Bands like Crimson and Van der Graaf Genesis were the past for me. I was now living under a rock. An Industrial Rock – not a Prog Rock (I know where my coat is. I’ll get it later…). I’d get my kicks from abrasive guitar and drum machines and synthesizers programmed by men who applied their make-up on an airplane being flown by Captain Oveur during his “quivering, wasted piece of jelly” phase.
I first heard of Big Big Train when I was added to their Facebook Page by a friend. I had not heard any BBT. He knew that I still dipped my toe in the progressive rock pool but I’d spent so long in the Desert of Nihilism, listening to Ministry and Nine Inch Nails, that progressive rock had become more a vehicle for nostalgia than something I would actively seek. I very nearly missed the Train!
I did a little search on a popular video-sharing website and found the first Big Big Train song that I would ever hear. Make Some Noise from English Electric: Full Power made it obvious that this band has a very big sound. They also have Dave Gregory! And trains – I like trains! And they can write a hook!
So intrigued and buzzing from making some noise was I that I bought English Electric: Full Power and a ticket to the first night of their three-day string of concerts back in August 2015.
English Electric: Full Power sounded familiar and comfortable to me. I found it odd that people kept telling me who they thought it sounded like. I simply heard stuff that I liked and I thought that it was a lack of descriptive vocabulary that resulted in people saying “that sounds like Genesis”.
And now we have this: Folklore.
“Folklore”. The album’s title initially worried me. Isn’t that all about Morris Dancers and paganism? I’m scared of Morris Dancers. That’s why I avoid the annual Sweeps’ Festival in Rochester, riddled with Custom and Folk it is! How strange and anachronistic it seems – each spring ritually forcing Morris Dancers on poles up chimneys to clear out the caked-on deposits of Charles Dickens’ Novels. When they reappear their white Morris costumes are much endarkenated [EDITOR – that’s not a word, Phil], their mood, furious and fearsome.
So whilst songs passed on by word of mouth through the generations by eccentric, slightly obsessed people with a penchant for baldrics, cod pieces and bell pads might appeal to some, you can probably tell from the previous paragraph that folk music doesn’t float my boat.
Just how widely can I miss the point? You have no idea.
Big Big Train may use traditional progressive instrumentation coupled with old fashioned values but this is a modern band, adept at framing imaginative pictures in undeniably new and original songs. Word of their deeds isn’t spread by mouth, they use social media. This is what folklore has become. Yes, you might think you hear stuff that you’ve heard before, but really the instrumentation and the phrasing and the riffs are familiar simply because they share a point of reference. You may be hearing the results created by inspired musicians bringing us music that references the past but lives in the now. Listen harder!
The playing on this album cannot be faulted. It must be a tremendous achievement to be able to blend the talents of such a large group into such a cohesive sound. It is powerful and subtle in equal measure. Nick D’Virgilio’s drumming is inventive and complementary and all of the guitar work on this album is wonderful. David Longdon’s voice, always powerful, sounds grittier than I’ve heard him before.
It really isn’t fair to point any individuals out. ALL the playing is exemplary. By EVERYONE.
The band formation on this album is that which I was privileged to see live last year. The core instruments of guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and vocals are beautifully complemented by the addition of the usual brass plus a string quartet, arranged and headed by permanent member Rachel Hall, to give Big Big Train a fully orchestral feel.
This is a mature and sophisticated sound, as British, nay, as English as sprouts.
In places they are as hard as Cornish granite, in others as smooth as melted chocolate. The heavier riffs on this album were a revelation as I have hitherto never associated Big Big Train with heavy rock. To my ear there are hints of other genres; I swear I even sensed a little modern R’n’B. I found all of this a welcome addition to the band’s already impressive sonic palette.
Big Big Train seem to somewhat celebrate the events of recent history, still within living memory yet lost to us. There is always a danger that such sentimentality could be deemed mawkish but somehow they have always managed to convey the emotion of this melancholia, balanced against a celebration for quintessentially British phenomena… the vanishing hedgerow, the beautifully sculpted machine – achievements (yes, hedgerows are an achievement) that we might yet see again in another incarnation. Big Big Train are so genuine and accomplished in this mission that I have seen grown men of a certain age weep when the band perform. That is not just rhetoric. This new album breaks away from that potential accusation of mawkishness and takes Big Big Train and its passengers in a slightly different and celebratory direction, though recent history is still apparent in the sidings as the Train travels through its nine stations.
An orchestral and grandiose opening for the album frames the title track and its theme of how things change yet stay the same. By the time you pull in to the terminus and are greeted with the story of love and loss and life and bees you have flown a sortie over the North Sea, celebrated speed and the making of cider, witnessed the arrival of a giant, experienced lost love and travelled through the solar system.
By the way, Winkie is not what you think it is about, people – although I’m sure a wry smile crossed David Longdon’s face when he penned this lyric.
So have Big Big Train managed to pull it off? Have they added to their existing catalogue with a positive collection of new material?
Yes. They certainly have.
As a footnote, I was a little apprehensive about doing this review because I am a Passenger. I am friends with many of the fans who, I’m sure they won’t mind me saying this, are fiercely loyal to this approachable and talented bunch of musicians. I was worried that I might not like the album and that this review would be a point of contention amongst my friends and fellow passengers. Equally, I also didn’t want to sound like a gushing fan-boy. Maybe I have! But I set out to write an objective review, one that is useful to those who might never have experienced Big Big Train but were considering parting with their hard-earned cash. I need not have worried. This is definitely worth having.
I may have been a late arrival but now I feel like I am now definitely a passenger on the Big Big Train.
01. Folklore (7:30)
02. London Plane (10:11)
03. Along The Ridgeway (6:06)
04. Salisbury Giant (3:36)
05. The Transit Of Venus Across The Sun (7:18)
06. Wassail (6:47)
07. Winkie (8:26)
08. Brooklands (12:38)
09. Telling The Bees (6:03)
Total time – 68:35
David Longdon – Lead & Backing Vocals, Flute, Acoustic Guitar, Mandolin, Percussion, Words & Music (tracks 1,6,7 & 9)
Nick D’Virgilio – Drums & Percussion, Backing Vocals
Greg Spawton – Acoustic Guitar, Bass Guitar, Bass Pedals, Backing Vocals, Words & Music (Tracks 2,3,4,5 & 9)
Andy Poole – Acoustic Guitar, Mandolin, Keyboards, Backing Vocals
Dave Gregory – Guitars
Danny Manners – Keyboards, Double Bass
Rachel Hall – Violin, Viola, Cello, Backing Vocals, String Arrangements (with: David Longdon tracks 1 & 7; David Longdon
& Danny Manners track 9; Greg Spawton & Danny Manners tracks 4 & 5)
Rikard Sjöblom – Keyboards, Guitars, Accordion, Backing Vocals
Dave Desmond – Trombone, Brass Arrangements (with David Longdon on tracks 1 & 7)
Ben Godfrey – Cornet, Trumpet
John Storey – Euphonium
Nick Stones – French Horn
Jon Truscott – Tuba
Lucy Curnow – Violin
Keith Hobday – Viola
Evie Anderson – Cello
Record Label: n/a
Produced By: Big Big Train
Cover & Paintings: Sarah Louise Ewing
Date of Release: 27th May 2016
Formats: Digipak CD, Double Gatefold LP, Standard & High Defnition Downloads