The Second Brightest Star (7:17), Haymaking (3:23), Skylon (6:44), London Stone (2:01), The Passing Widow (5:33), The Leaden Stour (7:19), Terra Australis Incognita (4:16), Grimlore: Brooklands Sequence (17:33), London Plane Sequence (13:14), The Gentlemen's Reprise (3:03)
Patrick McAfee's Review
The 70s and 80s were very prolific times for popular bands and solo artists. As one example, Genesis released eleven studio albums between 1970 and 1983. These releases would sometimes come within the same year and the quality maintained from album to album was astounding. Big Big Train seems to be following and even exceeding that model. In a little over a year, the band has released two studio albums (Folklore, May 2016, and Grimspound, April 2017) and now, two months later, comes this "companion" album to Grimspound. Although The Second Brightest Star contains some alternate sections from previously released songs, it consists of mostly new material and works well as a stand-alone album.
The opening title track is beautiful and unassuming, with a fantastic performance by singer David Longdon. It is a perfect example of what is special about Big Big Train. They have an ability to tap into a mix of prog, pop, rock, jazz, folk and Canterbury to create a sound that is very appealing. There is something very captivating about this song and the result is an impressive opening to the album. Haymaking is a Celtic-tinged corker and the first of several entertaining instrumentals contained on this release. Skylon continues the impressive string of new material, with its striking melody and harmony vocals.
Overall, the album is a pretty mellow affair, with the quietest moments coming via the acoustic, London Stone and the sentimental and effective, The Passing Widow. There is a consistent flow that keeps the tracklisting from feeling in any way, like a collection of leftovers. The Leaden Stour is another splendid track with an instrumental middle section that reminded me of classic-era material from the band Chicago. Terra Australis Incognita is another instrumental winner.
At this point, the album moves into reworked material from the previous two releases via, Brooklyn Sequence, London Plane Sequence and The Gentleman's Reprise. Though these tracks will be familiar to anyone who knows the originals, they don't feel redundant. In fact, I very much enjoyed these extended mash-ups for lack of a better term.
Big Big Train has stated that this album marks the end of a cycle of recordings that focused on the English landscape. They will now be moving in a different direction, which is exciting. It will be interesting to see where they go from here, but the fans have certainly not been left wanting. The last few years have seen some very entertaining music from the band. Arriving so quickly after Grimspound, The Second Brightest Star is an unexpected and pleasant surprise. A must-have for any fan and also a good introduction for the dwindling number of prog aficionados who are unfamiliar with this talented group of musicians.
Bryan Morey's Review
Back when I wrote my review of Grimspound, I was under the impression (based upon things band members had said) that Grimspound would be the last Big Big Train album in the cycle that began with 2009's The Underfall Yard. Just a couple weeks after I wrote that, the band released a surprise album, The Second Brightest Star. Seeing as this is one of my favorite bands, I was very excited.
An interesting thing about this particular release is the band waited a month to release it on digital formats, giving folks a month to purchase the album on CD or vinyl. Seeing as the album sold pretty well for that first month, maybe that is something the band should try again in the future. Regardless, the band should be commended for managing to keep such a big secret, especially in this day and age. It simply added to the excitement for fans when we heard a new album would be released two days before its actual release on the summer solstice.
Enough blathering. The album itself is more BBT brilliance. From the soulfull guitar solo on the title track to the gentle storytelling of The Passing Widow, this album is pure Big Big Train. Indeed, those two songs are the ones that immediately stuck in my head. Haymaking is a upbeat instrumental piece whose only fault is its brevity. Written by Rachel Hall, it features a healthy dose of violin and is a fantistic mix of folk music and bluegrass. Overall, the album features the horns made memorable on The Underfall Yard, as well as plenty of great guitars, keyboards, bass, drums, and vocals. It seems like there is an increase in clean piano on this record, which gives a lighter sound to it. This time around, David Longdon handles all of the vocal duties. With a voice as good as his, that is certainly not a complaint.
This album finds the aforementioned Rachel Hall included much more in the writing process. She wrote the words and music for both Haymaking (instrumental) and for The Passing Widow. Both these pieces are a breath of fresh air for a band that is already far from stale. Hall brings a lot to the table, and it is great to see her increased involvement.
The album features a number of instrumental songs beyond Haymaking, namely London Stone, Terra Australis Incognita, Turner on the Thames (new addition to London Plane from Folklore), and The Gentlemen's Reprise. Fans of the band will notice familiar themes in many of these songs, as well as in the lyrics of the title track.
The only reason I'm not giving this album a perfect rating is because of the use of songs previously released on other albums. Brooklands Sequence brings nothing new to the table since it merely combines Brooklands from Folklore and On the Racing Line from Grimspound. London Plane Sequence adds a brief instrumental passage, but that is it. While all of these songs are wonderful, it seems like these would have worked better had the band made The Second Brightest Star a "Full Power" album like English Electric, combining all of Folklore and Grimspound into one big album with some added songs. I'm sure the band considered that, but they decided to release a separate album instead. At the end of the day, it really is not that big of a deal. Besides, all of these songs flow together really well, and hearing the older songs apart from their original tracklisting, allows the listener to hear them in a new light.
As usual, the packaging for this album is great. I purchased the CD version, as I'm not a vinyl collector, but the vinyl does come in a beautiful limited-edition sea-green vinyl. The album comes with extensive liner notes written by David Longdon, Rachel Hall, and Greg Spawton. Because of the depth in Big Big Train's music and lyrics, I find these liner notes to be essential reading for the listener, and I'm very glad they included them in the booklet.
As Mr. Longdon says in the liner notes for Haymaking, the band is doing just that while they can. They find themselves enjoying a degree of success, and they are taking advantage of their creativity while it lasts. For us fans, this is simply wonderful, especially since the band currently does not tour. I'll take whatever I can get from these masterminds, including the recent free download, London Song, which combines all of the band's London-themed songs into one long piece. This band keeps on giving, which does not go unnoticed by their adoring fans. For anyone that calls themselves a fan of progressive rock, The Second Brightest Star, as well as the band's back catalogue, is a must listen. You really cannot go wrong.