The long-awaited release of the second part of Big Big Train’s English Electric does not disappoint. It continues the band’s reverence and celebration of the unsung heroes of Great Britain’s past, beginning with the first track, the epic “East Coast Racer”. After a beautiful, elegiac opening featuring new member Danny Manners’ piano, the listener is suddenly hurtling down a railroad track on the exhilarating 1938 record-setting run of the famous Mallard steam locomotive. True to its subject, this 15+ minute song speeds by in no time, thanks to the propulsive drumming of Nick D’Virgilio. His stick-work evokes to an uncanny degree the clackety-clack rhythm of a train running full-bore across the countryside.
Another excellent song is “Worked Out”, a tribute to the millions of coal miners who labored underground to provide the fuel for the industrial revolution. It’s quite a rocker with a catchy sing-along chorus. David Longden’s “Leopards” is a nice change of pace, as the album turns inward to examine the conflicted emotions of two former lovers tentatively reconnecting. “Keeper of Abbeys” has one of the catchiest melodies ever written by the band, and it includes a hoedown featuring some delightful fiddle.
All of the songs are excellent, but “The Permanent Way” deserves special mention. While English Electric, Part Two is a very satisfying listening experience on its own, this song pulls together Parts One and Two in an extraordinary way. When the motif from Part One’s “Hedgerow” suddenly appears, it is incredibly moving – I’m not ashamed to say that the first time I heard it, it literally took my breath away. I don’t have anything else to compare it to – maybe Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme By Thomas Tallis”. It is a transcendent moment that few artists ever achieve.
I do have one quibble with the album: the sequencing – “The Permanent Way” seems to me to be the obvious closer, the way it weaves together the various threads of the previous songs. Instead, “Curator of Butterflies” is the final track, and it pales in comparison to the triumph of its predecessor.
Listening to the two parts as one piece (and it really is one piece), English Electric is the work of mature writers/musicians who are comfortable and confident enough in their own skins to set aside egos and swap roles when the music requires it (see Brad Birzer’s insightful two-part interview at Progarchy here and here). They are a group in the best sense of the word, and may they continue to grace us with their talents for many years.