Perfecting Perfection: Big Big Train’s English Electric Full Power

English Electric Full Power, September 2013
English Electric Full Power, September 2013

Set in stone.  Chiseled, carved, done.  Or, at the very least, set in digital stone.

For the ever-growing number of Big Big Train devotees (now, called “Passengers” at the official Facebook BBT page, administered by everyone’s most huggable rugged handsome non-axe wielding, non-berserker Viking, Tobbe Janson), questions have been raised and discussed as to how BBT might successfully combine and meld English Electric 1 with 2 plus add 4 new songs.

How would they do it with what they’re calling English Electric Full Power?  Would they make it all more of a story?  Would the album become a full-blown concept with this final version?  Where might Uncle Jack, his dog, or the curator stand at the end of the album?  Actually, where do they stand in eternity?

The members of BBT have already stated that EE as a whole calls to mind–at least with a minimum of interpretation–the dignity of labor.  Would the new ordering and the four new songs augment or detract from this noble theme?

Somewhat presumptuously, many of us Passengers proposed what we believed should be the track order, and I even took it upon myself to email Greg last spring with a list.  Well, I am from Kansas, and we’re not known for being timid–look at that freak, Carrie Nation, who dedicated her life to hacking kegs and stills to bits, or to that well-intentioned but dehumanizing terrorist, John Brown, who cut the heads off of unsuspecting German immigrants.

And, then, there’s the fact, for those who know me, that I can produce track lists like I can produce kids.  No planning and lots and lots of results.

Or, that other pesky fact, that I’m so far into BBT that I could never even pretend objectivity.  [Or, as one angry young man wrote to me after I praised The Tangent, “your head is so far up Andy’s @ss, you can’t even see sunlight.”  Cool!; who wants to spend tons of time writing and thinking about things one doesn’t like?  Not me!  As Plato said, love what you love and hate what you hate, and be willing to state both.  Guess what?  I love BBT and The Tangent!  And, just for the record, I’ve never even met Andy in person, so what was suggested is simply physically impossible.]

Admittedly, maybe I’m such such a fanboy that I’ve gone past subjective and into some kind of bizarre objectivity.  You know, in the way Coleridge was so heretical that he approached orthodoxy.   Or, maybe I’m just hoping that Greg and Co. will ask me to write the retrospective liner notes for the 20th anniversary release of EE Full Power.  I’ll only be 66 then.  Who knows?  Even if I’m in the happy hunting grounds (I’m REALLY presuming now), I could ask the leader for some earth time. . . .

If you’ve read my bloviations this far, and you’re still interested in my thoughts on English Electric Full Volume, well, God bless you.  A real editor would have removed the above rather quickly.

The members of Big Big Train with Dutch photographer, Willem Klopper.
The members of Big Big Train with Dutch photographer, Willem Klopper.

Back from the Blessed Isles of soulful prog realms. . . .

In my reviews of English Electric 1 and 2, I stated that these albums were the height of prog music perfection, the Selling England By the Pound of our day.  I wouldn’t hesitate to proclaim this again and, perhaps, even more vocally and with more descriptives.

At the risk of turning off some of my friends, I would say that EEFP is even superior to its 1973 counterpart.  How could it not be, really?  Selling England is now an intimate and vital part of the prog and the rock music traditions, and it has been for forty years.  Add that album and hundreds of others to the integrity, dedication,and purposeful intelligence, imagination, and talents of Greg Spawton, David Longdon, Andy Poole, Dave Gregory, Nick d’Virgilio, Danny Manners, and Rob Aubrey.   Putting all of this together, well, of course, you’d demand genius.

You’d expect genius.

And, you’d be correct.

It’s the height of justice that Jerry Ewing of PROG awarded Big Big Train with the Prog Magazine Breakthrough Award.

That breakthrough started with that meaningful paean to British and western patriotism in Gathering Speed, reached toward sublime spheres in The Difference Machine, found a form of edenic Edenic perfection in The Underfall Yard and Far Skies (it’s hard for me to separate these two albums for some reason), and then embraced transcendent perfection in English Electric 1 and 2.  Each member who has joined the original Greg and Andy has only added to the latest albums.  Nick, the perfectionist drummer; Dave, the perfectionist guitarist; Danny, the perfectionist keyboardist; Rob, the audiophile.  And by perfectionist, I don’t mean it in its modern usage, as without flaw, but rather as each having reached his purpose.

I don’t think this point can be stressed enough: these guys are perfectionist NOT against each other but with, around, near, above, and below each other.  They are a unit of playful perfectionist individuals who become MORE individual, not less, in their community.

Looking at the history of art from even a quasi-detached and objective viewpoint, I think we all have to admit, this is more than a bit unusual.

Breakthrough, indeed, Mr. Ewing.  Breakthrough, indeed.

Greg and Andy don’t become less Greg and Andy as the band grows beyond what they have founded, they become more Greg and more Andy.  In the first and second wave of prog, how many bands are known for only getting better and better with each album?  Those that did are certainly the exceptions.  One of the most important differences of this third wave of prog is that the best only get better, even after twenty years of playing.  Exhaustion and writers-block seem to be of another era.

BBT exemplifies this trend of improvement in this movement we now call the third wave of prog.  And, not surprisingly, when BBT asks artists to guest with them, they invite those with similar trajectories–Andy Tillison and Robin Armstrong to name the most obvious.

David Longdon.  Photo by the Willem Klopper.
David Longdon. Photo by the Willem Klopper.

Longdon

Again, if you’ve made it this far in this review, you should be asking–hey, Birzer left out David Longdon above, what the schnikees?

Yes, I did.  So, let me now praise famous Davids (with apologies to Sirach). I’ve not been shy in past writings (well, over the last four years) to note that I believe David is the finest singer in the rock world at the moment.  He has some rather stiff competition, of course, and I reject the notion that he sounds just like “Phil Collins.”

No, David is his own man and his own singer. I do love and appreciate the quality of David’s tone and voice.  He possesses a beautiful and talented natural one, to be sure.  Nature or God (pick your theology) gave this to David in abundance, and he’s used his own drive and tenacity to bring his voice to the height of his profession.

But, what I love most about David is that he means every single thing he sings.  These aren’t “Yeah, baby, let’s do it” lyrics.  These are the lyrics of a bard (Greg’s lyrics are just as excellent, of course, as I’ve noted in a number of other articles; these are two of my favorite lyricists of the rock era–rivaling even Mark Hollis).

Longdon can make me as happy as one of my kids running to the playground on the first day the snow thaws (“Let’s Make Some Noise”); he can make me want to beat the living snot out of a child abuser (“ABoy in Darkness”); and he can make me want to start a novena for a butterfly curator.

In no small part, Longdon has a voice that makes me want to trust and follow him.

Put David and Greg together, and their lyrical abilities really knows no known bounds.  They are the best writing team, to me, in the last fifty years.  I know most would pick Lennon/McCartney, but I’m a firm believer that “electrical storms moving out to sea” trump “I am the walrus.”

Master of many things, Greg Mark Aurelius Spawton.  Photo by Willem Klopper.
Master of many things, Greg Mark Aurelius Spawton. Photo by Willem Klopper.

EEFP

So, what about this third manifestation of English Electric, English Electric Full Power?  Well, all I can state with some paradoxical certainty, Spawton, Longdon, and five others, have now shown it is possible to perfect perfection. I’ll use perfect here in its proper sense: not as without flaw (though that would apply as well) but as having reached its ultimate purpose, as I noted above.

EEFP is still very much about the dignity of labor, and, as such, it has to deal with the dignity of the laborer, that is, the fundamental character of the human person in all of his or her stages.

The song order of EEFP, consequently, follows this natural logic.

The opening track, a new one penned by Longdon, celebrates the joys of innocence. David has said it was his goal to invoke the glam rock of his childhood.  For me, it invokes the rock of my mother’s college days.  A shimmering, pre-Rolling Stones rock.

The video that the band released just makes me smile every time I watch it.  The video also confirms my belief that these six (and Rob, the seventh member) really, really like each other.

Rather gloriously, “Make Some Noise” fades into one of the heroic of BBT tracks, “The First Rebreather.”  This makes “The First Rebreather” even better, especially when contrasted with the innocence of track one.  After all, in The First Rebreather, the hero encounters beings from Dante’s Fifth Circle of Hell (wrath).

The second new song, “Seen Better Days,” begins with a strong post-rock (read: Colour of Spring) feel, before breaking into a gorgeous jazz (more Brubeck than Davis) rock song.  All of the instruments blend together rather intimately, and David sings about the founders and maintainers of early to mid 20th century British laboring towns, while lamenting the lost “power and the glory” as that old world as faded almost beyond memory.  The interplay of the piano and flute is especially effective.

The third track, “Edgelands,” begins immediately upon the end of “Seen Better Days,” but it’s short.  Only 86 seconds long and purely a Manner’s piano tune, it connects “Seen Better Days” with “Summoned by the Bells.”  If at the end of those 86 seconds the listener doesn’t realize the creative talents of Mr. Manners, he’s not thinking correctly.

The fourth new track, “The Lovers,” appears on disk two, after “Winchester” and before “Leopards.” The most traditionally romantic and folkish song of the four new ones, Longdon’s voice has a very “Canterbury” feel on this tune, and the tune provides a number of surprises in the various directions it takes.

English Electric

What’s next for BBT?

Thanks to the delights of social networking, we know that Danny’s kids are concerned that he doesn’t look “rock” enough (he needs to show them some Peter Gabriel videos from Gabriel’s last studio album), and we know that Greg’s middle name is Mark.

Ok, yes, I’m being silly (though all of the above is true).

We do know that Big Big Train is working on a retrospective of their history, but with the current lineup.  I don’t think any of us need worry that this (Station Masters) will be some kind of EMI Picasso-esque  deconstruction of Talk Talk with a “History Revisited: The Remixes.”  Station Masters will be as tasteful, elegant, and becoming as we would expect from Greg and Co.

After that, we know that BBT is writing a full-fledged concept album, their first since The Difference Machine.  We know that the boys are in the studio at the very moment that I’m typing this (NDV included).

Perhaps most importantly, though, we trust and have faith that Greg and Co. are leading progressive rock in every way, shape, or form.  EEFP is the final version of EE.  At least for now.  But, BBT is not just breaking through, it’s bringing a vast audience, sensibility, and leadership to the entire third movement of prog.  And, for this, I give thanks.  Immense thanks.

When it comes to BBT, perfection only gets more interesting.

***

To order English Electric Full Power, click here.

10 thoughts on “Perfecting Perfection: Big Big Train’s English Electric Full Power

  1. Kevin Williams

    Well done, BB! Having been released at the same time as the new DT, I’m splitting time between the two albums, but the challenge for me with EEFP is rewiring my noggin to the new tracklist. I seem to have drawn some mental pictures/timelines from the EE1 tracklisting and then EE2 feeling like a “chapter two,” but now there’s a new order to consider. All good fun, though!

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  2. Er … yeah, what Bradley said; only perhaps expressed slightly less gushingly! Maybe I’m not quite the fanboy that Prof Birzer has become (although I am also a “father of seven* and husband of one”) but he has hit the nail on the head with Big Big Train’s rise and rise to the pinnacles of English prog. If the parts are EE1, EE2 and Make Some Noise then English Electric Full Power is definitely greater than their sum.

    With a new ‘concept’ album currently being written and recorded, the retrospective re-imagining of old material that is Station Masters being pondered and planned and even a re-release of a ‘tweaked’, amended and re-engineered Bard being openly discussed then there is much to look forward to for us mere Passengers.

    Long may it continue …

    (*A slight cheat on my part as one is an adoptee and two are step-children)

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  3. Enjoyed the piece very much. I am a recent visitor to the land of BBT, have been quite moved by the music, and, as for the Genesis comparisons, had the immediate sense that in some parallel universe, Gabriel and the boys came to an understanding of where their individual and group talents must fall and decided to stay together instead of parting – what an evolved and fulfilled Genesis might have sounded like, with Gabriel’s conceptual sophistication and the compositional and instrumental gifts of the players, including Hackett, finding their perfect level, along with the personal maturity of each individual. But, spurious comparisons aside, the music is just very, very nourishing.

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