Big Big Train, GRIMSPOUND (Giant Electric Pea, 2017). Tracks: Brave Captain; On the Racing Line; Experimental Gentleman; Meadowland; Grimspound; The Ivy Gate; A Mead Hall in Winter; and As the Crow Flies.
The band: Greg Spawton; Andy Poole; David Longdon; Nick D’Virgilio; Rachel Hall; Danny Manners; Dave Gregory; and Rikard Sjöblom.
The Rating: Perfect. Beyond prog.
Go, go, go said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
–T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton.”
There can be no doubt that Big Big Train is not just one of the best bands of third-wave prog, but also one of the best bands of the rock era. I suspected this when I first heard THE UNDERFALL YARD back in 2009 and was moved at every good level of my being. Subsequent releases from the band have only confirmed this for me. Every note, every lyric, and every brushstroke matter for the band. They take their music seriously, and they take us—their followers—seriously. Aside from the music (if there is, in any reality, such an “aside”), it’s clear that the two founders and mainstays of the band, Greg Spawton and Andy Poole, know how to form and leaven communities.
Big Big Train, FOLKLORE (Giant Electric Pea, 2016).
The band: Greg Spawton; Andy Poole; Danny Manners; David Longdon; Dave Gregory; Rachel Hall; Nick D’Virgilio; and Rikard Sjöblom. Engineered by Rob Aubrey.
Tracks: Folklore; London Plane; Along the Ridgeway; Salisbury Giant; The Transit of Venus Across the Sun; Wassail; Winkie; Brooklands; and Telling the Bees.
The centerpiece of third-wave prog, Big Big Train, matters. How they write music matters; how they write lyrics matters; how often they perform live matters; how they package their music matters; and how they market what they do matters. They are a band that has evolved significantly over twenty-plus years of existence, a restless band that never quite settles on this or that, but rather keeps moving forward even as they never stop looking back. In their art, they move forward; in their ideas, they move backward. All to the good.
Big Big Train, STONE AND STEEL (GEP, 2016), blu-ray; and Big Big Train, FROM STONE AND STEEL (GEP, 2016), download.
Twelve stones from the water. . . .
Yesterday, thanks to the fine folks at Burning Shed, the first blu-ray release from Big Big Train, STONE AND STEEL, arrived safely on American soil. Then, today, thanks to the crazy miracle of the internet, Bandcamp allowed me to download FROM STONE AND STEEL.
In a span of twenty-four hours, my musical world has been thrown into a bit of majestic ecstasy.
2016 might yet be the best year yet to be a fan/devotee/admirer/fanatic (oh, yeah: fan) of the band, Big Big Train. I’ve proudly been a Passenger since Carl Olson first introduced me to the band’s music around 2009. And, admittedly, not just A fan, but, here’s hoping, THE American fan. At least that’s what I wanted to be moments after hearing THE UNDERFALL YARD for the first time.
Big Big Train, ENGLISH BOY WONDERS (Giant Electric Pea, 1997; 2008)
14 Tracks on the re-released version, 2008. Interior/booklet art by Jim Trainer.
ENGLISH BOY WONDERS is, by far, the most “English” of all of Big Big Train’s albums. Articulate, intelligent, penetrating, and romantic, the album should properly be listened to under grey skies with fog clinging to the land, an iron-gated cemetery to one side and a beautiful pale-skinned, red-headed woman just out of reach on the other, with a slight bit of drizzle in 55-degree weather. The listener, of course, should be wearing tweed and fiddling with his pipe. Perhaps, he should also have a battered, leather copy of Wordsworth or Tennyson as well.
I exaggerate, but only slightly.
As explained at the EBW promotional site:
English Boy Wonders was originally recorded on a limited budget & released by GEP in a semi-complete state in 1997. It has been unavailable for many years. For the 2008 re-release, Big Big Train have returned to the original master tapes & have re-recorded much of the album. Additional sections of music have also been written to complete the album as it was once intended. A bonus track featuring Martin Orford has been included & the album has been completely remixed & remastered by Rob Aubrey.
English Boy Wonders tells the heart breaking story of a doomed relationship across its 80 minutes of music & words. The album is a unique blend of progressive rock & English pop featuring many of Big Big Train’s finest songs.
Never shy about his melancholic, autumnal imagination, Greg Spawton actively and openly wrote a heart-wrenching story about loss on this second Big Big Train album. And, not just loss. . . but desire, hope, longing, and unrequited love.
For those of us—and we are becoming immense in our numbers—who have come to fall in love with David Longdon’s voice (a voice I consider to be the single finest in the current era of rock), it’s difficult to hear BBT without him. And, yet, on EBW, it was so. No Longdon. Not yet. He’s not the only one missing. A quick look reveals, of course, no Manners. No D’Virgilio. No Gregory.
Holy schnikees, what is this thing I hold so delicately in my hands? How can it be so great as it is without those four distinctive personalities?
Well, at least Poole and Spawton are here. And, thank the Northern pantheon of gods, very much so. One can hear them and their brilliance in every note. Not only is EBW so very English, it is so very BBT. The complexity of the arrangements, the searing guitar, the swirling keyboards, the anxious drums, and Spawton’s heart rending lyrics. Yes, this is Big Big Train. With all BBT releases, Spawton and Poole never shy away from reflecting those they admire. There’s some mid-period Genesis here, but there is also quite a bit of atmospheric jazz, with keyboards and drums far more daring than Collins and Banks ever tried.
And, for the newer release, the unofficial member of the band, that Anglos-audiophilic genius Rob Aubrey lends his extraordinary skills to EBW.
While the entire album is excellent and a must own, the tracks that lodge themselves firmly in the soul and mind are “Albion Perfide,” “Out of It,” “Reaching for John Dowland” and “The Shipping Forecast.”
Tracks: Wassail; Lost Rivers of London; Mudlarks; and Master James of St. George.
As far as I know, I’ve never tasted Wassail.
Of course, I come from Bavarian peasant stock and possess, sadly, not a drop of Anglo-Saxon or Celtic blood in my veins. My wife, however, is blessed with Celtic as well as Swedish ancestry, and I’m more than happy to have played a role in passing those genes on to our rather large gaggle of children.
As far back as I remember, though, my very German-American family drank something that sounds quite similar, at least in essence if not in accidents, to Wassail, Gluhwein. Even the very word Gluhwein conjures not just the scents of warm cinnamon, cloves, and anise, but also the idea of heavenly comfort and satiation.
Much the same could be said of all of Big Big Train’s music. Not that it doesn’t have its share of tensions and darker moments within the music, but, it’s hard to imagine a band in the world today that better understands the goods and beauties of this world than does Big Big Train. They find glory in even the most ordinary of things. And, rightly so.
Wassail is a triumph, frankly. Not a huge triumph in the way The Underfall Yard or English Electric were each immense, almost overwhelming, triumphs, but a triumph, nonetheless.
A good, little truth.
In Greek, one would employ a word that has become utterly perverted over the last hundred years to describe Wassail best: a “dogma.” Literally, translating it from Greek to Latin, a dogma means a “good little thing,” a thing good in and of itself whether we understand its relation to larger truths or not.
Such is Wassail. A good little truth, whether we understand its relation to anything else or not. Only four songs at 25 minutes and 39 seconds, Wassail ends all too quickly. And, yet, for those nearly 26 mintues it plays, it fills our souls to the brim.
The opening song, “Wassail,” is a sing-songy English folk tune, completely with poetic and thoughtful lyrics. Here is the apple—the symbol of the devil, the instrument that caused the Fall, and the fruit that, to this day, brings so much love and joy. How can one thing be so loaded down by so many meanings—from the very existence of the universe and our relation in it, to the very thing that serves at the heart of what our grandmothers make best? This is a Longdon song, pure and simple. It is, for all intents and purposes, the sequel to Hedgerow, but without the rock edge.
The second song, “Lost Rivers of London,” is as much a Greg Spawton-song as the first was a Longdon song. What remains of the ancient world under the very streets of the city that represents so much good and truth in this world? What has nature wrought, our ancestors cultivated, and our current generation forgotten? These are quintessential Spawton questions, and, of course, true to Gregorian form, he serves as our modern natural historian, our urban archeologist, and our prog bard.
The third song, “Mudlarks,” is also a Spawton song, but its fullness comes across as a Big Big Train song more than the song of any one person. On “Mudlarks,” every member of the band, contributes and plays his or her heart out. Of the four songs, this is the most pop-rock oriented, despite the use of a whole set of rather folksy strings.
The final song of the EP, “Master James of St. George,” reveals just how much the band has evolved since the song first appeared—rather gloriously—on The Underfall Yard. Recorded live at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios, this version of “Master James” is much more layered than the original. Whereas the original offered a folksy minimalism, this version is layered almost beyond reason. The new strings add much but what really comes to the fore in this version is Danny Manner’s keyboards.
The Wassail version of “Master James” in no way makes the original obsolete. Quite the opposite. This new version just makes those of us who love BBT justifiably a little prouder of them. For, really, this version shows just how truly alive their music is, how much depth it possesses, and long it will be remembered. . . long after any of us have vanished from this world.
Let us just hope when we get there (wherever “there” is), we know which apple to choose. It’s pretty clear that BBT wishes us well, and they’ve even kindly provided the soundtrack for that journey.
Cosmograf’s CAPACITOR is everything a rock album should be. And, I do mean EVERYTHING. EVERY. SINGLE. THING. It is wholesome, fractured, creepy, uplifting, contemplative, mythic, existentialist, moving, intense, wired, dramatic, contemplative, Stoic, mystifying, weird, satisfying, honed, nuanced, dark, and light.
The Meaning of It All
If I could capture the album in one sentence, comparing it to other forms of art, I would and will put it this way: CAPACITOR is an Edwardian journey into the Hades of the Ancient Greeks but emerging in BIOSHOCK.
Then, think about the artists involved. Andy Tillison plays keyboards on it. Matt Stevens plays guitar on it. Nick Beggs and Colin Edwin play bass on it. NVD plays all of the drums. Our modern master of sound, Rob Aubrey, the Phill Brown of our day, engineered it.
[Correction: from Rob Aubrey. My apologies for getting the credits and terms mixed up. “Hi All, Actually I didn’t ENGINEER it as such…. I recorded the Drums with NDV and then everything else was Produced and Engineered by Robin… He Mixed the album at home and I was here in an advisory role, just giving a hand when he ran into problems or I felt things needed more work. Robin and I mastered the album together just a few Months ago on my studio system here (Pro Tools) using all of his original sessions so Robin could make adjustments to the overall dynamic and “tweak” individual sounds if necessary. I cannot take credit for much as Robin really is the genius here!”]
Then, of course, there’s the artist supreme, the writer, director, and producer of it all, Robin Armstrong. English wit, critic, musician, lyricist, father, husband, entrepreneur, and demigod of chronometry, Armstrong is one of the most interesting persons of our day and age. He’s already proven everything an artist should in his previous albums, especially in The Man Left in Space.
Armstrong is a driven man, and it’s impossible to think of him without thinking not only of perfectionism, but also of his insatiable desire to perfect a thing even more so. In terms of constitution, he is probably incapable of doing otherwise. We all benefit from his unrelenting drive.
On the latest album, CAPACITOR, Armstrong explores the Edwardian fascination with spiritualism, giving us not “steam punk” but what should be called “vacuum tube punk,” something quite different from that of either H.G. Wells or Bruce Sterling.
The statement “energy cannot be created or destroyed” appears in print, in word, and in song multiple times on CAPACITOR. If this is true, Armstrong asks through his characters and story, where does our energy—our soul—go after the body fails us? We are everywhere and in every time, he notes, surrounded by the ghosts of the dead. Even if we don’t personally believe in an afterlife, we see “what they left with us.”
Ghosts appear frequently on the album, as does a vaudevillian preacher and a spiritual medium. In the end, though, especially by the final two tracks, Armstrong is critiquing the rise and predominance of “the machine,” any gadget that mechanizes us, makes us less than human, and distracts or captures our very soul and very essence, thus diminishing our humanity.
The person, it seems, can never be fully an individual without body and soul, not in war with one another, but in healthy tension.
The Meaning of It All, Continued
Musically, CAPACITOR immerses us into perfection itself. See above for the musicians Armstrong has brought together. He’s obviously a creator of community and a leavenor of talent. He’s also within the prog tradition, with musical passages inspired by, indirectly, Porcupine Tree, Pink Floyd, Big Big Train, and The Tangent and, directly, The Beatles. Indeed, one of the most rousing moments musically comes in “The Reaper’s Song,” a song that, in large part, pays homage to THE MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR by the Beatles (1967).
Sitting in a station, waiting for a train to come
Frighten all the people, standing on the platform
Trying not to push them over
Trains are gonna crush them
Stupid little people
Stupid little people
Another track, “White Car,” has absolutely nothing to do with the unfinished fragment of the Yes song from DRAMA (1980). Yes’s song will have to continue in my soul as an unresolved enigma until the end of time.
It goes without stating (though, I will state it anyway!), the last several years have been not only amazing when it comes to rock, but they have also been, probably, the best years in the history of progressive rock.
2014 has been no different.
Please, however, don’t think of Cosmograf’s CAPACITOR as merely another Cosmograf release or as merely another prog rock release.
Of course, there is no such thing as “just another Cosmograf release,” though we might become a bit jaded when it comes to another “prog rock release.” There’s so much coming out at the moment, it would be understandable—if not forgivable—to take the historic moment for granted. Even with the somewhat overwhelming number of music cds appearing over the last several years, CAPACITOR is truly something special and, dare I use a word overused and misused for its sappiness, precious.
From my way of thinking, CAPACITOR is the best cd of 2014 and one of the best prog rock releases of all time. It is, at least this year, the one for all others to surpass. I very much look forward to those who embrace the challenge.