Big Big Train, a Big Big Interview

Following on from their surprise release of The Second Brightest Star, and coming up to their sell out gigs in October, I managed to grab a chat with Greg Spawton and David Longdon of Big Big Train, together through the magic of Skype (eventually, my technical ineptitude aside) to talk all things secretive, live and the next stops on the line. This interview was conducted prior to the announcement of next years debut European gig at Lorelei, hence some of the secrecy!

Lorraine Poole 1

(photo by Lorraine Poole)

Lets start with the surprise album, how did you manage to keep that one a secret?

Greg ‘We don’t know’ laughter ‘We thoroughly thought the cat would be out of the bag’

David ‘We didn’t think we’d be able to keep it quiet, because in this day and age it’s ver4y difficult to keep this sort of thing quiet, but we did, and we were expecting the bubble to burst at any moment, thankfully it didn’t and the surprise wasn’t spoiled and it was released on the day that we intended, which was the summer solstice’

Greg:’ It presented a few challenges for us, David and I talked about this before because other artists have done surprise albums, and they’ve had non-disclosure contracts for people to sign, obviously we don’t have the muscle to get that thing agreed to, so we had to try to create a strategy where as few people as possible knew about. But still before the day of release 30 or 40 people across the world knew about it, and we thought any one of those could mention it, but nobody did. It was very heart-warming that we kept it secret but to be honest I don’t think we’d do it again it was very stressful. It’s more difficult doing it that way than having a pre-order campaign’

When did you have the album?

Greg ‘To be honest we were working in parallel with the songs on Grimspound, we probably discussed it December or January, it was a long time ago’

David ‘ We originally thought about doing an EP, once Grimspound started to take shape, and we knew what we were dealing with we thought some songs that were part of the cycle, didn’t fit on Grimspound. Grimspound has such a strong identity, as indeed did Folklore. I guess they written around the same time, whilst some of the songs on Second Brightest Star were purposefully written for this release. We knew that we’d got another album in our sights, we could have released Grimspound as a double, but we’d like the idea of a different album. We plan these things well in advance, you have to’

Greg: ‘At one stage Grimspound was stretching out to 75 minutes and that’s when it started to feel unwieldy. Possibly we could have dug our heels and said ‘lets make it a double, do it that way’. But as I said before whenever we make an album we try to make it flow, like a proper collection of material that belongs together. However we sequenced the very long version of Grimspound it didn’t quite flow how we wanted it to, so we took a few tracks off. Which enabled us to write a couple of other pieces which enabled the Second Brightest Star to flow, in fact I think it flows as well as anything we’ve ever done.’

It forms a loose trilogy,

David ‘It forms the conclusion of the trilogy, which is what it is’

Greg ‘It’s a bit messier than that because the Wassail EP before all this had a couple of tracks on it Lost Rivers of London and Mudlarks, they’re part of the trilogy songs, I think you know the problem is, you make a number of decisions. If we’d thought it through two years ago to the nth degree we would have done things slightly differently, but you make these calls as you go and things evolve. Grimspound evolved from a companion EP to a full-blown studio album, and a similar process happened with the Second Brightest Star.

David and I we did the bulk of the writing, but there’s 4 other people writing in the band now, and so there’s a lot of material. It’s not a neat process, you don’t start writing for an album and then stop, there’s always a bit around the edges where things flow and that’s where we found ourselves’

David ‘ Not only that, the band was changing as well, the music was developing and aside from the bands career was developing, there were lots of different drivers, lots of accelerants. Grimspound turned out to be very much it’s own thing, it’s a very progressive rock album for prog fans, and is very much pitched in that arena, whereas Folklore was much more subtle. They’ve all got their own flavour.’

I do love the fact that on the Facebook page people are trying to come up with track listings if you were to put all the albums together.

Greg ‘It’s interesting, I’ve screenshotted one of those because I wonder how we would do it if we were, we did go through that process with Full Power, which took a lot of thinking to make that a coherent release. When I look at the length of some of the play lists that these people are putting up, and it’s three hours and more. It’s very difficult to make something flow over that length of time. Maybe if we get some downtime we’ll put a Spotify play list up which shows the album as we would have released it if that had been the plan from the start’


Now you’ve snuck out the Second Brightest star to surprise us all, I suspect you’re working out the set list for the London gigs’

David ‘ We’re practising at the moment aren’t we Greg, so it’s making songs that we’ve written go into our brains’

Greg ‘It’s learning stuff, learning songs we haven’t played before, and reminding ourselves of songs we have played before if we are playing them again. It’s getting them stuck in. One of the problems David and I face is that we play four or five gigs a year, if that and therefore we haven’t got the muscle memory of doing 100 shows a year, so when preparing for these gigs it’s a longish process, about two or three months of getting it under the fingers or into the throat. That’s our plans for the next two or three months. I would love to tell you we’ve got another album coming out on Friday but that would be a complete fib (laughter) ‘

David ‘the nicest thing about doing it the way we do it is that each session of shows are entirely bespoke, it makes them events. It’s not a question of ‘we’ve got a set’ and we’re going to wheel it out again and again and again until we can’t do it anymore. We’ve got lots of material, there are a few things that we played last time that we’ll play this time, but we’ve a wealth of new songs as well. There’ll be things from the English Electric albums and then songs from our canon that we want to get out and air. That’s exciting as well’

With the shows will there a companion Blu-Ray/CD release as well?

Greg: ‘Yes we’ve got a full film crew, as you know we filmed the Kings Place gigs and they came out really well, we were quite surprised to be honest as we only filmed them to maybe put a few songs up on You Tube, but Pete Callow is a very clever director and he made the most of the fairly small set up in Kings Place.

It’s interesting, I had a conversation with Pete a couple of weeks ago, and he was giving us the options of how grandiose we want to be. The starting point is that this is a gig. It’s not a show that’s being filmed with an audience there, it is a gig for the audience and they are the ones that count, so we’ve forbidden anything like any crazy wires across the stage, we don’t want anything that we’re filming for the TV to disturb the live audience, so the film crew have to be in the background, so people don’t find it’s getting in their way’

The plan is for it to be a more ambitious camera set up, so that we’ll have plenty of shots, David and I are very similar we don’t like fast editing. It gets very dizzy, but there are things we’d like to see in there, if Danny’s playing a nice keyboard solo I’d like to see it. We’ll just make sure we have cameras that can capture the moments so we can get a nice film out on Blu-ray’

BBT 3 by Simon Hogg

(photo by Simon Hogg)

Of course with the size of the band, and the logistics, working this way is a better approach for the band?

David ‘Logistically it’s an expensive thing to organise, everything costs money’

Greg ‘It is, it’s all about logistics, at the moment we’re doing everything ourselves. Everything is in house, and we know that can’t continue because in 2019 we want to do a couple of small tours in Europe and England, so that will take things to a level where we need somebody else to blame when it all goes wrong, and at the end of the day the band members and the crew need to be focused on their jobs and if we’re getting drawn into organising things the shows become very complex.

Which is why the strategy we’ve had, OK it’s a pain for people to travel to London from up and down the UK and abroad, but this is the way that we’ve been able to play live and is something that will change in the nearish future, but for now it’s the most sensible approach for a progressive rock band in 2017.

David ‘It’s amazing place to come from all over the world, it’s a capital city so it’s not just coming to see a band in place, it’s coming to see a band in an incredible city’

Are the gigs all sold out now?

David ‘yes they are’

That’s pretty good going isn’t it?

David ‘its amazing, when we were looking at what do we do next after Kings Place, there were no guarantees, because those shows went so well. I mean we’re still at the place where it could end tomorrow, it’s very much belt and braces. How much is too much when it comes to capacity. The last ones were 450 seaters; these ones are 900 seaters’

Greg ‘ David’s exactly right; there’s optimists and pessimists within the band, suggesting larger venues. Pitching it is very important, we felt we’d take a step forward and it’s gone really well in terms of sales. It’s gone really well, who’d have thunk it really? We were excited to see Kings Place out, and to do this at the next level up, its pinch yourself tine really’

David ‘We want to get out and do it, because Kings Place went so well, when we play live its very much our time, with our fans in the audience and it’s there time with us, and I’m really looking forward to playing this material with them. It’s sounding great in rehearsal and we’re only just scratching the surface of it. I really can’t wait’

BBT 2 by Willem Klopper

(photo by Willem Klopper)

You’ve released three albums of fresh material in a short space of time, and you have an impressive back catalogue, how do you decide when you look at the songs, and think right, what are we going to play?

Greg ‘I’m trying not to give anything away as people get upset if set lists get printed ahead of time. One of the things we started with is that the audience is a lot bigger this time, and there are a lot of people who have never seen us before. We have got a huge back catalogue now, and as David said it’s quite exciting to play stuff live we’ve never played before so we could have started with a blank sheet, which would have been exciting. But I expect a few fans in the audience would have been thinking ‘I wanted to hear that’ so you start with a process where you look at the essential live tracks that Big Big Trains want to hear at this stage in career, which may change as new albums come out and then you look through albums old and recent and select stuff you think will be good live and create a balanced set list. As you know we’re a band all over the world and there’s lots of emails flying round with various suggestions, rejections and approvals.

Maybe David would disagree but I thought the set list came together very easily and it felt to us that the songs we play in September and October are the right ones for us to play at this time, and moving forward we will add to those’

David ‘the set feels good, it’s balanced, I remember speaking with fans in the foyer in Kings Place I was making a mental note of some of the things the fans were asking us to play, and when they coincide with the ideas that we’ve got its great. There’s one track in particular that came from that angle, a lot of people mentioned it to us, and there’s been a few things like that in the set’

Of course you’re heavily involved with the whole fan base with the group on face book

David ‘It’s a two-way thing; we wouldn’t be playing in places like Cadogon Hall without that support. We are there because of them; we can’t afford to do it on our own. The bands grown because of the fans and it’s down to them, it is a two-way thing. We’re very grateful, which is how it should be’

When you look at other discussion groups online, it’s a good-natured place isn’t it/

David ‘yeah, you’ve got to protect that ethos. There’s some incredibly jaw dropping things going on in the world at the moment, and in society that make you scratch your head and wonder, but we try to make it what it is. A bit of haven from all that. It’s not that we aren’t interested in political events around the world, we are, we’re very interested and in political events at home, but there’s a time and a place for it. It’s not for a progressive rock forum, not as far as I’m concerned and not for Big Big Train’

Do you have longer terms for the band, thinking two or three albums ahead?

Greg ‘we know the next album title, we know some of the songs that are going to be on there, David and I we’ve discussed working those things out. We know what we’re aiming for and taking the ethos of the material that we write into foreign places, literally writing about things that are moving away from England a little bit, which fits in with our career profile, certainly in terms of gigging. We’ve got plans through to 2019, and I have no doubt that we’ll be able to bring those to fruition.

That’s one of the nice things about being in Big Big Train in the last four or five years, is that whereas 7 or 8 years ago we’d talk about things and they’d feel out of reach. Now we talk about things and they feel achievable and doable and that they will happen and happen in a positive way. It’s like a fulfilment machine; it enables us to get our musical material in front of people and heard by people. That’s what songwriters want really and that’s what its all about. You can sit in your room and write stuff but if its not getting that approval if you like of people listening to your music, liking your stuff, your music and your lyrics. But we’re careful planners, we know what month and year the next album is coming out, and I suspect if we went away for a few weeks we have got about an hour of material if not more already written, and we’d get the songwriting process done to make it the best album we can’

Coming to the songwriting and structure of the albums, I know earlier you said a 75-minute Grimspound didn’t feel quite right, do you have an optimum time for an album?

Greg ‘that’s a good question, obviously albums in the 60’s/70’s etcetera were defined by format, the comfortable vinyl length defined the album length and there wasn’t much going beyond late 40’s/50 minutes. About 45 minutes seemed the perfect album then, I think there’s something in that. I know when CD’s came out and albums became a bit bloated I thought. Anything around the 40-50 minutes can be a sweet spot. But if you feel as a band you have a lot of strong material and it sits together, then length is no object so we found our recent albums have been coming in at around late 50’s 60 odd minutes, and that for me is where they work. It depends. I suspect our next album will have a couple of hours material to choose from, and we may decide to make that double album we’ve never done, or we may decided to pin it back to 40 minutes. Those decisions will be made when we have the material in front of us, sift it and see how it all fits together’

David ‘the good thing about being an independent band is that we can have ideas, we can action them. Not only that is the speed of the action, the turnaround. We’re not waiting for permission or going cap in hand to a record label for an advance to go and do something, we go and do it ourselves. We say wouldn’t it be great if we did this, or wouldn’t that be cool. We make it happen. It is an amazing position to be in. I love the fact that the ideas can flow, as they should, they are unhindered; it’s a really positive thing. There’s no shortage of ideas in Big Big Train, that’s the nice thing about it. We’re a band who have plenty of thoughts on what we do, what we’re doing next and why we’re doing it so, long may it continue’

MeadowlandsShoot_David,Greg,Dave_sRGB_10inch (1)

(photo by Simon Hogg)

I know Greg earlier you said about the difference between 2007/2008 and now where you say yes we can do it, what do you think has caused that change?

Greg ‘getting the right line up was really crucial, as you know the band has a long back story, and I don’t think I was writing terrible songs in the early 90’s or whenever, but that I needed to be working with an equal to get those songs as strong as they could be, and deliver them in a beautiful way. In 2007 Nick came into the band and David joined in 2009, and there’s no point in hiding from the fact that David brings a really high end voice, but he also brought with him songs, and an ethos which worked well with my ethos, and we found ourselves particularly the two of us as real brothers in arms in terms of working together and we decided to expand and become a full band again, David was suggesting people like Danny etcetera who came into the band and we’ve just been able to make sure the right people are there to do the right things, which works for the band. Then there’s a momentum of its own, you get the right people in writing good stuff, then the momentum takes over. As David said having that freedom to define out own destinies has been extraordinary. I mean we have been offered many record deals, but it would have to be a stunningly beneficial deal for us to depart from being a self managed and self financed band where we are today, because I don’t think we’d be able to make those decisions in the timely manner that we do today, I think it would change things. I think we’re interested in Steven Wilson’s move, as he feels he needs to be on a bigger label for more people to hear his music, and I’m fully behind him on that call, but for us right now, doing what we do together as a group of people feels like the right thing for us. It’s been a long haul, especially for me, right now we’re in a really good place and I can’t wait to play for people again, and for people to hear material over the next couple of years’

Touching on Mr Wilson, he’s remixing albums into 5.1, if it were viable would you want to pick an album from your back catalogue and remixing it into 5.1?

Greg ‘The Underfall Yard is a very important album for us, it was the first album David was involved in, he joined the band, it was a relaunch, it’s where we started writing about history and landscape and is where it all came together really, in 2019 that will be the tenth anniversary of that album, so I imagine when we play live we’ll be doing a number of songs live from that album, and we’ll be doing a reissue, it’s never been available on vinyl, and there’s definitely demand for a vinyl release and we will be doing a 5.1 release as well, 5.1 is interesting, you need that critical mass of fans to warrant the remixing and producing discs in 5.1. I’m not 100% convinced we’re there yet to do it for every album, but it’s something we’re keeping an eye on, and as the fan base is growing its something that will happen when the time is right. We’d all love to celebrate the Underfall Yard in a couple of years and that’s ripe for 5.1.’

What about a full performance of the Underfall Yard?

Greg ‘There have been conversations, I know some bands go out and play full albums, and it’s about 52 minutes so it wouldn’t completely dominate a set, maybe do one set Underfall Yard and the other something different, but I’m not sure yet. If we do that we’ll advertise it that way so people know what they’re coming to see’

Have you been to the Underfall Yard recently?

David ‘We’ve been down to the SS Great Britain, have you been to it?’

It’s on my doorstep so, I had some guided tours round there before they started the renovations, and we walked round where the new bit brings you in front of the Underfall yard and the pump house,

Greg ‘I will have to get back, I walked near there the last time I was in Bristol, but as David said the last time we were down there we were at the SS Great Britain that was around Far Skies Deep Time,’

David ‘The first pictures with Dave Gregory’

Greg ‘Of course, we picked Dave up and had some pictures done on the SS Great Britain. I love Bristol, my sons just been at the UWE, it’s a very cool place as you know’

Its got plenty of great venues as well, not that I’m dropping any hints..

Greg ‘there’s one I looked at in a church, a 4 or 500 seater, and when we do 2019 Bristol will be on the tour’

David ‘Fleece and Firkin, that what you want isn’t it?

Fleece or the Thekla

Greg ‘I saw the Lemon twigs on the Thekla, it’s a bit sticky floors for us, we like our seated venues, our fans must concentrate when watching Big Big Train so we like them to take the weight off their feet (laughter)

David ‘If it sinks while we’re on board we could play Abide with Me as it goes down, or we could do the Star and Garter, that’s another one’

So your talking about widening your musical horizons on the next album, and stepping away from England, are there other things inspiring you to write differently?

David ‘As we said earlier we work well ahead, and there’s always stuff around, you read stuff, you speak to people. There’s always more to be done, the nicest thing about it is as well. Big Big Train is a band that can share the load, so it’s not a mammoth task for one person to be doing. I know some bands have one person that writes everything and works on everything, at least the way our model is if you like, having multiple writers means if people are able to do stuff it liberates and takes the pressure off. There are always plenty of ideas. Plus this is progressive rock, so all the crazy ideas can be used further down the line. If we were in a more restrictive genre like deep house or something like that we’d be very limited on the ideas we could have. I’m not interested in that sort of stuff, so prog it is’

Lorraine Poole 3

(photo by Lorraine Poole)

Do you find in the past few years prog has stopped being a dirty word?

David ‘yes, it has, there’s nothing quite like announcing you’re a progressive rock musician defiantly, challenging them with your eyes and they go ‘what’s that then?’ Some people still cling to the past about progressive rock, it got a very unfair beating and a lot of things that were upsetting people aren’t in place anymore. You don’t have to be a rich man to make progressive rock music, you just need access to a desktop computer, plug ins, things like that. You don’t need to own a mellotron to write for one. It’s been very liberating. But that’s not why we do it; we do it because we love it. I’m a singer and a songwriter, Greg’s a songwriter and we’re all musicians and this how we choose to express ourselves’

Greg ‘For us it’s a very liberating genre, the boundaries are very wide, and it enables us to do things we want to do. The fact that its now no longer music that dare not speak its name, is great, Prog magazine have had a lot to do with that, websites like yours have a had a lot to do with bringing people together and celebrating it. Turns out the original wave of bands in the seventies had a sense of humour after all, they were not po-faced about it, they were doing what they wanted to do and things got out of hand a little bit. I think the good bits of the genre are worth celebrating and are celebrated. As David said music making is democratised now, you don’t have to have a Hammond organ and a full mellotron to be able to make music. It’s not a rich mans game. There’s no reason to diss prog rock. One of the things we found before Christmas with the Classic Rock, Metal hammer, Prog magazine suddenly looked like they were going out of business, was that camaraderie in the rock community, we all stood together as rock fans, not prog fans or rock fans, just music fans. It doesn’t dominate the charts like it did in the 70’s in any way shape of form, I think we all agree that rock music is a form that’s worth maintaining, and there’s great rock music being made these days, but it doesn’t have the weight or the power that it did, and it brings people together’

David ‘I was reading an article the other day about the death of the electric guitar and how sales are plummeting, you won’t get those stories of the kid going into the shop, getting his electric guitar and the rest being history. But sales have dropped off for the time being. Does it mean something? I don’t know. Dave Gregory’s got them all!’

Greg ‘there’s none left out there at the moment! There are cycles with it, the thing is there’s an awful lot more that people do with their time now, people are into gaming, watching boxed sets. But in the seventies and indeed the early 80’s there were fewer things that people could do as a creative hobby, and therefore people gravitated towards making music more easily. Now, on the one hand music’s democratised and more people do it cheaply, but it seems that rock music is suffering from that. It may be an indication that there are different times ahead, or it may just be a blip.

Who’d have thought that vinyl would have come back?

When Chris Topham approached us about releasing our stuff on vinyl I think we had a bit of a giggle, it didn’t seem to me in anyway to be a sensible idea, and now we would even consider a new release without factoring in the vinyl version, these things do go in cycles’

David ‘The world of the hipster, I am far too folically challenged to be a hipster’

Greg ‘I wish we were part of the world of the hipster. We’re too old and gray around the gills. It seems to be cool again. Ironically when I went to school with a copy of a prog album under my arm on vinyl I was looked on, as a bit of a bell end, but these days a hipster would do such a thing. It’s funny how things change’

Maybe the difference is they have the courage of their own convictions’

David ‘The weight of their own beards’

Greg ‘their convictions are the weight of their beards.

I remember going to school in the 90’s with prog stuff and that was a definite no go,

Greg ‘You are a man out of time’

It was dead handy growing up in Rotherham in the mid 90’s though

Greg ‘The classic rock society’


David ‘I don’t know about you, as I’m near Nottingham that you kind of ripples of the music industry, looking at Sounds or the NME at these new trends, it seemed to me that rock music sang to the soul of the midland male type of thing, it did. Its never stopped singing to me, it never stopped resonating. I still get excited by it, I think I’m a lifer’

When we write songs for Big Big Train, we’re not extending them for the sheer hell of doing it, we like the extended song format, we like the ideas, the modulations, the keys, the instrumentations, the ideas, there’s a lot of thought goes into that, and we’re lucky in the band that there’s a lot of muscle in terms of musical arrangements and people are able to bring a hell of a lot to these compositions’ Its brilliant, we make the music we want to make and make the music that we love and when you asked earlier why did it work, what made it successful I like to think that hopefully its because we did what we love, and that people picked up on it and they could sense the authenticity to the intent of the music and we care about what we do’

It comes across in the artwork, the music, the sleeve notes, and the whole package, there’s a level of sophistication and care,

Greg ‘You’re absolutely right, you’ve got to get it right, starting from the first bit of music we write to the moment it’s realised we’re trying o make people see that Big Big train does care, and you know that there is a quality threshold that we will always be above. It’s not a question of me or David saying we would never want to, but we won’t just walk blindly into making an album that we’re not 100% behind. Its what we live and breathe for, and to find that we’ve got an audience for that at this stage in our lives is absolutely brilliant’

David ‘We are grateful and it’s a two way thing, definitely reciprocal and one thing fuels the other, its great’.


Many thanks to Greg and David for their time, and of course for taking us along on their amazing musical journey.


Going to Ground: A Review of Big Big Train’s Difference Machine

[An outrageously and somewhat circuitous review of “The Difference Machine” by Big Big Train (original release: 2007; reissued 2010).]

To see a little further/down below a mist hung over the fields/and the stars are falling away like raindrops on glass/further apart/slowing spinning dark–Greg Spawton/BBT, 2007

Being a Kansas Anglophile

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been an Anglophile.  And, I use this term inclusively: I’m fascinated by the history, cultures, and languages of the British Isles, and all of its inhabitants—from the Celts and Picts to the Angles and the Saxons and even the barbaric, invading Danes (and many others, of course).  I’m sure much of my love of all things English (and British) comes from my earliest readings of Tolkien and his vast mythology, all of which [ ].  I’m also married to a McDonald, who happens to be more German and Swedish than Irish, but the name . . . that blessed Celtic name.

But, I’m taken with so many other persons as well, some real and some fictitious and some a bit of both in larger British history: Bran the Blessed, Arthur, St. Patrick, St. Augustine of Canterbury, St. Bede, St. Boniface, Alcuin, Alfred the Great, Harold of Hastings, the nobles, temporal and spiritual who challenged King John at Runnymede, Sir Thomas More, Edmund Burke, William Pitt, Winston Churchill, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, T.S. Eliot, etc., etc.  And, this is just the short list.

Despite this noble lineage of great men, the British people have somewhat paradoxically chosen Arthur, not the much more victorious Alfred the Great, as “the central figure of national heroic legend.  So wrote the nearly forgotten British (himself half Welsh, half English) historian, Christopher Dawson, in 1936.  After all, he believed, the British loved lost causes, especially if the loss came in the face of extreme opposition while defending what is right, good, and just.  Indeed, he argued, giving one’s all for the good of British society remains a fundamental part of the British character, as proven in the last several centuries by figures such as the Irishman Edmund Burke and Anglo-American Winston Churchill.

Such a fascination with lost causes gives the British a properly melancholic and, simultaneously, noble national character.

All of this played to my Kansas upbringing, staring across the wheat fields and sandhills, wandering what might exist beyond.

Big Big Train

When I bask in the music of the very, very English progressive rock band, Big Big Train, I feel—at the deepest possible levels—each of these quintessentially British traits: perseverance for the good no matter the cost; and a singular melancholic intensity.

 The Difference Machine flies/you can see stars right through it/your mum or your dad or your kids; or the love of your life/bring light to the dark spaces between us/Stars bu8rn through the coins on my eyes.”–Greg Spawton/BBT, 2007

Though I do not fully understand all of the lyrics (and this is good, mystery is a fundamental part of art, to my mind), I can’t help but think English nobility and melancholic intensity as I listen to my most recent BBT purchase, the 2007 The Difference Machine, reissued last year.

Indeed, I first bought it as an mp3 download.  I was so taken with the subtlety of the music, the instrumentation, and the lyrics, I happily reordered the full CD version.  I’m glad to have done so, as the quality, not surprisingly, is so much higher.  I’ve now listened to the “The Difference Machine” multiple times and in a variety of different situations: on my iPod while out for exercise; through my car stereo while driving; and on my kitchen stereo while baking (one of my loves—yesterday, I was baking English oat bread while listening to the CD).  Frankly, there’s no bad place to listen to BBT music—as long as it’s not as mere background.  It would be shame and a slap at real art to listen to this as anything other than what it is and how it was recorded—to enjoy it fully, to immerse oneself in it.

As with every other BBT release, this one simply stuns me, and it does so even more with each new listen.  I treasure each new listening, for I keep discovering new things, more beauty, more sadness, and more creativity.

While there exist a number of bands and musicians I follow—and I’ve been listening to progressive rock since 1972, when I was four—there are only a couple of bands that totally absorb my interest.  Those bands have been (in order encountered):

Yes (especially, “Fragile” through “90125”); Rush (especially, “Permanent Waves” through “Power Windows”; “Vapor Trails” to present); Talk Talk (especially, the last three albums); and The Cure (especially, “Faith” through “Wish”).

To these four groups, I also include the music of Kevin McCormick.  But, while I can objectively state his music is as good as anything I’ve ever heard, I also must admit, he’s been one of my closest friends since 1986, so a bias toward him rather strongly exists.

I would also include Gazpacho, the music of Matt Stevens, Roine Stolt, Arjen Lucassen, and Neal Morse in their many forms, and anything Matt Stevens does.

Back to my claims.  So, I’ve been listening to prog consistently since the earlier 70s, when my older brothers introduced me (probably unintentionally).  Not only have I listened, collected, and analyzed prog for much of my life, I’ve also been a radio DJ, having my own prog show in college.  I write this only to suggest that I’ve given this all a lot of thought—in between, around, above, and under academic projects, teaching, and family obligations.

So, with all of this explanation to the above nearly forty-year old list, I add a fifth band of excellence: Big Big Train.

If Yes’s “Close to the Edge” and Genesis’s “Selling England by the Pound” best represented the 1970s; if Talk Talk’s “Spirit of Eden” best represented the 1980s, then, BBT’s last full LP, “The Underfall Yard” best represents the last decade of music.  [Yes, I know I left out the 1990s, I’m still thinking about this one]

A huge claim, I know, but I very much believe it true.  And, for my good friends reading this, you know if I equate anything to “Spirit of Eden” (an album I’ve obsessed over way too much), I’m serious.

To me, Big Big Train—its history, its perseverance, its openness to its listeners and followers through the internet, especially, its musicianship, its desire for reaching perfection, its poetic and imagist lyrics—represents the very best of what exists in music today.  This is far from feint praise, for there’s a considerable amount of competition out there—some almost equally fine music from groups as diverse as Porcupine Tree, Gazpacho, and others.

BBT only increases my love of things English.

Going back through the reviews and history, I see that Big Big Train almost broke up after the recording of “Bard.”  Thank God, they didn’t.  While Bard is the only album of BBT’s I’ve not heard, I’m quite positive—given where they’ve gone since Bard—BBT was just catching its stride around the making of that album.  Though I have a feeling—and I don’t know any of what I’m about to write this from personal knowledge, only from the interviews, lyrics, etc.—the current members of BBT must have gone through some very powerful trials and shakeups.  Like the best of those who came before them, Greg Spawton and Andy Poole, original band members, persevered.  Where they’ve gone—especially with “The Underfall Yard”—is almost certainly not something they could’ve expected a decade or so ago.  Instead, “The Underfall Yard” is a product of long struggle, experience, and craftsmanship; one of those unbought graces—but one that can’t arrive without extreme dedication to an artform.

Signals fail/A moment of time/lost, home/salt water, silence.–Greg Spawton/BBT, 2007

The Difference Machine

As noted earlier, my version of “The Difference Machine” came out last year.  In his own description of the album, Spawton writes:

The Difference Machine received significant critical acclaim and, at the time of writing, is our best-selling CD.  After the release of Gathering Speed, we  invested the proceeds in our studio to ensure we could record music at the highest possible quality for an independent band.  Furthermore, Andy had gained considerable experience as an engineer and we felt much more confident in our ability to get the most out of our studio.  The Difference Machine is a concept album – a ‘small’ story; the loss of loved ones as life progresses, set against a ‘big’ story; the death of a distant star.  The songs for the album were written  quickly. The prog rock / post-rock crossover thing was now fully formed and everything flowed very smoothly.  Indeed, a  number of other songs which didn’t make it onto the album also came out of the writing sessions (BramblingHope You Made It and a 17 minute track – The Wide Open Sea.) The main musical motif for the album is set out early on in the opening track – an instrumental called Hope This Finds You. Played on viola by Becca King, the theme is restated briefly in Pick Up If You’re There before returning at the end of the album in the closing section of Summer’s Lease. Other musical motifs abound, some buried deeply in the music, some combining with others to form new themes. For example, the main album theme on the playout of Summer’s Lease is intertwined with a motif from Perfect Cosmic Storm which is initially set out in an understated manner on electric piano, before returning as the grand closing section of the song.  There’s a lot of this on The Difference Machine – it is an album which is intended to pay repeated listenings with new discoveries.

After having given this beautiful album innumerable listenings, I can confirm Spawton’s own description of it.

There are eight tracks on the 2010 version of “The Difference Machine.”

The opening track, “Hope this finds you”—a short but powerful instrumental, captures the essence of the entire album, setting out the themes of wide open space, and vast emptiness, but, with the entrance of the viola, a deep and abiding sorrow appears, thus closing the space into something intensely personal, even intimate.

“Perfect Cosmic Storm” begins with a strange signal and some dissonance.  A disembodied voice beckons: “signals go to ground” and then, circling the listener, cries “For me there is not hope at all.”  From what I can tell, immersed in this man’s longing and despair, he believes he has either died or is on the edge of death.  His life flashes before his eyes, and “before I go to ground,” he catches a glimpse of some of the happiest things of his existence: kids, parents, and all good that connects one good thing to another, allowing us to transcend this overwhelmingly dark life.

At over fourteen minutes, “Perfect Cosmic Storm” is a masterpiece in every way.  Every voice and every instrument finds its exact place, and while much of the music is chaotic, there is an order to it all (especially beginning at 5:47 into the song, when the sax (itself, used here as an instrument of despair)), just as there is for the man (in the lyrics) dying. When, at 6:30, the singer comes back in with “Signals go to ground,” the listener breaths a sigh of relief.  No relief remains permanent, though—as dissonance and counter harmonies continue throughout the track.  Musically, the listener is left with the feeling that the protagonist has some massive choice still confronting him.

Spawton’s lyrics make this a truly great song.  But, of course, a number of other things also make this song one of near perfection.  Nick d’Virgilio’s drums and Dave Meros (of Marillion)’s bass are some of the best of each I’ve ever heard.  Though he can play anything, D’Virgilio was made to play the music of Spawton and Poole.  Phew.

The third track, “Breathing Space,” is exactly what it seems.  A profound openness emerges during this song, and one feels as though the protagonist has realized either that he’s not quite dead or that he has some kind of redemption and permanent happiness awaiting him.  It must be early evening, though, as crickets chirp, and space signals continue to emanate from somewhere.

In track four, “Pick Up if You’re There,” the protagonist, now realizing that the abyss is not all that confronts him, searches for signs of life.  He climbs a hill, but only sees a mist below him and, when looking up, sees stars falling.  Spawton offers some of his best poetic moments in lyrics to this song.  The drums, bass, and organ are especially strong on this track, driving the protagonist toward some thing, whether that some thing be good or ill, a purgation of the worst or the best.  “You can almost taste the pain/you can almost touch it.”  And, again, D’Virgilio’s drums and, this time time (especially beginning around 4:39 into the song), Pete Trewavas’s bass is nothing less than breathtaking, as is Tony Wright’s flute at 8:40 into the track.  But, the jam (especially the interplay of drums, bass, and Greg’s organ) beginning around 10:05 is my favorite part of the album.  That protagonist is heading somewhere and fast.  I still not quite sure where, but I know he’s moving at an outrageous speed.  “One by one the signal’s fail/the sky is full of comet’s tails/–pick up if you’re there.”

“From the Wide Open Sea,” a track foreshadowing, in title and theme, the final track of BBT’s 2010 ep, “Far Skies Deep Time,” serves the same function as track three.  The listener can relax, at least momentarily, as the spacey keyboards swirl.

Track six, “Hope you made it,” is another short song.  Despite it’s relative brevity, the song’s lyrics cast much doubt on the fate of the protagonist.  Life seems to break this man, and the best escapes him.  “Mercury falling over the snow fields/the passage of time/as the notes in the margins/the last day of summer/the last day you loved her.”  Is all of life nothing more than sporadic marginalia?

“Saltwater (falls on uneven ground)” is my favorite track.  After a hauntingly false introduction, the song quickly changes direction, and we have an Eliot-esque man, a “hollow man” unable to keep some centricity to his life.  And yet, as typical with BBT, a brief hope emerges.  The sky brightens, and though the ground is frozen, the protagonist hears his love—or what he thinks is his love—walking behind him.  From my perspective, lyrically, this song serves as the most important moment of the album.  The protagonist, as close to death as possible without actually crossing into the shadow realm, sees before him the cold and relentless grasp of winter.  As he does, voices of men and beasts (a cat that sounds strangely Pink Floyd-esque) as well as the signals from space swirl around him.  BBT offers several minutes of a really laid-back jam (ok, I have no other way of explaining this).  At 8:41, the protagonist, surrounded by a cold winter death, suddenly remembers the glories of summer, “days without end/exploding with fire.”  If without end, the man only has to claim these as his true eternity.  “Extraordinary again,” the lyrics conclude.

The final track, “Summer’s Lease,” gives us no settled answer.  Summer conquers winter, and love rears its profound head among the prevalent pain of the world.  But, the protagonist still seems somewhat lost.  At 3:14, the song becomes relentless, frantic.  “Where did you come from/where will you go to?/Don’t go away (repeated several times),” the protagonist cries.  Every instrument seems to explode here.  At around 4:56, the song becomes simple again—a rhythmic return to the rather melancholic themes of the album as a whole.

“Signals fail/a moment of time/lost home/salt water, silence/where did you come from /where will you go to?/Don’t go away.”  And with these lyrics, backed by Spawton’s best keyboard work of the album as well as that pursuing viola of Becca King and sax of Tony Wright, the story ends as the piano fades out.  “Summer’s lease” seems to have run out.

Again, I’m not quite sure where I’m left.  I, Brad, am deeply satisfied, musically.  But, what of the protagonist of the album?  Did he make it to eternal happiness, eternal damnation, or just simply nothingness?



Well, if it’s not clear by now, I think the world of this lp.  If “The Difference Machine” is not a part of your collection, it should be by the time you finished this outrageously long review.

Overall, while I consider “The Underfall Yard” to be the gold standard of our time (hence, on my professorial scale, earning an A+), I would award The Difference Machine a solid A.  Its sins, such as they are, are sins of omission, not commission.  After so many listens to The Underfall Yard, I’ve come to expect the guitar work of Dave Gregory, the vocals of David Longdon, and the drum work of Nick d’Virgilio on every song.  While Spawton and Poole have offered us everything they have (and, if this is as good as it gets—which is spectacular–but those of us who know BBT know that they only get better) on The Difference Machine, The Underfall Yard has all of the best of its predecessor with the permanent addition of Gregory and d’Virgilio and with the hypnotic voice of David Longdon.