you expect your listeners–me, for example, or anyone else–interpreting EE1 differently in light of EE2? In particular, I think about a track like Hedgerow. As you probably know, Greg, I consider this the single finest conclusion to any album. Ever. Period. Even better than Abbey Road, which had that position for me prior to hearing EE1. But, when I do get to hear EE2, I will now see Hedgerow as the middle song.
GS: You’ve put your finger on something that has caused us a fair bit of soul-searching Brad. At first, we had a fairly straightforward view on this which was simply: ‘it’s a double album, but we’ll split it into two separate releases’. Our reasoning was that 2 hours of music is a lot for the listener to get their head around which can initially cause under-appreciation of the double album in question. We were also aware that if you release so much music at one time, you get one round of publicity then the world moves on. If you split the release into two, the band is in the spotlight for a longer period of time. The only downside to this release strategy is that English Electric becomes seen as two separate pieces of work and so we always planned to release a special double edition bringing it all together. The thing is though, and as your question makes clear, it’s not as simple as we thought it would be. If you’re splitting an album into two you do have to try to make two satisfying separate halves, which is what we have tried to do. And that isn’t the same as sequencing a whole double album. So, the question we began to ask is: what do we do when we prepare the double Full Power edition? Do we simply stick Part One and Two together or do we start from scratch and re-sequence it as a double album? You mention Hedgerow as being a strong concluding track but we’ve also got Curator of Butterflies which is, we think, another strong end-piece. Which one of those takes precedence and gets to close the double album? And what happens with the three extra tracks we’re including? Where do they fit in? What we now think we’ll do is to start again from scratch and re-sequence Full Power as a double album without any reference to the orders on EE1 and EE2. It may be that we find some of the sequencing on EE1 and EE2 also works for EEFP and if it does, it does. Or it may be that the sequencing is completely different. In any case, the additional tracks will inevitably change the feel of things. The other question you raise is what happens when EEFP is released? Does that mean that EE1 and EE2 should go out of print? If not, will any new listeners buy them or will they go straight to EEFP? This is, I think, something we’ll have to keep under review. If EEFP turns out to feel like a very different listening experience to EE1 and EE2, then it makes sense to keep them all in print. Of course, the extra tracks will also be available on an EP and as downloads to make sure listeners don’t feel obligated to buy a double album just to hear three new songs. So, for many people their experience of English Electric will be as three separate releases.
Progarchy (BB): Tell me about the additional songs added to the full package? Will there be much new artwork?
GS: There are three strong new songs. They are not leftovers from the original sessions but have been recorded specifically for EE Full Power. One of them is a sort of bookend love song to go with Leopards. Another builds on the main album themes of working communities and the English landscape. And the final one is something very different for us.
AP: As regards the artwork, I’m working on a lavish design with a comprehensive booklet telling the stories behind the songs and behind the album.
Progarchy (BB): After EE2, you’ve announced plans to release Station Masters. Can you give us some details about this? Will it be reworked older tunes? Are there some new tunes?
GS: It’s a triple CD which aims to tell the story of the band. All recordings will be with the new line-up so songs from albums prior to The Underfall Yard will be entirely re-recorded. Some of these are radically re-worked, others are fairly close to the originals but with the strong performances that the current line-up is capable of. Even more recent material may be reworked to some extent. For example, I always wanted to feature violin in The Underfall Yard but we didn’t have a violinist at the time. Rachel Hall will feature on the updated version. Wherever we look back and think something could have been better, we’ll make it better.
Progarchy (BB): Will anything else come with the CDs? Any kind of BBT timeline or a poster? Concert DVD?
AP: There may be some video or other visual material. We haven’t made any final decisions on that yet.
Progarchy (BB): Where do you see BBT’s place the history of rock and the history of prog rock?
GS: I think it’s too early to make an assessment. There are many drafts of history. I hope we’ll find ourselves as more than just a footnote when later drafts are written. However, progressive rock is a fairly contained world and we’re a long way away from making any sort of breakthrough in the broader rock and pop worlds.
Progarchy (BB): You have an immensely large and loyal fanbase. How does this affect you or the band’s approach to music and the music world?
GS: We’re really lucky with our fanbase. They seem to us in all of our interactions to be a thoroughly decent and likeable bunch. The feedback we’ve had over the years has been really important. To hear that what we like to write about resonates with others and particularly that we’ve moved people with our music makes a huge difference.
Progarchy (BB): What is your view on packaging the material? You sell lots of downloads, and we live in a download world (for better and worse), but you also put a lot into the packaging of your CDs. Which I love. As you might remember, after I downloaded all of your albums up to The Underfall Yard, I contacted you because I wanted to purchase physical copies. And, it was worth the investment. Why do you consider it so important for BBT to have such beautiful packaging, especially in day and age? And, would you say such quality packaging should be important for all bands?
AP: The ideal package for us is a presentation of the words, music & images. The artwork is integral and we have been very fortunate over the years to have teamed-up with Michael Griffiths, Jim Trainer and Matthew Sefton who have each provided inspiring works that both complement & advance the sensory delivery of our albums.
Growing up with vinyl in the 70’s, you had an ingrained sense of interacting physically with an album … the touch, feel & smell of a new gatefold release was savored and an essential part of the experience … quite apart from placing a stylus in the groove and being aurally transformed to a progressive world of music where none of the old rules applied.
The initial advent of hurriedly released compact discs in their horrid plastic jewel cases and Lilliputian inserts amounted to instantly inferior packaging largely forgiven by consumers for the promise of digital sound.
We migrated to digipaks for the enhanced tactile experience, albeit in miniature compared to vinyl, and greater flexibility to represent the visual artists who collaborate with Big Big Train.
Although it is tempting to suggest and hope that other bands disregard the importance of physical product packaging to our advantage, I actually believe that it behooves us all to raise the quality bar up high and to the reasonable limits of affordability.
DG: It was certainly a very important factor with XTC. Andy Partridge claimed that every time he finished writing a song, he’d design a sleeve for it just in case it was chosen as a single! But then, he’s a very talented artist and can’t help himself. I’m certain sales of many of our releases were multiplied as a result of the packaging, as well as boosting the band’s ‘arty’ credentials.
Progarchy (BB): I’m always amazed at what a community BBT is. That is, it’s clear–from the music as well as things such as FB posts, etc.–that you each really like one another. There’s no sense of brilliant radical individuals working next to each other (such as in certain early Yes albums), but a true sense of group brilliance, an organic whole. What do you think accounts for this?
GS: From my point of view I come back to something I’ve said before – surround yourselves with talented people and things start to happen. There is something else as well though, and that is that the guys in the band are all thoroughly good chaps. We’ll all hold strong positions from time-to-time and we say what we think but good manners are important. Speaking of Manners, you’re the new boy, Danny, do you have any observations?
DM: Some of it is simply that there are no huge egos in the band, whether by luck or by conscious or unconscious choice. (Medium sized, maybe, but not huge!) However, one musical thing that strikes me is that the band members aren’t over-specialized – BBT doesn’t consist of “the singer”, “the drummer”, “the guitarist”, etc., all vying for the spotlight. Everyone is a multi-instrumentalist to at least some extent, and everyone also has writing and/or arranging experience, so there’s much more focus on making the music work as a whole.
DG: Don’t forget also that we’re grown men, not ambitious youngsters. We are focused on the music at all times, because we love it. Both Greg and David, as writers, are extremely accommodating in terms of accepting ideas and contributions from all of us; they have yet to display any serious proprietorial tendencies when it comes to protecting their original vision. Which is not to suggest that it’s an open free-for-all; we live with the songs for months, plenty of time to assimilate their essence, so we’re generally united in the common aim, ultimately.
Progarchy (BB): And, how do you see the role of Rob as engineer or any guest musicians you bring in? That is, how integral are they to a BBT sound, if such a particular thing exists.
GS: It’s an evolving sound and it will continue to develop. We have some really important collaborators at the moment and I envisage we will continue to work with many of them in the long-term. Certainly, Dave Desmond (who plays trombone and arranges the brass band) and violinist Rachel Hall will have significant input into Station Masters. As for Rob, he’s the seventh Train and our dear friend.
Progarchy (BB): Where do you see BBT after Station Masters?
GS: I’d like us to be playing some shows at some stage. It would be good to do something around the time of Station Masters and then something around each release after that. As mentioned earlier, we have another album well underway and have started recording it so that is likely to come out in 2015.
Progarchy (BB): Any final thoughts on the current and future state of rock?
GS: In Britain, the last of the high-street record stores has gone into administration. I guess there are similar issues in other countries. The supermarkets have stepped into the breach and will only really sell music in the pop charts, so the route through traditional music-distribution is closing down to most progressive bands. However, online, the choice is very broad and the issue there is getting noticed amongst all of the competition. Making a living out of music is going to get harder still but it’s been a labour of love for most folk and jazz musicians for years and I don’t see why it should be different for rock bands.
English Electric Part 2 enters the world on March 4, 2013. To order, go to Big Big Train’s online shop.
[Well, what does one say after such amazing interview, except—thank you. Thank you to BBT for giving us so much time for this interview. An even bigger thank you for making the world just a little bit brighter.—Ed.]