This coming Tuesday evening, I will have the great pleasure of giving an academic lecture on the meaning of progressive music as best expressed in the work of Big Big Train. Unfortunately, this lecture will not be open to the public. I will, however, make an audio recording–should any progarchists be interested.
For the same event, I’ll also be giving two lectures on the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and one on the same of G.K. Chesterton.
So excited about this!
Having had a chance to listen to a stream (a review copy from the fine folks B/W/R PR) of the new Steven Wilson, I’m very glad to write that it’s profound and good and true and wonderful. I wasn’t so taken with the last album (the RAVEN one), though I thought the first two solo albums quite astounding. And, I pulled out my Chicago DVD show of Porcupine Tree. Sheesh, when Wilson wants to be, he’s incredible. The last solo album I thought a poor mimicry of the work of that ever-wonderful genius, Andy Tillison.
This new album pays homage to late 1970s Rush, but it does so in a way that honors Rush. All to the good.
As the Grammy’s are happening as I write this, I remember how utterly disappointed I was with Wilson a few years ago when he tweeted how sad he was not to have won a Grammy. I responded in my own tweet: “Dear Lord, you are so much better than that!” Or something akin to this.
I meant it.
A Grammy is an albatrossian weight, not a mark or a sign of anything other than bland, tapioca conformity on a corporate scale.
Not watching the Grammy’s, I can happily report that I’m listening to the brand new, deluxe version of Galahad’s EMPIRES NEVER LAST. Let me offer another “sheesh.” What a great album, made even better through remixing and editing. Glorious.
Yesterday, my family and I devoured the new Neal Morse, THE GRAND EXPERIMENT. We are all rather smitten.
Today, I listened to all of Dave Kerzner’s NEW WORLD (deluxe edition) as I made Sunday evening pizza. Again, I’m a rather happy fan.
I also read Bryan Morey’s insightful review of Mike Kershaw’s latest EP, DEPARTURE, featuring lots of FRACTAL MIRROR talent. This got me to thinking about Greg Spawton and his ability to form communities–not only around himself immediately in BBT, but also through the internet. Kershaw, Urbaniak, Kull. . . what a crazy bunch of proggers we all are. And, that Morey. He’s a natural.
And, now, I patiently await the arrival of the new Glass Hammer.
I’m sorry–what awards show is going on tonight? Yeah, I’ve got much better things to listen to, thank you very much.
Greg Spawton comments:
‘Prog is a prison': Mr Fripp in Classic Rock. I prefer to think of it as a broad church.
Driving across the grass seas of western Nebraska and eastern Colorado this past week, I made sure my listening list was quite specific and quite orderly. Across the western parts of Nebraska, traversing the mighty and winding Platte several times, I listened to Big Big Train, ENGLISH ELECTRIC PART ONE. Not FULL POWER, but the original PART ONE. Back to this in a moment.
Once the Platte split into north and south, I took the south fork, and I went for The Tangent’s THE MUSIC THAT DIED ALONE. Andy always inspires me. But, the combination of Andy and Roine Stolt as my car flew (legally, of course) through such nearly forgotten towns as Julesburg, Ovid, and Sedgwick proved perfect. Andy never fails to find the beauty in lost hope.
A bit of patriotism hit me after The Tangent finished, so I went for Kansas’s THE POINT OF NO RETURN. Amazingly enough, the entire album took me from the ending of THE MUSIC THAT DIED ALONE to our brand new house in Colorado. Truly, as we driving up to the house in Longmont, the final notes of “Hopelessly Human” played.
As promised, back to BBT, ENGLISH ELECTRIC PART ONE (EEP1). First, its pastoral tone fit the Nebraska countryside beautifully. The skies, not surprisingly, were as broad as were deeply blue—the kind of blue one finds only in the Great Plains on a summer day. But, the grasses were a treat as well—variations of greens and golds, generally quite tall and swaying under the pressure of the continental winds.
Second, I’ve not listened to EEP1 for at least a year. Indeed, once ENGLISH ELECTRIC FULL POWER (EEFP) came out, I considered it the definitive edition, putting away PART ONE.
I won’t in any way, shape, or form suggest I had any thing at all to do with the final ordering of EEFP. Such a claim would be nothing but hubris. And, it would be completely false. This was not, however, for want of trying. I bugged Greg openly on the internet and privately through emails about this. I interviewed him about it, and, as a friend, tried to put him in a corner. Greg, the quintessential English Stoic gentleman, quietly (though not in quiet desperation, I pray) took the suggestions of this overly eager and earnest American (overly eager and earnestness are two of our defining traits as a people) with kindness. Thank you, Greg.
I know there was some debate among the progarchists whether or not Greg and Co. were messing with a work of art unnecessarily by re-arranging the order of things and filling in the corners with EEFP. But, from the beginning, I was on Greg’s side. It’s his creation, and he can do with it as he will (and the rest of the members of the band, of course).
Listening to EEP1 this week only confirmed my thoughts. It is a stunningly beautiful, calming, and mesmerizing work. Like all great works of art, it demands full immersion by the participant. Pastoral, it is also equally humane and cinematic. It is a part of the English bardic tradition at its very best. A community of minds and talents produced this album, and we are blessed indeed to exist in a world that allows such works of art to emerge and flourish.
But, for me, especially as a historian, EEP1 is now an incomplete yet intriguing part of a puzzle. It belongs in the archives now, a glorious blueprint, but not quite the complete thing.
This discussion, I think, is not mere mental wrestling. BBT is not just another band, and EEP1, EEP2, and EEFP are not just mere new releases. BBT is a definitive band of prog’s third wave, and EEFP is possibly the finest statement of music over the last two and a half decades. It is the legitimate successor to Talk Talk’s SPIRIT OF EDEN.
How the album came together, how it evolved, and how it is received is not merely academic. It’s now a critical part of our history as lovers of music, art, and human genius. It is now an integral part of the western tradition. Long may it continue.
A review of “The Underfall Yard” from The Underfall Yard by Big Big Train (English Electric, 2009). Song and words by Greg Spawton. Additionally: David Longdon, vocals and vocal arrangements; Dave Gregory, guitars; Nick D’Virgilio, drums; Andy Poole, bass and keyboards; and [see image on right for a full list]
As much I love albums, I’m always looking for that perfect song. The song that longs to linger in our souls after we’ve heard its last notes. The song that cries to the heavens in triumph, praise, and rage. The song that hovers over that second away from eternity, rooted in the human condition, but reaching for timelessness.
In my first two pieces of this series, I looked at Rush’s “Natural Science” (1980) and The Tangent’s “Where Are They Now” (2009)? In this article, I turn to none other than a well-recognized masterpiece, a (perhaps, THE) cornerstone of third-wave prog, “The Underfall Yard” (2009) by Big Big Train. It originally appeared at the final track of Big Big Train’s 2009 album of the same name, the first to feature the vocals of the incomparable David Longdon.
Six seconds short of twenty-three minutes in length, “The Underfall Yard” is epic in every sense of the meaning of the word. I once gave it to a non-prog friend of mine as an introduction to the genre. He liked it (really, who couldn’t?), but he also joked, “Brad, when I started the song, I didn’t realize I’d have to miss dinner to finish it.”
The lyrics of the song reveal its scope best:
Using available light
He could still see far skies,
Beyond, above, and yet below the far skies rests (not contentedly) deep time. Indeed, given the song, one must imagine deep time as equal parts restless but also confident in its restlessness, sure of itself even in its transitions.
Always a superb lyricist, Spawton reveals his most intimate and poetic sense in this song overall. The words are at once hopeful and melancholic, the piece as a whole trapped in a slowly shifting twilight. The loss is of England’s entrepreneurial and industrial moments of the interwar era, the parents Edwardian, but the children Georgian.
As one stands with Spawton, watching this scene fade in golden and royal hues, he might just as readily be standing with King Alfred hopeful against heathen men as hairy as sin; with Harold of Hastings, tilting against a bastard’s armies; or with Winston Churchill, toiling and sweating against those would rend idyllic places such Coventry with insidious and inhumane progress.
Spawton’s words endlessly capture that which is always true but never quite obvious to all at all times.
The opening moments of the song move from an earnest guitar into a driving and equally earnest interplay of bass and drums, Gregory, D’Virgilio, Poole, and Spawton weaving something both tribal and civilized. More guitars appear, jutting and jetting. Strings emerge as if from the land itself. At 1:45, David Longdon’s voice enters into the art itself with the necessary pitch, the perfect lilt and quaver, and a resonant meaning. If Spawton is coming from sacred soil, Longdon is coming from the heavens, thus allowing the horizon and sky to meet in an infinite moment.
Almost uniquely among singers, Longdon possesses both assuredness and humility in all of his vocal arrangements, but none more so than in this song. While his voice is the voice of a man, it also is the voice of a chorus of men, a plea for generations.
Chasing a dream of the west
Made with iron and stone
Man, in Spawton’s vision, if armed with genius and integrity, reshapes the land, not in man’s image, but in the sacramental, Adamic way had things in Eden not soured.
These are old hills that stand in the way
breaking the line.
It came out of the storm,
out of the sea
to the permanent way
Using just available light,
he could still see far.
Even in his broken state, some men–seers, prophets, bards, skalds, poets and prog rockers–can see beyond the immediate, toward that which is far and that which is deep. Of all creatures, they alone can imagine the heights and the depths of existence.
In Spawton’s vision, England becomes not just another place on this earth, but a place sacred, sacred because man has recreated nature, not through domination, but through creative understanding, the soul and the intellect of each in harmony, not tension.
One is reminded of Spawton’s counterpart in the world of poetry, T.S. Eliot.
A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
–T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding
Even the timeless moment, though, can not be seen or understood forever. Timeless moments—the light falling on a secluded chapel—lasts only as long as man knows to look for it. As with all things of beauty, truth, and goodness, it is fleeing, at least through our abilities to perceive, incorporate, and understand.
Roofless engine houses
distant hills like bookends
frame electrical storms
moving out to sea
away from England.
Spawton’s words and Longdon’s voice combine to make the above lyrics not only the most moving parts of the song, but combine to make one of the most moving parts of any song in the rock era.
I could never even count how many times I’ve listened to this song over the last five years. Every time, my stomach drops and my heart and soul swell when I hear this. Every single time.
And, yet, despite the loss of the thing itself, the moment in all of the revelation of its glory, Spawton knows—with the greatest thinkers of the western tradition—that memory can comfort us. Perhaps memory alone.
Parting the land
with the mark of man,
the permanent way,
Using just available light,
he could still see far.
The imprint is true. It always exists. We, however, must choose to remember. When we do, the world becomes just a little brighter. Using just available light.
And, thus, Big Big Train reveals its ultimate contribution to the world of art. Somethings are worth remembering, whatever the cost, and memory itself is a precious and delicate thing beyond any cost.
Far skies, deep time.
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.
I had the great privilege of speaking with one of America’s foremost political commentators yesterday, Tom Woods, about progressive rock. It turns out that Tom is a huge progger. I shouldn’t be surprised. I think we’re both the younger brothers of Neil Peart. We really had a field day talking about CLOSE TO THE EDGE, SELLING ENGLAND BY THE POUND, THICK AS A BRICK, PASSION PLAY, IN ABSENTIA, and THE FINAL CUT.
We talked “third wave prog,” too.
Tom was especially interested in the founding and purpose of progarchy. And, for what it’s worth, Tom is as smart and insightful as he is kind. A true gentleman. Here’s a link to our show yesterday. Enjoy.
Also, in September, Tom talked with Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson. Also worth checking out.
Here’s the link to Tom’s website: http://www.schiffradio.com/f/Tom-Woods
…nevertheless I have done my homework and now will present my list of the best albums from this absolutely fantastic year of prog! :) I mean 2012 and 2013 have been excellent years both of them but 2013 has been special. I think we can agree on that even though our personal lists may differ a bit. Not to be spoiling too much, but the number one was a no-brainer really, but then it was extremely hard to distinguish between albums 2 to 6. These are five albums that actually can interchange their positions depending on what kind of day it is for me. :) This is how it all ended up today at least. So off we go!
10. Camelias Garden – You Have A Chance
Lovely debut album by this Italian band. Folky prog a bit in the vein of Harmonium.
9. Spock’s Beard – Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep
Well, who would have thought that my favourite SB-album would be the one without both Neal and Nick? But so it is!
8. Haken – The Mountain
Rawk’n’rawl and some real quirkiness in a fine mix! Will always remember sitting in Mr Ian Greatorex’s listening room with high end stereo equipment, giving this a first listen…with a Big Big Beer in my hand.
7. Lifesigns – Lifesigns
After feeling it was a bit “meh” to start with this lush album has grown and grown. Some really beautiful songs here!
6. The Tangent – Le Sacre du Travail
Mr Andy Tillison’s magnum opus to date! Greatness! And with Gavin on drums and Jonas on bass, what can possibly go wrong?
5. Cosmograf – The Man Left In Space
Superb album by Robin Armstrong’s brainchild, comsograf! It’s one of those you just have to listen to from beginning to end totally undisturbed.
4. Moon Safari – Himlabacken Vol. 1
I can’t resist this band’s music! It always makes me so very happy and warm inside! Lovely peeps in the band as well!
3. The Flower Kings – Desolation Rose
Best TFK album since Space Revolver I dare say. So glad they’re back and sounding so fresch and on their toes again!
2. Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused To Sing
What can I say? It’s a gorgeous album!
1. Big Big Train – English Electric: Full Power
Well, nobody’s probably really surprised about this being my number one of 2013. :D It’s a stunner and will be for many years to come! It’s the best album of any genre for me this year. Without competition.
So…that’s it folks. Outside my list of Top 10 you can find some that are very fine albums and would have made any Top 10 from any other year before 2012. Vienna Circle – Silhouette Moon, Days Between Stations – In Extremis, Johannes Luley – Tales From The Sheepfather’s Grove and Shinebacks fine album Rise Up Forgotten, Return Destroyed (added 20130103) are examples of albums bubbling just beneath position number 10. Then we find albums that I haven’t found the time, motivation or curiousness to listen to more than very casually at the best. Riverside, Airbag, Fish, Nemo, Maschine etc are among those bands or artists that I haven’t given proper attention as of yet.
Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year everyone!
PS. Best prog-related and most fun and interesting experience of the year: Big Big Weekend 14-15 September in Winchester and Southampton!
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.]