Going All the Way Back With @bigbigtrain

The title of this post is more dramatic than it should be, but I randomly decided to listen to Big Big Train’s first album, Goodbye to the Age of Steam, this afternoon. Early Big Big Train gets very little press these days, yet this album is quite good. There are obvious differences between the Big Big Train of the early 1990s and the Big Big Train of 2019, yet there are still similarities. Spawton’s writing style is instantly familiar, with his lyrics as good as they’ve ever been. The gentle piano moments certainly remain in today’s version of the band, and the guitar work has similarities, even with different musicians. Yes, this album is a bit more synth heavy in places, but that seems to be more of a Neo-prog influence from the 1980s than anything else. The vocal harmonies on “Blow the House Down” are exceptional, reminding me very much of Moon Safari. I’d love it if the band incorporated more of that.

This album is as old as I am, and while I can act like a grumpy old man at times, this album still sounds remarkably fresh. The current iteration of the band has toyed with live re-workings of pre-Longdon songs, such as “Wind Distorted Pioneers” on Stone and Steel and “Summer’s Lease” (off of The Difference Machine) on 2018’s Swan Hunter EP. It was interesting to hear the current version of the band put their own spin on the music, as opposed to creating a verbatim recreation. And so in 2019, the 25th year since the release of Goodbye to the Age of Steam, I would be interested in hearing the band re-visit some of these songs, perhaps in a live setting or a live-in-studio setting.

These are good songs, and they sound great on the original album. Since the band is firing on all cylinders these days, it would be a treat to hear them interpret this music, especially since only one member remains from the 1994 line-up. Imagine what Rachel Hall could add with her violin and her beautiful voice. Think of the brilliant guitar solos Dave Gregory could bring to the table. David Longdon could bring an entirely different sound to these pieces, allowing us to hear them in a whole new light.

Do I think the band will actually do this? Not really. They have so much material from the current version of the band, and they and the fans are much more familiar with those songs. It may not make financial sense for them to spend the time and money to re-visit these early songs, but maybe we will get a couple more re-recorded and re-interpreted over the next few years. Whether the band chooses to celebrate the anniversary of this release or not, it is definitely worth listening to again. Even if it isn’t quite as good as their output over the last decade, it is still a solid album by any prog standards.

Big Big Train, Grand Tour

What prog rock does is to free artists from some of the limitations of pop, rock and folk music whilst incorporating their best elements e.g. memorable melodies or story-telling.  The sweet spot is where high-quality songwriting and interesting music collide.

— Greg Spawton, “What is Prog?” (from Big Big Train’s 2017 concert program)

A sweet collision indeed.  On the new album Grand Tour, the members of Big Big Train extend and refine their sonic vocabulary, and broaden their topical reach from the seminal Albion cycle (The Underfall Yard, English Electric, Folklore, Grimspound and various offshoots) to explore a wider, sometimes wilder world.  As fans have come to expect, it’s both instantly appealing and bracingly challenging — richly melodic, spikily rhythmic music, continually reaching toward symphonic scope; words that reflect on, rejoice in and ruminate about the wonders of the past and present, this time breaking out beyond Britain to Europe and to farther shores.

Admittedly, Grand Tour starts more tentatively than some previous albums: setting the scene and foreshadowing what’s in store, “Novum Organum” (the first of drummer Nick D’Virgilio’s composing credits, with bassist Greg Spawton) is a gently hypnotic prologue for patterned percussion and keyboards.  It eases us out of the dock into the harbor, with David Longdon sounding the album’s themes at low tide, setting sail “for science and for art.”

But before we can drift off, Longdon’s “Alive” slams in — a rocking kick-off that urges listeners to “Find your wings/Dare to fly/Find your feet/Then run for dear life”.  Straightforward rock with a lighter, contrapuntal bridge, it’s a powerful, limber groove with lots of nifty textural touches (backing vocals at the octave, poppy handclaps, Spawton’s bass pedals under the driving rhythm, Danny Manners’ defining Mellotron riff and in-your-face synth solo, spiffy keyboard and guitar filigree at unexpected moments).  And Longdon is having the time of his life, reveling in the new day to seize and the beauty awaiting him.  He’s raring to go — and the invitation to come along is irresistible.

Continue reading “Big Big Train, Grand Tour”

Big Big Train Announce New Album

The countdown is over.

https://www.bigbigtrain.com

Big Big Train logo

• New album      • UK tour      • Website relaunch

Dear member,

New album

Big Big Train will be releasing Grand Tour, their new studio album, on May 17th 2019. It is available for pre-order now: follow the links on the front page of our website.

Inspired by the 17th and 18th century custom of the Grand Tour, where young men and women travelled to broaden the mind, Big Big Train have made an album of songs set in distant lands and beyond.

Grand Tour features nine new tracks which will take listeners on an epic journey over land and sea and through time and space.

Drummer Nick D’Virgilio says:

“There are songs inspired by the legacy of the Italian Renaissance genius, Leonardo da Vinci; songs telling the story of the rise and fall of Rome; of the beautiful mosaics of Ravenna, and of the shipwreck of a great poet, lost in a tempest off the coast of Italy. Along the way, the story of mankind’s greatest ever journey is told.”

Vocalist David Longdon says:

Grand Tour is a celebration of the human experience, of science and art, and of what it means to be alive.”

The album will be available on double heavyweight gatefold vinyl (featuring a 24 page booklet), digipack CD (featuring a 52 page booklet), on standard and hi-resolution (24/96) download, and on streaming.

Track list:

Novum Organum (2:33)
Alive (4:31)
The Florentine (8:14)
Roman Stone (13:33)
Pantheon (6:08)
Theodora in Green and Gold (5:38)
Ariel (14:28)
Voyager (14:03)
Homesong (5:12)

UK Tour 2019

(with special guests Sweet Billy Pilgrim)

EDINBURGH Queen’s Hall Saturday 26th October
NEWCASTLE City Hall Sunday 27th October
HALIFAX Victoria Theatre Tuesday 29th October
BIRMINGHAM Town Hall Wednesday 30th October
NEWPORT Riverfront Friday 1st November
LONDON Hackney Empire Saturday 2nd November

Tickets from venue box offices

Presented by The Merch Desk

Website relaunch

The Big Big Train website has undergone a wholesale re-design by Steve Cadman of bandbutler.com. Come and pay us a visit!

 

Website front image

Best wishes,

Danny, Dave, David, Greg, Nick, Rachel & Rikard
Big Big Train

Something Sneaky is Going on at BBT HQ

The Big Big Train website has been superseded by a band logo and a countdown – counting down from roughly 5 days and 10 hours at the time of this post. I sense exciting news from our favorite band! I’m not sure when it started – maybe I’m late to the guessing game. New album? NORTH AMERICA TOUR?!!! I guess we will have to wait and see.

https://www.bigbigtrain.com

The Progarchy Interview: Tim Bowness, Part 2

In Part 1 of Tim Bowness’ latest Progarchy interview, Tim discussed his previous solo albums, working again with his first band Plenty, reuniting with Steven Wilson for new No-Man music, and how all this feeds into his new album Flowers At The Scene (released March 1 on Inside Out Music).   We dig into the new album in depth below!  Note that [brackets] below indicate editorial insertions.

Pulling it back to Flowers At The Scene, it’s interesting what you said about how really, there are some [pieces] that you’re producing, there’s some that you and Brian [Hulse] are working on, there’s some that you and Brian and Steven [Wilson] are working on.   It all feels like a unity when I listen to it.  Despite the variety of colors, it’s, as you say, it feeds on what you’ve done before, but it goes in really interesting, different directions.  Are there any particular songs that you feel are at the core of the album?

I would say you’re right, it does feel like an album.  One thing that’s important to me is, I know in this age of streaming and Spotify it’s not particularly fashionable, but I love the album.  I’ve always loved the album as a statement.  And in some ways, although this album is different from the other albums – I mean, the previous three albums had themes to a degree.  Lost In The Ghost Light was a narrative concept album. Stupid Things That Mean The World and Abandoned Dancehall Dreams had linking lyrical themes in a way.  This is different in the sense that it’s eleven very separate moods, very separate lyrics, very separate songs.  And yet it fits together, I think, in a kind of classic 43-minute album format.  And in some ways, I think it’s the album that flows best of all four.  There’s something about it that it kind of moves from one mood to another.  And yet it holds together.

I suppose the key songs would have been when “Flowers At The Scene” and “Not Married Anymore” were written.  And I just felt that Brian and I had been coming up with material that had its own distinct identity.  And I also had a certain idea of how I wanted them to sound – and suddenly that was it!  And I guess that there’s this [Robert] Fripp line, he would always say that a new direction presented itself.  And I think that it’s true, because I’d continued writing material on my own, and I’d continued writing material with Stephen Bennett while I was recording the Plenty album.  And although the material was good, it felt like it was gonna be a continuation of Lost In The Ghost Light or Stupid Things That Mean The World.

And I think that it was when I’d written the fifth song with no purpose really – Brian and I just kept on writing together because we were excited by what we were doing.  And I think it would have been “Flowers At The Scene”, the title track itself, and I thought, “this is the new direction; it’s presented itself.” And from that moment on, it became a very exciting and immersive project and I said to Brian, “I think this is the basis of a new solo album. And it feels like a fresh direction after the other albums.”  And you’re right that, what’s kind of interesting for me is it’s fresh, it’s a reset, but perhaps because of the mood of some of the music and because of my voice, there’s also a sense of continuation.

And certainly one of the things that contributes to it being fresh is this cast of musicians that you gathered, which is really genuinely impressive.  So many great names with great work that have fed into this.  I was wondering if I could just toss out names and, in a few words, you could try to describe what each of these guys have brought to the music for the album.  Starting with Jim Matheos.

Well, Jim’s somebody I’ve known for a few years.  He asked me to guest on an OSI album [Blood], probably about nine years ago now.  And I really enjoyed it.  So the track, which is called “No Celebrations”, felt very different for me; it was very much in that OSI art-metal style, but it accommodated my singing as well.  And after that, we carried on communicating together.  So occasionally he’s asked me for advice about things, and also we had co-written a couple of tracks that had never been released.

And when I was doing this album, I thought I’d love to get him involved.  Because one of the tracks I’d been developing had him on anyway, and he’s an incredibly versatile guitarist.  Very, very nice guy, but what people I don’t think are aware of is how versatile his talent is.  So his own music can be anything from sort of ambient experimental to metal to classical acoustic guitar.  And I knew how good he was as a soloist, and so I got him – really, he was my stunt guitarist on the album on a few tracks.  And he did some fantastic work on it.

Peter Hammill.  What a legend!

Yeah!  Well, Peter’s somebody who when I was growing up, when I was in my teens, he was one of my favorite singers.  And as I’ve said to people, what’s interesting with this album is that, probably my five favorite singers when I was 13 would have been David Bowie, Peter Hammill, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush and Kevin Godley.  And I’ve two of them on the album, and it’s an incredible thrill to have that!

Over the years, Peter’s become a friend.  We ended up playing on lots of the same albums in Italy, and we got to know one another.  And over the years, he’s guested on my work; and we even live in the same small town in England!  And so he’s probably my sort of coffee and chat companion, where we’ve put the political and the musical world to rights once a month.  And as I always say about Peter, he’s as nice, generous and decent as his music is frightening!

[Laughs] Oh, that’s a great summary!

[Laughs] Absolutely!  Cause, you know, you wouldn’t want him to be as frightening as [Van der Graaf Generator’s] Pawn Hearts really, would you?

[Laughs] No, not in the slightest!

It is true; you’d be coughing your coffee up.  It’s not good!  [Both laugh] So yeah, lovely guy, and we’ve worked on a few things.  And the thing about Peter is he is very honest about his opinion.  So interestingly enough, I’d asked him to work on Lost in the Ghost Light, but he wasn’t as much a fan of that material.  So basically, he works on what he likes.  And he’d worked on the Stupid Things That Mean the World album, and I’d played him this album in progress.  He’d mixed an album for me as well.  There’s a Bowness/[Peter] Chilvers album that’s been unreleased that Peter’s mixed, which is quite an interesting project in itself.

And while I was making the new album I said, “ah, you know, a couple of Hammill-shaped holes here!”  And he heard it, and he heard exactly what I wanted, and he really liked the material.  One of the tracks he put a great deal into it, there’s a track on it called “It’s The World”.  I’d played it to him, and initially I wanted his bite – there’s a real sort of bite in his voice, I wanted this in the chorus.  And he said, “Yep, I know exactly what you want; I’ll get it to you.  But I tell you what else I’ll give you; I’ll give you guitars, because the guitars on this aren’t working!”  And so he completely re-recorded the chorus guitars, and almost went into sort of Rikki Nadir [from Hammill’s proto-punk solo album Nadir’s Big Chance] mode, and did a fantastic job.

So on the track “It’s The World” he’s on kind of backing and lead vocals, and also adds some really ferocious guitar parts.  And he made the piece work.  So that was an interesting case, where the piece I think was pretty good as it was, but he gave it an extra edge and an extra looseness.

Got it!  One of the newer singers on the album is David Longdon.  I know you collaborated with Big Big Train on a b-side [“Seen Better Days (the brass band’s last piece)”].  What did David bring?

Well, I suppose I asked him to be on the piece [“Borderline”] and I’d suggested a particular approach to backing vocal which he used.   I almost wanted this kind of rich, Michael McDonald/Steely Dan approach.  That’s something I wanted: a comfortable bed of David Longdon voice, really, and he gave that.  And then he added some flute as a means of contrasting with the trumpet.  And he did a beautiful job in both cases, really.  So I suppose what he gave was himself, so he kind of knew the places where I wanted him to play, and where I wanted him to be, and with the backing vocal he was effectively re-singing the melody that I’d already sung on the demo.

But with the flute, he performed a really beautiful solo, and it was great!  Because although the trumpet was recorded in the outback in Australia – I used a jazz musician, a guy called Ian Dixon, who’s worked with No-Man, he was on Returning Jesus, several tracks on that, and he’s a wonderful sort of jazz trumpet player.  And his studio is a tin shack in the outback in Australia!  And he said when he recorded it, it was in the middle of the rainy season.  So he’s recording that with crashing rain on the tin roof – which I thought was very romantic!  And David really beautifully worked with Ian’s trumpet.  And to me, it sounds as if the two could be in the room together playing!  So they worked very nicely together, and I suppose in that case, I knew what I wanted, and I got what I wanted.  But it was still different, the playing, the expression that the two of them had given was entirely their own.

Continue reading “The Progarchy Interview: Tim Bowness, Part 2”