As we wind down our month-long celebration of Progarchy’s tenth birthday, we bring you our pick for the band of the decade – Big Big Train. For long term readers, this pick should come as no surprise. The original inspiration for this website came from a love and appreciation for Big Big Train and what they were doing.
To celebrate this Big Big Band, Progarchy’s editors (Chris Morrissey, myself, and Rick Krueger) have each written short essays that we hope touch on the band’s brilliance and importance in the progressive music scene today.
A Grand Decade of Big Big Train: Reflections from Progarchy’s Resident Time Lord
It was the band’s freely offered download of “The Underfall Yard” that exercised a magnetic pull on so many potential listeners to Big Big Train. And then, once the track was downloaded and digested, those explorers were hooked for life.
That was back in 2009. For me, it was the magic of David Longdon, now added to the band, that pushed their work into the upper echelon of prog artistry.
And then, for me especially, “The Wide Open Sea” track on the Far Skies, Deep Time EP (2010) offered further proof that this was a band destined for eternal greatness.
And then the grand decade of Big Big Train ensued, from 2012 to 2022, which saw them soar ever higher. No wonder, then, that Progarchy.com came into co-existence, and rode along as prog passengers, chronicling this glorious time in prog music history
Big Big Train has been the engine drawing us all forward. It’s been an honor to track their musical arc here at Prograchy.com for the past ten years of glory.
Thank you, everyone, for celebrating this, during our site’s anniversary month of Progtober, which has included celebration of the decade’s top albums, and also its top artists: Hackett; Wilson; and Morse & Portnoy.
I urge you now to kick back, take time off, and play through BBT’s back catalogue.
To help further your enjoyment of these happy musical memories, I point you to the wide collection of commentary which I have authored that resides here in the Progarchy archives:
Virtual liner notes for English Electric—Part 1 (2012)
Virtual liner notes for English Electric—Part 2 (2013)
My controversial commentary on English Electric Full Power (2013)
Virtual liner notes for Folklore (2016)
My ★★★★★ album review of Folklore (2016)
My ★★★★★ album review of Grimspound (2017)
My reflections on BBT, analog/vinyl, and Grimspound (2017)
As you can infer from the above, The Underfall Yard (2009), Far Skies Deep Time (2010), English Electric Part One(2012), English Electric Part Two (2013), Folklore (2016), and Grimspound (2017) are the six albums that will always be my favorite BBT albums.
I was mildly annoyed when BBT again reworked material on The Second Brightest Star (2017) since it seemed to confirm some of my earlier misgivings. In retrospect, I see my complaints did not adequately take into account the sheer generosity of the band, a band which was being kind enough to admit us into the inner sanctum of the artist’s musical process. Musical excellence is always a work in progress—by constantly being workshopped and refined. I see now that BBT’s superabundant dynamism was something to celebrate, rather than quibble too much about.
I confess I took them for granted in the past few years, only to be shocked by David Longdon’s untimely death. Now I find myself returning to their superb recent albums that I didn’t appreciate enough to write about adequately on Progarchy.com: Grand Tour (2019), Common Ground (2021), and Welcome to the Planet (2022).
Over the past decade, if I had to pick a “top ten” list of ten albums that we editors of Progarchy could collectively designate as our officially designated and editorially endorsed canon, then I would simply gesture to the ten BBT albums I have just named above. I suspect my bandmates would agree.
—Chris “Time Lord” M. (on drums), who dedicates these BBT-focused musings on the grand decade (2012–2022) with gratitude to: Bryan M. (on lead guitar); Rick K. (on organ and keyboards)
“Following a Dream of the West”
I discovered Big Big Train back in 2013 with English Electric: Full Power. I was blown away, and I still am. A bit later I dug into The Underfall Yard, and then Folklore came out and I was really hooked. Ever since, their albums – both live and studio – have been at or near the top of my yearly best-of lists. They have always remained true to the nature of progressive music by mixing in splashes of folk, pastoral themes, haunting brass, and even pop.
We’ve talked about all that at length over the years here at Progarchy. I want to talk briefly about why I think Big Big Train matters so much, beyond merely the brilliance of their music and lyrics.
Big Big Train stand for something much bigger. They stand, to steal from their own lyrics, for “science and art / And beauty and music / And friendship and love.” In a world that shuns anything connected to the past or tradition, Big Big Train have managed to embrace both that and hope for the future. They recognize the need for both, which is what the Western tradition has always been about. We take what is good from the past and use it to guide our steps forward. And we also learn from the mistakes of the past to influence our way forward.
Big Big Train recognize that “The poets and painters and writers and dreamers” matter. Without them, the world becomes a dull, dreary, and despotic place. Big Big Train represent the poets, painters, writers, and dreamers in their work.
The lyrics of Gregory Spawton and David Longdon are poetry of the finest order. The paintings of Jim Trainer and Sarah Louise Ewing have been some of the finest album artwork of the last twenty years.
As writers, of course their lyrics, but also the liner notes they have included with some of their albums. The original issue of English Electric: Full Power is particularly wonderful in this regard, in addition to having some of the finest packaging of any CD released in the last decade. They showed us how even the humble CD could be presented in a beautiful form one would be proud to display on their shelf.
And dreamers… how could a band that writes about everything from King Alfred the Great to a hero carrier pigeon be anything but dreamers of the highest order?
In doing all this, Big Big Train have inspired us listeners to do the same. I’m inspired to be a better writer when writing about them or any other band. I’m inspired to practice watercolor painting. I’m inspired to dream about the good, true, and beautiful. Few other bands draw me into the sublime the way Big Big Train routinely does. For that, I name them the finest band of not just the decade, but this century.
Despite Prog Magazine’s consistent championing of Big Big Train, I managed to resist their appeal until 2016. Searching for a musical mood enhancer one afternoon at work, I came across From Stone and Steel on Spotify.
Any number of things about that set were appealing: the bracing tightness of the band, David Longdon’s adventurous vocals, the scenarios and soundscapes BBT conjured up. But it was the brass that got me. When they slammed into the choruses of “The Underfall Yard” and the lead trumpet soared heavenward at the end of “Victorian Brickwork”, I was hooked! I had to hear more.
Folklore was just out, so I grabbed it ASAP and loved it. Ditto for the back catalog, including my favorite to this day, English Electric: Full Power. And to cap it all off, I ordered the Stone and Steel Blu-Ray via BBT’s website.
Only when I got it, the thing wouldn’t play – due to technical issues with my Blu-Ray player that had already caused fellow fans in the USA headaches aplenty. What to do? Enter Big Big Train’s amazing Facebook group, better known as the Passengers. With an enthusiastic welcome and all the kindness in the world, they steered me toward both a downloadable version of the video and a Blu-Ray player that would play S&S. I was so moved, I figured out how to burn the download version to DVD and shared instructions for doing so with the group – gathering kudos even from band members!
This was a band and a fandom where you could feel at home, and I started proclaiming the wonders of BBT to anyone who would listen. When a friend saw Sarah Ewing’s Folklore-era band portrait functioning as my laptop’s background screen, he said, “I need to introduce you to another friend of mine – he writes for this website called Progarchy.”
Which is how I started here, five years ago. Since then, I’ve followed the ups and downs of Big Big Train’s career with all of you. I’ve delighted in hearing them break new musical ground with every release; my wife and I were thrilled to get BBT tickets in early 2020, then disappointed when that trek became The Tour That Never Was; I had the privilege of interviewing the late David Longdon in the summer of 2021, as he touted Common Ground and eagerly anticipated the long-delayed Stateside tour. In the wake of his death, even as that interview reached a worldwide audience via a link from The Guardian, all of these thrills , ever so briefly, seemed completely hollow.
But in line with Longdon’s wishes, Big Big Train perseveres, and we are the better for it. Their unique blend of pastoral atmosphere, historical narrative, mellifluous harmony and hypermodern groove is moving forward, with Alberto Bravin fronting the band onstage this fall and new music promised for 2023. Saluting them as Progarchy’s Band of the Decade, I can only say, long may their journey continue!
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