English Electric Part Two (Best of 2013 — Part 1)

Progarchy.com is an awesome music site because we have a contrarian community here with truly excellent taste in music. I love reading everyone’s 2013 lists! It’s a real thrill to share this site with so many thoughtful people. One of the things I especially enjoy is how individual personalities really shine through in the Top Ten lists. And yet we also have some common rallying points. For example: witness the huge love for Big Big Train on this Web site.

So far we have had superb year-end reflections from Alison HendersonKevin WilliamsThaddeus WertCraig FarhamRussell Clarke, Brad Birzer (in two parts), Erik Heter, John Deasey, and James Turner.

Today, I am going to start my year-end reflections. Like last year, I will spread it out over many days. (Just trying to keep it epic and proggy here, eh?)

But, this year I will also do a couple of things differently. First of all, I am not going to do a Top Ten. In the spirit of Spinal Tap-like excess, and in celebration of the release this year of the riff-tastic 13Black Sabbath’s fine return to form, I am going to do a Top Thirteen list. (And, after all, it is also the year 2013.)

So, I am going to do my Top Thirteen list in alphabetical order for the first Ten. Then, the last three will be three bonus additions, given out of alphabetical order. (I will explain my rationale further when I get to the final three.)

However, I want to start off my Top Thirteen list with a bit of a dissenting argument. And this argument accompanies the band that I deliberately have coming up first alphabetically into my Part 1 position… namely, Big Big Train.

Notice that I am putting their English Electric Part Two on my list. That’s because I absolutely cannot endorse English Electric Full Power with a Top Ten slot.

I vehemently object to the idea that a prog band can rip apart their two preceding albums and then assemble them into an alternate playlist, mixing in some new bonus tracks, and calling this playlist the final product. What ever happened to the prog ideal that a concept album was a carefully-sequenced work of art that was meant to be digested uninterrupted as an organic whole?

Perhaps that ideal was often more musical B.S. than reality on the artist’s side. But still, on the listener’s side, even if the alleged epic unity was half-baked and overly pretentious, at least it encouraged artists to strive toward that ideal nonetheless, and to encourage listeners to critique the music with those highest of aspirations as setting the bar of judgment of success whenever hearing the approximate realization of the ideal.

So, where are we with prog now in the twenty-first century, if one of the absolutely upper-echelon prog bands is caught up in the technological whirlwind that encourages musical projects to be released in less-than-finished form as mere works in progress?

Well, I am never going to be able to accept the reconfiguration of track order when it comes to excellent prog music. This is because, as I get to know the albums, I become deeply immersed and I internalize every detail. One of the very greatest things when listening to a beloved album is, as one track ends, anticipating — in the brief moment of silence — the beginning sounds of the imminent next track.

J’accuse! By monkeying with the track order of English Electric Parts One and Two, Big Big Train has done violence to the intimate musical memories that are forged as the listener forges a bond with the prog cycle of unfolding experience!

For me, Full Power is not the glorious final form of the magnificent English Electric achievement. I mean, get serious: how can it be? Let me quickly annihilate the thesis: Full Power begins with “Make Some Noise,” which is a great song, but it is a stand-alone single. If you try and argue that it is the indispensable overture to a final-form epic, I will laugh in your face. Get real. It is a B-side, a bonus track, a novelty song. It’s not the unmistakeable “Theme to English Electric.”

Therefore, I say English Electric Part One was the Best of 2012. And English Electric Part Two is the Best of 2013.

But admit it, people: Full Power is an imposter of an album.

Make Some Noise is, yes, a really nice EP of bonus tracks mixed into a short highlights playlist for English Electric fans. But Full Power is as much a playlist as Make Some Noise! How could it possibly be the best form of Parts One and Two?

Okay, wait a minute. Maybe some of you are going nuts at this point. Maybe both you and the band will want to demonstrate to me how Full Power most certainly does work better as an overall track order for the English Electric musical vision.

But you know what? I don’t care. Even if the band were to agree with you.

Because you’d still be wrong about prog in general, even if you might be right about this album. (Honestly, I stopping listening to Full Power after a while because it was just doing too much violence to my already-established, deeply internalized, fond musical memories of Big Big Train’s work. So, maybe you could argue I didn’t give it enough of a chance. But really! Why should I have to?)

But, to conclude, I have saved my main point for last…

I have read a number of people on this site celebrating how 2013 has been such a great year for prog. So much great prog music. More than we have time to listen to. How wonderful. Yada yada yada.

But you know what, people? It is exactly this sort of situation that creeps me out. Look where technology has brought us — a surfeit of prog to tickle our ears in 2013! Now, on the one hand, my immediate reaction to that is joy and excitement. Kid in a candy store, right? But, on the other hand, on further reflection, what does that situation say about prog?

That it has become a commodity!

Which is truly a great danger to the health of the art form, in my opinion. Because, if prog is becoming a generic “commodity,” and you can easily (and without too much effort) get your “fix” of it almost anywhere, then the art form is flattening out, and entering into a decadent phase.

The only hope we have, then, to resist the commodification of prog, is to adhere to critical standards, and to unfurl our annual Top Ten lists as setting the very standards by which we must judge the true upper-echelon achievements as showing best how to resist the commodification of prog.

Therefore, by placing English Electric Part Two on my list — and not English Electric Full Power — I am saying that at all costs we must resist the “playist-ification” — the commoditization — of prog!

I can endorse only fully formed artistic statements as worthy of upper-echelon rank. And if the artists themselves laugh and say that there is no such thing… well, then you know what? They are giving up on one of the key ideals of prog. If you want to do concept albums themselves as time-delayed, track-order improv… well, good luck with that. This ain’t jazz! What new sensibility are you bringing to bear here? Commoditization!

Hey artist, you can go remix Vapor Trails, or go slice up English Electric, if you like… but you know what? I might still enjoy it. But it’s not you at your best. And we fans must refuse to give our critical endorsement to any kind of playlist mentality. Otherwise we may as well go back to Top Forty land.

So, there you have it. Has it really been been prog’s luckiest year ever? Think again…

I say we will always remember that 2013 was when the great Big Big Train gave us an illustration of the greatest danger facing prog: its commodification. (Now, let the debate begin!)

More of my Top Thirteen will soon follow, in celebration of this un/lucky year…

It was the best of prog, it was the worst of prog.

9 thoughts on “English Electric Part Two (Best of 2013 — Part 1)

  1. Eric

    On the topic of English Electric specifically, I cannot speak as you have, because Full Power was my introduction to Big Big Train’s music, so it is that which I have internalized and come to know since discovering the band, for better or for worse. I am curious to better understand your definition of “fully formed artistic statement,” given that it seems to be used in your writing to mean the work as it was originally released, regardless of whether or not the artist sees it as the best that it can be. Are you similarly offended by Steven Wilson’s remixes of famous prog albums of the past? I understand your consternation with changed track ordering and such, but is it wrong for the artist to take an older work of theirs and make the changes they feel make the work better than it was before, thus closer to the ideal fully formed artistic statement? Please understand that I don’t seek to attack what you’ve said, only engage you in further dialogue.

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  2. Ha, no worries. No offense taken! Truly, I was trying to start a debate…

    A fully formed artistic statement is NOT a playlist.

    English Electric Full Power is a playlist.

    Aren’t you curious if listening to the English Electric Part One and Part Two track order would be a superior listening experience? (If so, are you not disturbed that the band has put that question before you?)

    If artists start hacking up their previously released work, how is that any different from releasing a Greatest Hits playlist?

    If everything is now playlists and Greatest Hits — thanks to the miracle of modern technology — then PROG IS DEAD.

    (And we have killed it!)

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    1. Eric

      Ah, okay, I better understand what you mean now. Yes, I suppose I am curious to hear the tracks as they were laid out individually in part one and part two. I may very well do so soon (I may also experience the very same shock that you did with Full Power by going back to the originals!).

      As for being disturbed by the band causing me to need to ask that question in the first place, I suppose I am not. But maybe I should be. Although, if an artist chooses to take an original work and reorder the tracks, that is not the same thing as taking tracks from their different albums and putting them on the same album. I view Full Power and falling into a sort of grey zone between those two. If the band feels that Full Power is the best representation of their intentions with English Electric, is it our place to disagree? I am not fully aware of their motivations for making Full Power. If Full Power is their fully realized artistic expression and the original two are just works in progress, then the originals deserve the flak. The band, I suppose, catches ire in either case.

      I can see where you can argue that both are undermining the ideal you see in progressive rock. Is one band’s playlisting activities a sign that others will follow? Or are there other examples you can think of?

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  3. Frank Urbaniak

    Interesting debate with no right answer here. BBT has earned the right as artists to release the Full Power edition to their fan base, mixing in some new tracks. I have never listened to the new tracks but once on Bandcamp and choose to preserve the memory of the music in the order which I heard it. When EE1 was released it was a sad point in my life and I want to preserve the original sequence that was so uplifting at the time. Like many influential albums from my past, a re-release where the sequence changes or other tracks are added will never ‘click’ for me as my brain is already queueing up the track I have expected to hear on repeated listenings.
    If the definition of a commodity is something useful that is bought and sold, then prog is still a rare commodity because the sales don’t justify the amount of work being put into this genre and it is only the new market economics of home production and self distribution that enable such a great number of releases. To me it feels more like the menu has gotten bigger. I read these year end lists and there hasn’t been one published in Progarchy other than Allison’s where I knew every band and was familiar with the release. So there is a ton of variety and sub-genres now, with much crossing over between prog/metal/doom/folk/psychedelic/pop/rock. It doesn’t all sound the same, there are a number of bands offering a unique listening experience, and if a band is not unique or doesn’t offer something that can fill a slot in my musical preferences I will choose not to buy it. To me that is a great situation, and when I look back at the years where pickings were slim I would pick 2013’s releases over most years!

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  4. Thanks, Frank! Yes, the artists have the right to do whatever the heck they want.

    But we listeners also have the right to rebuke them for it.

    Your personal testimony reinforces my argument. No fan who has drawn emotionally close to an album can ever abide the band monkeying with the original track order, especially the track order of an epic prog journey.

    And music is not a commodity if you can point to a band’s release and say, “You have to listen to this! There is *nothing else* like this out there. Truly, it resides in the upper-echelon of goodness. Rare is the artist who can equal *this level* of achievement.”

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  5. Very provocative post, Doctor! Here’s the way I looked at it: I prefer the sequencing of the separate EE1 and EE2, but if purchasing Full Power helps them continue making music, I’ll do it. The song-by-song information included in Full Power’s book made it worth it to me, as well.

    I’ll bet you’re like me, and you rarely, if ever, use the Shuffle function on your music player!

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  6. Tobbe Janson

    Interesting to read what you write, Doctor! It’s easy to get carried away and not question your heroes doings. But you do that with Big Big Train here. Fine. Even though I don’t agree at all in this case because I have come to conclusion for myself that EE: Full Power is something qualitatively different from the single albums preceding it and therefore I without any looking stopped listening to EE Part 1 and 2 and replaced them with Full Power in my cd machine. Personally I don’t have any problems at all with the sequencing being somewhat different. But that’s just me… 🙂

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  7. Pingback: Getting Started with Big Big Train | Progarchy

  8. Pingback: BBT’s Greg Spawton on the shared history that binds us together @bigbigtrain | Progarchy

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