by Craig Breaden
Bedeviled or blessed, progressive rock’s classic bands took it upon themselves to discover what can happen when rock frees itself from the restraint of the three-minute single. And because Procol Harum, Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, and ELP didn’t merely see what would come out of jamming, but meticulously planned and executed album sides worth of material, there was an idea that these bands were making some sort of…progress. Codified as “prog rock,” the body of work that emerged from the late 60s and early 70s continues to inspire failure and success in groups intent on recapturing the form, if not always the spirit, of progressive rock.
Forty-some years on, and thirty years after most of the original prog bands found that trimming their sound back to that three-minute (or so) mark could bring substantial commercial success, progressive rock is in the middle of a full-blown and full-length revival, international in scope and as layered and interesting as the first generation. Many of the musicians associated with prog today are less revivalists than rock veterans, pursuing for years their passion with little fanfare but with fierce fandom. One of their leaders appears to be Big Big Train.
A disclaimer: I am one of the few Progarchist writers who was not familiar with Big Big Train during the genesis of Progarchy, which owes its existence at least partly to the enthusiasm Big Big Train inspired in its editors. I tend to watch prog from the edges, my tastes running to the rougher cuts, the drones, freakouts and new music noise-fests. Classically-inspired keyboard soloing — noodling — isn’t really my thing. I like the dirty-ness of art’s residue, big messy riffs that fray at the edges with some punk abandon, like you might hear in King Crimson’s “Starless” or Amon Duul II’s “Archangels Thunderbird.” In other words, I probably lean more towards the rock than the prog in prog rock. Which is why early listens to BBT impressed me with the musicianship I heard and the obvious dedication of the group, but left me wanting…something.
That said, in the fall of 2012, Brad Birzer, an extraordinarily prolific writer, kind academic, uber-editor of Progarchy, and dear, found-again old friend, forwarded me a copy of David Longdon’s solo album, and I assured him I would listen with open ears and mind. A previous foray into BBT at Brad’s urging had left me tepid on the group, but the earnest assurances that time would prove the wiser did indeed prove true with Longdon’s solo effort. Driven by hooks, arranged but not mannered, the Big Big Train vocalist’s solo album, which was made before he joined the band, absolutely sparkles with prog-pop craftsmanship. Balancing any too-serious prog pretense was a luminance I appreciate and often find lacking in the genre.
Heartened, I subsequently dipped gingerly into Big Big Train’s English Electric, Part One. I was immediately struck by its stage melodies and apparently wandering thematic shifts within songs — like Rhapsody in Blue minus the hooks. (BBT’s most obvious touchstone, Genesis, had this same problem.) There was less rock than musical theatre, a whiff of Broadway, and nothing, at first listen, to pump my fist to. Longdon’s a terrific vocalist, his bandmates fine musicians, but the music seemed more cast to carry narrative than to hang together as tunes. Further, the airtight production and tastefulness (careful-ness?) worked to both cloy the sentiments and sap the dynamics. Chance and risk were meticulously contained, and I was left thinking this sounds like a great band that can’t quite capture the grandiosity of what they’re going for. Epic music should be epic, and I couldn’t help thinking this would all be better if they performed it live in the studio. “You have one chance…go!”
Not a promising start. But I had to admit that something interesting was going on, even as I couldn’t put my finger on it. Perhaps it was me. Of course it was me. I respect Brad too much, David Longdon’s a gent and all reports are that this is a band working hard for their art with little reward. I needed to adjust my expectations. Months passed. Occasional listens yielded little further insight. I reflected on my knowns: English Electric is the title, English Electric is a great album cover, but English Electric is also a description of the pivot point of pre- and post-electrified Britain, the tension of modernity’s pull on the past. British nostalgia is compelling enough for Anglophile Americans — forty years after my first Masterpiece Theatre episode, and several years a slave aboard Thomas the Tank Engine, I can confirm this — imagine what it must be like for the British. So I get it, but does it work, and should I have to be convinced that something works if I’m not feeling it?
No and yes. I will admit: where I want to hear big rock, Big Big Train wants me to hear Big Big Train. There is no “Sit-ting on a park bench” riffing (although an aqualung is present), Happiness Stan victoriana-isms, glam stutter, new romantic croon, or other hallmarks of England’s rock and roll filter. And this is important, because English Electric I is a kind of modern British music hall production, a fading bucolic idyll that has in its reflection the world promised in its title. If Cirque du Soleil celebrated Edwardian England in one of its shows, the score might sound like this. Its songs are paeans to the past, the generations of our grandparents and their grandparents, who worked hard and looked to the future for a better life. Making songs from this can be a difficult task, requiring some abandonment of expectations, a throwing out of the textbook. And what’s more rock and roll, really? I look to music and art to make me readjust my own perceptions of the world, and for works like English Electric I am grateful. The maturity of the writing and the playing on the album transcends and resists rock’s checklist or whatever overlay I bring to first listens. Rather than ape the music of the era they write about in their songs, they choose to view those stories through a lens inspired by their rock ancestors but one which they’ve made their own. Each spin reveals additional layers, and while I respect English Electric more than love it, this bodes well for future listens.
And now, as English Electric Part One suggests, we have English Electric Part Two, which breaks like sunrise on “East Coast Racer,” nearly 16 minutes of Big Big Train essence, from softly thrumming flutes and Beach Boys harmonies to roiling guitars, orchestral drama, and a really interesting middle-section that tends to Radiohead territory. There are more than enough melodic starts and stops across the album to fuel several soundtracks, a comfortable amber glow accenting even its darker corners, and the cinematic “Leopards” confirms for me that Big Big Train should be making a good living writing for the movies. Everything is just so, tidy as an English cottage, and even as it tangles in places it retains the order of the hedgerow, which happens to be the guiding spirit of English Electric I & II. The playing is immaculate, instruments weave in and out of one another in pleasant progressions, and David Longdon’s nimble, rich voice lends hooks, unity, and direction. It is Longdon who ties together the two parts, as witnessed in EEI’s “Hedgerow” and EEII’s climactic “The Permanent Way,” which work the same melody and sentiment:
“That is where you will find them, out there working by the hedgerows
In the rain and the snowfall you’ll find them out there high against the skyline
In the mines and the headings you’ll find them, down there dreaming of the daylight”
Big Big Train’s search in song for the simple, workaday British who within their own spheres carried on industriously while together ennobling the best parts of empire, is a celebratory process that succeeds in different degrees across English Electric’s dimensions. If its enemy is a preciousness that can’t help but pervade some of the sentiment, English Electric benefits from a sincere and heartfelt regard for its subjects. Where does Big Big Train go next? English Electric make me interested in finding out.