Kruekutt’s 2021 Favorites!

I thought I didn’t have a big list of favorites from this year’s listening — until I revisited my six-month survey from back in June and added in the good stuff I’ve heard since then! The listing below incorporates links to full or capsule reviews, or other relevant pieces on Progarchy and elsewhere; albums I haven’t written about yet get brief comments, along with my Top Favorites of the year. Most of these are available to check out online in some form; if you find yourself especially enjoying something, use that Christmas cash and support your choice with a purchase! And the winners are . . .

Continue reading “Kruekutt’s 2021 Favorites!”

Bryan’s Best of 2021

We’ve come to the end of another year, and what a horrible year it has been. Really the only positive thing I can think of from this year is the music. In addition to all the non-music nonsense that has gone on this year, we lost from legends in the prog world, none hurting more than the tragic and completely unexpected death of David Longdon. That one will hurt for a long time.

I usually write my best of lists in no particular order, with my top pick(s) at the end. So without further ado…

Robby Steinhard Not in Kansas AnymoreRobby Steinhardt – Not In Kansas Anymore

Robby Steinhardt was another prog legend we lost unexpectedly earlier this year. He hadn’t been active in music for quite some time, but that was about to change as he was finishing up his first solo album and had plans for a tour. Sadly the latter was not to be, but we did end up getting his solo album in the fall. It’s a great record, and it shows what a key player he was in Kansas. His vocals are stellar, and his violin playing is second to none. This record has a bit of the magic that I think Kansas lacks without Steinhardt. There are more musical influences at work than just Kansas on this record. It’s not a solid 10/10 throughout, but it is a very good record. Check out my review and my tribute to Robby.

Devin Townsend Galactic QuarantineDevin Townsend – Devolution Series #2 – Galactic Quarantine

Devin Townsend has been a busy bee this year. In addition to working on three new records this year, he released two minor releases of live material. The first is an acoustic album (see my glowing review) from a show he did in Leeds in 2019. It’s a raw and emotional take on his music. The Galactic Quarantine album is one of his live-streamed albums from 2020 with the musicians playing live on green screens across the world. The music is blisteringly great, with a surprising amount of Strapping Young Lad material played. Devin humorously engages with his virtual audience, which makes the music come to life a bit more. This has been one I’ve returned to quite a bit this year. Perhaps an unorthodox release, but it would make a really good entrance point for the uninitiated to the heavier side of Devin’s music. Check out my review.

8250379_e4a1fc34c7Soen – Imperial

It turns out we never reviewed Soen’s latest album, which was released in January. The Swedish prog-metal supergroup can do no wrong. Their songs are catchy, memorable, and thoughtful. They can be both heavy and contemplative, and in my book they rank in the upper echelon of progressive metal. This record has been on repeat all year.

Atravan - The Grey LineAtravan – The Grey Line

Sticking with the progressive metal theme, Atravan was a pleasant surprise at the beginning of the year. This is the first Iranian band we’ve ever reviewed here at Progarchy, and they’re fantastic. I’m so glad the band reached out to us. They make metal in the vein of Riverside – heavy, spacey, wall of sound. Definitely a band that deserves recognition, although I worry what too much recognition could do for them with the repressive Iranian regime. Check out my review.

Continue reading “Bryan’s Best of 2021”

Big Big Train Releases Short Film Tribute for David Longdon

Big Big Train released a short video tribute to David Longdon today featuring the song “Capitoline Venus” from their upcoming album, Welcome to the Planet. The film was made by Christian Rios. A demo of this song was released on the Passengers Club earlier this year, featuring Greg Spawton on demo vocals. I was hoping we would get a finished version of this song with David on vocals, and he sounds absolutely wonderful. A beautiful song for heart-wrenching times.

https://youtu.be/Jm2xJfXDibc

Tears Enough To Fill The Tyne: Remembering David Longdon

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I stumbled across Prog magazine’s tweet announcing David Longdon’s death yesterday. I still can’t believe it. 56 years old and at the height of his music career with so much to look forward to. Life is so precious and so brutally short. To be taken so quickly and so unexpectedly… We’ve lost a lot of prog legends in recent years, but very few at the height of their careers. Piotr Grudziński from Riverside is the last I can remember who died so unexpectedly at a young age.

David and the band have been such kind supporters of Progarchy since our inception in 2012. Our site has had the fortune of interviewing him a couple times including this past summer when he gave a lovely interview to Rick Krueger. In that interview David shared his excitement for the band’s future plans. His thoughts on the song, “Common Ground,” really sting now that he’s gone:

This time in my life – I’m now 56.  It’s time to get on it, because we don’t have forever!  This was written slightly before the pandemic actually, the title track.  But it’s just about that, really; it’s about claiming it!  It’s not about “will we find it?”  It’s “you’d better find it and get on with it, because you’re not — it won’t be forever.  We don’t get forever.”  That’s the beauty of being human, we don’t get forever.

I can still remember the first time I heard Big Big Train back in 2013. I was sitting in my dorm room in college. I think it was “The First Rebreather,” and I remember being captivated by David’s voice. So pure. So effortless. The tone of a fine pipe organ. Over the next few years I fell in love with Big Big Train, and by 2015 they were my favorite band of the “new” wave of prog. Now they rank next to Rush as my favorite band of all time. There was nothing David couldn’t sing, as he proved on Common Ground by mixing it up on “All The Love We Can Give.”

My journey as a Passenger reflects my journey with progressive rock over the last nine years. What started as an appreciation for bands like Rush, Kansas, and Styx grew into an obsession with progressive rock new and old. Thanks to friends here at Progarchy, I’ve been exposed to so much music, much of which has quite literally changed my life. I know Big Big Train has. I’ll never forget listening to English Electric on a bus in England while I spent a month there doing archival research. It was one of those key moments that sticks in my memory, and David is the voice for that memory.

David’s addition to Big Big Train in 2009 marked a major turning point for the already 20-year-old band. His voice, in my opinion, is unmatched in the music world. I can’t think of a better vocalist. Beyond that, he was an excellent lyricist and musician. The combination of Longdon and Greg Spawton as writers is certainly unmatched in music. Others might have more acclaim, but none are better.

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My Big Big Train collection

David wrote two kinds of songs: stories and anthems. Being an historian, a curmudgeon, and a prog snob, I generally prefer the stories. But his anthems are far too good to be ignored or dismissed. He had such a bright and positive outlook on life, as evidenced in his song, “Alive.”

Sunrise
A new day
Bright blue sky
Open the door and step outside
Feel the wind at my heels
It’s good to be alive

These lyrics are a good reminder for a grump like me not to take anything for granted. Perhaps David’s legacy can be summed up in his own words:

I’m a travelling man
Each day I walk the byways of this life
Till I’m dead in the grave at the end of my days
I’ve known what it means to be alive

He ended the liner notes for “Alive” with the admonition to “seize the day.” Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed for any of us.

Big Big Train – Alive – YouTube

There aren’t many vocalists out there who can bring such power and emotion to the seemingly mundane. He brings adults to tears in songs about steam trains, pigeons, and shipyards through his powerful delivery.

I re-watched Empire last night, and I was reminded yet again what a brilliant showman David was. For whatever reason, the song “Winkie” has always hit me right in the feels. Maybe the story of doomed men being saved beyond hope because of the humblest of creatures does it for me. Watching the band perform that song now with the knowledge that David will never sing it for us again was really moving. I’m glad the band filmed their concerts so that we could all enjoy their live performances. I don’t think they could have imagined that we would so soon be using those Blu-rays to remember David. I’m incredibly sad that I’ll never be able to see him perform live. I was looking forward to them playing in America.

Another song of David’s that comes to mind in remembering him is “The Florentine” off 2019’s Grand Tour. The track is about Leonardo da Vinci, but these lyrics could easily be said of David:

You showed us
New ways to know our world
Of what we see and all we could be – ah
Inspire us to reach and spur us on
Daring us to dream – see further

Big Big Train – The Florentine [Live] – YouTube

I suspect I speak for thousands of fans who can say that David encouraged us to investigate our world and to dream – to see further.

My words could never do justice to David Longdon’s memory. His loss hurts as much as Neil Peart’s did. His voice and his words have made him a close friend to me, even though I never had the honor of meeting him. His art has inspired me to be a better man. It has inspired me to be creative, whether that be in my writing or in my painting. In fact Big Big Train is my favorite music to listen to when I paint. His music has become so ingrained in my life that I can’t imagine life without it. I’m grateful that I can still listen to his music, but now it will always be bittersweet.

I offer my sincerest condolences to the band, to Sarah Ewing, to David’s daughters, and to his mother. Thank you for sharing David with us, and I hope the outpouring of love from his many fans is a tiny sliver of comfort in these dark times.

Rest in peace, David. Thank you for everything.

Now, who’s going to tell the bees?

David Longdon Dead at 56

What an absolute punch to the gut. Prog Magazine is reporting, with confirmation from Big Big Train, that David Longdon tragically died today in hospital after an accident yesterday morning. I don’t even know what to say. This is an absolute tragedy. And here I thought this shithole of a year couldn’t get any worse.

One of the reasons Progarchy was founded nine years ago was to celebrate Big Big Train’s music, and David Longdon’s brilliance was a certainly a big reason behind that. His vocals, lyrics, and musicianship propelled the band to new heights. This is a major loss to the progressive rock world and obviously to the band.

Our prayers are with the band and Longdon’s loved ones. We’re certainly devastated here at Progarchy. Longdon was always very kind to us here, including giving us a wonderful interview earlier this year. We will miss him greatly.

Limited details and statements from the band at Prog magazine: https://www.loudersound.com/news/big-big-train-singer-david-longdon-dead-at-56

Big Big Train to Release New Album in January – “Welcome to the Planet”

Big Big Train - Welcome to the PlanetHoly cow! I wasn’t expecting news of a new Big Big Train album this morning. This just goes to show that this band is one of the few decent things left in this world. Life seems to suck more and more by the hour, but Big Big Train breathe a bit of light into the darkness.

The new album, Welcome to the Planet, is set to be released on January 28, 2022 – just six months after their last album, Common Ground. The new album features contributions from the entire new lineup. Here’s the tracklist:

PART ONE
Made From Sunshine
The Connection Plan
Lanterna
Capitoline Venus
A Room With No Ceiling

PART TWO
Proper Jack Froster
Bats In The Belfry
Oak and Stone
Welcome To The Planet

From the band’s website:

As with Common Ground, Welcome To The Planet sees Big Big Train retain their progressive roots but also take influence from all spheres of music. The album’s opener Made From Sunshine, co-written by guitarist Dave Foster and singer David Longdon, has guitar lines redolent of Johnny Marr and vocal harmonies reminiscent of the Finn Brothers/Crowded House, with violinist Clare Lindley sharing lead vocals with Longdon.

Elsewhere on the album, keyboard player Carly Bryant gets her first Big Big Train writing credit and lead vocal on the captivating title track. The two recent singles The Connection Plan and Lanterna are included along with a winter themed song Proper Jack Froster, a bittersweet tale of childhood. The album is completed by the delicate acoustic Capitoline Venus, the beautiful Oak And Stone  and a pair of dazzling instrumentals, A Room With No Ceiling and Bats In The Belfry, written by guitarist/keyboardist Rikard Sjöblom and drummer Nick D’Virgilio respectively

https://player.vimeo.com/video/637386993?h=aea344b340

Big Big Train Release New Track: “The Connection Plan”

Hot off the release of their most recent album, Common Ground, Big Big Train released another new track today: “The Connection Plan.” Why? Greg Spawton comments,

In the lead-up to our tours in 2022, we wanted to share a series of single  streaming releases. The ‘Stay Tuned’ streaming series will feature newly recorded compositions, we hope listeners will enjoy them”.

It sounds like this track, and presumably future ones, will only be available on streaming sites for now. I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up as either a special download for the Passengers Club or on a future record or EP.

Big Big Train – The Connection Plan – YouTube

Check out Progarchy’s interview with David Longdon about Common Ground: https://progarchy.com/2021/06/29/big-big-trains-david-longdon-the-progarchy-interview/

Check out my review of Common Ground: https://progarchy.com/2021/07/18/big-big-train-common-ground-2/

And see this page for more Progarchy reviews of Big Big Train’s music: https://progarchy.com/album-reviews/review-index/b/big-big-train/

Big Big Train Release Acoustic Version of “Common Ground” – New Album Out Now

Today Big Big Train released a special live-in-studio acoustic version of their song “Common Ground” off their new album of the same name. The album was released on Friday, and it’s the top release of the year thus far, in my opinion.

Check out Progarchy’s interview with David Longdon about the album: https://progarchy.com/2021/06/29/big-big-trains-david-longdon-the-progarchy-interview/

And check out my review: https://progarchy.com/2021/07/18/big-big-train-common-ground-2/

https://youtu.be/M2eu2SPjdb4

Also check out the band’s release day video, which features not one, not two, not even three – but four Nick D’Virgilios.

https://youtu.be/XmY3IU8NBBc

Big Big Train’s “Common Ground” – Album of the Year?

big big train common groundBig Big Train, Common Ground, July 30, 2021
Tracks: The Strangest Times (5:08), All The Love We Can Give (8:06), Black With Ink (7:23), Dandelion Clock (4:14), Headwaters (2:27), Apollo (7:50), Common Ground (4:54), Atlantic Cable (15:06), Endnotes (6:59)

I love writing about Big Big Train. In fact, they’re one of the reasons I was drawn into reviewing progressive rock on a more regular basis. They are also one of the reasons this website was founded back in 2012. Our founders understood that Big Big Train wasn’t your ordinary rock band, and the band deserved a more intellectual approach to reviews. I don’t know if I’ve been able to live up to the standard Dr. Brad Birzer set for us, but I try my best. Big Big Train makes it easier by providing such solid material to write about. Common Ground is no different. In fact it may be the best album they have released since I began writing for Progarchy. It is certainly the best record released thus far in 2021.

Common Ground gets off to a rousing start in the best way possible. I’ve never enjoyed the opening of a Big Big Train album this much. While I don’t dislike Big Big Train’s more mainstream pop-like tracks (“Make Some Noise,” “Folklore,” “Wassail”), they aren’t my favorite in the band’s catalog. While “The Strangest Times” might fall into that aspect of the band’s repertoire, I absolutely love this. The piano at the beginning is so bright and upbeat, reminding me a bit of some of the more popular artists the band site as influences on this record. However I think it reminds me more of the band’s work back in the days of English Electric. The guitar work is phenomenal, proving right away that even though brilliant guitarist Dave Gregory may have left the group, the group haven’t abandoned the unique sound he brought to the table. I imagine lots of credit should go to Rikard Sjöblom for maintaining that tone. 

https://youtu.be/i35_HcKjR18

Nick D’Virgilio absolutely hits a home run with his lead vocal sections on “All the Love We Can Give.” I was hoping we would get to hear more of his vocals on this record, and we do. Of course there is also his brilliant drumming throughout the album, which we probably take for granted at this point. This song has some blistering instrumental passages with heavy guitars and some face melting Hammond keyboards. We also get to hear a different side to David Longdon’s glorious voice, featuring the lower end of his register. The vocal harmonies at points in the song remind me of Gentle Giant and the Neal Morse Band, although this is nothing new for Big Big Train. They seem to have utilized it a bit more though throughout Common Ground than they have in the past.

As a matter of fact, the next track, “Black With Ink,” allows that to shine. We get a lead vocal from Rikard, Nick, and Carly Bryant, who joined the band for live shows, providing backing (and apparently lead) vocals, keyboards, and guitars. It’s a nice touch that the band included her on the recording, as well as Dave Foster (guitars on two tracks) and Aidan O’Rourke on violin throughout the record. 

Lyrically “Black With Ink” is somewhat close to my heart, since Greg Spawton was influenced by a trip to a museum (I work in the collections department of a history museum). After a BBT show in Birmingham, England, in 2019, Greg visited the local art museum and saw a label about the history of the collection, which suffered from a bombing raid during World War II. Spawton talks more about that song at the official Big Big Train blog for the album, but in summary it grew out of a frustration with the destruction of knowledge (book burning, destroying art, etc.). The song specifically looks at the destruction (many centuries and millennia ago) of texts at libraries in Alexandria and Baghdad. 

On the other side of the lyrical spectrum, Longdon keeps the band grounded in the present. “The Strangest Times” and “Common Ground” are influenced by the insanity the world has been going through over the last year and a half. In a recent interview, Longdon admitted to Progarchy’s Rick Krueger recently that he cannot wait for these lyrics to no longer be relevant, since we are all sick of quarantines, lockdowns, and other assorted nonsense. 

“Apollo” is an almost eight-minute-long instrumental track, and it is glorious. The song was contributed by Nick, and it grew out of material he had created at his day job at Sweetwater, a music gear retailer and production studio in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He describes this track as Big Big Train’s “Los Endos,” which I believe they achieved. It’s a beautiful song, and I can see them either closing a first set or closing a live show with it before an encore. The inclusion of Longdon’s flute was a really nice touch, which will most definitely be a hit live. It’s pure BBT, brass band and all. 

https://youtu.be/88HHhbD1vFE

“Atlantic Cable” has all the grandiosity of “East Coast Racer.” I don’t think I have enjoyed a Big Big Train song this much since ECR. Spawton’s booming bass is at Squire-esque levels of brilliance. The interplay of the guitars, violin when it is used, the myriad voices, the long instrumental passages – this is Big Big Train’s “sound” at its absolute finest. I hope when they play it live, they extend that guitar solo as it peaks toward the end.

Lyrically the track tells the story of laying the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic, formally linking the old world with the new. This song is much grander than that story, though. The story serves as a metaphor representing the commonality we all share, which supports the overall theme of the album. The track has calmer passages, but it still has the hard rocking sections that feature on the rest of the record and also hearken back to The Underfall Yard and English Electric

A song about laying a steel cable across the ocean floor was never going to be a pastoral piece of music. It needed some stormy moments, some grandeur. And it needed to be long enough to tell an epic tale. 
Greg Spawton

The video the band shared for this song in the blog for the album is hilarious. It’s a video of Nick trying to figure out how to play the complicated time signatures. It was only a matter of time before the expletives were directed at Greg (all in good humor, of course), but it’s quite entertaining. It also goes to show how technically complicated this music is and how good these musicians are that they can (eventually) play it.

The Dave Desmond brass band shines bright as ever on “Endnotes,” the final track. The hint of violin reminds us of where the band has been, but in a more subdued light.

The pastoral elements and folk elements in the band’s arsenal are pulled back throughout Common Ground in favor of a heavier rock sound, but it’s undeniably Big Big Train. It’s exactly what I wanted from the band moving forward. I never complained about the pastoral direction the band moved into because I enjoyed it, but I’ll admit that I was beginning to miss certain elements that were more prevalent on The Underfall Yard and English Electric. I don’t think any of us wanted them to start copying themselves, though. Instead they have progressed into slightly different waters, pulling together all of those elements into a truly astounding whole. The hard rock, the atmosphere added by the violin and Longdon’s flute, and those stunning vocal harmonies create a pure sound. 

Existing fans will almost assuredly love Common Ground. If you are new to Big Big Train, then this is as good a place to start as any. The album displays everything the band does so well.

Thanks Big Big Train. You’ve made a crappy year a little brighter. 

https://www.bigbigtrain.com
https://www.bigbigtrain.com/common-ground/
Album out July 30, 2021.

https://youtu.be/wIQnhCcI4gA