What’s in a Name?: Quite a lot when it comes to Big Big Train

Aubrey and D'Virgilio, courtesy of the uber-great Willem Klopper.
Aubrey and D’Virgilio, courtesy of the uber-great Willem Klopper.

by John Deasey

Just looking at the artwork of EE2 and taking in the song titles is a pleasure all of it’s own.

I savour the industrial art and the titles such as ‘Swan Hunter, ‘Keeper of Abbeys’, Curator of Butterflies’, ‘East Coast Racer’ ……

To those with a passing knowledge of English industrial heritage, it goes without saying we are back in the land of The Underfall Yard, back to The Last Rebreather and back to the land and communities that so shaped our country.

Big Big Train with this, the second part of English Electric,  take us further into the arms of working fathers, loving sons and warm families to extract beauty from industry and agriculture like no other art I know.

With a gentle piano introduction along with a typical BBT signature motif that will be repeated, we are soon driven by Nick d’Virgilio’s intricate drum patterns along the same tracks the famous Mallard steam train once flew. A stunning tour de force restlessly moves along evoking the men who rode the plates of this famous flying machine. The overall sound returns to the rich warm tones of The Underfall Yard, beautiful bass patterns underpinning a whole host of instruments including viola, tuba and cello.

David Longdon has never sounded better and the guitar fills from Dave Gregory are typically tasteful and restrained.

Big Big Train are masters at creating great soundscapes that swell and build and finally spill over into something quite beautiful.  Think of the Victorian Brickwork ending where I defy anyone not to shed a tear as the guitar overplays the brass section to create a crescendo of beauty.

Well, at 9.24 into ‘East Cost Racer’ they only do it again, and do it better, and do it in such stunning style it really is hard not to find a tear escaping …..

If the album finished at the end of this 15 minute track I would be more than delighted – I would be ecstatic. But you know what ?  The beauty just keeps on coming …..

Just as we’ve finished the great Mallard story we taken into the magical and harsh world of ship building at the Swan Hunter shipyard

A melodic and rather gentle opening, reminiscent of the whole feel of EE1, tells of the father to son continuity of such industries but with the sad caveat

Tell me what do you do

When what you did is gone

No one throwing you a lifeline

How do you carry on?

‘Swan Hunter’ is a stately track that has simple elegance in it’s phrasing and tones and once again has a gorgeous build-up and release towards the end combining brass, guitars and vocals.

From the shipyards we move to the coal face with ‘Worked Out’ and again we have this magnificent connection with time, place, community and industry. Father and son, working together, regular shifts, routine, warm and generous folk who forged communities but realise “.. we had our day, our day is over”

Despite the subject matter there is a real drive to this track with some sublime moments where viola, cello and guitar inter-act to build a warm wall of sound. Flute interjections from David Longdon lead into a real jam type session where Dave Gregory adds subtlety and skill proving that a masterful guitar solo does not need a million notes.

After such an astonishing triumvirate of tracks, some space is needed and breathe needs to be drawn.

We are given this chance with ‘Leopard’ which, if I am honest, does not work for me just yet.  As a breathing space though, it is perfect ….

The pace picks up again with ‘Keeper of Abbeys’ – a joyous and infectious track in the style of Judas Unrepetant with a drive, vigour and melody to die for which at 2 minutes in, goes places where other musicians must dream about. A typically sweeping refrain with soothing organ and cello sweeps into a section where you could be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled into a Greek taverna or a Russian vodka bar. Stoccatto guitars, flutes, viola and an incessant drum beat will have you tapping along infectiously then you are swept up unknowingly into the most beautiful choral-backed guitar solo you have heard which builds and builds into something far greater than I have words for.

The next track, ‘The Permanent Way’ is a real surprise.

Big Big Train have a knack of returning to refrains throughout their albums – think of the opening to The Difference Machine, or Evening Star for example

A pastoral opening about the farmer working in the fields soon gives way to a soaring re-working of Hedgerow which takes you by surprise on first listen as you are suddenly thrown back to EE1 and thinking ‘Blimey – where did that come from !”  It’s stunning.

And then – wow – we suddenly have the fantastic soaring refrain from The First Rebreather.

This is like a celebration of everything that is so warm, honest and true about Big Big Train. They are making music they love and it shines through like the brightest light.

‘The Permanent Way’ is an encapsulation of everything that is so perfect about Big Big Train – recurring motifs, connecting with land and industry, streams, hills, high moors, dry stone walls, far skies, the mark of man.

I cannot recall music that so connects with time, place or community that this does. As I live in an old industrial town surrounded by beautiful countryside filled with relics of a bygone age it maybe resonates clearer for me as it seems the music was set to to the sights and sounds that surround me.

From the BBT EEv2 booklet.  Photo by Matt Sefton.
From the BBT EEv2 booklet. Photo by Matt Sefton.

Now if you thought ‘Hedgerow’ on EE1 was a good album closer, wait till you hear ‘Curator of Butterflies’

I cannot think I will hear any music more moving, relevant and genuine than this superb album for a long time.

That is all I can say. Simply stunning and beautiful.

8 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?: Quite a lot when it comes to Big Big Train

  1. Thanks John, a very articulate and honest review. Aas a collective we could publish all these reviews !!
    I wil be honest to say that i tried hard to find fault with this album but in the end its just not possible..it really is something special


    1. John Deasey

      Thanks Ian, I wrote the review after my first back-to-back listens, without too much depth of thought or analysis – as I mention, the connection this music has with time and place is immense …. I run, bike and hike through areas that could be part of a BBT movie and the music in my head is a great accompaniment !!!


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