Big Big Train, FOLKLORE (Giant Electric Pea, 2016).
The band: Greg Spawton; Andy Poole; Danny Manners; David Longdon; Dave Gregory; Rachel Hall; Nick D’Virgilio; and Rikard Sjöblom. Engineered by Rob Aubrey.
Tracks: Folklore; London Plane; Along the Ridgeway; Salisbury Giant; The Transit of Venus Across the Sun; Wassail; Winkie; Brooklands; and Telling the Bees.
The centerpiece of third-wave prog, Big Big Train, matters. How they write music matters; how they write lyrics matters; how often they perform live matters; how they package their music matters; and how they market what they do matters. They are a band that has evolved significantly over twenty-plus years of existence, a restless band that never quite settles on this or that, but rather keeps moving forward even as they never stop looking back. In their art, they move forward; in their ideas, they move backward. All to the good.
This latest release from Big Big Train, the follow-up to the astounding ENGLISH ELECTRIC FULL POWER of 2013, sees the band bigger than ever, having added Rachel Hall (strings and vocals) and Rikard Sjöblom (guitars, keyboards, and vocals). The sound reflects the size of the band, not surprisingly.
And, of course, as every reader of progarchy knows, Big Big Train has not remained quiet since 2013. Quite the opposite. They performed live in London for three nights of prog bliss (2015), released the EP, WASSAIL (2015), their first blu-ray, STONE AND STEEL (2016), and their download FROM STONE AND STEEL (2016; 9 songs, with a total running time of 87 minutes). They also continue to speak with fans, meet with fans, and generally keep their ever-increasing fan base happy.
In my 48 years of life and in my nearly forty years of being a die-hard progger, I have never encountered a band more concerned with their fan base. I don’t mean the band is obsequious. Again, quite the opposite. One of the most fascinating aspects of and about BBT is that they very clearly love their fans, but they do so by inviting their fans to come with them on the journey. That is, just as Spawton and Poole clearly know how to build local community (the band), they know how to build real community, BBT family. A brief glimpse at the Facebook forum moderated so beautifully by Tobbe Janson and Sue Heather reveals not only the intelligence of their fan base but the sheer loyalty as well. Other bands might make more money than BBT, but I’m guessing that no band has the fan base—in terms of quality, loyalty, and permanency—than BBT does. In a world rent asunder by every current fashion and discomfort of the moment, Spawton and Co. represent a pole around which we can rally. Indeed, BBT and their fan base are the essence of counter-cultural.
Musically, while listening to FOLKLORE, one can feel a lot of Jethro Tull, Deep Purple, Spooky Tooth, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Big Country, and Laurie Anderson hanging over this album. Whether this was intentional or not, I’m not sure. There even seems to be some Bob Dylan lurking around the corners of a few songs. Yet, as with all things BBT, FOLKLORE is strongly, uniquely, and proudly BBT. Just as one is tempted to think of a song as being more straight-forward and poppier than one normally expects from the band, a radical swerve emerges, manifests itself in the turning of the spheres, and the song is off in an unexpected direction, pursuing a path that is at once twisty and, paradoxically, logical.
In other words, no matter how poppy a song might seem at first listen, it almost immediately becomes something mysterious and proggy. As always, the band benefits from Rob Aubrey’s production which is immaculate. FOLKLORE is definitely an album for headphones.
“Folklore” begins the album with not only a bang, but also with a million influences—brass fanfare to late-sixties hard organ (here’s the Spooky Tooth!) to Jethro Tull SONGS FROM THE WOOD to eastern/oriental riffs—all tied together with David Longdon’s mystical and theatric voice. I have said for years—and FOLKLORE only affirms this—that Longdon possesses the singular best voice in all of rock. The lyrics embrace folk wisdom, old wives’ tales, and the varieties of life as inherited from our grandparents, while they are also rather openly neo-pagan. Sarah Ewing’s art only affirms all of this.
When it comes to the music and the lyrics of FOLKLORE, I am reminded of T.S. Eliot poetry. The form is radically new, while the words are as traditional as one can find in this post-modern whirligig of a world.
We pass it on down
To the young from the old,
We feel it deep down in the soul
For what it’s worth, as a person who has spent his professional career teaching and writing about history, biography, and literature, I believe Longdon and the band have perfectly captured the essence of exactly why the wisdom of the past remains vital or our very existence.
“London Plane” offers a mellow glimpse into the varieties of life—from poor to rich—in relatively modern and urban England. The keyboards possess a soft jazz club feel from the late 1940s, while the guitar has a 1960s Byrds quality. Far from eight-miles high, however, we’re definitely on the ground, observing the doings of London. Hall’s strings become especially noticeable as an addition to the BBT sound on this track. Typical for this album, but atypical for most songs, “London Plane” instantly moves from mellow to hyper just short of the five-minute mark. The playing is astounding at this point with the band kicking it into full gear. At this moment, the song becomes something that Ian Anderson would’ve included on SONGS FROM THE WOOD (just as with the previous song). This part of the song is pure-Tull. The flute as well as the guitar and their interplay come directly from that iconic 1977 album. This outburst lasts just about two minutes before the song quiets down again, and we return to that earlier jazz of the 1940s and pop of the 1960s mixture. References to the signing of the Magna Carta as well as to Alice falling down the whole give this song something precious in its very Anglo-philia.
“Time and tide wait for no man,” Longdon lovingly sings.
In terms of theme, “Along the Ridgeway” and “Salisbury Giant” are inseparable. So much so, that the CD track listing means nothing when dealing with these two songs. They are the finest songs on the album. Probably the best descriptive of each is simply “tasteful.” We’re not fully back in the Byrds realm, close to eight miles high, but strings and organ perfectly accompany guitar on these tracks. The brass, too, feels much more like it did on THE UNDERFALL YARD, properly melancholic. The vocals, too, are the best on the album, each of the vocalists accompanying one another in tasteful (that word again!) harmony and in near chant, almost fairy-tale like, “here comes the Salisbury giant; here comes the lonely man; a crowd of people lead him by the hand.” “Along the Ridgeway” ends with the vocal harmony fading and “Salisbury Giant” begins with earnest and deep strings and equally deep and meaningful keyboards. This is my favorite moment of the album, and it is extraordinary by every measure. The flow is perfect, as the lyrics reference the greatest of early English Kings, Alfred (also the first to codify the common law and to coin the term “Christendom”) as well as St. George, slayer of dragons. This is BBT at its best. Frankly, this is prog at its absolute best. Whatever one might think about the album as a whole, these two songs make this album an unqualified must-own, even for non-BBT fans. Seeing this performed live would be the highlight of any progger’s life. These two songs are so good that I wish the band would’ve made them much, much longer. There are so many swirling and interconnecting themes, that these two songs could’ve become an album, in and of themselves. Certainly, had BBT gone a different direction with this album, these two songs would’ve made perfect bookends to the album as a whole.
And by the light of the moon
Alfred sounds his stone
And legends are reborn
It should be noted that part of what makes “Salisbury Giant” work so well is Manners’s keyboards. He plays a sound and a time signature something very similar to what Tony Banks did with “Supper’s Ready,” but Manners is just so much more talented and mature in his abilities, and he expertly hones the sound here, making it pure BBT.
These previous songs and the next make me feel as though I’m living in the midst of G.K. Chesterton’s epic, “The Ballad of the White Horse,” viewing the world from within the very center of legend.
Track five, “The Transit of Venus Across the Sun,” is excellent as well, the intensity of the previous two songs drops quite a bit, though the brass remains deeply melancholic for the first minute and a half of the song. From there, the song picks up in tone, and Longdon sings pleadingly, explaining the role of Venus (love) in the heavens. Again, just as I’m reminded of Chesterton, I can’t help but think of Virgil’s Aeneid as well as Tolkien’s Silmarillion as I listened to this track. Venus, the evening star and the goddess of love, seems to predominate, at least in intent. At the middle point of the song there stands a staccato vocal harmony, a chanting of sorts. The song ends with what can only be considered a Star Trek sound—that is, something from a 1966 or 1967 episode, all resolved but only after a fantastic struggle. Ping!
“Wassail,” track six, has been out for over a year, and it is familiar to every reader of this review. Still, in the context of the album, it has a greater meaning. As with much of this album, the song considers the symbolic and mythological (if not, necessarily, the theological. . . but maybe) layers of something fundamental to our society. I’ve loved this song since it first appeared on the ep of the same name, but there’s something truly profound and moving about listening to it in the context of this new album. The production, somehow, seems even richer than it did a year ago. Whether this is just my imagination or not, I have no idea.
“Winkie” follows “Wassail,” complete with pigeon sound effects and a huge Celtic Big Country-like opening. There’s more than a bit of Paul McCartney and Wings/XTC/Tears for Fears element in the song as well.
This is one of BBT’s finest historical retellings, a story about a World War II bombing raid, with the crew as well as the RAF trying to figure out location and survivability. This is the heaviest song on FOLKLORE. Interestingly, D’Virgilio’s steady and relentless drumming allows the other musicians to swirl and interact in astounding ways. I won’t give away the whole story, but the pigeon (Winkie) plays a critical role, while he also has the feel of a medieval Raven, a symbol and messenger of the Norse gods. So, while the song is historical, the essence of it is mythological, true to the themes of the album.
You flew straight, flew true
“Brooklands,” the penultimate track of FOLKLORE and the album’s longest track, would’ve fit nicely on ENGLISH ELETRIC, especially in between “Seen Better Days” and “Edgelands.” It is a an absolutely beautiful piece, showcasing the talents of each member of Big Big Train individually and collectively. The lyrics speak of youthful longings and middle-age nostalgia for days long gone, but without regret.
I was a lucky man, a luck man
I did the things I can
The things I can’t explain
But where did all the time go?
The final song, “Telling the Bees” is a very folkish pop song. This track took me the longest to understand and to warm to. Yet, I have rather firmly warmed to it. It is a glorious ending to a glorious album. When it ends, I want to go back immediately to track one and start the process all over again.
As old as these hills and old as the stone
I feel it down to my soul
If you’re still reading this and you’ve not purchased FOLKLORE yet: STOP READING THIS! Go and purchase FOLKLORE immediately. It is not only must own for those of us who love prog, it is an absolute must own for those of us who love music, whatever the genre.
It’s not every day that a Big Big Train release shows up at my door. This year, I’ve now had that all-too rare privilege twice. Yesterday, FOLKLORE arrived in all of his intensity and glory. The packaging is a marvel with Sarah Ewing’s artwork adorning it. But, it’s just so heart-wrenchingly beautiful as an album. As I mentioned earlier in this review, BBT knows how to form community—not by conforming (themselves or us), but by leavening. When we listen to BBT, we become more ourselves, not less. When we are a part of the BBT community, we become greater. After all, what is art for if not to remind us of all that is good, all that is true, and all that is beautiful.
I have no idea why god or nature decided to allow me to live in 2016, but I fully thank the powers that be that I get to live at the same time as this band that is beyond compare.
Put simply, BBT matters.