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’

secondbrighteststar

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’

Exactly

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.

 

2015, a musical review

Hello Prog Pickers, happy 2016, where the hell did last year go?

It feels a bit bittersweet really sitting here and compiling this, as I am writing this the same day that I heard that David Bowie died, and I am sure that by the time I am writing next years review that Blackstar will be up there amongst the releases of 2016.

Time to reflect on a year full of personal changes and successes as well as the loss of a close friend that hit me hard.

Throughout the highs and lows and in-between bits that make up life in the 21st century music has been one of my constant companions, and trying to whittle down the best (in my humble opinion) albums of the last twelve months is no easy business, with such a slew of strong releases from new names and existing bands, trying to get this list into shape has been like trying to herd cats, and there have been some great albums by artists like Steven Wilson, Guapo, District 97, Dave Sturt, John Hackett, Jeff Lynne’s ELO, Tim Bowness and Guy Garvey that didn’t make the cut, not to mention releases by artists like Bruce Soord and Arcade Messiah that I haven’t even heard yet.

The only criteria for this list is that the album had to be a new release from the last year, so the wonderful 5.1 Yes remasters, the 5.1 Jethro Tull boxes, Esoterics excellent Anthony Phillips reissues, King Crimsons Thrak box and the Steve Hackett Premonitions set and David Bowies Five Years (1969-1973) all fall by the wayside.

Maybe when I get to the point where in one year I’ve listened to more new old music than new music I may redefine the criteria, but as the joy of experiencing new music is one of lifes pleasures I hope that year is a long way off.

So, this here list is it A) chronological? No. B) Alphabetical? No. C) All my own personal opinion? Totally and irrefutably.

So any typos, artists missing or albums you think should have been included, that’s all the authors fault!

Lets dive in and see what 2015 left me with…

tregeagle

 

Napier’s Bones

Tregeagles Choice

www.napiersbones.bandcamp.com

A new name to me, UK prog duo Napiers Bones released their second album, and Nathan Jon Tillett and Gordon Midgley have a definite vision of storytelling, that fits comfortably in the classic prog mould.

With its roots in Cornish Folklore, the album has lots in common with folk rock operas like Fairport Conventions Babbacombe Lee or Peter Bellamys The Transports whilst neatly slotting into the prog storytelling genre occupied by artists like Ayreon or Rick Wakeman.

The mood from start to finish mirrors the story as it mixes it blends of folk themes, with some fantastical musical highs as it runs the gamut of classical prog, heavier guitar based tracks, and beautiful piece of guitar soloing over some of the most atmospheric keyboards I have heard for a long time. This is musical double hander as the story drives the music, and the songs are more performed rather than sung. I think that this epic performance would work wonders as a musical.

The way the music, the story and the vocals pull you into the record are a testament to the vision of Napiers Bones, and both Tillet and Midgley should rightly be proud of this musical achievement.

.raging silence

This Raging Silence: Isotopes and Endoscopes

www.thisragingsilence.com

Bristol based progressive quartet, This Raging Silence released their debut album earlier this year, and the 6 epic tracks on here are just sublime to listen to.

Formed by Jeff Cox, John Tyrer, Dave Appleford and Garry Davies the sound is very much towards the darker end of the prog sound as heavy riffs and driving bass flow through the album. In fact this album is beautifully performed as whole, the mood changes deftly and intricately and the way the band bounce off each other throughout is a delight to listen to. Sitting at the more atmospheric and darker end of the prog spectrum, this is a rare old treat and an album that anyone who gives houseroom to Porcupine Tree, District 97 or Trojanhorse will enjoy.

magnet

The Fierce and the Dead: Magnet

Bad Elephant Music

www.badelephant.co.uk

I know it’s an EP but there are more musical ideas crammed onto these 4 tracks than some bands have in a lifetime and astonishingly it’s been two years since experimental instrumental noiseniks The Fierce and the Dead released the acclaimed Spooky Action album, having seen them live several times in that period, the new music here on the Magnet EP shows how far they have travelled and evolved musically since then.

Magnet in Your Face is just short of two minutes worth of intense guitar duels hooked on a mighty riff that takes your breath away and as an introduction almost leaps out and says ‘Hello, did you miss us??’ the four piece of Kevin Feazey, Matt Stevens, Steve Cleaton and Stuart Marshall never stand still, they’re sound is continuously evolving over every release, whilst remaining true to their ethos. The interplay between all four members here is key to their success, they are in the truest form a group, there is no one dominant member, and that’s what makes this music work so well, they know each other so well that they can bounce off each other and drive the music on. There is no ego here, there is only art. If you haven’t joined the Fierce and the Dead cult yet, then you need to buy Magnet, its pull is irresistible.

halotora

Halo Tora: Omni/One

www.halotora.com

Another band I hadn’t heard of before this year this is Halo Toras debut album, and having heard good things about them from other friends I was intrigued as to what they would sound like. They have worked hard on the road and as a result their debut is as strong a piece of atmospheric post prog that I have had the pleasure to listen to.

The band, Chris Alexander (guitar/vocals) Ian McCall (guitar/vocals) Mark Young (bass) Chris McKeown (drums) and Ryan Connery (keyboards) use all the musical tools and skill at their disposable to intricately layer dense and subtle musical soundscapes, which like on Permanent revolution build and build as their vocals and guitars intertwine. This is a fantastically well-written debut album, and works on so many levels from the music, the lyrics and the deft interplay between the band.

dodson and fogg

Dodson & Fogg: Warning Signs

http://wisdomtwinsbooks.weebly.com/dodson-and-fogg-cds.html

Warning Signs, is one man musical revolutions Chris Wades strongest musical statement to date, hinting at a very different approach, gone are the striking paintings and images that normally adorn the albums, instead the cover is a moody photo of Chris, showing for the first time on the album cover the man behind the music. The songs are more intimate and feel more like a singer/songwriter album of the early 70’s, than a psychedelic project.

More personal and with a wonderful production, that sounds like Chris is singing in your front room and the album is imbued with warmth and charm, from the Beatle esque title track to the wonderfully guitar heavy Following the Man, with its great lyrics and chord driven sound its another wonderful slice of 70’s rock, with a great solo, reminding us how great a guitarist Chris is. This is an exciting and interesting slight change of direction for Chris, and adds so much more to the Dodson and Fogg sound, being a superb example of the singer songwriter genre.

sanguine hum

Sanguine Hum: Now We Have Light

Esoteric Records EANTCD21042

www.esotericrecordings.com

Third album in and Sanguine Hum are continuing to fulfil their musical promise that last studio album the Weight of the World delivered, and not only that they have delivered us a genuine contemporary prog magnum opus in the process.

Now We Have Light, with it’s startlingly eye-catching artwork that is intrinsic to the story is a double album of majestic proportions.

Running the whole gamut of classic prog, via rock, jazz and some beautifully layered sounds, amazing vocal harmonies, and intense musical sections like on Bubble Trouble that will blow your mind, this is an astonishing album.

From the introduction of Desolation Song, nicely setting the musical scene, and carried through tracks like Getting Warmer, and the brilliantly titled ‘Shit!’ the Hum are a musical powerhouse, welding their influences together to create a coherent, immersive whole.

Add in the driving rock and funk of Cat Factory with it’s array of real synths, and superb musical interplay with a propelling bass and a great big crunchy riff is an instrumental highlight, whilst the sublime End of the Line carries through the narrative into the centrepiece of Disc 2, the 5 part Spanning the Eternal Abyss, which pulls in so many musical styles, and weaves them together beautifully, that by the time that Settle Down with its great synth work has finished, you are blown away by the power of Sanguine Hum.

This multi-layered and exciting record proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Sanguine Hum are one of the best progressive bands on the planet.

71R0HHLaiqL._SY355_

Lonely Robot: Please Come Home

www.insideoutmusic.com

This is John Mitchells latest musical project, having contributed to Frost*, Arena, It Bites and many other projects over the years Johns talents as a guitarist, vocalist and producer are undisputed. This album reaffirms the stamp of quality that John brings to any album he works on, and is a fantastic piece of work from the opening instrumental power of Airlock, featuring the unique talents of Jem Godfrey to the closing The Red Balloon; this is a powerful album of amazing musical moments and haunting beauty. Dealing with alienation, loneliness and the human condition the lyrics are never short of genius, and the music is atmospheric, haunting and elegiac throughout.

As albums go this is a stunningly original record, with some majestic songwriting from John Mitchell, and like all great producers he knows how to cherry pick the best collaborators to bring something of themselves to his album, and still maintain his overall identity.

Grand Tour

Grand Tour Heavy on the Beach

www.grandtourmusic.org

This wonderfully evocative concept album is the culmination of years of work from former Abel Ganz man Hew Montgomery, and is based around his fascination with all things Cold War and Nuclear, and seems unnervingly contemporary with the challenges the world is facing today with a resurgent Russia and the rise of Islamic State. Joined by the vocal talents of Joe Cairney, and Mark Spalding on guitar and Bruce Levick on drums, this is a band of no mean talent, and this album delivers the goods time after time.

With swathes of vast Floydian keyboard work, and real epic movements, this is a slice of classic concept prog, with wonderfully direct lyrics from Cairney that reference the beach time after time, and with motifs that crop up throughout the album, this is a piece of art that has to be listened to all the way through.

Like all the best concepts from Dark Side of the Moon, to Le Sacre du Travail, this isn’t an album to dip into. It’s all or nothing, and with the devastatingly powerful instrumental Little Boy and the Fat Man, referencing the two nuclear devices that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the two part track The Grand Tour which almost bookends the album, and the superb title track that is classic prog given a contemporary twist, this album is magnificent in every sense of the word.

The hard work that Hew has put into this pays off magnificently and I would say this is his crowning musical achievement so far.

psb

Public Service Broadcasting The Race for Space

www.publicservicebroadcasting.net

English musical duo Public Service Broadcastings raison D’Etre is creating musical soundscapes based around old film footage. Taking as their concept for album number 2 is the Space Race between the USSR and the USA and their starting point is setting John F Kennedy’s speech about The Race for Space to haunting choral music, (with motifs that reoccur throughout the album) and ending with the last manned moon landing.

The artwork for this album is wonderful, two different covers on either side of the record showing either the American or the Russian perspective, and a beautiful booklet in the vinyl edition, which I had to have.

From the driving Sputnik, the jazz funk of Gagarin and then the haunting tribute to the astronauts killed in the Apollo 1 disaster (Fire in the Cockpit) and the celebration of Valentina Tereshkova who became the first woman in space (Valentina, with guest vocals from the Smoke Fairies) and the elegiac closing Tomorrow (when Apollo 17 became the last manned flight to leave the Moon), this album sets itself as referencing a specific period in time, when, with space flight anything seemed possible.

The beauty of Public Service Broadcasting is their use of archive recordings, and matching the music to the mood to evoke a golden era of interstellar travel when everything seemed possible, and it’s 43 minutes plus brings that period back to life and reminds us musically of a time when we spent looking at the stars in optimism, instead of gazing down at our feet.

The Dead Astronaut

The Dead Astronaut

www.thedeadastronautuk.bandcamp.com

Hi-Fiction Science guitarist and songwriter James McKeown recently released his latest solo album under the sobriquet The Dead Astronaut, a hauntingly beautiful and occasionally uncomfortably personal record, it s a triumph of the songwriting craft.

From it’s haunting and sparse artwork by highly regarded designer Carl Glover, to the musical contents, the album is as different from Hi Fiction Science as is possible to get, and has a loose narrative written around some highly personal and emotional issues experienced by James.

With a small core of collaborators, including HFS band mates Aidan Searle and Jeff Green and guitarist Paul Bradley, one of the sounds that is at the heart of this record, and believe me, this is a record that is full of heart and soul, is the cello of Charlotte Nicholls, which, when coupled with the emotionally raw and confessional style of songs that James presents here, adds so much to the texture and the tone of the record, and yes, I am talking about a record as I opted for the vinyl edition, which is a pure immersive experience to listen to.

The word bleak comes up again and again when describing the themes on this album, and this shouldn’t ever put you off, there is beauty in this darkness, and whilst James is pouring out his heart, the production and the music adds warmth, almost like the song is giving him a big hug as he’s singing it.

This album has a very English sound to it, and the pared back sound allows the songs to breath and the lyrics to shine, it’s like the difference between early Pink Floyd records and Syd Barrett solo records.

You can hear the humanity and the raw emotions on display throughout this album, and again you can feel it, through the music, the lyrics and the sparse packaging, this isn’t an album that can be ignored.

Once it’s in your heart and in your head it takes over the room you are listening to it, and it’s one of those albums that demands your attention, and rewards your listening time and time again.

wearekin

We Are Kin: Pandora

Bad Elephant Music

www.badelephant.co.uk

Every so often a record drops through the door (or in this case on email) from a label who are kind enough to let us review their latest offerings, and you know nothing of the band, nothing of what to expect from the album, and you put it on with a sense of anticipation, and excitement (as I still get a massive buzz from hearing new music, and hope I always do) and then as you immerse yourself in the record, and listen to it, you find you’ve found the sort of record that stays with you forever.

This is one of those records. I listened to it once, then again, and again, and again each time getting more and more out of it.

Manchester based band We are Kin (Dan Zambas and Gary Boast, now fleshed out by newer members Lee Braddock, Lauren Smith and Adam McCann) are purveyors of the sort of atmospheric prog rock that grows layer on layer, subtly and intelligently. Pandora is a very specific sound and style, and the overall concept is that of artificial intelligence, and its uses, and this is what drives the sound along, with original vocalist Hannah Cotterill in fine form on opener Home Sweet Home, and the music here has space to breathe and grow. Nothing is forced, nothing jars, everything ebbs and flows like a good story or album should do. As Soul builds and builds to a magnificent climax, then we head deep into concept territory as Scottish poet Alex Dunedin guests on the impassioned and exceptional The Speech, which leads into the magnificent The Hard Decision, whilst Zambas vocals shine throughout the album, especially on The Weight of the World, whilst the closing Breathe Out is as fine a piece of music as you are likely to hear anywhere this year.

This record from start to finish, from concept to execution, and from production to performance is as close to perfection as you are going to get. The music, the lyrics, the story all flows together and it transcend genre and sound to become something timeless and original and new. If I were to nominate a record that sums up 2015 for me, this would be it, it’s become part of the fabric of my musical life and a record that I can’t recommend enough to everyone.

slatter

Tom Slatter: Fit The Fourth

Bad Elephant Music

www.badelephant.co.uk

Tom Slatter is a unique beast in the world of contemporary music, in that he doesn’t, in any way sound like anyone else, or fit neatly into a pigeonhole or pre-determined genre. This makes my job a little harder, but his music a lot more exciting.

This is Tom’s fourth full-length release, and his first under the wings (or trunk) of the Bad Elephant boys, whose musical taste is set to eclectic, and whose first vision is do we like it? And then, if we like it, someone else will!

Tom is considered steam punk prog, and is probably the only one in that genre, he’s one on his own this lad, not just a multi-instrumentalist, but also a weaver or worlds and teller of tales, Toms narrative comes from the dark nights round the campfire where you would try to scare each other, or weave more fantastically intricate stories into your narrative. The brilliant opener Some of the Creatures have Broken the Locks on the door to Lab 558 sets the imagination racing with just the title, and the post apocalyptic science fiction story that evolves is reminiscent of early Doctor Who or Quatermass, and sets the tone for the rest of this darkly compelling album. Seven bells John is to the fore on The Steam Engine Murders and the trial of Seven-Bells, which is gothic noir, mixed with music hall and penny dreadfuls, With his mix of Victoriana, steam punk, prog and narrative drive, this is a wonderful album that deserves to be listened to and appreciated, as a record unlike any other you’ll hear this year.

transgression

Theo Travis Double Talk: Transgression

Esoteric Antenna EANTCD1052

www.esotericrecordings.com

British saxophonist, flautist and clarinettist Travis is the go to man for many artists including and this new album produced by Steven Wilson, showcases why Travis is the premier jazz rock saxophonist of his generation. With his taut band Mike Outram (guitar) Pete Whittaker (organ) and Nic France, Transgression showcases the versatility of the man himself, with a mixture of new material and reinterpretations of classic pieces (like Robert Wyatt & Phillip Catherine’s Maryam). The line between the type of jazz that Travis is proficient at, and progressive rock is a very fine one, and this crosses those borders with style and aplomb. A particular highlight and stand out track here is the reworking of Travis and Tangent main man Andy Tillison’s co-write (and title track of 2006 Tangent album) A Place in the Queue, with the subtle reworking of Travis sax, the organ of Pete Whittaker and the deft and intricate interplay between the band, it takes the original and goes somewhere new and exciting with it, and I have no doubt that Andy Tillison would approve. Elsewhere the co-write with Dave Sturt the fantastic Everything I Feared, and the epic title track that showcases the best of Theo Travis and his tight band, his versatility, his power and his dextrous musical performances are a joy to behold. I find, as I am getting a little older I am starting to really get into the grooves and the places that well played sax jazz takes you, and this album is wonderful. In fact I would go so far to say its probably more progressive than most of the progressive releases I have heard all year.

ostinato

Stephen W Tayler: Ostinato

Esoteric Antenna EANCT1054

www.esotericrecordings.com

Not a name many will be familiar with, however Stephen W Tayler is a versatile and talented producer, engineer, sound designer and mixer who has worked with such talents as Peter Gabriel, Underworld, Howard Jones, Rush and most recently Kate Bush (on her latest records and her recent live performances).

Here, his musical vision unfolds through an intense, exciting and beautiful journey, mixing the minimalism of Terry Riley or Phillip Glass with the electronica of John Foxx or Tangerine Dream. With powerful metronomic rhythms, subtle and haunting electronics and distorted electronic voices, the album starts with the powerful trance like Euro Star (reminiscent of the more ambient stylings of Rob Duggan), whilst the percussive power of Peripherique is an astonishing musical tour de force, the driving percussion, the electronic sounds, the pulsing beat throughout, propel the track into your mind, and it’s not hard to imagine chilling out to this in a club scene.

Drawing on his 40 years of experience in the music industry and experience working with many great artists, this album is full of beautiful sonic sounds, and the tracks insinuate themselves into your head and take you on a musical journey, the pulsating Metro is like taking a ride on the ubiquitous train, whilst the wonderful final track The Boy Who Said Yes features a sample of the 13 year old Stephen W Tayler performing Breet/Weills Der Jasager, and works beautifully in the context of the album.

This is a refreshing, exciting and absorbing piece of contemporary electronica.

Gavin Harrison

Gavin Harrison: Cheating the Polygraph

www.gavharrison.com

The effect of Gavin Harrison’s rather spectacular new album is an astonishing, intelligent reinterpretation of Porcupine Tree songs, and whilst the song remains the same, the sound really doesn’t.

Instead of the sonic experimentations and haunting undertones that you get from a great Steven Wilson song, this is the pinnacle of the art of reinvention (and one other artists can learns from) because Harrison (who I assume everyone knows – if not, he’s one of the finest drummers in the world today, heir apparent to Bill Brufords jazz prog throne) and collaborator Lawrence Cottle have skilfully and adeptly produced a damn fine jazz album. And man, does it swing!

This covers the whole gamut from Porcupine Tree’s mighty back catalogue, and the skilful swing driven funk adaptation of The Pills I’m Taking (from Fear of Blank Planets Anaesthetize suite) is mighty to hear, and takes the track so far from the original, that you do have to jump back and listen and compare. It’s like the Baz Luhrman Romeo and Juliet film, the original source material is there, you just have to dig a little deeper to find it.

The sinewy bass drives the inspired combination of Lightbulb Suns Hatesong with Deadwings Halo, and it’s like the two were meant to be together, as the sinister undertones and the brass mix together to create a piece that could have fallen off a 1970’s film noir soundtrack, and then the funk kicks in. With a skilful jazz orchestra and of course Harrisons taut powerful drumming underpinning the whole affair, it allows Cottle and Harrison to go out there in reinterpreting and rearranging these classic songs, as trumpet, trombone and sax duel with each other as familiar riffs appear and sneak off into the ether, as the full band kicks in with some mighty power, and of course Harrisons glorious drumming and some amazing bass work.

This is a covers album like no other, and with the way these Porcupine Tree songs have been remained and so expertly dissected and reassembled, it is one of the most progressive releases (and the most enjoyable) you’ll hear so far this year!

tangent1

The Tangent A Spark in the Aether

www.thetangent.org

On this epic release Andy has swapped the realism of Le Sacre du Travail for escapism, and the sometimes-introverted imagery of Le Sacre for what can only be described as a full on prog rock album, with the emphasis firmly on rock.
Instead of the view from the windscreen, this is far more the view from the widescreen.
Starting with the wonderful title track with its mammoth keyboard riff, and lyrics looking at the current state of the prog scene (in rude health currently) the lyrical theme of this (and several other songs) is a musical equivalent of those TV documentaries that revisits communities after a period of time to see where they are now, and is revisited as a coda on the album as a gargantuan keyboard based musical celebration, with the wonderfully catchy chorus rounding the record off.
This revisitation of themes from The Music that Died Alone is continued on the unashamedly prog Codpieces and Capes, covering musical bases from Yes to Tull and all points in betweens, it reflects on themes originally riffed on during Suppers Off, about the fact that there are many fantastic bands including the Tangent who are out there still making relevant albums, whilst 5.1 reissues get more sales and coverage.
This opening quartet is closed off by the epically Floydian Aftereugene, with its epic slow build, and then a barely muttered “careful with that sax, Eugene”, before Theo Travis is let loose on his Saxes in a manic jazz explosion.
The centrepiece of the album, the 21 minutes plus The Celluloid Road, is an Andy Tillison Disk drive-through that takes us travelling through mythical America as seen on the big screen. Really letting loose and rarely letting up it covers more genres than your average HMV, with the band firing on all cylinders as the Tangent V8 drives us coast to coast, and finishes in the brilliantly funky pounding rock of San Francisco.
As evocative as the movies and shows that are name checked it makes me want to go on a stateside road trip, with Andy as my tour guide. This album is big, bold, and loud and demands to be played live.

Hope you enjoyed my list and a big thank you to all the artists and creative types who helped brighten up 2015 with some amazing records, concerts and videos, here’s to 2016.

Me