Big Big Train, STONE AND STEEL (GEP, 2016), blu-ray; and Big Big Train, FROM STONE AND STEEL (GEP, 2016), download.
Twelve stones from the water. . . .
Yesterday, thanks to the fine folks at Burning Shed, the first blu-ray release from Big Big Train, STONE AND STEEL, arrived safely on American soil. Then, today, thanks to the crazy miracle of the internet, Bandcamp allowed me to download FROM STONE AND STEEL.
In a span of twenty-four hours, my musical world has been thrown into a bit of majestic ecstasy.
2016 might yet be the best year yet to be a fan/devotee/admirer/fanatic (oh, yeah: fan) of the band, Big Big Train. I’ve proudly been a Passenger since Carl Olson first introduced me to the band’s music around 2009. And, admittedly, not just A fan, but, here’s hoping, THE American fan. At least that’s what I wanted to be moments after hearing THE UNDERFALL YARD for the first time.
Well, I have to stand in line for that honor now. Thanks to the-powers-that-be, Big Big Train is a huge name not just in the Birzer household, but in the English-speaking world and beyond. Granted, my bias is strong and obvious, but I’m not alone in believing the band to be THE band of our era. We Passengers crave our Big Big Train releases (and cherish the old) in the way Genesis fans eagerly awaited THE LAMB LIES DOWN or Yes fans CLOSE TO THE EDGE or Rush fans HEMISPHERES. We discuss the words, the choice of tracks, and, frequently, the members joining the band. I can happily state that I was a Passenger when it was—officially—just Spawton and Poole. Then, with excitement, I learned that Longdon, D’Virgilio and Gregory had joined, then Manners, then Hall and Sjöblom. And, of course, there’s also Rob Aubrey.
I’ll come back to all of this toward the end of the piece. After all, if you’re reading this, you probably want an actual analysis of the two releases, not just “nostalgia and good feelings with Birzer.”
Granted, I’ve only had 24 hours to digest all of this, and, in between listens and viewings, I’ve taught several classes, including two on the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche (!!!). Still, I feel well-enough versed in BBT to offer at least some initial thoughts.
While I’m very used to listening to BBT, I’m not at all use to watching BBT. Three things have struck me immediately.
First, David Longdon is the perfect front-man. I’ve rather effusively and openly praised him as the greatest singer in rock in our generation, but I had no idea how much charisma the man wields and exudes. He’s as captivating as any person I’ve ever seen perform on stage. He combines the energy of Neal Morse with the theatrics of Peter Gabriel. When I first saw the cover of STONE AND STEEL, I was more than a bit surprised that it focused so much on Longdon. After watching him perform, I understand exactly why the band has chosen him to personify (visually) the whole.
Second, and not surprisingly in the least, the band is simply a joy to watch. Not only do they clearly respect and love one another, but each member also gives every single thing each possesses to the art. The intensity of each musician is matched only by the joy each obviously has for the craft as well as for the group.
Third, Rachel Hall is really, really talented and attractive. Yes, I mean this in the sense of her being physically pretty, but I also mean this in the way she radiates goodness and soulfulness. It’s obvious just watching her perform that she’s a truly beautiful (inside and out) person. She and Rikard really add much to the visual presence of the band.
A few years ago, Danny Manners joked that when it came to looks, he just wasn’t “rock” enough, especially compared to d’Virgilio. Well, as a 48-year-old professor, I’m not entirely sure I’m qualified to comment on what’s rock or not, but I can honestly state that the eight members of the band—collectively and individually—just look really, really cool.
Given the quality of blu-ray, the sound is just outstanding. Unlike our progarchist master of all things audio, Craig Breaden, I’m not quite certain how to explain sound or its qualities, but I very much know what I like. And, I very much like this. The quality of BBT, STONE AND STEEL, sounds as good to me on this blu-ray as I assume the band must and would sound to me if I had been sitting there in the recording studio. I’ve gotten into the habit over the last two years of buying any new release on blu-ray when available. STONE AND STEEL on blu-ray sounds VERY VERY good.
I do have some questions about these live studio recordings, but they are minor ones. For example, when the band performs “Kingmaker” where do the nature sounds come from? Is Manners or Poole triggering them with keyboards, or where they dubbed in later?
For the most part, the live studio versions performed on STONE AND STEEL are similar, but not identical to the original album versions. It’s clear that the band encourages spontaneity in each musician. Watching the band, I was happily surprised to see how many duties Manners and Poole (even Longdon plays keys briefly) share when it comes to the keyboards and just how much Gregory (my all-time favorite guitarist, along with Alex Lifeson) shares with Sjöblom. Such sharing, of course, is nothing if not a sign of wisdom and charity, yet another example of why so many of us love this band. Individual ego diminishes in proportion to the excellence manifested by the entire band.
Spawton, it must be noted, is clearly the sturdy pillar around which all revolves. Though he’s off to the side and not in the limelight, his bass is strong, innovative, and warm.
At the beginning of the review, I started to wax nostalgic and promised (threatened!) to come back to this. And, we’re back. . . .
In addition to the music of Big Big Train, there’s something else we Passengers share in common: each other. The community that Spawton and Poole have formed around themselves at an immediate level is, undoubtedly, astounding. To look at those who have been welcomed into the BBT family at the extended level, however, is just plain overwhelming. Though prog is huge and growing by leaps and bounds in terms of artists and bands, it is also still relatively small in terms of its fan base. We fans not only know each other, but we also know the artists who care about us at a variety of levels. It’s not just in what the artists give in terms of lyrics, music, and packaging, but, just as importantly, in the way they welcome an audience of friends, compatriots, and, at times, contributors.
Timidity is not exactly my strongest vice. . . but I also trust that my loyalty is well given and well-earned. It’s certainly solid and rather unbreakable, whatever my many faults.
When I initiate contact with a musician or author, it’s with the hope of conveying thanks and appreciation but also, in some way, longing for a dialogue and friendship with a fellow creative person. Throughout my life, I’ve been ignored, tolerated, and befriended in a variety of ways. Usually, the first two reactions bother me not in the slightest. I understand. Life is complicated and busy, and these folks don’t know me from Adam (or, perhaps, less than Adam). Who is this crazily, over-the-top enthusiastic middle-aged American!?!?!
There is, though, that immense joy when a soul connects with another soul. In other words, friendship develops. This is what happened when I first wrote Greg.
Yesterday, when the package from Burning Shed appeared in my mail box, I felt as though a good friend had just called on me, wanting a good beer and a good chat. As I watch and listen to STONE AND STEEL, I don’t feel abstraction or detachment or distance. I feel friendship. The friendship of art, the friendship of beauty, and the friendship of excellence.
With these two releases, BBT only affirms why it’s the most important act in rock and prog today.