Beyond Prog: GRIMSPOUND by Big Big Train

Grimspound
Artwork by Sarah Ewing.

Big Big Train, GRIMSPOUND (Giant Electric Pea, 2017).  Tracks: Brave Captain; On the Racing Line; Experimental Gentleman; Meadowland; Grimspound; The Ivy Gate; A Mead Hall in Winter; and As the Crow Flies.

The band: Greg Spawton; Andy Poole; David Longdon; Nick D’Virgilio; Rachel Hall; Danny Manners; Dave Gregory; and Rikard Sjöblom.

The Rating: Perfect.  Beyond prog.

Go, go, go said the bird: human kind

Cannot bear very much reality.

Time past and time future

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.

–T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton.”

There can be no doubt that Big Big Train is not just one of the best bands of third-wave prog, but also one of the best bands of the rock era.  I suspected this when I first heard THE UNDERFALL YARD back in 2009 and was moved at every good level of my being.  Subsequent releases from the band have only confirmed this for me.  Every note, every lyric, and every brushstroke matter for the band.  They take their music seriously, and they take us—their followers—seriously.  Aside from the music (if there is, in any reality, such an “aside”), it’s clear that the two founders and mainstays of the band, Greg Spawton and Andy Poole, know how to form and leaven communities.

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The Gatefold Vinyl Glory of Big Big Train: Folklore ★★★★★

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In terms of perfectly integrated, fully coherent masterpieces, I thought BBT might have peaked with The Underfall Yard. The Far Skies and Wassail EPs, and the multiple versions of English Electric (with no definitive track order), all contained fantastic music, but evinced an unmistakable prog version of ADD, as BBT and their fans were fiendishly enabled by the latest technology to “build your own” concept album, with your own favorite track order: S, M, L, XL, XXL, Full Power, whatever.

But now with Folklore, we have a stunningly coherent concept album that has absolutely perfect flow. And here’s the best part: the perfect flow is found not on the CD version (because “London Plane” works best not coming after “Folklore” but after “Salisbury Giant”) but on the glorious vinyl gatefold edition that has the definitive order for the tracks.

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Without Compare: FOLKLORE by Big Big Train

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.

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By chance, the new issue of PROG arrived at the same time as FOLKLORE.  A glorious day.

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.

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Big Big Train’s FOLKLORE Arrives in Michigan

It’s not everyday that a Big Big Train album appears in my mailbox.  An immense thanks to Kathy Spawton and Greg Spawton for sending it, and to the band for signing it!

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Veronica Rose celebrates with SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR, BBT style.

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The Incomparable Gift of Excellence: Big Big Train’s STONE AND STEEL

Big Big Train, STONE AND STEEL (GEP, 2016), blu-ray; and Big Big Train, FROM STONE AND STEEL (GEP, 2016), download.

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The band’s first blu-ray.

Twelve stones from the water. . . .

Yesterday, thanks to the fine folks at Burning Shed, the first blu-ray release from Big Big Train, STONE AND STEEL, arrived safely on American soil.  Then, today, thanks to the crazy miracle of the internet, Bandcamp allowed me to download FROM STONE AND STEEL.

In a span of twenty-four hours, my musical world has been thrown into a bit of majestic ecstasy.

2016 might yet be the best year yet to be a fan/devotee/admirer/fanatic (oh, yeah: fan) of the band, Big Big Train.  I’ve proudly been a Passenger since Carl Olson first introduced me to the band’s music around 2009.  And, admittedly, not just A fan, but, here’s hoping, THE American fan.  At least that’s what I wanted to be moments after hearing THE UNDERFALL YARD for the first time.

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All Rise! The Feast of St. Dave Gregory

Mister Lazy he's not.  Photo borrowed from guitargonauts.info.
Mister Lazy he’s not. Photo borrowed from guitargonauts.info.

I’m not sure if I could exactly articulate my reasons as to why, but I’m not the least surprised that Dave Gregory’s birthday is two days away from the Autumnal Equinox.  There’s a fullness and a force of the seasons not only in the calmness that radiates from Gregory’s humane qualities (he’s a true gentleman), but there’s also an intensity of life in all of his art.

Clearly, his music resides somewhere in that last joyous blast of summer love and freedom.

Regardless, happy birthday, Mr. Gregory.  I know I speak for many upon many when I thank you for all you’ve given to the music world over the past four decades.  Whether it’s pop, punk, new wave, rock, chamber, or prog, you give your absolute all.

The best way to celebrate such a feast?  Listen and watch away!

And best of all, a brilliant interview with Dave.  Well worth watching it all.

Scorch-ed: The Tin Spirited Triumph of Icarus

A review of Scorch by the Tin Spirits (Esoteric Records, 2014; officially released on September 15).

8 Tracks: Carnivore; Summer Now; Old Hands; Binary Man; Little Eyes; Wrapped and Tied; She Moves Among Us; and Garden State.

The Tin Spirits are: Dave Gregory (guitar); Mark Kilminster (bass and lead vocals); Daniel Steinhardt (guitar, vocals); and Doug Mussard (drums and vocals). You can visit the band at: http://tinspirits.co.uk

Highest recommendation. A must own for any lover of music.

Poor Icarus.  Scorched.  Forthcoming, September 15, 2014, from Esoteric.
Poor Icarus. Scorched. Forthcoming, September 15, 2014, from Esoteric.

A match explodes into flame, and so it begins.

The opening song, an instrumental, possesses the infectious personality of the best of post-Hackett Genesis, especially with “Turn It On Again” and “Abacab.”

Armed with driving bass, soulful guitar, and persistent drums, “Carnivore” moves the listener rapidly into an unknown future, and it does so without a trace of trepidation.  And, yet, it contains a voluptuous kind of beauty.

This description applies specifically to the first of the eight tracks, but it could just as easily apply to much of the album. However one describes Scorch, the Tin Spirits are back, and I, for one, thank the good Lord. These guys are absolutely brilliant, and they seem to be even more so than they were with their first album, Wired to Earth.

This is no feint praise.

Wired to Earth (2011).
Wired to Earth (2011).

That album, Wired to Earth, hit me rather hard when it first came out. As far as I know, I was the first American to own and review a copy. I’m rather proud of this. Greg Spawton, maestro of Big Big Train, had recommended it on his own blog, noting it was a guitar kind of prog.

And, so it was.

Beginning with a somewhat airy instrumental and having a total of only five tracks, Wired to Earth called for full immersion. From airy, it moved quickly to hyper and heavy, then to 1974 Genesis, then to a gut-wrenchingly beautiful Allman Brothers style epic, concluding with a great guitar-pop rocker in the style of Nebraskan Matthew Sweet.

Even after three years of listening to the album, I’ve never tired of it. I play it at least weekly, and, in fact, the entire Birzer family loves it.

Following the intensity of “Carnivore” on Scorch, the second track, “Summer Now” gently guides the listener into a hypnotic state. Most likely, every reader of progarchy has already watched the first video from the album, and you’ve heard and seen what Tin Spirits is capable of. The video, of course, is gorgeous and psychedelic in a late 1980’s Tears for Fears kind of way. All four members look as though they’re having a blast, and Mark (vocalist and bassist) looks surprisingly GQ and non-prog! Guitar god Dave Gregory, who never seems to age, offers what is arguably the most tasteful guitar solo of the last decade. In every way, the Tin Spirits have captured the essence of summer with this song.

***

I’m not exactly sure about what’s going on with the cover (see above). It looks as though two bolts of lightning have fried some poor guy. It’s also possible the guy is shooting bolts of lightning from his body in an explosion of energy. Maybe this is a kind of a “glass half empty” or “glass half full” thing.

With the title, Scorch, though, I suspect that Icarus flew too close to the sun. Gods will be gods, and they generally don’t like man to upstage them. As Worf once explained, the Klingons found their gods more trouble than they were worth, and so they killed them. I must admit, as I look at the cover of Scorch, I’m hopeful for Icarus, siding more than a bit with the Klingons on this issue.

The interior artwork of the CD booklet flows easily from psychedelic to pyrodelic, the flowers of the first pages having become nothing more than swirled outlines of flame by the end.

I choose to believe that through the Tin Spirits, Icarus has finally prevailed against the gods.

Ok, back to the review.  After all, shouldn’t a review of a prog album have an interlude?

***

So much better looking than Curt and Roland.  The Tin Spirits, reaping the seeds of love.
So much better looking than Curt and Roland. The Tin Spirits, reaping the seeds of love.

The third track, “Old Hands,” begins deceptively. Starting as a somewhat simple World Party-like pop song, it suddenly morphs into a rather fulsome puzzle about deceptions and realities. The interplay of drums and bass especially stand out on the track.

Returning to the early 1980’s Genesis-like thrumming of “Carnivore,” “Binary Man” simply rocks. Perfectly placed on the album, “Binary Man” reveals not only the excellence of each member of the band as an individual performer, but it also highlights the power of Kilminster’s voice. “Your hypocrisy is deafening,” Kilminster laments.

“Little Eyes” is another beautiful song in the vein of “Summer Now.” Thematically, it deals with fortitude, and the guitar work on it fits wonderfully.

Grungy, angsty guitars explode at the beginning of the sixth track, “Wrapped and Tied.” The entire song has the feel of being caught in a tornado in the intial stages of its formation.

Track seven, “She Moves Among Us,” brings the listener back to the indescribable beauty of a flowering meadow. Imagine a Steve Howe solo without the overbearing flashiness, and you have “She Moves Among Us.” The whole piece whispers “taste.” As the song is an instrumental, we’ll probably never know who “she” is. But, if the guitar matches her elegance, I’m in love.

At a little over fifteen minutes in length, the eighth and final song, “Garden State,” is epic. But, it’s certainly not the length that makes this so utterly brilliant. Every aspect of the Tin Spirits comes to the fore in this finale. The song effortlessly flows from moment to moment, all parts of a coherent and cohesive whole, held together by four instruments and a voice.

Indeed, from confidence to concern to anxiety to a dreamlike state to determination and, finally, back to confidence, Kilminster again proves his sheer skill as a vocalist. There’s not a single thing about this album I could criticize, as it’s, frankly, a perfect piece of music. Still, if some one forced me, I could state with only minor reluctance that “Garden State” alone makes this album worthwhile. It is a song that good and that powerful. This epic even ends with an homage to Elton John and Bernie Talpin and a “Funeral for a Friend.”

A perfect end to a perfect album.  Were I grading it, I’d give in an A+.

***

A few years ago, I proudly proclaimed Dave Gregory one of the three greatest living guitarists. This album only affirms my rather bold statement. Holy Moses. What an absolute delight.  I also proclaimed the lyricists of Tin Spirits to be in the line of Keats, Wilde, and Yeats.  And, again, my declaration has proven true.  Again, an absolute delight.

Fly, Icarus.  Fly.