It seems way too long since we heard from one of the best bands too few folks know about, Tin Spirits. Adventurous poppy prog with seriously meaningful lyrics. The first two albums are must owns, and I’m sure the third will be as well.
Here’s the post that appeared on social media about an hour ago:
Dear Tins fans, we are delighted to let you know that after a lengthy leave of absence, work on the new album has begun. Will keep you updated but it’s so great to be back in a room making music
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.
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.
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.
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.
Big Big Train, STONE AND STEEL (GEP, 2016), blu-ray; and Big Big Train, FROM STONE AND STEEL (GEP, 2016), download.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
As far as I know, I have the very proud distinction of being the very first North American to review “Wired to Earth,” the first release from the Tin Spirits. Greg Spawton had recommended it as a unique form of guitar prog, and I ordered it immediately. That Dave Gregory played on it didn’t hurt my decision, either. I had just written something about Alex Lifeson, Matt Stevens, and Dave Gregory being among my all-time favorite guitarists, and I was certainly elated to have more proof of the truth of this. So, yeah, I’m proud to have reviewed Wired to Earth immediately upon its release. It grabbed me from the moment I first heard it. And, as my wife can verify, I pretty much listen to it all of the time, especially when The Birzers are on the road. Which is quite often. And, because of some very personal family history, the fourth track on the album, “Broken,” means as much to me as any song. If you’re not religious, forgive me–but I can’t help but thank God for the health of Penny. You’ll see why in the interview.
When I heard that “Scorch” (forthcoming, September 15, from Esoteric Records) would be the second release from the Tin Spirits, I put away my very shy nature [for those of you who know me, you’re laughing] and ask Mark Kilminster about the album. Not surprisingly–after all, he’s an incredibly nice guy–he responded with enthusiasm. So, wonderful, say I! Thank you, Mark.
Progarchy: Mark, thank you so much for taking time to talk with us. We know you have to be incredibly busy, and we’re honored [honoured for our English readers!] you’d spend some time with us. About half of our readership is North American, and, despite my best efforts, Tin Spirits is still not as well known on this side of the Atlantic as it should be. For our benefit, would you mind giving a bit of history of the band? How it came together? How you knew and recruited Dave Gregory? Where the name comes from?
Mark: No problem Brad, the honour is all mine. I’ll attempt the short version! Dan, Doug and I had been in a functioning band together since 2006, playing standard rock covers. Dan was already friends with Dave through Dan’s GigRig company (amazing guitar pedal switching systems) and through a bit of superfan stalking (sorry Dan!).
Our first meeting with the four of us came about when Dan wanted to create an “Amp Shootout” video to demonstrate the different tonal capabilities of different amps. He asked Doug and me to play drums and bass respectively in the video and as a long shot, he asked Dave if he’d like to take part, too. Much to our surprise and excitement, Dave happily agreed, and we spent the day jamming in a studio. It was clear to all that the four of us made a pretty decent racket so Dan suggested asking Dave if he would be interested in joining us to create a new band, initially playing covers we would normally not be able or allowed to play. Dave happily agreed, and Tin Spirits was born.
With regards to the name, it’s actually one of the hardest things to come up with. That and album titles. We spent weeks bouncing name ideas backwards and forwards via email. If no-one replies, you know it’s a duffer! Then, all of a sudden, Dave just turned up at rehearsal one day and said “What about Tin Spirits?” and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
Incidentally, exactly the same thing happened with the album titles, “Wired To Earth” and “Scorch.”
Progarchy: Youtube is full of videos of the Tin Spirits covering great rock and prog songs. You cover XTC (naturally), Rush, Steely Dan, Yes. Can you tell us a little bit about this? Why these, and how much did they influence the style of original Tin Spirits music?
Mark: Well, the initial idea was “let’s play the songs we love and have always wanted to play but couldn’t.” Mainly because if you play Roundabout at a wedding, you won’t get paid! [The interviewer is laughing very, very hard at this—ed.] So we each went away and created a “dream setlist,” and it became clear very quickly that we were all big prog fans. So once we’d gone through everyone’s list and picked the ones we all agreed on, that’s what we ended up with.
We also covered Radiohead, Frank Zappa, Free, and Jellyfish to name a few. After we’d done a few local gigs we decided to have a go at writing our own stuff and see how far it went. That’s basically what “Wired To Earth” became, an experiment to see if we could write songs as a band. There was no agenda as far as whether it should be prog or rock or whatever, but I guess because we all have a penchant for that genre, “Wired to Earth” naturally leans towards it (without keyboards).
Progarchy: In the end, you chose to cover a Genesis song for “Wired to Earth.” Was this a hard pick?
Mark: In hindsight, perhaps we shouldn’t have included a cover but as we’d spent such a long time rehearsing the songs, we thought it would be worthwhile sticking one in. I think we chose “Back in NYC” as it was the one we could knock out fairly quickly.
Progarchy: Mark, as you know, my favorite [again, favourite for our English readers!] song on the first album is “Broken.” The lyrics are much more than lyrics. They really reach toward poetry. Can you give us the background to that song?
Mark: Thank you very much Brad.
It was the last song written for “Wired To Earth” and nearly didn’t make it, to be honest.
We had a deadline of early March 2011 to finish the album and were still working on it up to the Christmas 2010 break. We recorded a rough demo without vocals so I could work on the lyrics over the holidays.
My wife was pregnant at the time so the lyrics were initially about my second chance in life, essentially going from being single at 32 to having a family at 35. She was due in May 2011, so the album would be all done by then. However, on 6th Feb our daughter was born 14 weeks premature, weighing just 785 grams [1.73lbs.] and everything turned upside down.
As I remember it, the lyrics were written around the end of February and convey what we were going through at the time. It was a 50-mile round trip to the hospital each day, hoping our little girl was doing ok. So the song was recorded right up to the wire and, in fact, Dan and Dave recorded the twin guitar parts in a freezing, converted church hall one night until 3AM in order to meet the deadline.
Penny is now 3, by the way, and you’d never know to look at her what a tough start to life she had.
Progarchy: We’re in the middle of a glorious moment for prog and for rock—despite what the doomsayers claim. How do you see the Tin Spirits? That is, when someone is looking back at 2014, twenty years from now, how do you want the Tin Spirits to be placed and remembered?
Mark: You know what? It would just be nice to be remembered. There is so much new music out there these days that it’s very difficult to hold anyone’s attention before they move on. I’m as guilty as anyone of that. Ooh, great album. Next! It would be great to think that in 20 years, someone will see a Tin Spirits album in their collection and think “Ah, I think I’ll listen to that today.”
The Tin Spirits are: Mark Kilminster (vocals; bass); Dave Gregory (guitar); Daniel Steinhardt (guitar; vocals); and Doug Mussard (drums; vocals). “Scorch” is produced by Tin Spirits and Mitch Keen; mixed by Paul Stacey (Oasis).
The tracks for “Scorch”: Carnivore; Summer Now; Old Hands; Binary Man; Little Eyes; Wrapped And Tied; She Moves Among Us; Garden State.
Progarchy will let you know as soon as it’s available for preorder. Or, of course, go straight to the official website: http://tinspirits.co.uk
You can order “Wired to Earth” from amazon.com and other outlets, including directly from the record company: http://www.cherryred.co.uk/esoteric-exd.asp?id=3598. Please do. Not only do I give the Tin Spirits my highest recommendation in 2014, but I think I’ll still be promoting them in 2034, should I still be wired to this earth.
A review of “The Underfall Yard” from The Underfall Yard by Big Big Train (English Electric, 2009). Song and words by Greg Spawton. Additionally: David Longdon, vocals and vocal arrangements; Dave Gregory, guitars; Nick D’Virgilio, drums; Andy Poole, bass and keyboards; and [see image on right for a full list]
As much I love albums, I’m always looking for that perfect song. The song that longs to linger in our souls after we’ve heard its last notes. The song that cries to the heavens in triumph, praise, and rage. The song that hovers over that second away from eternity, rooted in the human condition, but reaching for timelessness.
In my first two pieces of this series, I looked at Rush’s “Natural Science” (1980) and The Tangent’s “Where Are They Now” (2009)? In this article, I turn to none other than a well-recognized masterpiece, a (perhaps, THE) cornerstone of third-wave prog, “The Underfall Yard” (2009) by Big Big Train. It originally appeared at the final track of Big Big Train’s 2009 album of the same name, the first to feature the vocals of the incomparable David Longdon.
Six seconds short of twenty-three minutes in length, “The Underfall Yard” is epic in every sense of the meaning of the word. I once gave it to a non-prog friend of mine as an introduction to the genre. He liked it (really, who couldn’t?), but he also joked, “Brad, when I started the song, I didn’t realize I’d have to miss dinner to finish it.”
The lyrics of the song reveal its scope best:
Using available light
He could still see far skies,
Beyond, above, and yet below the far skies rests (not contentedly) deep time. Indeed, given the song, one must imagine deep time as equal parts restless but also confident in its restlessness, sure of itself even in its transitions.
Always a superb lyricist, Spawton reveals his most intimate and poetic sense in this song overall. The words are at once hopeful and melancholic, the piece as a whole trapped in a slowly shifting twilight. The loss is of England’s entrepreneurial and industrial moments of the interwar era, the parents Edwardian, but the children Georgian.
As one stands with Spawton, watching this scene fade in golden and royal hues, he might just as readily be standing with King Alfred hopeful against heathen men as hairy as sin; with Harold of Hastings, tilting against a bastard’s armies; or with Winston Churchill, toiling and sweating against those would rend idyllic places such Coventry with insidious and inhumane progress.
Spawton’s words endlessly capture that which is always true but never quite obvious to all at all times.
The opening moments of the song move from an earnest guitar into a driving and equally earnest interplay of bass and drums, Gregory, D’Virgilio, Poole, and Spawton weaving something both tribal and civilized. More guitars appear, jutting and jetting. Strings emerge as if from the land itself. At 1:45, David Longdon’s voice enters into the art itself with the necessary pitch, the perfect lilt and quaver, and a resonant meaning. If Spawton is coming from sacred soil, Longdon is coming from the heavens, thus allowing the horizon and sky to meet in an infinite moment.
Almost uniquely among singers, Longdon possesses both assuredness and humility in all of his vocal arrangements, but none more so than in this song. While his voice is the voice of a man, it also is the voice of a chorus of men, a plea for generations.
Chasing a dream of the west
Made with iron and stone
Man, in Spawton’s vision, if armed with genius and integrity, reshapes the land, not in man’s image, but in the sacramental, Adamic way had things in Eden not soured.
These are old hills that stand in the way
breaking the line.
It came out of the storm,
out of the sea
to the permanent way
Using just available light,
he could still see far.
Even in his broken state, some men–seers, prophets, bards, skalds, poets and prog rockers–can see beyond the immediate, toward that which is far and that which is deep. Of all creatures, they alone can imagine the heights and the depths of existence.
In Spawton’s vision, England becomes not just another place on this earth, but a place sacred, sacred because man has recreated nature, not through domination, but through creative understanding, the soul and the intellect of each in harmony, not tension.
One is reminded of Spawton’s counterpart in the world of poetry, T.S. Eliot.
A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
–T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding
Even the timeless moment, though, can not be seen or understood forever. Timeless moments—the light falling on a secluded chapel—lasts only as long as man knows to look for it. As with all things of beauty, truth, and goodness, it is fleeing, at least through our abilities to perceive, incorporate, and understand.
Roofless engine houses
distant hills like bookends
frame electrical storms
moving out to sea
away from England.
Spawton’s words and Longdon’s voice combine to make the above lyrics not only the most moving parts of the song, but combine to make one of the most moving parts of any song in the rock era.
I could never even count how many times I’ve listened to this song over the last five years. Every time, my stomach drops and my heart and soul swell when I hear this. Every single time.
And, yet, despite the loss of the thing itself, the moment in all of the revelation of its glory, Spawton knows—with the greatest thinkers of the western tradition—that memory can comfort us. Perhaps memory alone.
Parting the land
with the mark of man,
the permanent way,
Using just available light,
he could still see far.
The imprint is true. It always exists. We, however, must choose to remember. When we do, the world becomes just a little brighter. Using just available light.
And, thus, Big Big Train reveals its ultimate contribution to the world of art. Somethings are worth remembering, whatever the cost, and memory itself is a precious and delicate thing beyond any cost.