by Frank Urbaniak
Reviewing Part Two of Big Big Train’s English Electric presents an interesting challenge-should this be considered as a Magnum Opus song cycle that just happened to be released in two sections, or should we consider EE2 as a separate and distinct release?
The good news is that EE Part Two stands on its own as a great collection of incredible compositions, interesting lyrics, and outstanding performances with more ‘space’ to develop the songs than on EE1. The band is not afraid to wear its influences proudly on their sleeves-suggestions of Elbow, Genesis, PreFab Sprout, Radiohead and others appear and are gone in a flash, hinted at but never copied. The instrumentation is again diverse but is not a repeat of EE1, and there is more room for Dave Gregory to stretch and embellish the song’s melodies, especially the sitar/guitar in Keeper of Abbeys playing counterpoint to the violin, Worked Out’s Tull feel, and the biting melancholy of The Permanent Way. The production is impeccable and a delight through headphones, although there are moments I might wish for just a tad ‘less’ in the future.
EE Part Two continues to create a compelling argument for challenging the classification of BBT as ‘prog’. The songs are so well composed and universal in themes that they could/should appeal to a wider listening audience. On the other hand, the ‘proggers’ who summarily dismissed EE1, perhaps favoring metal/experimental or one of the other prog sub classifications (typically meaning heavier), will be hard pressed to embrace this one as well. As an example, while Curator of the Butterflies is one of the finest ballads I have ever heard, the opening vocal ‘she likes to walk’ sound strangely like a Simon and Garfunkel tune, which won’t win over the gang who prefer their prog a bit heavier.
A couple of minor points:
- I once read that songs should only fade for radio, or when the epic melody warranted it (Hey Jude) as it otherwise indicates that the composer didn’t know how to end the song. EE2 has 5 fades, of which two-East Coast Racer and The Permanent Way are ambient and appropriate, but I wish they had just ended rather than faded Swan Hunter, Worked Out and Keeper of Abbeys.
- In terms of sequencing, I am not sure Leopards fits into the 3 CD (TUF, EE1 EE2) song cycle based on ‘stories’ of England. I enjoy the song but it feels a bit out of place and might have been better as a B side on some future release.
- I am sure the band wrestled with whether The Permanent Way or Curator of Butterflies was the best song to end the cycle, but I think The Permanent Way provides the ultimate conclusion to this trilogy, as it incorporates themes from The Underfall Yard (Evening Song) and EE1 with the retrospective view provided by the old man’s voice, lending an air of finality to this collection of stories. Sequencing Keeper of Abbeys, Curator and The Permanent Way, wraps up this wonderful collection of ‘stories’ more effectively to these ears.
- I also occasionally miss the raw power of the band that I get from Pick Up If You’re There or Kingmaker or Master James of St. George. The strings and brass plus expanded instrumentation greatly embellish this set of songs, but I hope ‘the next big thing’ focuses more on the band of six (plus Rachel on violin) without always repeating the dense instrumentation of English Electric. Hopefully the concept will allow for new and varied sounds.
Minor points aside, English Electric is an overall great listening experience and a job well done! Considered as one body of work, English Electric ranks at the top for my favorite releases in the 21st century and to these ears embodies modern rock at its finest. I can think of no other three CDs (including TUF with EE1 and 2) since the classic days of progressive music that meet such high standards for consistency of composition, performance, production and overall beauty.
Now the wait begins again……….