Issue 2013-018: Big Big Train - English Electric (Part Two) - Round Table Review
Tracklist: East Coast Racer (15:43), Swan Hunter (6:20), Worked Out (7:30), Leopards (3:54), Keeper Of Abbeys (6:58), The Permanent Way (8:29), Curator Of Butterflies (8:44)
Alison Henderson's Review
It was very gratifying to see English Electric (Part One) voted DPRP's album of the year for 2012 by readers, after raving about it at great length at the time of its release. This is because its beautiful pastoral prog takes you to some spectacularly lovely sonic places through masterful musicianship and peerless production.
Having given it 9.5 the door was left slightly ajar for the much anticipated Part Two to provide more of the same and just possibly better. Well, the good news is Part Two is just as breath-taking as Part One in terms of its content, which veers more towards studies of England's industrial heritage here rather than revisiting the lush bucolic landscapes of Part One. That in turn gives it a grittier, harder-edged feel and therefore makes it an excellent companion piece in this "two part" double album.
So, if Part One caught your attention, as it appeared to do with its number one status, Part Two will again fill you with joy through its carefully crafted songs, all so meticulously arranged with some stunning combinations of instruments adding layer upon layer of aural texture to each of the seven songs.
All the musical ingredients are very much the same, but where Part One had a very strong commercial feel through songs such as Uncle Jack and Hedgerow, Part Two evokes deeper and denser images hewn from steel and granite, soil and coal, water and steam.
More elemental than pastoral, the journey begins with East Coast Racer, a 15 minute piece created in conjunction with sound engineer Rob Aubrey, which has "epic" written deep within its musical notation. Not many bands possess the ability to create a piece which sounds exactly like its subject but this is what they have collectively achieved here. It is about the construction of the Mallard, the iconic steam locomotive and record breaker, which blazed a trail through the East Coast pre-Second World War countryside, and the army of skilled workers who brought her to life and made her so fast.
Danny Manners' gorgeous plaintive piano quietly starts the piece, painting a gentle picture before it literally explodes into life, Nick D'Virgilio's urgent drums and Greg Spawton's grumbling bassline so accurately depicting the sound of the locomotive hurtling along at breakneck speed. Add to that David Longdon's powerful sung narration, especially one particularly moving passage where his voice effortlessly flies higher and higher above the musical mix to which ebbing and flowing brass and strings are now part of the tonal tapestry, plus bass pedals from Rob Aubrey to give it even more steam power. The pay-off sung line "She flies" is where the song transcends once more before it all melts away to Manners' simple, slightly ethereal piano again. As opening tracks go, it is right up there among the greats but have they peaked too early here?
Fortunately, Swan Hunter allows for a breather with its folkie-tinged edge, uncomplicated beat, upbeat brass section and a close harmony refrain which puts one in mind of Crosby, Stills and Nash's Our House. It is steeped in nostalgia and a down to earth charm, evoking how the old tradition of sons following fathers into the same trade - shipbuilding - and communities subsequently fragmenting through the gradual demise of the U.K.'s shipyards.
Keeping up the working men theme is Worked Out, which starts with Longdon playing both cutlery and glassware at the start to conjure up the image of a group of men going underground to work in a coalmine - "We're working men, we follow the seam". Its breeziness evokes an air of lightness within this working fraternity.
Changing the mood completely are the dreamy nostalgic strings which launch Leopards, a retro-sounding piece with a swinging almost waltz-like rhythm, Longdon's voice demonstrating a light touch in this sweet love song about a couple meeting up again after several years and contemplating whether they can begin their relationship again where they left off.
It is back to the countryside again with Keeper of Abbeys, another atmospherically-charged song from Spawton about a character who becomes part of his historic surroundings. Its musical motifs have strong echoes of Part 1 especially the lugubrious strings, but it also has a slightly incongruous European folk passage with electric sitar which does not quite fit into the context of the song.
Then English Electric Parts One and Two converge in the heartrendingly beautiful The Permanent Way, in which Big Big Train collectively gaze across the English landscape as observers of those men of old - the farmers, miners and "inland navigators" (canal builders), who shaped the landscape during the Industrial Revolution. It comes with added "Tillisification" as The Tangent's Andy Tillison reprieves his appearance from Part 1 with more wonderful organ flourishes. He also suggested they incorporated some spoken lines of verse from Sir John Betjeman, one of the greatest poetic observers of English life, so he too is part of the "Electric" vision, along with reworkings of some of the classic sung and played passages from Part One.
However, rather than using this beautiful piece as a natural conclusion to the album, the sequencing of the tracks allows for one more, the ethereal ballad, Curator of Butterflies, a swirl of orchestral loveliness with lyrics that capture the fine line between life and death within a natural environment.
Again, Big Big Train has presented us with another album of exemplary quality and master craftsmanship. However, I do not think it is better than Part One but I would put it on a level par through what it offers.
With the two parts being coupled up later this year and released as English Electric Full Power, the sequencing on that may put it on the right track to prog perfection.
Roger Trenwith's Review
Those of you who read my witterings with any regularity should have gleaned by now that ultra-slick and usually backward looking prog is not my particular aural preference, and it was with that baggage that I took on Big Big Train's English Electric Part One last year. To say I was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement, as for the most part the consummate songcraft made it rise above its still proudly worn influences, to become something in its own right, something quite beguiling.
So, here we are with Part Two. Could Big Big Train soothe my taste for the spiky and angular fare once again? Well, let's see...
A glance at the track list shows that, in a brave move, the album opens with ye olde progge epic. Rarely do modern prog "long 'uns" rise above the prosaic or the formulaic, but this modest confection, at just short of 16 minutes continues to shine a spotlight on the group's enticing way with an arrangement and their knack at storytelling, both musically and lyrically.
Coincidentally or not, this year sees the 75th anniversary of the maiden journey of what was then and remained for many years the fastest train in the world, the Mallard, built in the world renowned Doncaster rail works. The East Coast Racer set a world record 128mph on the East Coast Main Line in July 1938, and Big Big Train do homage to the mighty iron and steel monster on the song of that name that opens this album. The tune uses the rhythm of metaphorical steel wheels on a metal track to race along in quick time; you can feel the wind in your hair as it blows in your face on the footplate. As well as the band this song features a string section arranged by Dave Gregory and a brass section arranged by Dave Desmond, and the resulting sounds combine with the traditional rock instrumentation to produce what has become BBT's trademark "old but new" aural template.
The tune never flags, and never features pointless noodling to fill up the minutes, it just charges along leaving plumes of steam in its wake, and it actually gave cynical old me the shivers when played at volume 307! Yep, I quite like it, and regardless of what the rest of the album is like, it would be worth the price of the CD alone.
Continuing the theme of eulogising Great Britain's sadly long gone heavy industrial past, an era when we actually made things as opposed to shuffling bytes around the internet, Swan Hunter and Worked Out are both nostalgic slices of longing wistfulness harking back to a time when generations followed one another into the family trade, in the former case the eponymous Wallsend shipyard, and in the latter the coalface. However, it does come across a tad "rose-tinted spectacles" as the old days were bloody hard (ask your Granddad) and never as good as we like to imagine, but Swan Hunter in particular is a nice tune, so what the heck?!
The link in the album is the seemingly inconsequential tune Leopards, which gets better each time you hear it. A simple but effective song about...well, I can't really work it out, and it doesn't fit lyrically into the grand concept, although musically it works a treat; a string and acoustic guitar ballad that musically make for a good bridge in the middle of the album.
Keeper Of Abbeys is a paen to the Angel Of The North, keeping the soul of the industrial heartland in its metal bones. Musically it's a strange one in that it sounds like the middle folk instrumental section was cut'n'pasted from another record. It almost works, but is maybe a bit disjointed. Dave Gregory ends the song with the best guitar solo on the album, a full on but lyrical excursion that encapsulates the romanticism of the record.
The main theme of The Permanent Way is naggingly reminiscent of a Collins era Genesis song and is the only time on the record I've thought "here we go", which is a shame because as a stand alone piece of music it's more than OK. Curator Of Butterflies ends the album with more celebrations of English countryside and Greg Spawton leaves you in no doubt of his heartfelt love of Olde England, and a lovely sentiment it is too. You cannot imagine this man ever penning a song about serial killers, that's for sure!
The joyous climax of the song, with the brass section to the fore over swelling keyboards and David Longdon's clear-as-a-bell tones, slowly fades as the sun sets over the rolling hills, and the distant chimney smoke of the metaphorically vanishing industrial heart disappears into the dusk, the reprise of the theme rolling with the imaginary credits. Blimey, I've gone all misty-eyed; Greg should write film scores!
Of all those Genesis influenced bands out there, and there are way too many in my opinion, Big Big Train at least try to go somewhere different and largely succeed. I think what I'm trying to say is, I shouldn't like this band but I do. I gave Part One an 8 out of 10 and this one fits perfectly, so it has to be the same again.