Big Big Train — Ingenious Devices
Ingenious Devices provides Big Big Train with the unique opportunity of reimagining a trilogy of previously released songs about technology. The combining of these tracks on one release represents songwriter Gregory Spawton's original vision. Though not a new album in the traditional sense, these substantially re-recorded and remixed versions create an enhanced listening experience. The orchestration, recorded at Abbey Road Studios, infuses the material with added cinematic grandeur.
East Coast Racer appeared on the 2013 album, English Electric Pt. 2 and was a highlight of that album. This new interpretation has transformed the song into a modern prog classic. Spawton and engineer Rob Aubrey superbly add a lush quality, without diluting the kick of the original. The back half of this version is a revelation. The way in which the symphonic elements build and ultimately coincide with Dave Gregory's masterful closing guitar solo, is truly wonderous.
The Book of Ingenius Devices is a brief, yet effective, new orchestral piece that ties East Coast Racer and Brooklands together. Spawton's belief is that the latter (from 2016's Fokelore) was viewed as the "ugly duckling" of the trilogy. This excellent new version rectifies any perceived issues that existed with the original. Benefiting from strong orchestration, the instrumental sections sound especially tailor-made for this type of rendering. Adding strings to already established rock songs is a risk, but Big Big Train gloriously defies the odds throughout this album. The orchestration feels natural and amazingly essential.
Because Voyager (from 2019's Grand Tour) already included orchestral accompaniment, it is the most unchanged track. That said, this new mix still sets it apart from the original. Putting the entire trilogy on even musical ground was the main catalyst for this project, and the results are fantastic. What could have been just a rehashing of old material has instead been made vibrant and fresh.
Many of the performances on Ingenious Devices are newly recorded. However, due to his tragic passing in 2021, David Longdon's vocals come from the original sessions. Nonetheless, his work is seamlessly utilized. These songs showcase him at his gloriously progressive best and the album stands as another enduring tribute to his talent. Ending with a 2022 live version of Atlantic Cable, featuring new singer Alberto Bravin, also makes sense. Though not part of the original trilogy, the song, from 2021's Common Ground, matches the overall technology theme. Also, the inclusion of the track feels like a formal transition from one chapter of the band to the next. If you've heard these songs before, don't be swayed. Ingenious Devices is an eloquently perfect album and an essential part of the Big Big Train discography.
Not ones to go through a year without releasing something on CD or Blu-ray, Big Big Train have released Ingenious Devices, a collection of "mankind and machine" trilogy of East Coast Racer (off 2013's English Electric: Part Two), Brooklands (off 2016's Folklore), and Voyager (off 2019's Grand Tour). As bassist, songwriter, and lyricist Greg Spawton quips in the liner notes, Ingenious Devices is a trilogy in five parts, with short string interlude The Book Of Ingenious Devices and a live version of Atlantic Cable added to round things out.
Sometimes it can be hard to imagine that songs this good can be improved, but as the band has grown, their access to additional resources makes subtle improvements possible. The biggest difference is the inclusion of a 17-piece string section instead of the original string quartet used on East Coast Racer and Brooklands. These new sections were recorded at Abbey Road in 2018 when the strings were recorded for Grand Tour. Thus, the band has had Ingenious Devices in the works for at least five years.
It's important to remember the band has gone through major lineup changes since 2020, even before Longdon's passing. Most of the re-recording work for this record was done prior to those changes. As such, apart from the live version of Atlantic Cable, this record features what could be called Big Big Train's "classic" lineup of Nick D'Virgilio (drums, vocals), Dave Gregory (guitars), Rachel Hall (violin), David Longdon (vocals, flute), Danny Manners (piano, keyboards), Rikard Sjöblom (guitars, vocals), and Gregory Spawton (bass, bass pedals), plus the Dave Desmond brass band.
East Coast Racer is without a doubt a stunning masterpiece. It has been a highlight of the band's live shows since they started playing live back in 2015. For this release, the entire song was re-recorded, except David Longdon's vocals, due to his tragic passing before that work could be done.
The differences are subtle, but the music is much more lush. There is more depth, and the mix is clearer. There seems to me more dimension to the mix as well, with Longdon's voice seemingly set inside the music as opposed to sitting atop it. The original song used a string quartet, but the 17-piece string section adds so much more complexity and beauty to the song. It sounds more mature.
The "She flies" lyrical passage gives me chills every time, and if I may be so bold, I think it's one of the most stunning vocal performances I have ever heard. The musical build-up to that moment is incredibly powerful. It's hope in musical form. The swelling, the excitement, the possibility of success — all punctuated by David Longdon's exquisite vocal delivery of "Into History, Into Legend, She flies...". Longdon is unmatched. His tone, his pitch, his range - all perfect. In many ways, then, this recording is bittersweet. It's a reminder of what makes Big Big Train such a wonderful band, but it's also a reminder of what we have lost.
The ending of the song now more closely resembles the ending created for the live performances. The piano remains prominent, but there are a few added flourishes of the cymbals and the final notes are punctuated by the 17-piece string section and a prolonged electric guitar note. It's a far more satisfying ending than the original recording, which simply fades out (as an aside, the fade out really needs to disappear forever from recorded music).
Brooklands is one of those songs that always grabs me as I'm listening to it, but it isn't one I always think of when I want to pick out one of Big Big Train's longer songs to listen to. I usually listen to full albums, but sometimes it is nice to pick one of their long tracks, of which there are many. Perhaps since Brooklands has yet to be played live, it doesn't get as much attention as the other songs in the trilogy. It was merged with On The Racing Line off 2017's Grimspound for that same year's second album, The Second Brightest Star. I'm actually a little surprised the band didn't use that version (entitled Brooklands Sequence on that record) for Ingenious Devices, but I suppose they wanted it to stand alone.
This new version isn't entirely a new recording, but it does have the 17-piece strings, newly recorded drums, and newly recorded bass and bass petals. This release brings out the best in the song, and I hope the band plays it in upcoming shows and on an upcoming live record. It has drive and excitement befitting an historic racetrack.
Voyager features the entire original recording, along with some additional guitar and violin. It also has a new mix for this release. This has been a brilliant song since its release, and it has been played live, including on 2020's Empire live album. This song is particularly fun in the way it compares the exploration of our solar system with the Voyager spacecraft to the exploration of our own planet in centuries past. As all the songs on this release do, Voyager champions human ingenuity. I think the closing lyrics might also champion this band as we cherish its past and look forward to its future:
Beyond the next headland
Over the far horizon
Out into the open skies
To find out what we are
How far we've come
How far we can go
The album closes with a live version of Atlantic Cable, recorded at the Friars Aylesbury show in September 2022. While this isn't part of the "mankind and machine" trilogy, it certainly fits in that vein, as the song is about the laying of the first telegram cable connecting North America with Europe: "the continents are joined together again with the thrill of the line."
Upon its release on 2021's Common Ground, Atlantic Cable quickly became one of my favorite Big Big Train songs. It has a similar emotional ebb and flow to East Coast Racer. It's remarkable how Big Big Train manages to elicit an emotional response from listeners with songs about trains and telegram cables, but they do it. I think it must be the gentle care they put into honoring these magnificent achievements. Lyrically Spawton treats these achievements in a way similar to Old English epic poetry. Musically, the band brings us on a journey to experience the thrill and importance of these achievements.
This live recording almost sounds too good to be live. It was expertly performed, and the recording is crisp and clear. Perhaps the only hint is the gentle reverb on Alberto Bravin's vocals from the venue itself. One of the primary differences between the live version and the studio is Clare Lindley's violin replaces Longdon's flute at the beginning.
Bravin does an excellent job on the song. Fans should feel very happy about the band's future with him behind the microphone. I maintain that Longdon is unmatched, but Bravin's voice is not a copy of Longdon's. It is similar enough to perform the music beautifully, but it is different enough that I think Bravin will be able to avoid the comparisons more typical when a singer sounds somewhat or a lot like the person they are replacing (like when Phil Collins replaced Peter Gabriel in Genesis, or when David Longdon almost replaced Phil Collins). Bravin's accent appears at some points, which I would rather didn't happen, but it is very subtle, especially compared to other Italian progressive rock vocalists singing in English. Because this is such an English band (despite their multinational makeup) and the lyrics are so central to Big Big Train's identity, clear diction cannot be understated. Thankfully Bravin has clear diction that I believe will only improve with time.
Is Ingenious Devices a necessary addition to your collection? As a bit of a biased fan, I'd say yes. Admittedly, part of me initially saw this release as a bit of a money grab, but then I found out the band had been working on this release for years in an effort to bring some of their best tracks up to the higher recording standard the band now enjoys. As such, it is a fresh way to experience the proggiest parts of the band's back catalog. It is also nice to have these songs presented together, since they appeared on different albums. Sometimes it can be hard for fans to make connections across multiple albums, so having these songs packaged together with their own artwork and liner notes is a plus. For the uninitiated curious about Big Big Train, this is a great way to dig into the band at their most progressive and emotional. Who knew those things could go together? Big Big Train demonstrate that they clearly can.