Eddie Lascu 18-Jan-2013 English Electric, Part One

While the neo-progressive rock genre has a big cohort of admirers and followers amongst the younger generation of prog-heads (if one can still call folks “young” in their late 30s or early 40s), the genre never really scored any points with the older audience - those people that actually got to witness a live show with Genesis or Yes in their prime. I believe this is because neo-prog tends to borrow a lot of elements from both pop and AOR. The forefathers of progressive rock only want to kick back, relax, get a glass of single malt, and let the music transcend them. However, every once in a while, a band branded as neo-prog (by general consensus) puts out an album that manages to bridge that gap, pleasing young and old fans alike. "English Electric, Part One" by Big Big Train is one of those albums.

Clocking in at almost an hour (six of the eight songs are over seven minutes), the album showcases the band at the pinnacle of its creativity. "English Electric, Part One" has made it to the top of many "Best Albums of 2012" lists and that is no easy feat, especially given the quality of last year's crop. Big Big Train has spoiled us with wondrous releases throughout the years. "The Difference Machine" and "The Underfall Yard", their most recent full albums, have both impressed. Therefore, no one should be surprised that the band managed to place their newest offering in the stratosphere of prog charts, all the world over. What may surprise many upon hearing "English Electric, Part 1", is that this is the best Big Big Train album yet.

The sources of inspiration are deeply rooted in the English universe, taking the listener on a tour of the country, from north to south and back. Many of the songs tell stories that the members of the band have heard. "Uncle Jack" is David Longdon's uncle, a miner in the Derbyshire coal mines that was spending all his spare time walking his dog and admiring the hedgerows in the countryside (and what was immortalized in "Hedgerow"). The same uncle has told his nephew about the many children that have suffered in the mines of the 19th century. The tale became the inspiration for "A Boy in Darkness", one of the highlights of the album. And then there is the story of a daredevil diver that ventured into a flooded tunnel where no one else wanted to go. This is the subject of the opening track, “The First Rebreather”. And finally there’s the tale of a frustrated artist that resorts to forgery in an attempt to punish the greediness of art dealers (“Judas Unrepentant”).

From the lineup on "The Underfall Yard", Big Big Train has grown to a quintet with the addition of Greg Spawton (bass guitar). He joins David Langdon (lead vocals, flute), Andy Poole (keyboards), Dave Gregory (lead guitar), and Nick D'Virgilio (drums). They are supported by a cast of additional musicians, both instrumental and vocal. Noted is Danny Manners (piano, double bass) who made such an impact that he was invited to join the band full-time for "English Electric, Part 2", which is scheduled to be released in March of 2013. The inclusion of a small string orchestra and a brass section allows the band to add luscious, cinematic textures, evoking England's pastoral landscapes and this is nowhere more poignant than on the gorgeous "Winchester from St. Giles Hill", perhaps my favorite track of the album.

The music flows sprightly from upbeat tempos, to lush and melancholic textures, flute passages segueing into soaring guitar solos, classic piano juxtaposed over mellotron harmonies, and the string orchestra in dialog with the brass section. It all morphs into something utterly and essentially English. With such levels of craftsmanship, Big Big Train continue to raise the bar for themselves and all the other bands around them. What better preamble for part two of this journey can one possibly hope for? March cannot come soon enough.

Eddie Lascu,
January 16, 2013

Eddie Lascu 29-Jan-2008 The Difference Machine

Before getting to know this album, I read it was heralded as one of the best progressive rock releases of 2007. Needless to say, I had great expectations and I can tell you I wasn't disappointed.

Big Big Train is based in Bournemouth, England and “The Difference Machine” is their fifth studio release, following the highly acclaimed “Gathering Speed” from 2004.

The band was around since early ‘90s, their first releases, “Goodbye to the Age of Steam”, dating from 1994.

Big Big Train had a tumultuous existence, going through various lineups. Some musicians have gone and then come back. Founding members Greg Spawton (guitars, keyboards and vocals) and Andy Poole (bass) are helped on this album by former Big Big Train bandmates Steve Hughes (drums) and Sean Filkins (vocals). The credits list includes also the likes of Becca King (viola) and Tony Wright (alto and tenor saxophone). The album features a few distinct guests on this album too. Pete Trewavas (Marillion – bass) and Dave Meros (Spock’s Beard - bass) appear on one song. Nick D’Virgilio (Spock’s Beard, Tears for Fears – drums) appears on two.

Musically, the album can be placed in the realm of neo progressive rock, although the artists cite a combination of progressive rock influences (Genesis, Van Der Graff Generator, King Crimson, PFM) but also alternative rock and post-rock (Sigur Ros, Oceansize, Mew). Having said that, this album is not your typical neo-prog mix of styles and influences where everyone can find something to like. It has a lot of personality, it is coherent and it has substance. Having played it for several times now, for some reasons, my mind was always taken to the emotions I felt when listening to Rain’s “Cerulean Blue”. It must have been the multiple dreamy moods created by Spawton and his melotron along Becca King’s viola. But unlike “Cerulean Sea”, this is just the canvas on which the rest of the band constructs the intricate sonic landscapes.

Take for example the intro for the album, the first track starts nicely with a suave dialog between viola and sax, a dialog that melts into some dramatic melotron tones. This is a short track that is followed by “Perfect Cosmic Storm”. This is a superb tune, perhaps the best of the album, clocking in at about 15 minutes. The music is clearly anchored by similarities with mid-70s Genesis, certainly emphasized by Spawton’s way of playing the keyboards (as if Tony Banks himself would guest here) and the omnipresent melotron (I haven’t heard this much melotron on one single album since Anglagard). Sean Filkins’ voice is a perfect match with the overall sound of the band. The third song is like an etude, a very short track entirely played on keyboard and guitar by Spawton. Next one is “Pickup if you’re there”, the track on which guests Trewavas and sure enough we are treated to a very interesting bass line that grows in complexity as the song progresses. It is towards the end of the tune, on a long passage, that we get to hear clearly the sophistication of his rhythm. To follow the pattern (short instrumental song, long complex song), the fifth song is another delicate track played solely by Spawton on keyboard and the sixth one, “Saltwater Falling on Uneven Ground” is the third tune that runs over 10 minutes. The album is closed by “Summer’s Lease”, a song where Becca King reviews some of the themes presented in the first song of the album.

This is clearly neo progressive rock, but it is not cheesy, as other such releases tend to be nowadays. “The Difference Machine” is classy, full of sophisticated musical ideas. It will give you a great deal of enjoyment.

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