Far Skies, Deep Time. Even the very title evokes mystery. Indeed, were there still loads and loads of CD stores, and if I could spend my time browsing them, I would buy this album simply for the title alone. Even if I knew absolutely nothing about Big Big Train. I do, however. That is, I do know about Big Big Train. In fact, I know a lot about Big Big Train. I’ve written more about Big Big Train over the last nine years of life than any other single topic, except for my professional work on humanism and the humanists of the 20th century. And, to be clear, 9 years is just a little less than 1/5 of my life.
Truly, my life is immensely better for knowing the music and stories of Big Big Train.
I’m coming up on a full decade of Big Big Train being a vital part of my personal and professional life. My kids and wife all know and love the band’s music, and no other band has served as the soundtrack of my last almost-decade more than has Big Big Train.
Only a few albums of the thousands I’ve listened to have stuck with me so profoundly that I can define actual and tangible moments of my life around them. Prior to 2009, I could list just few: first listens to Rush’s MOVING PICTURES and Talk Talk’s THE COLOUR OF SPRING as the most memorable. Those two have stuck with me. I remember listening to Yes’s 90125 for the first time as well, though that album hasn’t remained with me to the extent that MOVING PICTURES and COLOUR OF SPRING have. Post Talk Talk, I can best remember listening to THE UNDERFALL YARD for the first time.
Granted, I have more than a bit of the obsessive compulsive and the perfectionist in me, so I tend to dive as deeply as possible into the things I cherish—whether musicians, artists, friends, and authors.
That Greg Spawton—that genius of so many things—writes me back when Neil Peart and Mark Hollis don’t—I admit (oh, the 50-year old male ego is a funny thing), makes me love the band even more. So, yes, my obsessions in my music life have been intense but few: Rush; Talk Talk; Tears for Fears; Glass Hammer; and Big Big Train. Many have come and almost as many have gone, but not these five. They came, and they stayed.
Birzer, if you’re getting anywhere near a point, please make it. . . .
My point—however circumspect and roundabout I’m being—is that my obsessions do more than satiate the weirder parts of my psyche. They inspire me. Last week, I read and wrote a lot about Edmund Burke, arguably the most important British statesman and philosopher of the 18th century. As I opened my copy of Burke’s REFLECTIONS ON THE REVOLUTION IN FRANCE, I wasn’t quite sure how to start my article. I sat in silence, pondering and agonizing. How to get that first sentence out? Then, it hit me. No other music can or could match the poetic imagination of Burke like that of Big Big Train. I hit play on THE UNDERFALL YARD, and that first glorious “ahhhhh” of “Evening Star” moved me so much that I immediately started writing and didn’t end until some 3,000 words later. That’s the power of Big Big Train. What Burke would think of this, I’m not totally sure, but, then, his second book was on the power of imagination. So, I have a feeling Edmund and Greg would have a great time over a pint or two.
Then, yesterday, I had a really great student stop by my office. After a moment of talking, he paused and looked to his right—high on my office wall—at Jim Trainer’s painting, “The Winchester Diver” (located on page 8 of your friendly neighborhood copy of THE UNDERFALL YARD cd booklet). That painting sparked a profound discussion for the next twenty minutes about the Dantesque themes found in the painting as well as in the song. My gorgeous copy of that original Trainer painting sits (well, hangs) proudly next to a painting of the Virgin Mary, a flag from the American Revolution (sorry, English friends!), a family portrait, a black and white photo of Geronimo, and a painting of the Blessed Realm by J.R.R. Tolkien. All my loves—right there on my office wall. My family, the Revolution, American Indians, intelligent fantasy, Catholic piety, and Big Big Train. True happiness resides in these.
And, Birzer, once again. . . the point of all of this?
Well, though my personal copy of the newly remixed version of FAR SKIES DEEP TIME has yet to arrive on American soil, a review copy arrived through the magic of the internet cloud. And, let me just state—what was blessed in 2010 is glorious in 2018. First, there’s the song order. I’d already owned two copies of the original. One copy has MASTER OF TIME; FAT BILLY; BRITISH RACING GREEN; BRAMBLING; and WIDE OPEN SEA. The other version is identical, but it begins with KINGMAKER rather than MASTER OF TIME. This latest—and, I assume, definitive version—has an identical track order of the latter copy, but with the addition of MASTER OF TIME as its conclusion. As strange as this might seem, the latest version just “feels” right. I could never explain exactly why, and if someone had told me this two days ago (prior to getting this review copy), I would’ve just scratched my head as to why it would matter that much. So, please just trust me—it matters.
The band has never considered this release an album in any proper sense, referring to it as an EP. Of course, it’s an EP that’s 52 minutes long! Yes’s DRAMA was only 38 minutes, and no one would think of it as an EP. I presume—but do not know with any certainty—that the band considers FAR SKIES DEEP TIME an EP because it’s comprised of a number of extra or unused tracks from THE UNDERFALL YARD recording sessions. Again, though, the band considers THE SECOND BRIGHTEST STAR a proper album, and it’s essentially an album of outtakes and extras from GRIMSPOUND, itself originating as outtakes from FOLKLORE. Well, some things must be just taken on trust. For BBT, FAR SKIES DEEP TIME is and always will be an EP. I trust Greg.
I’ve only had a chance to listen through the 2018 version twice, but it is extraordinary. No two ways about it. What was blessed, as I wrote above, has now become glorious. In particular the guitar work and keyboard work just soars. There’s more “space” in the music overall, and the instruments sound much more open and distinct. Though I would not have thought this about the original version before hearing the 2018 remix, the original now seems a bit claustrophobic. BBT has always been exceptional at making its fan base a part of the art, but the 2018 remix actually makes the listener feel as though he’s standing somewhere between Longdon and Manners and Spawton as they perform—on the inside rather than as a spectator.
Lyrically, the album is the same. As only BBT can, the listeners cares deeply about a medieval queen, a drunken has-been jock, unrequited love, broken love, a sea of blood, and seasonal changes.
As with the first version of FAR SKIES DEEP TIME, the standout track—not just for BBT but, really, for all of current rock—is “The Wide Open Sea,” a sequel of sorts to “The Underfall Yard.” Whether the band intended this or not, it is the band’s most Christian song, a clear plea for the power of Love to conquer all. The 2018 version of the album makes this song even more Christian as it is the main track of an album that begins with a song about a medieval queen who also happens to be a Saint in the Roman and Anglican churches.
In no medium of modern and post-modern culture—including rock—could any other band get away with lyrics as intense and as holy as:
Let us speak, speak of love,
Of home and hope, loving and leaving
Of laughter and forgetting and letting go.
Love is a mercy, home is a mercy, and letting go is a mercy.
BBT is a mercy that soothes the modern soul, heart, and mind. Far skies, deep time, indeed.
Ave, Big Big Train. Ave, ave, ave.