Album Review: Big Big Train’s “Welcome to the Planet”

Big Big Train - Welcome to the PlanetBig Big Train – Welcome to the Planet, January 28, 2022
Tracks: 
Made From Sunshine (4:05), The Connection Plan (3:55), Lanterna (6:29), Capitoline Venus (2:27), A Room With No Ceiling (4:52), Proper Jack Froster (6:38), Bats in the Belfry (4:54), Oak and Stone (7:12), Welcome to the Planet (6:41)

Perhaps it’s a strange quirk of fate that the album Big Big Train releases after the tragic death of David Longdon is one of their most upbeat albums to date. It’s a very positive album, much like 2021’s Common GroundWelcome to the Planet sounds even more hopeful, more full of life, and more accessible than ever. It’s a more than welcome antidote to the insanity of the world today – insanity amplified by David’s death.

“Made From Sunshine” is a beautiful opening to the album, giving us a jolt of energy to start us off. It isn’t a Big Big Train anthem like past album openers, but it has a similar upbeat feel. Come to think of it, none of the tracks on this album fall into the anthem category. “Made From Sunshine” is about the joy of parents as they look at their newborn child and enjoy that child’s early years. The name of the song and the accompanying lyric was inspired by guitarist Dave Foster. In a track-by-track overview of the album made in October, David Longdon commented that when he first met Foster in studio in November 2020, he commented to him that he was a ball of energy. Foster told him that his parents told him when he was a child that he was “made from sunshine.” The song features a vocal duet with Longdon and new member Carly Bryant, pointing to new developments in the band as they grow with new musicians in the fold.

Big Big Train – Made From Sunshine – YouTube

Fans of Nick D’Virgilio’s vocals will love “The Connection Plan,” which features him singing both backing vocals and lead on the bridge. I think I can hear Rikard singing on the bridge too, as well as what I assume is Rikard’s Hammond organ swirling around.

“Lanterna” sounds like it could have been on any of the band’s albums with Longdon, or at least any after The Underfall Yard. This song was originally supposed to be part of “Atlantic Cable” on Common Ground, but Greg Spawton decided to split it into a separate track. The song is about an historic lighthouse, with the lyrics about the idea of lighthouses shining light into the dark. It brings in the history element Big Big Train is known for, but it’s more subtle this time around. Rikard has some stellar guitar licks, which really pump the song up starting about two minutes in. Greg’s bass brings a booming deep end over Nick’s drums, with piano and violin periodically popping up. Carly’s piano matches the theme of the song really well.

By now you’ve probably heard “Proper Jack Froster,” which the band released several months ago in advance of Christmas. It has everything Big Big Train is known for. It’s pastoral and nostalgic with a warm feel throughout. Longdon’s vocals are emotional, with his delivery really stealing the spotlight. The vocal harmonies add to the overall mood, but David is the star here. We also get a solo vocal from new band member Carly Bryant, whose warm and bluesy voice fits the song rather well. The guitar work and of course Greg’s bass also get their opportunity to shine. While this might be considered a Christmas song, it isn’t overtly connected to the holiday, meaning it can be listened to all year.

Big Big Train – Proper Jack Froster – YouTube

Some might call this album pop, but calling something “pop” has the same problems with calling something “prog.” They never seem to define the word. For a progressive rock band or artist to “go pop,” they have to give up the soul of their sound. Becoming more accessible doesn’t necessarily mean a band is going pop. In that regard, I don’t think Welcome to the Planet is pop at all. It’s pure Big Big Train, with the only track that sounds drastically different being the title track.

By accessible, I mean the songs are all on the shorter side, and they take on a more traditional song format. For the most part, the lyrics depart from the band’s storytelling, but that isn’t new for the band. They’ve written these kinds of songs before, although they’ve never really made a whole album of them. The storytelling is still there, but as I mentioned about “Lanterna,” it is more subtle. I expect Welcome to the Planet will reach a wider audience because in many ways the record sounds more traditional. I don’t think that makes it pop, though.

Just listen to an instrumental like “Bats in the Belfry” and try to tell me that’s pop. D’Virgilio pulled out all the stops in writing this track. It may be short at under five minutes, but it has both slow and quick sections. Greg’s bass is front and center in the mix, as well it should be. Close listeners will pick up on elements that Nick used in his drum solo tracks in their last tour. The album actually features multiple instrumental tracks, so while there may not be any long epics, there’s still a healthy sprinkling of Big Big Train’s proggiest moments.

Big Big Train – Bats in the Belfry – YouTube

The album has its more sedate moments, such as “Capitoline Venus” and “A Room With No Ceiling.” The former is a love song Greg wrote for his wife. It originally appeared as a demo in the Passengers Club with Greg on vocals. I remember thinking when they first released it how good of a track it was, and I’m very happy to hear a completed version of it with David on vocals. It’s a smooth, touching track that David’s voice breathes brilliant light into. I actually rather like the raw honesty that Greg’s voice has in the demo, but David had the best voice in the business. Nothing can compare to that. The song features just David on vocals and Greg on acoustic guitar and synths. I can just imagine the rest of the band leaving the stage and the two of them playing this track front and center stage. It would have been beautiful.

“Oak and Stone” is another calmer track dripping with Big Big Train nostalgia. There’s a piano moment that takes me back to “East Coast Racer.” The opening bass to the instrumental “A Room With No Ceiling” is a great reminder that in addition to being the greatest lyricist in prog today, Greg Spawton is also one of the finest bassists out there.

The biggest deviation, or progression, in the Big Big Train sound comes from the title track, placed at the end of the album. “Welcome to the Planet” is Carly Bryant’s debut song for Big Big Train. She wrote both the music and the lyrics, and it’s unlike anything the band has ever made. It’s a great song, but if you’re a longtime fan of the band, it will stand out quite a bit. I don’t know if I would have liked an entire album from Big Big Train made in this style, but it’s a pleasant change that still features the BBT flair, including the brass band. David begins the vocals, but Carly quickly takes over and sings for the rest of the track. She even brings a bit of blues grit in at one point. The smooth section with vocal harmonies singing “welcome to the planet” is a beautiful moment on the album. I think the song would have been better served ending with a fadeout of this rather than the somewhat abrupt ending it has, especially since they chose it to close the album. It’s a bit of an odd ending, with the line “Aunty Carly’s singing lullabies to all the children that she never made,” and ending with Carly sighing. Clearly a personal note, and a bit sad all the same. The lyrics are somewhat dark, but they’re honest, something Big Big Train has always been. In hindsight, with David’s passing, this song might better be served elsewhere on the album, since David takes a back seat on this one. But aside from that, it’s a bold choice for the band to mix up their sound and to end the album with this song. Overall it does work, and I find it ends up being the most memorable song on the album.

The band released this live acoustic duet version with David and Carly yesterday, although the album track has a much fuller sound. If you’d rather go into the song hearing the original first, then watch this after you’ve had a chance to listen to the album.

Big Big Train – Welcome to the Planet (live acoustic version) – YouTube


While overall the album sounds more accessible than Big Big Train’s past records, I find when you break it down song-by-song the tracks could each fit on any of the band’s albums from the last decade, except perhaps the title track, which brings with it the influences and tastes of a new band member. Simply put, Welcome to the Planet is another excellent album by Big Big Train. It has a very different feel from Common Ground, which I think adds to my enjoyment of it. This isn’t just an album of b-sides that didn’t make it onto that record. I like every song on the album, and I know it will make my best-of list come the end of 2022. Whatever the future may hold for Big Big Train, they can be proud of this album.

RIP David.

https://www.bigbigtrain.com

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Thirty): Holding Pattern

The album cover just sort of grabs you, doesn’t it?

A belated Happy New Year to my fellow Progarchists and to all of our dedicated followers! I figured it would be appropriate to continue my series in this new year by reviewing a band that apparently hails from my home state (Connecticut). Holding Pattern released this album – their first – in 1981. An instrumental clocking in at just under thirty minutes, it may strike one at first glance as being too short to qualify as prog – after all, many individual prog songs are longer. But this album packs a symphonic punch in the vein of Happy the Man and Steve Hackett that is worth a listen. So without further ado:

The opening number, “Another Point of View,” has an upbeat feel to it: a great piece to enjoy whilst relaxing on a summer’s eve. Driven by Tony Spada’s guitar (reminiscent of Hackett’s early solo work) and Mark Tannenbaum’s keys, this piece hearkens back to the classic era of symphonic prog and is sure to delight any listener.

“Honor Before Glory” opens with the classic and beautiful sound of the mellotron before Spada again unleashes on guitar. Spada’s sound – no cheap imitation of Hackett’s – is complemented on this piece by Tannenbaum’s virtuosity on the keys.

“Jigsaw Dream” opens with a flourish of synths before transitioning to a funky cadence that is sure to appeal to fusion fans. Bassist Jerry Lalancette and drummer Robert Hutchinson, who provide a superb rhythm section throughout the album, anchor this piece with a groovy beat that makes “Jigsaw Dream” the most dynamic track on the album.

The closing piece, “Out of the Tunnels,” is the edgiest and “darkest” track on the album: the band, while remaining true to their symphonic and fusion roots, explores territory that was best exemplified by King Crimson during their Larks’ and Red era.

Like so many under-appreciated prog albums, this one deserves another chance. Lovers of classic symphonic prog who don’t mind a touch of fusion will appreciate this fine work, but this is an album that can find a place in almost anyone’s collection.

Stay tuned for number thirty-one!

Muse Release New Track: “Won’t Stand Down”

Just when we need them most – when the world is going to absolute hell with totalitarian lockdowns and mandates under the guise of “public health” – when we least expected it, Muse has returned with their uniquely bombastic stick-it-to-the-man hard rock. Sure, Matt Bellamy says “Won’t Stand Down” is about standing up to bullies, but he isn’t talking about a schoolyard buster stealing your lunch money (although it could certainly apply to that). This is the band that wrote “Uprising,” “Knights of Cydonia,” and a host of other anti-government songs. They even wrote a whole dystopian concept album about this same subject. Drones may have been released in 2015, but it’s more relevant than ever.

“Won’t Stand Down” is a welcome return to the hard rock Muse I much prefer. Simulation Theory is too 80s synth pop for my taste. Yes there’s a little of that influence at the beginning of this track, but it’s full blown head banging heavy metal by the end. I hope the rest of the album (assuming they have one in the works) is this good.

Won’t stand down
I’m growing stronger
Won’t stand down
I’m owned no longer
Won’t stand down
You’ve used me for too long, now die alone

Muse – Won’t Stand Down – YouTube

Alex Lifeson’s New Band Release New Track

It’s been a very long time since we’ve heard new music from Alex Lifeson. Apart from Alex’s guest appearances on other albums, it’s been a decade since Rush’s masterpiece, Clockwork Angels. Lifeson’s new band, Envy of None, sounds nothing like Rush, but this track off their upcoming album is excellent nonetheless.

After listening to the song, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Envy of None are signed to Kscope. They have an atmospheric and industrial edge to them that Kscope is known for. Hopefully the rest of the album will be just as good.

Check out more info on the album at Prog magazine: https://www.loudersound.com/news/alex-lifeson-returns-with-envy-of-none-and-a-brand-new-video-for-liar

Album due out April 11.

Envy of None – Liar – YouTube

Beginning Again – Steven Wilson’s “Pariah”

One of the things I appreciate about progressive rock is how brutally honest many of the musicians can be in their art. Steven Wilson and Devin Townsend immediately come to mind in this regard. Townsend has always shown his emotions in his lyrics and music, whether it be in face-melting heaviness of Strapping Young Lad or in his varied solo work. Wilson’s lyrics and the musical soundscapes he creates also reflect deep wells of emotion and even a somewhat philosophical approach to those emotions.

“Pariah” off 2017’s To The Bone is in a long tradition of similar contemplative melancholic and emotional songs by Wilson. Porcupine Tree’s “Lazarus,” Wilson’s “Drive Home” and “Routine,” as well as the more recent “12 Things I Forgot,” come to mind. I think “Pariah” may rise above the aforementioned tracks because of the exquisite duet with Ninet Tayeb.

The term “pariah” has a negative connotation in modern English, but I believe the term is usually used incorrectly to refer to a person who dramatizes their situation and makes a show of being an outcast when they aren’t actually outcast from their community or society. The definition is simply someone who is an outcast. The word comes from India, where it is used to refer to members of the lower order of the caste system.

I’m not quite sure which version of the word (the vernacular use or the correct use) Wilson is using here. Wilson’s character in the song is clearly someone dealing with depression, but we aren’t sure why. I don’t think “pariah” is being used in a derogatory fashion in the song, though.

Steven Wilson – Pariah (Music Video) – YouTube

For some reason I never realized this until yesterday, but Ninet’s inclusion on the song acts as a foil to Wilson’s melancholy. Wilson sings,

I’m tired of weakness, tired of my feet of clay
I’m tired of days to come, I’m tired of yesterday
And all the worn out things that I ever said
Now it’s much too late, the words stay in my head

Ninet responds,

So the day will begin again
Take comfort from me, it’s up to you now
You’re still here, and you’ll dig in again
That’s comfort to you, it’s up to you now

So Pariah, you’ll begin again
Take comfort from me
And I will take comfort from you

Ninet is playing a role often personified by females across thousands of years of philosophy. In the Biblical book of Proverbs, wisdom is personified as a female, and in Boethius’ “Consolation of Philosophy,” philosophy is personified as a woman. Maybe it’s a stretch to compare Wilson to Solomon or Boethius, two of the wisest men who ever lived, but what I’m getting at is “Pariah” is set up in a similar way. Specifically in Boethius we see the author having a conversation with philosophy. In this track we see Wilson (or Wilson’s character) in a depressed state. He’s worn out, tired of his failings, and tired of everyone else, and it’s a woman who sits down to talk with him.

Ninet’s angelic yet slightly gritty voice reminds him that tomorrow is a new day. She reminds him that he’s still alive, still breathing, and that’s something from which to draw comfort. She even offers to give him comfort, and perplexingly she says she will also take comfort from him. Perhaps she finds relief in aiding someone else in their darkness. As I mentioned above, I don’t think pariah is meant to be derogatory here. The lyrics are too gentle and Ninet’s delivery too sincere for that.

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EP Review – Michael Woodman’s Psithurism

Michael Woodman - PsithurismMichael Woodman, Psithurism, 2021
Tracks: 
Sacramento (2:32), Petrichor (3:32), Cloned In Error (5:36), The Levitant (6:44), Seachange (6:57)

Thumpermonkey vocalist Michael Woodman released Psithurism in August 2021, and we’re finally getting around to reviewing the lovely digipack CD he sent us. I’m calling it an EP because it’s less than a half hour long, but it could very well be an album. Semantics.

The music is relaxed and mildly atmospheric, although not quite in a Pink Floydian way. It has a more contemporary sound to it, somewhat reminiscent of Steven Wilson, although it isn’t as dark as that. Nevertheless the music is still rather haunting, which matches the artwork. The record focuses on the vocals and lyrics, with electric guitar and drums being the primary instruments. There are gaps in the instrumentation where the songs are carried along by a cappella vocals. The music is sometimes light, but it has its heavier moments. “Petrichor” starts off slow and sparse before building into a heavy blend of guitars and drums that then gets overlaid with saxophone. Quite nice.

At times the lyrics are more prose than poetry, or if it’s poetry it’s non-rhyming. There is a lot to dig into in the lyrics, since they’re on the denser side. This provides reasons to come back to the record, as well as a good reason to pick up the digipack, which has the lyrics printed on the inside of the foldout sleeves. Thematically the lyrics are very dreamlike. Images flash before the narrators eyes, much as it does in imagist poetry. The stories told are mildly in the horror, or at least mystery, genre, with cryptids lurking around corners and murders in the woods, adding to the haunting sense I mentioned earlier.

It’s an enjoyable EP on repeated listens, and it’s short enough to be very accessible. Give it a go over at Bandcamp: https://michaelwoodman.bandcamp.com/releases

It’s a New Year with Interesting Steven Wilson News

Prog magazine is reporting some interesting news from Steven Wilson. In addition to the new Porcupine Tree album due out in 2022, Wilson is working on a new concept solo album for 2023, and perhaps most interestingly he has a book coming out in March May 2022, entitled Limited Edition of One. Wilson comments on the book,

As well as containing some autobiographical material, it also has a lot on my ideas about music and the way things have changed in my time as a professional, lists, photos from my personal archives, conversation transcripts and even some fictional elements.

As there have already been a few books written about me and/or Porcupine Tree in recent years, I’ve chosen to focus on the stuff that people really don’t know about me. As you can probably guess, there will also be a special limited deluxe version. This will feature a second volume of supplementary material and photos, plus a 70 minute CD with “audio illustrations” of some of the things I talk about in the book, including mercifully brief extracts of my school bands, and early unreleased demos by No-Man and Porcupine Tree, among others. Although much of its musical merits might be questionable, my hope is to put you there “in the room” when I’m talking about my early musical endeavours.

Read more at Louder: https://www.loudersound.com/news/steven-wilson-announces-next-solo-release-will-be-another-concept-album

Kruekutt’s 2021 Favorites!

I thought I didn’t have a big list of favorites from this year’s listening — until I revisited my six-month survey from back in June and added in the good stuff I’ve heard since then! The listing below incorporates links to full or capsule reviews, or other relevant pieces on Progarchy and elsewhere; albums I haven’t written about yet get brief comments, along with my Top Favorites of the year. Most of these are available to check out online in some form; if you find yourself especially enjoying something, use that Christmas cash and support your choice with a purchase! And the winners are . . .

Continue reading “Kruekutt’s 2021 Favorites!”

Bryan’s Best of 2021

We’ve come to the end of another year, and what a horrible year it has been. Really the only positive thing I can think of from this year is the music. In addition to all the non-music nonsense that has gone on this year, we lost from legends in the prog world, none hurting more than the tragic and completely unexpected death of David Longdon. That one will hurt for a long time.

I usually write my best of lists in no particular order, with my top pick(s) at the end. So without further ado…

Robby Steinhard Not in Kansas AnymoreRobby Steinhardt – Not In Kansas Anymore

Robby Steinhardt was another prog legend we lost unexpectedly earlier this year. He hadn’t been active in music for quite some time, but that was about to change as he was finishing up his first solo album and had plans for a tour. Sadly the latter was not to be, but we did end up getting his solo album in the fall. It’s a great record, and it shows what a key player he was in Kansas. His vocals are stellar, and his violin playing is second to none. This record has a bit of the magic that I think Kansas lacks without Steinhardt. There are more musical influences at work than just Kansas on this record. It’s not a solid 10/10 throughout, but it is a very good record. Check out my review and my tribute to Robby.

Devin Townsend Galactic QuarantineDevin Townsend – Devolution Series #2 – Galactic Quarantine

Devin Townsend has been a busy bee this year. In addition to working on three new records this year, he released two minor releases of live material. The first is an acoustic album (see my glowing review) from a show he did in Leeds in 2019. It’s a raw and emotional take on his music. The Galactic Quarantine album is one of his live-streamed albums from 2020 with the musicians playing live on green screens across the world. The music is blisteringly great, with a surprising amount of Strapping Young Lad material played. Devin humorously engages with his virtual audience, which makes the music come to life a bit more. This has been one I’ve returned to quite a bit this year. Perhaps an unorthodox release, but it would make a really good entrance point for the uninitiated to the heavier side of Devin’s music. Check out my review.

8250379_e4a1fc34c7Soen – Imperial

It turns out we never reviewed Soen’s latest album, which was released in January. The Swedish prog-metal supergroup can do no wrong. Their songs are catchy, memorable, and thoughtful. They can be both heavy and contemplative, and in my book they rank in the upper echelon of progressive metal. This record has been on repeat all year.

Atravan - The Grey LineAtravan – The Grey Line

Sticking with the progressive metal theme, Atravan was a pleasant surprise at the beginning of the year. This is the first Iranian band we’ve ever reviewed here at Progarchy, and they’re fantastic. I’m so glad the band reached out to us. They make metal in the vein of Riverside – heavy, spacey, wall of sound. Definitely a band that deserves recognition, although I worry what too much recognition could do for them with the repressive Iranian regime. Check out my review.

Continue reading “Bryan’s Best of 2021”