Issue 2012-040: Big Big Train - English Electric (Part One) - Round Table Review
Tracklist: The First Rebreather (8:32), Uncle Jack (3:49), Winchester From St Giles' Hill (7:16), Judas Unrepentant (7:18), Summoned By Bells (9:17), Upton Heath (5:39), A Boy In Darkness (8:03), Hedgerow (8:52)
Alison Henderson's Review
"Hack a path through the briars and push open the gate. The creak is a music that wakes the dead and gives them permission to keep haunting us."
This quote from Rob Young’s superb book "Electric Eden" offers the best possible introduction to what English Electric (Part One) is all about. As he expounds in his book the visionary music which has shaped Britain’s heritage, Big Big Train have virtually written its next chapter with this immense album that scales the heights and breadths of what makes England resonate through its natural and cultural history. What makes it so extraordinary is the way it has been moulded musically to meld together stories from both past and present, the backdrop being differing landscapes - from Victorian coalmines and Midlands’ market town communities to the bucolic open spaces of the Kingdom of Wessex, once known as the Kingdom of West Saxons, that stretches across the south west of England - and where Big Big Train are based.
Unlike its highly acclaimed predecessor, The Underfall Yard, English Electric (Part One) is full of light and shade in almost equal measure. There is also a huge folkie stream running through it, which balances beautifully with the classic prog idioms for which Big Big Train are so renowned, coming together through stunning and often complex musical arrangements on each of the eight tracks. With a huge cast list of guest musicians bringing new elements to their sound, this is probably their most ambitious album to date so let me talk you through what is happening here.
The First Rebreather sets the scene, minor guitar chords combining with David Longdon's expressive voice and flute to start painting aural pictures of a bygone age. It is hard not to draw comparisons with Genesis at their most pastoral in the 70s but as a curtain-raiser to the album, this song is an ideal choice. Andy Tillison of The Tangent makes a significant contribution to this track, his stately organ sound blending with Longdon’s flute as the song continues to build through sweeping melodies and incisive vocal harmonising. It then gives way to a bank of strings and a delicious guitar solo from David Gregory before Longdon opens up his voice to even greater heights and Tillison comes in with a gorgeous Moog solo underpinned by other keyboards while Nick D’Virgilio anchors it with his understated drums.
A jangling banjo introduces us to Uncle Jack who takes us out into the countryside through a folkie tune that has Longdon multi-tasking instrumentally on accordion, flute and melodica as well as banjo. The melody line is as light as a feather and the lyrics describe nature like no other. What is more, Andy Poole is credited as baritone bee while Lily and Violet Adams are both soprano bees so listen out for them in the mix! It is an uplifting and action-packed three and a half minutes of rural delights with birdsong bringing it to an end.
An achingly lovely flute and piano sequence starts Winchester From St Giles' Hill, which is probably my personal highlight of the album because it is a glorious musical picture painted of my home city. Longdon turns in an amazing emotionally-charged vocal performance on the refrain describing the River Itchen which flows through the city from the chalk hills and water meadows. The song beautifully evokes the history of the place as the flute and piano dance together mid-song. Danny Manners' gorgeous piano creates the movement of the water which seamlessly moves to a wonderful wash of strings that adds another layer to the song along with a huge guitar solo. All the elements finally unite to bring this incredibly moving song to a conclusion.
Judas Unrepentant is a deliciously proggy song written by Longdon with big choppy keyboards and Greg Spawton's chugging bass working away as Longdon recounts the story of an art forger. The instrumentation never swamps the telling of the story but it offers almost a baroque feel to the song. Again, there is a huge lilting melody line and a terrific hook of a chorus with lush harmonies. It slows to allow Longdon's flute and Manners' piano to come together with Rachel Hall's violin. Again, Tillison’s distinctive organ can be heard in the lush mix and I defy anyone not to find themselves humming the melody unconsciously afterwards.
Summoned By Bells is the one song which sounds as though it has a direct line to The Underfall Yard, the tinkling piano and yearning violin sound allowing Longdon to tell the story of a close-knit community from the recent past. It has many different elements to it, including Jan Jaap Langereis on recorders and some very effective female backing vocals. It has a reflective quality about it until the intensity increases through the introduction of guitars and a quickening of tempo through D'Virgilio's exemplary drumming. It all changes again to the most heavenly brass section that evokes such an air of nostalgia along with a searing yet restrained guitar line from Gregory.
Upton Heath is the most laid back of all the songs starting with a simple acoustic guitar and drums before Longdon starts singing, his voice more meditative this time accompanied by ethereal female voices in the background. The song floats on a gentle wind, violins, banjo and Andy Poole's mandolin adding a huge folkie spin to it. This is like taking a walk through a landscape in a novel by Thomas Hardy, who also came from this part of Wessex. Longdon described it in one of his blogs as a campfire song and you can add a definite feelgood factor to that too.
Back to the full-on intensity and this is through the moving but deeply unsettling A Boy In Darkness. A huge swathe of strings provides an early hint of the horrors that are about to unfold in the storyline this song. Part 1 of the song is set at a colliery in 1842, describing the conditions in which an 11 year old boy had to work down the mine. Longdon's deeply emotional narration is offset by the visceral way he delivers the title line with a huge maelstrom of musical turbulence exploding around him. Part 2 starts links the past with the present and launches with Tillison’s brooding organ, big strings arranged by Louis Philippe and a huge guitar. These all mesh together to make the most deeply haunting swirl of melody and with the flute, it has echoes of Caravan, another great English lyrical prog band, at their finest. Part 3 is a modern day parable and the new interpretation of what hell is now for a young boy. Strings and keyboards are still very much at the fore as Longdon sings the lyrics with a heart-felt tenderness, lyrics which he found very difficult to express at the inception of this song.
Rounding it all off is Hedgerow which begins with a lovely breezy guitar–led melody as we return to the countryside so beloved of Uncle Jack after his labours underground in the coalmines. It morphs into an almost anthemic refrain which dances across your mind before changing tack again to a guitar and synth passage and you hear Uncle Jack’s dog Peg out there with him in the countryside. This is followed by a gloriously melancholic violin break from Rachel Hill alongside organ accompaniment. It's back to the main theme with its singalong refrain that is brought beautifully to the boil as more and more voices are introduced. This involved the entire personae dramatis at the recording studio on the day in question including Martin Orford who gets a credit. Trumpet comes in and the chorus builds to a fantastic climax ending with birdsong and a dog barking. At the same time, it leaves the door slightly ajar for the second instalment of English Electric.
Hand on heart, I do not think I have enjoyed listening to an album so much for a very long time as I have English Electric (Part One). There was a buzz (no pun intended) going around about it some months ago and at that stage, I was rather sceptical that it could deliver, but I have been proved wrong. The attention to detail that has gone into this album is quite staggering, with Poole responsible for the production and Rob Aubrey pulling off a masterstroke in its final mixing and mastering.
Like Alice Through The Looking Glass, the biggest pleasure for me has been to step into the landscapes Big Big Train have created through their exemplary musicianship and songwriting and feel a part of them. This is an important album as both a landmark in Big Big Train’s 22 year career and in setting a benchmark for prog rock this year. Can part two possibly better it?
*Alison recently caught up with BBT's Greg Spawton & Andy Poole and you can read her interview HERE.
Roger Trenwith's Review
When fans of this English prog band, and I’ve no doubt, some of my fellow DPRP colleagues see my name at the end of this review they probably think "Oh gawd, it’s Mr Dissonant out to give my fave group a slagging." Maybe that was in my mind too, although the fact that one member of this band is none other than Dave Gregory from that quintessentially English alt-pop band XTC, whom I loved to bits, probably heightened my expectations and tempered my prejudice. I’m happy to say and you will be happy to read that I actually quite like this album. You see, I’m not averse to a decent tune now and again, and not everything I listen to is designed to make my fillings rattle.
My initial scepticism was I thought justified on hearing album opener The First Rebreather which to my ears sounds a little too much like early Collins-era Genesis, both in the vocals and in the way the song is structured, particularly the way it ends, which sounds naggingly familiar. Perhaps this was a deliberate tribute, especially as singer David Longdon was apparently invited to auditions at the time of Phil Collins’ departure from Genesis?
Thankfully though, there is a lot more to this band than mere tribute; the rest of the record travels somewhere entirely different with some very good song writing and arranging skills on display. And while it may be unavoidable that a bunch of guys harmonising are going to be reminiscent of other similar set ups, they manage to largely avoid comparisons by carrying out their vocalising within the framework of some quite lovely pastoral prog on Winchester From St Giles' Hill for example. I’ll even forgive the very Hackett-like guitar break!
Judas Unrepentant deviates from the earlier template and goes for a jaunty fast waltz tempo, and to my mind an edited version would make a great single, as elements of 10CC are apparent, and that can be no bad thing. The playful nature of the band’s name is reflected in the music and you can tell that they are certainly enjoying themselves on this one. No over-serious po-faced proggery here!
Main men Andy Poole (bass, some keyboards) and Greg Spawton (guitars, some keyboards) launched the first version of this daftly-monikered group more than 20 years ago and this is their 7th album, so it is no surprise that the songs exude an easy confidence. The wistful, almost melancholic and whimsical atmosphere of Winchester… returns on Summoned By Bells, both songs exuding a peculiarly English nostalgic vibe; the former calling up visions of a city evolving through history, although Winchester is one of the least urbanised cities you’re likely to find, and quite lovely it is too; the latter reminding us of our parents and grandparents’ generations suffering the hardships of wars, hardships we can barely comprehend, lucky folk that we are.
I think part of reason I can dig this so much is the result of having been steeped in the equally misty-morning vistas of Autumn Chorus’ fine debut, and although the styles of each band are very different, when you come to the end of their respective albums both leave you like a departing sigh. Pass the box of tissues, I’ve gone all misty-eyed. Summoned… ends with a great brass section, but having no pre-publicity and therefore no clue as to whom plays what or where I’ve no idea who plays this, or even if it’s real brass (it must be I’d guess), but it works perfectly.
A word or two about singer David Longdon, who also…ahem…chimes in with occasional glockenspiel, flute, and sundry other folk instrumentation; at times on the slower parts his voice reminds me of Gazpacho’s Jan Ohme and when he lets rip there’s no histrionics, just restrained power. As has often been said before the vocals and the lyrics can be the most difficult part to get right, but there are few problems here. The lyrical themes range from the rural mythologizing of Uncle Jack to the historical saga of the creation of a medieval city on Winchester… to art forgery (careful, lads!) on Judas Unrepentant. The band also show they are not afraid to tackle the difficult subjects, namely child abuse, on A Boy In Darkness although I think that the generally soaring and progtastic instrumentation sits a tad uncomfortably with the sensitive subject matter.
For me they leave the best song until the end; the spiky guitar figure, and indeed the whole song Hedgerow has a distinctly XTC feel about it, and Dave Gregory can only show the band an intriguing alley down which to wander in the future, and that fact alone is enough to keep me interested. Calling us all out of our urban cocoons into the tempting if somewhat sentimentally idealised countryside, the idea of “XTC goes prog” is writ large in the lovely middle section where strings and keyboards subsume “Apple Venus” with a grandness of scale that the much missed (in my house at least) Swindon lads never aspired to, not that they should have done of course, it wasn’t their bag. Amazingly, it seems Dave Gregory did not have a hand in writing this song, although it has his old band’s sound and atmosphere all over parts of it.
While certainly following traditional song structures and wearing its obvious influences proudly on its sleeve, Big Big Train have circumvented any criticism of using cliché by taking us on a journey through England’s past and present both musically and lyrically in such a splendid fashion that I cannot but give praise where it is due. My only reservations are with the first song and A Boy… which could have done with a bit of restraint given the subject. That aside, a fine record indeed; also, as this record is sub-titled Part One there is obviously more to come, which we will all be looking forward to. File alongside Gazpacho’s March Of Ghosts and the aforementioned Autumn Chorus album as three examples of great musical storytelling released this year.
Blimey, even I never expected that! I might have to investigate the back catalogue.
Leo Koperdraat's Review
I gave Big Big Train’s The Underfall Yard a perfect score simply because it was perfect. Artwork, music, lyrics and an immaculate production formed a very strong combination. The band also searched for the boundaries by successfully experimenting with a brass section on some of the tracks. And with great success. The album catapulted the slowly rising star of the band to great heights. And three years after its release I still stand by my 10 out of 10 score. Immediately after releasing The Underfall Yard the band announced the future release of English Electric. While working on that one the band also released the strong 41 minute EP (most bands call that an album) Far Skies Deep Time in 2010 and remastered their 1994 album Goodbye To The Age Of Steam. And now they’ve released English Electric (Part One) with English Electric (Part Two) scheduled for a March 2013. So one could say that the bands creative juices are flowing in abundance.
And again the artwork by photographer Matt Sefton looks amazing. The production by Andy Poole again sounds grand. I would like to make a special mention of Rob Aubrey, who again, mixed and mastered the record. That man has been involved in so many great records in the last decade or so (IQ for example) that in my humble opinion he has been of great importance on the development of British progressive rock in the last 20 years. Greg Spawton and David Longdon are the chief lyricists again on this album and they succeed to paint some beautiful and gripping pictures with their lyrics again, mostly about historic facts or places in Britain. And also the musicianship is of a very high level. Nick D’Virgilio’s drumming is strong and tight as ever. An enormous achievement when you consider how little time he had to record his parts in between his work with Cirque du Soleil (and Mystery and Balloon Astronomy etc etc). Dave Gregory adds his brilliant guitar playing to the album, but also some gorgeous string arrangements. Vocalist David Longdon and guitar player Greg Spawton have both turned into multi instrumentalists adding an array of instruments to the sound pallet of band. Finally bass player Andy Poole does not seem to play bass anymore but adds some keyboards and backing vocals. He seems to be more and more turning into the producer overseeing the whole process. And if that wasn’t enough there are the guests: Andy Tillison (The Tangent) adds some ripping keyboard and especially organ parts to three of the albums tracks. Danny Manners adds some beautiful piano and double bass. There are the string players and the brass band and backing vocalists (among them Martin Orford!).
So that’s another perfect score then? Well no, because I fear that despite all of the above English Electric (Part One) is a solid, good album but not an outstanding album like The Underfall Yard and that has largely to do with the fact that I think not all the songs on this album are that strong. Where on the previous record every minute was filled with atmosphere and tension, with English Electric (Part One) some parts of the album fail to leave that same impression.
The album is bookended by the strongest tracks. Opener The First Rebreather is a very good track which is confirmation of the great gift of storytelling of Greg Spawton. It is graced with a gorgeous string arrangement and Andy Tillison’s organ playing but it is David Longdon who really shines on this tracks with beautiful vocal lines and flute parts. The album ends with another highlight in the form of the "Big Big Train meets The Beatles meets Tears For Fears" that is called Hedgerow including the brass band and the signature trumpet part is there too. Then there is Winchester From St Giles’ Hill. Another amazing track where the lyrics and music form a perfect combination. An emotional chorus where Longdon's marvelous singing is accompanied by a beautiful string arrangement. In the instrumental section Danny Manners rolling piano and Longdon's flute playing perfectly portray the lyrics; "A river flowing from the chalkhills through the water meadows and the open fields". To be followed by another great guitar solo by Dave Gregory. And I also like the uptempo Judas Unrepentant which has a chorus that you'll be singing all day.
However, there are also four songs on the album that, after 15+ listening sessions still don't do much for me. The albums longest track Summoned By Bells and A Boy In Darkness and Upton Heath still seem to pass by without anything that makes me jump up. They are all nice songs but they don't stand out. In fairness I must say that Summoned By Bells started to grow on me because of the aggressive guitar solo and a beautiful finale which does sound a lot like David Sylvian's Gone To Earth album. And then there is Uncle Jack which is an OK pop song which has that folk vibe that is made popular by bands like Mumford And Sons and Sufjan Stevens with banjo, mandolin and accordion. I think the album could have done without it.
Still overall it's been a real joy listening to these extraordinary musicians that form Big Big Train. Despite my reservations with some of the tracks English Electric (Part One) is a strong record that will easily strengthen their position as one of the best progressive rock acts of today. And although I seem to be standing alone with my reservations when reading all the reactions on the album on the internet, this reviewer still can't get rid of that nagging feeling of disappointment.
Brian Watson's Review
Well then. Another review for one of my ‘add to cart’ bands. You know the ones. You hear an album or, sometimes even just a song and you begin trawling the interweb to source everything they have ever released. It was 2004’s Gathering Speed I first heard, and subsequently broke the glass on the emergency credit card box, which we had mounted on the wall for such eventualities. Bard (2002) and Goodbye To The Age Of Steam (1997) dutifully arrived and I was hooked. The biggest secret in progressive rock music, Big Big Train had cult status amongst fans. No live shows, no egotistical outpourings and several years at least between releases. Just great English progressive rock music, very much in the vein of early Genesis.
They picked up their first DPRP recommended review for 2007’s The Difference Machine, an album which really saw them blossom and hint at just how good they were, and how great they would become. The most excellent Sean Filkins was still on vocals, but the sound was widened by the addition of guest players, including Dave Meros and Pete Trewavas, as well as one (NDV) who would go on to be a (semi) permanent member of the band. Leo and Mark loved the album, as did I, but little were we to know just what BBT would follow it with just a couple of years later.
The Underfall Yard was, for a great many people, their album of 2009. It was mine for sure. The first with David Longdon, and Dave Gregory, as well as guest spots from Francis Dunnery and Jem Godfrey, NDV had also taken over the drum seat and the album was, as a result, an absolute triumph. The lovely Leo gave it a 10/10, no less, concluding:
"There is not a weak track on this album. Album opener Evening Star has everything that is so good about this album squeezed in five minutes. A beautiful a cappella opening (the same a cappella piece returns in full glory at the end of the epic title track), great melodies that are complex but sound so easy. The Rickenbacker and the excellent drumming of Nick D’Virgilio form the solid basis and of course the brass band. For me Victorian Brickwork is one of the stand out tracks. It starts very gentle but soon picks up pace. It has a beautiful chorus which shows the vocal arrangement skills of Longdon. Dave Gregory delivers some inspired guitar solos. And then after nine minutes the brass band kicks in to start the finale of the track with beautiful cornet solos (yes really!) and guitar solos. The first time I heard this I nearly had tears in my eyes (or as Colour Sergeant David Desmond, who was responsible for the beautiful brass arrangements on The Underfall Yard, said “Permission for bottom lip to tremble, Sir”. Quote taken from the BBT Blog). It is so beautiful!... It’s an absolute masterpiece!"
I mention this mainly because, having released such a landmark album, it would prove difficult for most other bands to release an album even coming close to it. Which is probably why Big Big Train released an extended EP next, 2010’s Far Skies Deep Time, which yours truly got to review. I mentioned Genesis, Hogarth, Talk Talk and Prefab Sprout amongst others and gave it a resounding 9/10. Those sonic touchstones remain, so the more astute amongst you should have a good idea where I’m going to be going, ratings-wise.
So, then. Now we have English Electric (Part One) no less. If you’re owt like me you’ll want to know if you should buy it, early on in the review. I, Brian Watson (note how we use our actual names on this site, and not nicknames like Slutbanger or Odin’s Catflap) categorically say you need to buy this if you’re even remotely enamoured of progressive rock. Not, mind, screechy female-fronted heavy metal with a few widdly keyboard bits thrown in for effect just so you can call yourself ‘progressive’. If that’s purely your bag then I’m guessing you won’t like this that much. If, however, and being said fan of progressive rock, you don’t like English Electric (Part One), I’ll refund your money*
I realise I have banged on for quite a while and not, really, mentioned the album. I’m guessing others will go into chapter and verse and whatnot so I’m of a mind to post a video review on facetube, through the medium of balloon modelling. I have been perusing the world wide internet and have not been able to find a bad word about this record. Not one. I did find lots of pictures of cats that look like Hitler, which amused me for a moment or two, and I yagoogled Pussy Riot. Which kept me busy for an hour or so. But even implicit criticism of this album? Nope. Natch. Nada. Which should tell you quite a lot.
I’m just going to have another shufty, to make sure that no-one has posted anything saying it’s the music equivalent of a turd covered in burnt hair but I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to find anything… Thought not. Someone has mentioned they are not entirely sure about the production (no, I don’t know what that means either – it’s by Andy Poole, and mixed/mastered by the incomparable Rob Aubrey and is, accordingly, top-notch) and apparently one site published a review from someone who hadn’t, in fact listened to the album but was reviewing it on the cover art. Where’s Darwin when you need Him? But that, as they say, is that. Unequivocal praise for the thing in the wider prog world.
So what do I think of it? Well, for me it can never be better than The Underfall Yard (a bona fide masterpiece in my ‘umble opinion) but it is, to be certain, a close-run thing. It makes my 2012 top ten easily and is one of my favourites of this or any other year but it isn’t my album of the year. For sure it’s an album I’ll be playing in five, or ten years time. If I live that long. And if CDs haven’t been replaced by hologrammatic thought-projection devices. And we’re all living on Uranus.
And the reason this album is so bloody good is, for me, its quintessential Englishness. We invented prog, according to the BBC so why is it most wannabe third-wavers want to sound like Evanescence, or Porcupine Thief or Pineapple Theater? I read recently the thoughts of someone whose opinion I respect a great deal. That maybe there are way too many bands in an already over-saturated market. For all the glossy, glitzy events and backslapping there’ll still only be around 300 show up for Summer’s End, after all. I once read also a piece on American prog, that there were more bands than fans. Which sounds about right.
The first minute or so of The First Rebreather should serve as a wake up call to a host of bands out there, gamely battling on and peddling generic bilge. When Gregory’s guitar kicks in at about the five minute mark you’ll realise you’re listening to one of your favourite albums of this, or any year. The keyboard melody blatantly screams Genesis. Which is a good thing. (Stupefyingly good) organ, as well as piano, Moog and keyboards are by Andy Tillison.
If the English tourist board, or Tetley Tea were ever to do an advert, Uncle Jack would surely be in with a shot of being the soundtrack. There’s cups of tea aplenty. Not to mention hedgerows, honeysuckle, birdsong and ladybirds. And Hawthorn, Badger and Partridge. Sounds like a firm of solicitors.
Winchester From St Giles’ Hill is as languid a string-drenched piece of English choral, pastoral prog as you’ll ever hear. You want choirs, flutes, cello, violin, viola? You got ‘em. A gut-wrenchingly beautiful bit of guitar playing? Check.
Judas Unrepentant was, for many, the first tune from the album they heard. And heavens, didn’t the interwebs go beserk? With good reason it turns out. An incessant keyboard melody, soaring organ (Tillison again) and wonderful vocal harmonies. Oh, and Gregory’s little guitar runs are sublime. A symphonic, uplifting faux climax before flute and choir mellotron lead you to the harmonic, nay manic, climax proper. Remind you of anyone? Now I know Genesis have just got a lifetime achievement award but they haven’t made anything this good for about 40 years.
Danny Manners’ piano introduces the next track, Summoned By Bells. And continues throughout it. An altogether more subdued affair. Hogarth-era Marillion fans will groove on down to this no doubt. And still the essential Englishness of the lyrics marks this out as a piece if not of its time, then at least of its place. A remembered past, punctuated by staccato Gregory guitar fills, strings, bluesy piano. It gets more upbeat as the song goes on, and there’s a sing along section that wouldn’t be out of place at a Marillion convention. Cue the confetti.
Upton Heath is up next. A calming, pastoral piece. With added banjo. For me perhaps the weakest track. It doesn’t seem to flow like all the best songs do. It doesn’t take you, or lead you anywhere as such. It just meanders around for a bit. Nice, though. Spot the Genesis vocal bit near the end. Admittedly with ladies. Answers on a postcard to ...
A Boy In Darkness has more Tillison on organs and keyboards. For those of you who like that kind of thing. And a lovely string arrangement by Louis Phillipe. Cinematic in scope this one has plenty of texture, sonically. Highs, lows. Loud bits, quiet bits. That sort of thing. The organ at the three minute mark, and the guitar/bass/flute/violin interplay is super.
The album ends with Hedgerow, and more badgers, partridges and rabbits. Think the British Invasion bands (but mainly The Beatles) meet The Beach Boys. And get on famously. In fact they move in together, and make sweet music together. Poppy, infectious ear candy with a mellotron-tastic bit spoiled a little bit, for me, by dog barks before the violin redeems the song and propels it to a wonderfully rocky, poppy, proggy climax. A bit Polyphonic Spree-ish, complete with trumpets, marvellous, uplifting vocal harmonies and whatnot. The bloody dog comes back at the end, mind.
So there you have it. English progressive rock of the highest order. By a supremely talented band. As a top ten contender it easily rates a DPRP recommendation. And as I’ve re-jigged the marking guide, with nines being given to those records that make it into my top ten (and not the top 5, as it’s a very, very good year) that’s what it gets. Nine.
* I will not, under any circumstances, refund your money if you don’t like it. Sorry... Love... Bri