[And so it begins. . . the reviews of the latest release from Big Big Train, English Electric Vol. 2. You can pre-order now, as the official release date is March 4, 2013. BBT is already shipping. Our Progarchists will be reviewing the new release intensively and extensively between today and March 4, 2013. Indeed, let us declare the four days of BBT an official holiday of leisure, truth, and beauty in our little Republic of Progarchy–Brad, ed.]
by Alison Henderson
I like to think that listening to English Electric Pt 2 is like visiting a rather exclusive sonic picture exhibition. You walk into the gallery and you are instantly surrounded by seven exquisite works of art, each with its own character, telling a different story, but somehow all inextricably linked. As the album begins to play, you are drawn to each of them individually, especially the detail and care that has been taken into bringing them to life and you are filled with admiration for their creators, and with awe for the effect they have on you.
East Coast Racer is a tour de force of the collection, big and certainly epic enough to cover a whole wall because of the detail and precision that has gone into its making. At its centre, you see this legendary steam locomotive the Mallard taking shape through Danny Manners’ intricate piano lines that start and end the piece, introducing us to its sleek lines and curves, before it bursts out of the canvas at breakneck speed, David Longdon’s voice soulfully expressing the pride and passion felt by the men who crafted and engineered this beautiful mechanical masterpiece. Ever changing, ever evolving, this work shifts up and down the gears several times, the attention to detail paid through the painstaking instrumentation, adding texture to the Turneresque picture evolving in the music.
And so to Swan Hunter , through which you can picture a Joseph Wright-type cosy fireside scene between father and son, while outside towers the spectre of the shipyard, once a proud place to work, but now just another rusting hulk in the British industrial landscape, the forlorn brass, quietly jingling banjo and muted strings hinting at the malaise felt at the demise of another cornerstone of community life.
A gathering of men about to descend down a mineshaft in a rural scene would illustrate Worked Out, a gently lilting folk-drenched canvas, a rallying call to the spirit of brotherhood, united in their tasks below ground. The piece becomes more intense through the mix of instruments, especially flute and guitar that hint at the perils and pitfalls they face on a daily basis.
Then on to Leopards which is like staring into a pre-Second World War painting as imagined by Jack Vettriani, starting with the lush sounding 30s strings developing into an almost dance like rhythm that shimmers brightly and appears inwardly lit. It depicts a couple, tentatively in love, the focal point being the striking Art Deco leopard brooch he gave her and which she proudly wears as a token of his affection.
The first landscape painting, with echoes of John Constable, is Keeper of Abbeys, an altogether moodier soundscape that reflects the melancholy of its central character as he becomes more engrained into his surroundings, but still lets in light and shade through its elaborate swirls of guitar and electric sitar, backed with lush banks of vocal choruses.
The most composite of all the works is The Permanent Way, which melds together all the pastoral elements of English Electric Pt 1, and indeed The Underfall Yard, with the industrial heritage which is such a prominent feature in this collection. Fields where the farmers worked on the edge of mining areas, bisected by the canals, dry stone walls and hedgerows, and somewhere on the horizon, the sea, are all captured in a heartbreakingly beautiful and poetic style. This is the real England when it revolutionised the world. A plaintive violin and refrain from The First Rebreather are reminders of where it all started.
And finally, somewhere on a headland, there is the figure of a Pre-Raphaelite woman, drawn to nature like a Curator of Butterflies, her gaze fixated on the smallest of things, a rolling piano, subtle brass, the sweetest of strings and the most moving of melodies depicting the delicate balance of all life in an almost ballad-like setting.
Like the finest of art, English Electric Pt 2 shows yet again how Big Big Train are the masters of creating musical brushstrokes that fill your mind with endless pictures of people, places and machines, all of them working together on many different and discernible levels. You will emerge from this collection enriched, enlightened, educated and entertained with a greater sense of the past and the way it continues to shape our present and future.