Big Big Train, Wassail (English Electric, 2015)
Tracks: Wassail; Lost Rivers of London; Mudlarks; and Master James of St. George.
As far as I know, I’ve never tasted Wassail.
Of course, I come from Bavarian peasant stock and possess, sadly, not a drop of Anglo-Saxon or Celtic blood in my veins. My wife, however, is blessed with Celtic as well as Swedish ancestry, and I’m more than happy to have played a role in passing those genes on to our rather large gaggle of children.
As far back as I remember, though, my very German-American family drank something that sounds quite similar, at least in essence if not in accidents, to Wassail, Gluhwein. Even the very word Gluhwein conjures not just the scents of warm cinnamon, cloves, and anise, but also the idea of heavenly comfort and satiation.
Much the same could be said of all of Big Big Train’s music. Not that it doesn’t have its share of tensions and darker moments within the music, but, it’s hard to imagine a band in the world today that better understands the goods and beauties of this world than does Big Big Train. They find glory in even the most ordinary of things. And, rightly so.
Wassail is a triumph, frankly. Not a huge triumph in the way The Underfall Yard or English Electric were each immense, almost overwhelming, triumphs, but a triumph, nonetheless.
A good, little truth.
In Greek, one would employ a word that has become utterly perverted over the last hundred years to describe Wassail best: a “dogma.” Literally, translating it from Greek to Latin, a dogma means a “good little thing,” a thing good in and of itself whether we understand its relation to larger truths or not.
Such is Wassail. A good little truth, whether we understand its relation to anything else or not. Only four songs at 25 minutes and 39 seconds, Wassail ends all too quickly. And, yet, for those nearly 26 mintues it plays, it fills our souls to the brim.
The opening song, “Wassail,” is a sing-songy English folk tune, completely with poetic and thoughtful lyrics. Here is the apple—the symbol of the devil, the instrument that caused the Fall, and the fruit that, to this day, brings so much love and joy. How can one thing be so loaded down by so many meanings—from the very existence of the universe and our relation in it, to the very thing that serves at the heart of what our grandmothers make best? This is a Longdon song, pure and simple. It is, for all intents and purposes, the sequel to Hedgerow, but without the rock edge.
The second song, “Lost Rivers of London,” is as much a Greg Spawton-song as the first was a Longdon song. What remains of the ancient world under the very streets of the city that represents so much good and truth in this world? What has nature wrought, our ancestors cultivated, and our current generation forgotten? These are quintessential Spawton questions, and, of course, true to Gregorian form, he serves as our modern natural historian, our urban archeologist, and our prog bard.
The third song, “Mudlarks,” is also a Spawton song, but its fullness comes across as a Big Big Train song more than the song of any one person. On “Mudlarks,” every member of the band, contributes and plays his or her heart out. Of the four songs, this is the most pop-rock oriented, despite the use of a whole set of rather folksy strings.
The final song of the EP, “Master James of St. George,” reveals just how much the band has evolved since the song first appeared—rather gloriously—on The Underfall Yard. Recorded live at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios, this version of “Master James” is much more layered than the original. Whereas the original offered a folksy minimalism, this version is layered almost beyond reason. The new strings add much but what really comes to the fore in this version is Danny Manner’s keyboards.
The Wassail version of “Master James” in no way makes the original obsolete. Quite the opposite. This new version just makes those of us who love BBT justifiably a little prouder of them. For, really, this version shows just how truly alive their music is, how much depth it possesses, and long it will be remembered. . . long after any of us have vanished from this world.
Let us just hope when we get there (wherever “there” is), we know which apple to choose. It’s pretty clear that BBT wishes us well, and they’ve even kindly provided the soundtrack for that journey.
Cosmograf’s CAPACITOR is everything a rock album should be. And, I do mean EVERYTHING. EVERY. SINGLE. THING. It is wholesome, fractured, creepy, uplifting, contemplative, mythic, existentialist, moving, intense, wired, dramatic, contemplative, Stoic, mystifying, weird, satisfying, honed, nuanced, dark, and light.
The Meaning of It All
If I could capture the album in one sentence, comparing it to other forms of art, I would and will put it this way: CAPACITOR is an Edwardian journey into the Hades of the Ancient Greeks but emerging in BIOSHOCK.
Then, think about the artists involved. Andy Tillison plays keyboards on it. Matt Stevens plays guitar on it. Nick Beggs and Colin Edwin play bass on it. NVD plays all of the drums. Our modern master of sound, Rob Aubrey, the Phill Brown of our day, engineered it.
[Correction: from Rob Aubrey. My apologies for getting the credits and terms mixed up. “Hi All, Actually I didn’t ENGINEER it as such…. I recorded the Drums with NDV and then everything else was Produced and Engineered by Robin… He Mixed the album at home and I was here in an advisory role, just giving a hand when he ran into problems or I felt things needed more work. Robin and I mastered the album together just a few Months ago on my studio system here (Pro Tools) using all of his original sessions so Robin could make adjustments to the overall dynamic and “tweak” individual sounds if necessary. I cannot take credit for much as Robin really is the genius here!”]
Then, of course, there’s the artist supreme, the writer, director, and producer of it all, Robin Armstrong. English wit, critic, musician, lyricist, father, husband, entrepreneur, and demigod of chronometry, Armstrong is one of the most interesting persons of our day and age. He’s already proven everything an artist should in his previous albums, especially in The Man Left in Space.
Armstrong is a driven man, and it’s impossible to think of him without thinking not only of perfectionism, but also of his insatiable desire to perfect a thing even more so. In terms of constitution, he is probably incapable of doing otherwise. We all benefit from his unrelenting drive.
On the latest album, CAPACITOR, Armstrong explores the Edwardian fascination with spiritualism, giving us not “steam punk” but what should be called “vacuum tube punk,” something quite different from that of either H.G. Wells or Bruce Sterling.
The statement “energy cannot be created or destroyed” appears in print, in word, and in song multiple times on CAPACITOR. If this is true, Armstrong asks through his characters and story, where does our energy—our soul—go after the body fails us? We are everywhere and in every time, he notes, surrounded by the ghosts of the dead. Even if we don’t personally believe in an afterlife, we see “what they left with us.”
Ghosts appear frequently on the album, as does a vaudevillian preacher and a spiritual medium. In the end, though, especially by the final two tracks, Armstrong is critiquing the rise and predominance of “the machine,” any gadget that mechanizes us, makes us less than human, and distracts or captures our very soul and very essence, thus diminishing our humanity.
The person, it seems, can never be fully an individual without body and soul, not in war with one another, but in healthy tension.
The Meaning of It All, Continued
Musically, CAPACITOR immerses us into perfection itself. See above for the musicians Armstrong has brought together. He’s obviously a creator of community and a leavenor of talent. He’s also within the prog tradition, with musical passages inspired by, indirectly, Porcupine Tree, Pink Floyd, Big Big Train, and The Tangent and, directly, The Beatles. Indeed, one of the most rousing moments musically comes in “The Reaper’s Song,” a song that, in large part, pays homage to THE MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR by the Beatles (1967).
Sitting in a station, waiting for a train to come
Frighten all the people, standing on the platform
Trying not to push them over
Trains are gonna crush them
Stupid little people
Stupid little people
Another track, “White Car,” has absolutely nothing to do with the unfinished fragment of the Yes song from DRAMA (1980). Yes’s song will have to continue in my soul as an unresolved enigma until the end of time.
It goes without stating (though, I will state it anyway!), the last several years have been not only amazing when it comes to rock, but they have also been, probably, the best years in the history of progressive rock.
2014 has been no different.
Please, however, don’t think of Cosmograf’s CAPACITOR as merely another Cosmograf release or as merely another prog rock release.
Of course, there is no such thing as “just another Cosmograf release,” though we might become a bit jaded when it comes to another “prog rock release.” There’s so much coming out at the moment, it would be understandable—if not forgivable—to take the historic moment for granted. Even with the somewhat overwhelming number of music cds appearing over the last several years, CAPACITOR is truly something special and, dare I use a word overused and misused for its sappiness, precious.
From my way of thinking, CAPACITOR is the best cd of 2014 and one of the best prog rock releases of all time. It is, at least this year, the one for all others to surpass. I very much look forward to those who embrace the challenge.
To pre-order for the June 2, 2014, release, please go here.
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.
One of our heroes, Robin Armstrong, just posted the following at Facebook:
Album update – It’s finished!, well very very nearly. Last night was spent holed up in Aubitt Studios with Rob Aubrey, working into the wee small hours putting the final mixes in place. Just final tweaks and then the final master next week. Expect some sort of pre-order info next week…. and of course the big reveal for the title and artwork.
Progarchists everywhere await this with eager enthusiasm.
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.
…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!
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:
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.)]