Just over six months after the release of their last album, Common Ground, there is another new studio album from Big Big Train, their fourteenth. Maybe a little quick, but the band explains that they wanted to take advantage of the forced, relatively inactive pandemic period to make as much music as possible. Highly laudable, and that in itself is special. But also special: prior to the official release, five songs have already been entrusted to the internet, with one (Proper Jack Froster) even with matching video animation.
In addition, this is the first album without a real ‘epic’, the longest song here, Oak and Stone, clocking in at just over seven minutes, where BBT is mainly known for its long(er) songs. Plus, it’s the most diverse collection of Big Big Train songs on one album I’ve yet come across. This is partly due to the fact that this time the new members of the band have also made themselves heard in a compositional sense, albeit to a limited extent.
And finally, the sad loss of vocalist, composer and joint driving force behind the band, David Longdon, at the end of November last year. All this makes Welcome to the Planet a more than special album. And that’s exactly what it has become, unlike anything else.
Made From Sunshine is the sunny, up-tempo opening track, as Big Big Train has often done in the past (Alive, The Strangest Times). The young parents, in a duet by David Longdon and Clare Lindley, celebrate the arrival of a new world citizen, starring the brass section. The Connection Plan is written by Nick D’Virgilio (NDV), who has increasingly profiled himself as a songwriter on this album, partly prompted by Greg Spawton. Derek Reeves’ violin is dominant in this rocking track, with a mean guitar solo by Rikard Sjöblom.
Lanterna, on the other hand, is a real Spawton song; his moving tribute to the old lighthouse in Genoa is a typical song in the best BBT tradition. Changes in tempo, violin, guitar and harmony vocals compete for attention. There is a connection with previous album Common Ground, more specifically the track Atlantic Cable, both in terms of lyrics and music. The song was also intended for the aforementioned piece, but in the end they decided against it, deeming it just a tad too much of a good thing. There’s a little gem in Capitoline Venus, an acoustic duet with Longdon on piano and Mellotron and composer Spawton on 12-string guitar. Far too short, if you ask me.
Rikard Sjöblom is the spiritual father of the instrumental A Room With No Ceiling, and that’s clearly noticeable; he not only plays the guitar and various keyboard instruments but also a decent accordion tune on this intriguing track. Greg Spawton’s childhood memories are the inspiration for the wintery scene in Proper Jack Froster, an autobiographical song with a nostalgic bitter/sweet touch. Lindley’s violin, Carly Bryant’s beautiful voice and the Chicago-like brass ensemble do the rest. Goosebumps.
The imminent tones of the instrumental Bats in the Belfry emerge. Another track penned by D’Virgilio, with complex drum rhythms (including drum computer) and the horns that are worth more than their weight in brass. Why do I keep thinking about the Mission Impossible theme? At the end, NDV goes completely berserk behind his kit. Oak and Stone is the definitive David Longdon song as far as I’m concerned. His vocal contribution to this song is unparalleled and somewhat reminiscent of Curator of Butterflies, his husky voice fitting perfectly within this impressive ballad. “This is what I came for, what I longed for. And it changes everything and nothing at all”. Nothing more to add.
Closing title track Welcome to the Planet is an odd one out. I understand the intention, the opening and closing tracks share a common message, but this song, written by Carly Bryant, is downright odd and out of place. Oak and Stone would have been a much better closing track, in my opinion, especially as a final chord and tribute to Longdon. But the order of the album was already fixed prior to the singer’s death. That’s why we’re left with this strange, theatrical song, something of a cross between fifties music and a movie soundtrack. With Dixieland jazz and Great Gig in the Sky-like ending. Well…
Despite this last song, the main conclusion must be that Big Big Train has once again produced an excellent album. Distinctly different from its predecessors, but certainly no less. On the contrary: it’s varied, progressive and looking for new directions, without denying its roots, with Laterna, Proper Jack Froster and Oak and Stone as highlights. The production is once again top notch, everything sounds crystal clear and completely in balance – hats off to Rob Aubrey. Also compliments on the cover design by Sarah Louise Ewing, Longdon’s partner.
The future of the band is currently uncertain, however it is hard to imagine how the band will survive without its charismatic frontman. Since his arrival in 2009, Big Big Train has managed to uphold an upward trend. But didn’t we once say the same after Peter Gabriel’s departure from a certain band? Nick D’Virgilio is an extremely talented musician/singer who would certainly be able to give up his place behind the drum kit in favour of a permanent place in the spotlight. It wouldn’t be the first time for him. Only time will tell, the band – in this case Greg Spawton – faces an important decision. I wish them all the best in doing so.
01. Made From Sunshine (4:04)
02. The Connection Plan (3:55)
03. Lanterna (6:29)
04. Capitoline Venus (2:27)
05. A Room With No Ceiling (4:52)
06. Proper Jack Froster (6:46)
07. Bats in the Belfry (4:54)
08. Oak and Stone (7:12)
09. Welcome to the Planet (6:41)
Total Time – 47:12
David Longdon – Lead Vocals, Flute, Keyboards
Gregory Spawton – Bass, Guitars, Background Vocals
Rikard Sjöblom – Guitars, Keyboards, Accordion, Vocals
Nick D’Virgilio – Drums, Percussion, Vocals
Carly Bryant – Keyboards, Guitars, Vocals
Dave Foster – Guitars
Clare Lindley – Violin, Vocals
Aidan O’Rourke – Violin, Sound Effects
Riaan Vosloo – Double Bass
Derek Reeves – Violin
The Big Big Train Brass Ensemble:
Dave Desmond – Trombone, Percussion
Nick Stones – French Horn
John Storey – Euphonium
Jon Truscott – Tuba
Ben Godfrey – Trumpet
Record Label: English Electric Records
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 28th January 2022
– Welcome to the Planet (2022)
– Common Ground (2021)
– Empire [live] (2020)
– Summer’s Lease (2020)
– Reflectors of Light [live] (2019)
– Grand Tour (2019)
– Merchants of Light [live] (2018)
– Grimspound (2017)
– A Stone’s Throw From the Line [live] (2016)
– Folklore (2016)
– Stone and Steel (2016)
– Wassail [EP] (2015)
– Make Some Noise [EP] (2013)
– English Electric: Full Power (2013)
– English Electric, Part Two (2013)
– English Electric, Part One (2012)
– Far Skies Deep Time [EP] (2010)
– The Underfall Yard (2009)
– The Difference Machine (2007)
– Gathering Speed (2004)
– Bard (2002)
– English Boy Wonders (1997)
– Goodbye to the Age of Steam (1994)