The seventeenth track, “The Permanent Way,” on Big Big Train’s ENGLISH ELECTRIC: FULL POWER (2013), might very well be one of the most important songs written and produced during what many call Third-wave Prog.
The album itself, of course, is extraordinary, especially in its building of textures–all of which weave in and out, away and to, near and far, above and beyond.
Not only is the weave exceptional, but so is the actual existence of time during the album, which, depending on how BBT shape the music, slows up or speeds down. As the title suggestions, “The Permanent Way” considers those things that remain, those that stood strong and remain standing. Thus, the song represents a still point, around which time itself flows.
The still point of the song is the profound British poet, John Betjeman, rivaled in stance only by T.S. Eliot in twentieth-century poetic achievement. With brass, guitars, keyboards, bass, and a variety of other instruments, the band slowly approaches the poet. Longdon’s voice gently offers a prelude as homage. The moment Betjeman speaks, Longdon defers, treating the master with all due deference and respect. The result is a majestic whole that brings together past, present, and future. This is what Big Big Train does best. And, frankly, no one does it better.
Inspired by Craig Breaden’s brilliant 104-part Soundstream, I’ve decided to post music that reveals that rock and jazz (and some other forms of music) are not the end of western civilization, but the culmination of western civilization up to this point in time. A second spring, if you will.
This past summer, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend a month living in the gorgeous Midlands of England – the town of Warwick, to be exact. I say living, rather than visiting, because I truly felt like I was living there. I spent my time researching Warwick church history at the Warwickshire County Records Office, during the week. The weekends, however, found me frolicking in the beautiful English countryside, villages, and cities in the area. I visited one of the local churches (one that I also happened to be researching) on Sunday mornings, and one of the families there invited me over for dinner several times during my stay. It is good to see that the English are still very much a hospitable people, and talking with locals helped me obtain a greater understanding of English culture and politics, as well as what it means to be “English.”
When I went to England, I knew that one of the things I really wanted to do was listen to Big Big Train’s English Electric Full Power whilst traveling through the country. I know this may sound strange, particularly to those of you that are British, but, as an American who has spent quite a bit of time studying English history, culture, and music, it just seemed like the right, or fitting, thing to do. Part of it, I think, is that I wanted to associate this wonderful music with my actual experiences in England. I succeeded in that desire, for every time I listen to that album, like I am right now, my mind is flooded with memories of my time in England.
I believe I was on the bus between Warwick and Coventry when I plugged my headphones in and began listening to English Electric. Gazing out the foggy window at little flocks of sheep, hedgerows, and gently rolling hills, I let the music that was born, crafted, and recorded in that magical land wash over me. I did the same on my train trips to Birmingham and London, both of which gave me the opportunity to see even more of the English countryside. On one occasion, I walked 3 miles along the side of the road to visit a mansion/art gallery called Compton Verney. Walking through the countryside gave me a wonderful chance to soak in the Wordsworthian pastoral.
An aside on England, I was particularly struck with how rural the country can be one minute and how urban it can be the next. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago where we had to drive an hour to be out in the “country.” In the roughly 12 mile bus ride from Warwick to Coventry, the landscape went from urban to rural to relatively big city in the distance of a few miles. I find that remarkable. But enough of that, back to BBT.
English Electric so perfectly captures the beauty of England, from the hills and rivers, to the coal mines and factories, to the bustling cities. The songs give you just the right amount of instrumental space between verses to ponder the beauty of both what has been said and what can be imagined. You can picture the young boy covered in coal dust deep within the earth just as much as you can imagine the miles of hedgerow marked country roads backdropped by fields of little yellow flowers, all without leaving your office. The music truly brings these images to life.
Big Big Train also connect with a different part of English culture, which, for most readers, might be the crucial reason this music is so good. Without copying or plagiarizing, they revive the sounds and motifs of classic English progressive rock. The essence of Genesis undergirds this music just enough to make it “feel” English. (I’ll add that I also listened to Genesis’ Selling England by the Pound during one of my train rides.) As an American, listening to the English progressive rock from the 70s (Genesis, Yes, and Jethro Tull, in particular) has impressed upon me an idea of what England is and what it should sound like. Big Big Train faithfully carry on that tradition. In fact, culturally, I think they improve on that musical tradition and masterfully add to it, just as T. S. Eliot added to and improved upon the poetic tradition of Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and Keats.
As I once again sit here and let English Electric wash over me, I am reminded of the beauty of England, of her people, her music, her rivers, her fields, her castles, her cities, and her sheep. As I listen to this music, I am drawn into a world uncorrupted by current events, yet still tainted by sin and darkness. Big Big Train softly remind us of the dangers of industrialism and Blake’s “dark satanic mills,” yet above all else, they call us to walk along the hedgerows, to wander around the ruined abbeys, to think about the meaning of life. They call us to get off of our computers, to put our phones down, to leave our hiding places and go out and appreciate life, nature, and who we are as humans. Life is only so short.
What a bountiful year 2013 has been for good music. All the albums on my Best Of list are destined to become classics, I’m sure! So, let’s count them down, all the way to Number 1:
11. TesseracT: Altered State. I’ll kick the list off with the most unabashedly heavy album, but one that has grown on me over the past few months. Ashe O’Hara is a terrific vocalist, and the band lays down a multilayered bed of crunching guitars, drums, and bass for him to soar over. The songs are divided into four groups, “Of Matter”, “Of Mind”, “Of Reality”, and “Of Energy”. These guys know their mathematics, as well! One of the songs is “Calabi-Yau”, and the artwork includes the E8 Root System, a hypercube, and an Apollonian sphere. Best track: “Nocturne” (Check out the moment of transcendence at 3:14) –
10. Riverside: Shrine of New Generation Slaves. Mariusz Duda’s side project, Lunatic Soul, has had a pronounced effect on Riverside’s music, and that’s all to the good, in my opinion. SoNGS is more melodic and varied than anything they’ve produced so far, and even though it came out early in 2013, it still stays close to my sound system. Go for the two-disc set, which adds two extended tracks that flirt with ambient jazz. Best track: “Feel Like Falling” –
9. Steven Wilson:The Raven That Refused To Sing. Very few artists push themselves as hard as Steven Wilson, and TRTRTS is another leap forward for him. I’m thinking at this point he’s left the world of prog, and he is his own genre. Not everything works – “Luminol” is too much Yes-jams-with-Herbie-Hancock for my taste, but when he clicks, no one comes close. Best track: the achingly beautiful “The Raven That Refused To Sing” –
8. Big Big Train:English Electric: Full Power. Much has been written on this site about the sheer wonderfulness of this collection. The care that went into the accompanying booklet is a joy to behold. The resequencing of songs works well, and the new opener “Come On Make Some Noise” is as fun as a classic Badfinger single from the 70’s. I’m a Tennessee boy, but I could easily spend the rest of my days in the pastoral Albion depicted in BBT’s Full Power. Best Track: “Uncle Jack” –
7. Cosmograf:The Man Left In Space. A sci-fi concept album about the dangers of all-consuming ambition and the isolation that results, this is a very satisfying album both musically and lyrically. One of the most-played discs of the year in my household. Best track: “Aspire Achieve” –
6. Ayreon: The Theory Of Everything. A recent release, so I haven’t had a chance to fully absorb this sprawling work. Arjen Lucassen is the Verdi of progressive rock, composing magnificent operas that explore what it means to be human in today’s dehumanizing times. For TTOE, Lucassen gathered the most talented roster of musicians and vocalists yet – including John Wetton, Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, Jordan Rudess, and Steve Hackett. The story itself leaves behind the sci-fi thread that previous Ayreon albums followed to chronicle the travails of a small group of family and colleagues torn apart by autism, deception, envy, academic ambition, and pride. Throw in a dash of the supernatural, and this is a very thought-provoking work. Best track: “Magnetism” –
And now it’s time for the Top Five!
5. Kingbathmat:Overcoming the Monster. This band has been very prolific lately, releasing Truth Button and Overcoming the Monster in a matter of months. OTM is a fantastic set of songs about the different “monsters” we all encounter in our day to day lives. Most impressive of all, Kingbathmat have developed a truly unique sound that is accessible yet new. I can’t wait to hear the next iteration of it. Best track: “Kubrick Moon” –
4. Sound Of Contact: Dimensionaut. I’m sure SoC’s vocalist and drummer Simon Collins is tired of comparisons to Genesis (he’s Phil’s son), but that is what first strikes the hearer of this outstanding album. Fortunately, repeated listening reveals SoC’s extraordinary talent in their own right. The songs themselves are perfectly constructed gems, and the production is top-notch. The band moves effortlessly from straight pop (“Not Coming Down”) to the most complex prog epic (“Mobius Strip”). Best track: “Pale Blue Dot” –
3. Days Between Stations:In Extremis. I’ve already written a full review of this immensely rewarding album in an earlier Progarchy post. Suffice it to say that this is already a classic. And Sepand Samzadeh is one of the nicest guys in the prog world! Best track: “Eggshell Man” –
2. Sanguine Hum: The Weight of the World. If XTC and Jellyfish had a child, Sanguine Hum might be it (with Frank Zappa for a godfather). This album is simply a delight to listen to, from start to finish. It’s one that reveals new details, regardless of how many times you hear it. Their secret weapon is Andrew Booker on drums. Reminiscent of Stewart Copeland’s work with The Police, Booker has a light and inventive touch that often becomes the lead instrument. The entire band generates an organic sound that is seductive and playful. Best track: “The Weight of the World” –
Album of the Year
1. Haken:The Mountain. Until a couple of months ago, I had never heard a note by this band. Fast forward to now, and there hasn’t been a 48-hour period when I haven’t listened to this album, in its entirety, at least once. An extraordinary meditation on the importance of never giving up on overcoming obstacles, The Mountain is a deeply moving work. Musically, it is progressive metal in the same vein as Dream Theater, Devin Townsend, and even Rush. Every single song is indispensable, but if I had to pick one, it would be “Pareidolia” –
Well, reader, thanks for hanging in there to the bitter end. I hope I’ve affirmed some of your own opinions and perhaps piqued some interest in an artist or two you’re not aware of yet. Here’s hoping 2014 is as good as 2013!
An exclusive interview with Greg Spawton of Big Big Train. Interview by progarchy editor, Brad Birzer. [N.B. I was going to write a longish introduction, but I’ll do that with the review of EEFP I’ll have up in the next day or two.]
Progarchy: Hello, again, Greg. I’m so glad you continue to be so generous with your time, and I’m deeply honored to have you do yet another interview with me. The order of the songs, BBT EE+4, is now set. In stone! How did you arrive at this ordering? I would guess you agonized over this, individually and as a group?
Greg Spawton: Thanks, Brad. We had four new tracks to accommodate and a listening experience as a long double album (as opposed to two single albums) to create and so there was a lot of discussion and consideration of various options. I wanted to create mini-suites out of some of the tracks with linked themes and that helped a bit as it drew some of the songs together. So, we had the Edgelands sequence of Seen Better Days / Edgelands / Summoned By Bells and the love-songs sequence with Winchester From St Giles’ Hill / The Lovers / Leopards and Keeper of Abbeys. Once those two sets of songs were in place it became easier to work the other tracks around them.
Progarchy: Do you see EEFP as a fundamentally different release from EE1 or EE2, or is it a fulfillment of the first two releases? A sort of baptism or sanctification?
Spawton: It’s a bit of both. Completists are likely to buy EEFLP even if they already own EE1 and EE2 and so we felt an obligation to create something new and different rather than just stick four new tracks on the end. But it also seems to have drawn all the threads together and, for us, it’s the ultimate expression of our work in this period of the band.
Progarchy: A followup, considering track order. You start with the very 1950s and 1960s rockabilly-ish “Make Some Noise,” but you end the entire collection with the–as I interpret the lyrics–suicide of the curator. Is this intentional?
Spawton: We knew those two songs had to be the bookends. Curator of Butterflies is not a song about suicide, although I can see why many people interpret it that way. It’s actually about life from the perspective of growing older. Now I’ve reached middle-age, I have a much greater awareness of how fragile life is. With my family and my good friends I find that awareness very burdensome. At home, I’m surrounded by teenagers and their take on life is entirely different. It’s fearless, they feel indestructible, they feel they have all the time in the world, whereas I sit back and wonder: ‘where did all the time go’? In Make Some Noise David captures the feelings of being young and full of hope and of dreams so we felt that had to be the opening statement. And as we had song from the perspective of an older person in Curator of Butterflies, it seemed right to put that one at the other end of the album.
Progarchy: Is the whole album, EEFP, still an album dealing with the dignity of labor, in all of its various forms?
Spawton: In old money, EEFLP is a triple album so there is room on there to explore a lot of different themes. One of the main themes of the album is about the dignity of labour. There have been major social changes in parts of Britain in the last 50 years and some communities in areas that used to rely almost solely on employment from the mines or docks or from heavy industry have lost their way because that employment has gone. I am not being nostalgic about this; I am well aware that those industries were very tough places to work. I spent a few minutes down a Victorian drift-mine recently and I cannot imagine what it would have been like to work a shift down there. However, what these industries did bring was a sense of pride in working hard and of the potential of communal endeavour. The loss of these things has been catastrophic for some communities.
Progarchy: Now that you’re done with EE–really three releases overall–how do you see your work with EE? That is, where does it fit in the history of BBT (besides, being the most recent thing)? How do you see it in the history of prog?
Spawton: If the band carries on in its current trajectory, we’re likely to end up selling about 30,000 copies of all of the EE albums. In the context of the huge 70’s progressive bands that is a tiny amount and we are only too aware that it can never have the sort of impact that Selling England by the Pound or Close to the Edge had. Having said that, it’s been a sequence of releases which has, I think, shown us at our best and has helped us to reach a wider audience and to get played on national radio in the UK. We’ve also grown as a band during the making of the albums. We are closer together as a unit and know what we can achieve. Danny has come onboard as keyboard player and has added a considerable amount to our sound. We’ve been able to work with a string quartet as well as the brass band and have been able to collaborate with some fabulous musicians and arrangers. And we are very pleased that we have been able to put together a release of 19 songs without any of them being there just to fill some space. Some songs are better than others, inevitably, but all have something to say and will, we hope, offer something to listeners.
Progarchy: A number of the new tracks reflect some really interesting influences, at least as I hear them. “Make Some Noise” seems very innocent and joyful, perhaps a pre-Byrds type of rock, the rock my mother danced to in college. “Seen Better Days” seems very Mark Hollis/Talk Talkish and then very jazzy. “Edgelands” again has a Talk Talkish feel. But, so very jazzy–an impressionistic jazz of the second half of the 1950s. “The Lovers” is proggy in a Canterbury, dramatic kind of way. Am I reaching, or were these influences intentional?
Spawton: I wouldn’t argue with any of those. We’re all fans of Talk Talk and the Canterbury scene. Influences are not something we think about during the creative process, though. I’d be a bit resistant to the idea of deliberately writing a song in the style of another band. For us, it’s an organic process of writing, arranging and performing. Influences often operate in a subliminal way and the writer may be unaware of how the listener will experience the songs.
Progarchy: The blending of songs into one another harkens back to The Difference Machine, and you’ve mentioned in a recent interview that your next studio album will be a concept album. Are you and BBT making a statement about where prog should be going with any of these decisions, or are you just taking your art as you feel so moved at the moment of creation?
Spawton: Honestly? We just write. Sometimes that is with something in mind (for example, where we need a song with a particular sound to help make a balanced album) but often it’s just what comes into our heads and falls under our fingers.
Progarchy: You’ve put so much into the booklet that accompanies EEFP. How much of the total art do you see in the packaging, the graphics, the photography. That is, how important is it to peruse the booklet rather than simply download the four new songs? We all lament the loss of the album sleeve, but you seem to have found away to recapture that glory. Again, was the booklet a group project, or did you work on this individually?
Spawton: Andy and Matt Sefton must take most of the credit for the overall design. Once we’d found Matt’s remarkable photos and he’d agreed to work with us, Andy was able to develop the overall shape of things using Matt’s images as the basis. The design of the packaging which carries our music is very important to us. Music is, of course, our primary concern and I have no problem with downloads. However, many people still prefer to experience music by purchasing physical releases and we put a huge amount of thought into making those items things of beauty and interest. Luckily, we found, in Chris Topham, a chap with a similar attention to detail for our vinyl releases and so we have worked with Chris and Plane Groovy to try to recapture the glory of the gatefold album cover.
Progarchy: A followup to the above question: you spend a significant part of the book honoring those that/who came before. As a historian, I love this. Again, how did you decide to do this? From my perspective, you’re tying in your work (adding all of those who contribute to BBT directly) with a whole lineage of English history and art. Any thoughts on the necessity and importance of this?
Spawton: I have been fascinated by history since I was a young child. In the 70’s, we had these beautifully-produced children’s books called Ladybird books in Britain and they were a big part of my early childhood. Looking back, they had a particular view of the world which wasn’t very nuanced (for example, the Roundheads were the goodies and the Cavaliers were the baddies) but they were spellbinding books with lovely artwork and they seemed to be able to transport me into those historic periods. As the band was developing I started to experiment with telling historical stories in the songs. Really, I think I’m just a frustrated historian without the outlet to write books so I used the ‘voice’ that I did have. I also began to become more aware of folk-music and that stories can be smaller and close to home and be just as interesting for people. And it’s the fact that the listeners are interested in these stories that has spurred me on. We get suggestions of stories sent to us now and there are so many interesting tales.
Progarchy: Again, somewhat related, it’s a stroke of genius to tie this release into the work–sadly, often forgotten or poorly remembered–of The Dukes of Stratosphear. Just how did you come to work with one of its members?
Spawton: When I got to know Dave Gregory I realised that he knew just about everybody in the music business. When we were working on The Lovers, David and Dave wanted the fusion section to be quite spacey and psychedelic and so we ended up asking Dave if he would mind giving Lord Cornelius Plum a call. Lord Plum hasn’t really been involved in music since The Dukes split up and we were delighted that he wanted to play a solo for us, albeit he insisted on playing the guitar backwards. I have to say, he’s still got the chops. He plays backwards guitar a lot better than I can play in the forward direction.
Progarchy: As you know, your fan base (getting larger, deservedly, by the moment!) craves knowledge about the future of BBT. Can you talk about how you plan to perform live? Where? With whom? When? What setlist (not exact, of course–no spoilers!)? Will Rob travel with you?
Spawton: Our live sound will be done by Rob, no question about that. We’re slowly gearing up for some live shows but we know that it requires careful planning. One of the things we are adamant about is that a live show will be an attempt to convey the whole BBT sound with brass and string sections. That is a complicated set-up and requires a fair bit of rehearsal. We’ve chosen Real World as a large studio environment which can accommodate us all and we are going to spend a week there next year working songs through and ironing out any live issues. The setlist will mainly feature songs from The Underfall Yard and English Electric, although we may also do some earlier songs. We’re going to film the rehearsals as that is a good way of recording a live set without the controlled chaos of being on stage. After Real World we’ll be looking to play a small number of shows and I think that we will then aim to play a handful of gigs every year. Just occasionally, progressive bands manage to crossover into a much broader audience (Steve Wilson being the best example) and, of course, if that happens then perhaps we can aim to tour more extensively. I think that is unlikely though and the main thing for us is not to try to put anything on that ends up losing a lot of money which could put the band’s finances out of kilter.
Progarchy: A followup. What about your future albums? Station Masters is coming in 2014. What about the next studio album? Can you tell us anything about it?
Spawton: Most of the next studio album is written and recording is under way. Nick is in England in late September so we’ll get another couple of days of drum recording done then. We may also do some recording at Real World. As you mentioned, it is a concept album with a story which David has been developing. It is not English Electric Part Three and it will be a little different but we are very excited about it. In the meantime, Station Masters is slowly moving forward and we aim for that to be a beautiful release.
Progarchy: What are the members of BBT listening to right now? If you could praise some current music, what would you praise? Or, any recent discoveries of older music? What about books? Anything that’s really grabbed your attention recently?
Spawton: There is so much great progressive music about at the moment and we have heard a number of excellent new releases so far this year. The nice thing is that we don’t feel in competition with anybody. There is a good feeling in progressive rock of us all being in it together, the bands and the listeners. Recently, I’ve had some fun working my way back though some of the classic 70’s albums and in the last few weeks I’ve been listening to a lot of Van Der Graaf Generator and PFM. I am looking forward to new music from Mew, Elbow and I have just bought the new Sigur Ros album. As for books, at the moment, I’m reading The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris and Britain Begins by Barry Cunliffe. And I’ve been reading a very interesting biography of Pink Floyd by Mark Blake. The book that has made the most impact on me in the last year was Working Lives by David Hall.
Progarchy: Again, Greg, thank you so much for your time. It’s always a pleasure.