Music is powerful. C.S. Lewis wrote: “The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” [The Weight of Glory]
Music is transcendent and truly exists only among man (whales, wolves, and birds notwithstanding.) who use music to imitate and re-create the ontological, above and beyond the emotions of pain, loss, or even temporary contentment.
As much as I/we may like and enjoy rock and pop music (I do love the Ramones, Beach Boys, and Abba. to name but a few) the true worth of progressive rock music, “prog,” is that it not only frustrates the mere commercial designs of FM station managers and music directors (3-minute bites and bottom line revenues $) but that its subject matter soars above cars, girls, booze, and rebellion.
The greatest prog bands and performers have always opened the listener to challenging vistas of speculative fiction, socio-economic dynamics, and the very heart of man itself—sin and redemption; self-sacrifice and self-reflection; and grace. Whether it’s RUSH with 2112, DREAM THEATRE with Scenes from a Memory, or MARILLION’s Brave, the best of progressive lyrics and engaging musical composition, always enrich, and makes one more human than just about any other genre of current musical fare.
And as much as I love science fiction concept albums or cosmic themed instrumental tone-pieces, there is one theme that touches something very deep inside all of us—the stories of our homes, families, neighborhoods, towns and shires. The idea of place is both nominal and real. We all come from some place and we all want to go back to those special places of the heart—our past and our future—that bring reunion and safe haven.
There are some seminal bands that have addressed these topics of land and earth, i.e. PLACE, and its inextricable connection, at least hitherto, with the wandering and prodigal pilgrims of the age of impermanence. JETHRO TULL gave us the criminally underrated Heavy Horses (and other classics on most of their discography) and Ray Davies & The KINKS produced the greatest of the 1960s musical manifestos to agrarian worth and the encroachments of modernity for modernity’s sake with The Kinks Are The Village Preservation Society. Some of early GENESIS also taps into the vanishing pastoral Britain (parts of Selling England & Wind and Wuthering might be examples). BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST also explored these themes in their 1970s and 80s recordings. John Lees specifically addresses his own background of growing up in Manchester in his 2013 album North.
It doesn’t matter whether one grew up in East London, Birmingham, Bournemouth, Glasgow (Al Stewart’s 45 year career is sprinkled with nods to not just his love for “general” history but to his own roots), Dublin (Horslips) or Topeka, Kansas (Kerry Livgren’s career with and without KANSAS bespeaks a loving and nostalgic nod to his home town and state).
All of the above is my way of saying that progressive music has found its penultimate, if not ultimate, purveyor of music of “place” with BIG BIG TRAIN.
I just listened to my copy of Wassail (which finally arrived from amazon.com) and in a heightened state of “enthused” tranquility wanted to pen a review that wasn’t a review. Nobody can say it any better than Brad Birzer did in his own superb review a few days ago right here ( https://progarchy.com/2015/06/05/a-good-little-truth-bbts-wassail/ ) but I wanted to share just WHY BBT touches so many of us.
The best music, like the best literature, art, and food is not abstract, ethereal, and free-floating in the aether. BIG BIG TRAIN grounds their brilliant songs in their own mother Muse of England; not England of the silver-screen or modern television, but England of the docks, quarries, factories, row houses, back alleys, family tables, and gravesides. BIG BIG TRAIN is the soundtrack to contemplating the “higher things.” Though Wassail is only a four song ep it continues their passage through the seas of brilliance to the Grey Havens of musical Proghalla.
And as much as I love hearing Joey singing “Beat on the Brat,” BIG BIG TRAIN elevates us all in ways that Southern Agrarians, British dock workers, West Virginia coal miners, and families of faith not only understand, but believe in their souls. While BBT writes the truth that the hymnist penned in the words “change and decay in all around I see…” they also place us at the family table of peace and community.
5 thoughts on “Apotheosis of the Prog of Place: Big Big Train (a different kind of review)”
Jay, this is one of the best essays on the importance of BBT I’ve ever read. Beautiful, just beautiful. And anyone who can pull together C. S. Lewis, The Village Green Preservation Society, and Heavy Horses into a coherent plea for respecting and honoring “place” is certainly a gifted thinker. Chesterton would be proud!
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wow…thanks so much Thaddeus. Coming from you this means a lot!!! I owe my love of BBT entirely to Dr. Birzer. He was on a podcast with Dr. Tom Woods months back and he was talking to joyously of Andy, David & co. that I just had to check them out. And yes, GKC is one of my “fathers” in that great “democracy of the dead” 🙂
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I fully agree and love the way you said it in so few and fine words.
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I’m going to have to wholeheartedly agree with Tad and Raymond. That was a pleasure to read, Jay!
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