One of the wildest and most disturbing aspects of modernity is how compartmentalized everything becomes. One important thing (a person, an idea, an institution) becomes isolated and, in its isolation, takes on its own importance, its own language (jargon), and, naturally, its own abstraction.
During the past 100 years, a number of groups have tried to combat this. In the U.K., most famously, there were a variety of literary groups: The Inklings; the Bloomsbury Group; and the Order Men. In the States, there were the southern Agrarians, the Humanists, the Lovecraftians, and the women (no official name–but Isabel Patterson, Claire Boothe Luce, Dorothy Thompson, and Rose Wilder Lane) who met for tea once a week and shared stories.
The first such known group in the English-speaking group was the Commonwealth Men, meeting in London taverns from 1693 to 1722, attempting to combine British Common Law thinking with classical and ancient philosophy.
Hello Progarchists! I’m back. . . though a little later than I had meant to be.
For those two of you (ha) who you have been waiting eagerly to know my favorite album of 2017, I give you not one album. Oh no, not one. . . but two albums and two EPs: Grimspound; Second Brightest Star; London Song; and the Merry Christmas EP.
All by one band, of course. And not just any band, but an extraordinary band. The best prog band in the world (tied with Glass Hammer, at least to my ears and soul), the band that reveals every.single.thing.that.is.good.in.prog, Big Big Train.
Greg, David, Dave, Nick, Rachel, Rikard, Andy, Danny, and, that 9th BBTer, Rob—congratulations. Whatever other hells happened in the world in 2017, 2017 will always be, to me, the “Year of Big Big Train.” You overwhelmed us not with quantity, but with quality. And, dare I say it: with love.
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.
I’ve been thinking alot about BBT today and going through my CD and blu-ray collection of their albums. I must admit, all of the art BBT commissions and inspires is pretty amazing (do the Brits use “pretty” as a modifier, or is this an Americanism?).
I have an original Jim Trainor hanging in my college office, after all. I’m rather taken with it.
Looking at Sarah Ewing’s cover for FOLKLORE today, I found my way to her official website. I found myself gazing in dazed amazement. What an eye and imagination she has.
If you have a few moments, treat yourself and fall head over heels into her world. It’s quite glorious. So much so that it took me a bit to come to my world. Thank you, Sarah. What a treat.
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.