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.
Coming in the #8 slot (in alphabetical order) on my Best of 2013 list is this year’s perfect slice of prog from:
This one completely caught me by surprise. I was not prepared for how awesome it is!
I was not expecting “Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep” to be soooooo good. I was not expecting to like it so much!
No Neal? No Nick? Wow, I was not expecting this to be one of the year’s best.
But holy smokes! I feel like this is the Beard’s best album ever!!
(Time will tell if I persist in that judgment. But so far my enthusiasm has not waned!)
I really love this disc a lot. Everything works here! All the tracks are amazing.
(And I have seen this album on a lot of Top Ten lists, so I know I am not alone in the republic of Progarchy with my enjoyment of this fantastic album.)
Congratulations, gentlemen! You have gone above and beyond, showing us all what true excellence in prog is.
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.]
Last year was an incredible year for Progressive Music (note: upper case), but in my opinion, 2013 has been even better. Thanks to this community (Progarchy) and the ever-lively Big Big Train Facebook group, I have been exposed to more new prog in 2013 than in any year since the halcyon days of the early 70s. As a result, my wallet has been considerably lightened, but my musical universe has been enriched way beyond mere monetary value.
What follows is a brief review of my top ten purchases in 2013 – albums received for review or borrowed from friends are not included, however much I enjoyed them. The list is alphabetic, as each of these albums is my favourite when I’m listening to it, depending on my mood.
Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused To Sing: A superb album from start to finish, replete with powerful, hard-rocking passages, beautiful melodies, jazzy interludes, lush arrangements, and oodles of emotion (not something SW is renowned for). Much as I enjoy SW’s guitar playing, I’m delighted that he has handed over most of the guitar work to the incredible Guthrie Govan and stepped back to be more of a musical director – he has always been an excellent songwriter, but I think his compositions have benefitted greatly from this change of focus. I also think this is Wilson’s strongest and most confident vocal performance ever. Of course the rest of the band members are all outstanding, but in particular I love Wilson’s use of Theo Travis’ woodwinds to add an extra dimension that was sometimes lacking in the Porcupine Tree soundscape.
Spock’s Beard – Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep: I love Nick D’Virgilio’s singing and drumming and was concerned when I heard that he’d left Spock’s Beard, but I needn’t have worried. I thought X was an excellent album, but Brief Nocturnes is even better. Ted Leonard not only brings his powerful and emotive vocal delivery to the band (I think he’s the best vocalist the Beard have had to date), but also his strong compositional skills, which were always evident with Enchant. And Jimmy Keegan is a monster drummer, a worthy full-time successor to the vacated “batterie” stool (he’s been touring with the band for years). Ryo’s keyboard work has also been going from strength to strength since Neal Morse, the uber-controlling force, left the band, while Alan Morse and Dave Meros seem to be even more energised by the injection of new blood into the band. A strong set of songs, powerfully delivered by a great band.
Sanguine Hum – The Weight of the World: Sanguine Hum are one of my favourite “new” finds. This Oxford-based band deliver layered and beautifully structured compositions with plenty of dynamics, which never fail to surprise and delight. One reviewer described their approach as “polymath”, but I think this may give the wrong impression – while their music is precise, it is never clinical, and while complex, it is never complicated for the sake of it. Although I slightly prefer their first album, “Diving Bell”, “Weight of the World” is an excellent album that gets repeated listening, and will continue to do so.
Riverside – Shrine of New Generation Slaves: “SoNGS”, to my ears, is the best Riverside album since their impressive debut “Out Of Myself” in 2004. With greater emphasis on songwriting rather than thrash, and more varied textures that their last few albums, this album is imminently listenable, apart from the rather tiresome first few minutes of the opening song, which seems to stutter along for ages before it gets going. Mariusz Duda’s side project, Lunatic Soul, is definitely bleeding back into Riverside, which I’m delighted about. More, please Mariusz…
Haken – The Mountain: For me, the find of the year. Two months go I’d never heard of this band, but now I have all three of their albums and can’t stop listening to them. “The Mountain” is a real tour de force, with light and shade, strong melodies, excellent harmonies, tight ensemble playing and impressive pyrotechnics that are just right in context of each song, when they explode. I think their “Gentle Giant” moment (The Cockroach King) is one of the finest since the great band themselves were performing – far better than Spock’s Beard’s efforts (which are nevertheless uniformly good), and rivalling Kevin Gilbert’s genius in his “Suit Canon”. This band has everything (except a permanent bass player – sad that I’m living on the wrong continent, too old and simply not talented enough to audition for the post… !). Great album, and great band with a stellar future.
Cosmograf – The Man Left In Space: I’m a sucker for good sci-fi – combine it with superb songwriting and musicianship from wide range of musicians and I’m in there, lead boots, space suit and all. The first time I heard this album, I thought some of the the interludes caused the album to lose momentum musically, but repeated listening has completely dispelled that impression. I now think this is a beautifully balanced album, lyrically and musically, and I’m really looking forward to the next Cosmograf album (which is always a good sign).
Big Big Train – English Electric Full Power: “English Electric”, parts 1 and 2, were already two of my all-time favourite albums, but the combined and expanded package, “Full Power”, has raised the bar even higher. I have already written full reviews of the individual albums (here on Progarchy and elsewhere), so suffice to say that the re-ordering of the songs and the additional material has created one of the most satisfying listening experiences I’ve had since I first became “aware” of music. Brilliant songwriting, meaningful lyrics, exemplary delivery, superb, lush production. And of course, there’s also the magnificent packaging…
Ayreon – The Theory of Everything: Two adjectives often associated with Ayreon are “bombastic” and “overblown”, but I prefer to use adjectives such as “majestic” and “melodic”. Arjen Lucassen has more musical ideas than is reasonable for any single human being, and he seems to be a helluva nice guy as well. “The Theory of Everything” is his best work, including side projects, since “The Human Equation”, which was my first encounter with his music and still my favourite. However, I’ve only had TTOE for two weeks, and already it is threatening to nudge THE aside. With a stellar cast of musicians and singers, including major prog alumni John Wetton, Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, Jordan Rudess and Steve Hackett, he’s created another intense epic work that soars and delights, while examining the very human themes of genius, deception, ambition, pride and love. As a scientist, I also appreciate the recurring symbol of the lighthouse, representing intellect and science casting illumination through the gloom. Brilliant album.
The Aristocrats – Culture Clash: This band has literally blown my socks off (it’s OK, it’s summer in the southern hemisphere, so I’m not too uncomfortable). I bought the “Boing! We’ll Do It Live” DVD earlier this year, and was mesmerised by the incredible technical abilities of the three musicians, Govan Guthrie (guitar), Marco Minnemann (drums) and Bryan Beller (bass). But this is not just a musical show-off band – not only do they write splendid (instrumental) music that crosses a vast range of genres (truly Progressive), but their obvious enjoyment of the music, and each other, is completely infectious. “Culture Clash”, their second album, sees them settling into their relationships and interactions, and writing music specifically for each other – and it’s a sheer delight. Want more!
Antione Fafard – Occultus Tramatis: I get to listen to a lot of new music while I’m working, putting science textbooks together. Much of it tends to slip by me while I’m concentrating on the work, but every now and then an album wrests my attention from whatever I’m doing and forces me to focus on the music. “Occultus Tramatis” was one of those albums. Canadian bassist Antione Fafard has put together a star-studded cast of jazz, jazz-fusion and progressive rock performers including Jerry Goodman and drummers Simon Phillips, Chad Wackerman, Terry Bozzio and Gavin Harrison, and produced an outstanding album of prog fusion, which despite its musical complexity and ever changing time signatures is nevertheless fresh and rewarding, revealing different possibilities every time you listen to it. Each track has its own feel, with changes of pace, a variety of complex rhythms and contrasting instrumental arrangements, but the album still still has an organic flow. I listened to my review copy twice straight through, and immediately ordered the CD. Challenging, but excellent.
Thieves’ Kitchen – One For Sorrow, Two For Joy: I marginally prefer The Water Road, but this is a strong collection of jazzy prog songs.
Roy Harper – Man and Myth: Powerful, emotional work.
The Flower Kings – Desolation Rose: Their darkest album to date, but a real return to form. May have made it into my top 10 if it had arrived earlier.
Amplifier – Echo Street: Gorgeous guitar-based, atmospheric music.
Airbag – The Greatest Show On Earth: Only arrived last week. Excellent album that is rapidly growing on me.
Lifesigns: This is a strange one for me. I really like the instrumental work, but some of the compositions seem to meander for long periods. And I can’t get into the vocals – the delivery seems flat and unidimensional to me. Sorry.
Not considered (see above, but added to my wish list):
Comedy of Errors – Fanfare & Fantasy
Days Between Stations – In Extremis
Dream Theater – Dream Theater
KingBathmat – Overcoming the Monster
Levin Minnemann Rudess – LMR
Magenta – The Twenty Seven Club
Moon Safari – Himlabacken Vol. 1
Persona Grata – Reaching Places High Above
PFM – Da Mozart A Celebration
Shadow Circus – On A Dark and Stormy Night
Sound of Contact – Dimensionaut
The Tangent – Le Sacre Du Travail
TesseracT – Altered State
Verbal Delirium – From The Small Hours of Weakness
Von Hertzen Brothers – Nine Lives
So much to listen to, so little time. Prog has never been healthier.
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.
An exclusive interview with Greg Spawton of Big Big Train. Interview by progarchy editor, Brad Birzer. [N.B. I was going to write a longish introduction, but I'll do that with the review of EEFP I'll have up in the next day or two.]
Progarchy: Hello, again, Greg. I’m so glad you continue to be so generous with your time, and I’m deeply honored to have you do yet another interview with me. The order of the songs, BBT EE+4, is now set. In stone! How did you arrive at this ordering? I would guess you agonized over this, individually and as a group?
Greg Spawton: Thanks, Brad. We had four new tracks to accommodate and a listening experience as a long double album (as opposed to two single albums) to create and so there was a lot of discussion and consideration of various options. I wanted to create mini-suites out of some of the tracks with linked themes and that helped a bit as it drew some of the songs together. So, we had the Edgelands sequence of Seen Better Days / Edgelands / Summoned By Bells and the love-songs sequence with Winchester From St Giles’ Hill / The Lovers / Leopards and Keeper of Abbeys. Once those two sets of songs were in place it became easier to work the other tracks around them.
Progarchy: Do you see EEFP as a fundamentally different release from EE1 or EE2, or is it a fulfillment of the first two releases? A sort of baptism or sanctification?
Spawton: It’s a bit of both. Completists are likely to buy EEFLP even if they already own EE1 and EE2 and so we felt an obligation to create something new and different rather than just stick four new tracks on the end. But it also seems to have drawn all the threads together and, for us, it’s the ultimate expression of our work in this period of the band.
Progarchy: A followup, considering track order. You start with the very 1950s and 1960s rockabilly-ish “Make Some Noise,” but you end the entire collection with the–as I interpret the lyrics–suicide of the curator. Is this intentional?
Spawton: We knew those two songs had to be the bookends. Curator of Butterflies is not a song about suicide, although I can see why many people interpret it that way. It’s actually about life from the perspective of growing older. Now I’ve reached middle-age, I have a much greater awareness of how fragile life is. With my family and my good friends I find that awareness very burdensome. At home, I’m surrounded by teenagers and their take on life is entirely different. It’s fearless, they feel indestructible, they feel they have all the time in the world, whereas I sit back and wonder: ‘where did all the time go’? In Make Some Noise David captures the feelings of being young and full of hope and of dreams so we felt that had to be the opening statement. And as we had song from the perspective of an older person in Curator of Butterflies, it seemed right to put that one at the other end of the album.
Progarchy: Is the whole album, EEFP, still an album dealing with the dignity of labor, in all of its various forms?
Spawton: In old money, EEFLP is a triple album so there is room on there to explore a lot of different themes. One of the main themes of the album is about the dignity of labour. There have been major social changes in parts of Britain in the last 50 years and some communities in areas that used to rely almost solely on employment from the mines or docks or from heavy industry have lost their way because that employment has gone. I am not being nostalgic about this; I am well aware that those industries were very tough places to work. I spent a few minutes down a Victorian drift-mine recently and I cannot imagine what it would have been like to work a shift down there. However, what these industries did bring was a sense of pride in working hard and of the potential of communal endeavour. The loss of these things has been catastrophic for some communities.
Progarchy: Now that you’re done with EE–really three releases overall–how do you see your work with EE? That is, where does it fit in the history of BBT (besides, being the most recent thing)? How do you see it in the history of prog?
Spawton: If the band carries on in its current trajectory, we’re likely to end up selling about 30,000 copies of all of the EE albums. In the context of the huge 70’s progressive bands that is a tiny amount and we are only too aware that it can never have the sort of impact that Selling England by the Pound or Close to the Edge had. Having said that, it’s been a sequence of releases which has, I think, shown us at our best and has helped us to reach a wider audience and to get played on national radio in the UK. We’ve also grown as a band during the making of the albums. We are closer together as a unit and know what we can achieve. Danny has come onboard as keyboard player and has added a considerable amount to our sound. We’ve been able to work with a string quartet as well as the brass band and have been able to collaborate with some fabulous musicians and arrangers. And we are very pleased that we have been able to put together a release of 19 songs without any of them being there just to fill some space. Some songs are better than others, inevitably, but all have something to say and will, we hope, offer something to listeners.
Progarchy: A number of the new tracks reflect some really interesting influences, at least as I hear them. “Make Some Noise” seems very innocent and joyful, perhaps a pre-Byrds type of rock, the rock my mother danced to in college. “Seen Better Days” seems very Mark Hollis/Talk Talkish and then very jazzy. “Edgelands” again has a Talk Talkish feel. But, so very jazzy–an impressionistic jazz of the second half of the 1950s. “The Lovers” is proggy in a Canterbury, dramatic kind of way. Am I reaching, or were these influences intentional?
Spawton: I wouldn’t argue with any of those. We’re all fans of Talk Talk and the Canterbury scene. Influences are not something we think about during the creative process, though. I’d be a bit resistant to the idea of deliberately writing a song in the style of another band. For us, it’s an organic process of writing, arranging and performing. Influences often operate in a subliminal way and the writer may be unaware of how the listener will experience the songs.
Progarchy: The blending of songs into one another harkens back to The Difference Machine, and you’ve mentioned in a recent interview that your next studio album will be a concept album. Are you and BBT making a statement about where prog should be going with any of these decisions, or are you just taking your art as you feel so moved at the moment of creation?
Spawton: Honestly? We just write. Sometimes that is with something in mind (for example, where we need a song with a particular sound to help make a balanced album) but often it’s just what comes into our heads and falls under our fingers.
Progarchy: You’ve put so much into the booklet that accompanies EEFP. How much of the total art do you see in the packaging, the graphics, the photography. That is, how important is it to peruse the booklet rather than simply download the four new songs? We all lament the loss of the album sleeve, but you seem to have found away to recapture that glory. Again, was the booklet a group project, or did you work on this individually?
Spawton: Andy and Matt Sefton must take most of the credit for the overall design. Once we’d found Matt’s remarkable photos and he’d agreed to work with us, Andy was able to develop the overall shape of things using Matt’s images as the basis. The design of the packaging which carries our music is very important to us. Music is, of course, our primary concern and I have no problem with downloads. However, many people still prefer to experience music by purchasing physical releases and we put a huge amount of thought into making those items things of beauty and interest. Luckily, we found, in Chris Topham, a chap with a similar attention to detail for our vinyl releases and so we have worked with Chris and Plane Groovy to try to recapture the glory of the gatefold album cover.
Progarchy: A followup to the above question: you spend a significant part of the book honoring those that/who came before. As a historian, I love this. Again, how did you decide to do this? From my perspective, you’re tying in your work (adding all of those who contribute to BBT directly) with a whole lineage of English history and art. Any thoughts on the necessity and importance of this?
Spawton: I have been fascinated by history since I was a young child. In the 70’s, we had these beautifully-produced children’s books called Ladybird books in Britain and they were a big part of my early childhood. Looking back, they had a particular view of the world which wasn’t very nuanced (for example, the Roundheads were the goodies and the Cavaliers were the baddies) but they were spellbinding books with lovely artwork and they seemed to be able to transport me into those historic periods. As the band was developing I started to experiment with telling historical stories in the songs. Really, I think I’m just a frustrated historian without the outlet to write books so I used the ‘voice’ that I did have. I also began to become more aware of folk-music and that stories can be smaller and close to home and be just as interesting for people. And it’s the fact that the listeners are interested in these stories that has spurred me on. We get suggestions of stories sent to us now and there are so many interesting tales.
Progarchy: Again, somewhat related, it’s a stroke of genius to tie this release into the work–sadly, often forgotten or poorly remembered–of The Dukes of Stratosphear. Just how did you come to work with one of its members?
Spawton: When I got to know Dave Gregory I realised that he knew just about everybody in the music business. When we were working on The Lovers, David and Dave wanted the fusion section to be quite spacey and psychedelic and so we ended up asking Dave if he would mind giving Lord Cornelius Plum a call. Lord Plum hasn’t really been involved in music since The Dukes split up and we were delighted that he wanted to play a solo for us, albeit he insisted on playing the guitar backwards. I have to say, he’s still got the chops. He plays backwards guitar a lot better than I can play in the forward direction.
Progarchy: As you know, your fan base (getting larger, deservedly, by the moment!) craves knowledge about the future of BBT. Can you talk about how you plan to perform live? Where? With whom? When? What setlist (not exact, of course–no spoilers!)? Will Rob travel with you?
Spawton: Our live sound will be done by Rob, no question about that. We’re slowly gearing up for some live shows but we know that it requires careful planning. One of the things we are adamant about is that a live show will be an attempt to convey the whole BBT sound with brass and string sections. That is a complicated set-up and requires a fair bit of rehearsal. We’ve chosen Real World as a large studio environment which can accommodate us all and we are going to spend a week there next year working songs through and ironing out any live issues. The setlist will mainly feature songs from The Underfall Yard and English Electric, although we may also do some earlier songs. We’re going to film the rehearsals as that is a good way of recording a live set without the controlled chaos of being on stage. After Real World we’ll be looking to play a small number of shows and I think that we will then aim to play a handful of gigs every year. Just occasionally, progressive bands manage to crossover into a much broader audience (Steve Wilson being the best example) and, of course, if that happens then perhaps we can aim to tour more extensively. I think that is unlikely though and the main thing for us is not to try to put anything on that ends up losing a lot of money which could put the band’s finances out of kilter.
Progarchy: A followup. What about your future albums? Station Masters is coming in 2014. What about the next studio album? Can you tell us anything about it?
Spawton: Most of the next studio album is written and recording is under way. Nick is in England in late September so we’ll get another couple of days of drum recording done then. We may also do some recording at Real World. As you mentioned, it is a concept album with a story which David has been developing. It is not English Electric Part Three and it will be a little different but we are very excited about it. In the meantime, Station Masters is slowly moving forward and we aim for that to be a beautiful release.
Progarchy: What are the members of BBT listening to right now? If you could praise some current music, what would you praise? Or, any recent discoveries of older music? What about books? Anything that’s really grabbed your attention recently?
Spawton: There is so much great progressive music about at the moment and we have heard a number of excellent new releases so far this year. The nice thing is that we don’t feel in competition with anybody. There is a good feeling in progressive rock of us all being in it together, the bands and the listeners. Recently, I’ve had some fun working my way back though some of the classic 70’s albums and in the last few weeks I’ve been listening to a lot of Van Der Graaf Generator and PFM. I am looking forward to new music from Mew, Elbow and I have just bought the new Sigur Ros album. As for books, at the moment, I’m reading The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris and Britain Begins by Barry Cunliffe. And I’ve been reading a very interesting biography of Pink Floyd by Mark Blake. The book that has made the most impact on me in the last year was Working Lives by David Hall.
Progarchy: Again, Greg, thank you so much for your time. It’s always a pleasure.
Spawton: Thank you, Brad.
Wait. Did you just miss that link? Here it is again:
From its cover image reminiscent of the all-seeing camera eye of 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s HAL computer, to the final track “When the Air Runs Out”, Cosmograf’s new album, The Man Left in Space, is a profound meditation on the tragedy of modern man’s surrender to ambition and technology, and the ensuing isolation that results.
Beginning with a bewildered astronaut, Sam, asking, “How did I get here?”, the listener is transported to the near-future, where Sam is questioning his motives for agreeing to a mission to “change the human race”. Can over-achievement bring satisfaction and happiness?
Ambition brought me here.
A winner in my field.
Dare to be a dreamer.
Find your fate is sealed.
Hidden truths revealed.
Through memory flashbacks, snippets of dialog with the ship’s android, and sampled audio of actual NASA space missions, we share Sam’s growing sense of melancholic disconnection with reality.
I take these pills. They help me numb the pain.
They stop me from feeling blue.
I feel the days getting longer now.
I’d like to dream, but I’ve forgotten how.
He’s even reduced to crooning a love song to his “beautiful treadmill” that will “keep my soul in grace”. Throughout, the ship’s android is monitoring Sam and vainly attempting to create a normal environment. Earth’s Mission Control tries to contact him, but they cannot get through. Sam realizes that without human contact, he will eventually slide into madness. No simulation, no matter how realistic, can replace the touch of another person.
Eventually, the “man left in space” is forced to face his own mortality:
10 minutes more and the air will run out.
This craft will fall into the sun.
My chance of returning is none. None. None.
As the last chords of the final song fade away, the ship’s android repeatedly asks, “Please respond, Sam?”
Robin Armstrong, who is Cosmograf, has constructed a beautiful, allegorical warning for those of us who would replace face-to-face communication with all the technological means at our fingertips: emailing, texting, Tweeting, “liking” on Facebook, etc. Right on cue, Google is coming out with “Google Glass“, which will add even more distractions to our interactions with others. We must resist the temptation to withdraw into self-imposed isolation and foster real relationships, regardless of the risks.
The Man Left In Space would not be the success it is without having superb music to complement its message. Every track is extraordinary, and the album really must be listened to in its entirety. Highlights include “Aspire, Achieve”, which begins with a delicate acoustic guitar melody and vocal harmonies that shift into crunching metal worthy of Ayreon’s best work. “Beautiful Treadmill” has an indelible hook that will have you singing along in no time. The instrumental, “The Vacuum That I Fly Through”, featuring the marvelous Matt Stevens on guitar and Big Big Train’s Nick D’Virgilio and Greg Spawton on drums and bass respectively, rivals anything Pink Floyd ever committed to tape. Trust me, it’s that good.
Finally, some praise for the artwork. In this age of digital downloads, it’s worth it to get the physical CD. The booklet that comes with the album is essential to fully appreciating the album. The illustrations remind me of the incredibly realistic sci-fi artwork Shusei Nagaoka did for Electric Light Orchestra’s Out of the Blue album from the late ’70s. The attention to detail is amazing: every page features readouts of various gauges, creating the feeling that you are involved in monitoring Sam throughout his doomed journey. The ship’s android is named ESA-1410-4MY, which pops up in several places and adds to the sense of technological surveillance and control of Sam.
Even though we have yet to finish the first quarter of 2013, Cosmograf’s The Man Left In Space is certain to be in many Top Ten Albums of the Year lists.
Enjoy “The Vacuum That I Fly Through”: