It’s hats off to Gregory Spawton and the members of the Big Big Train team, who have overcome the most difficult circumstances and put heart and soul into building on the legacy of the contribution of much-loved and much-missed lead singer David Longdon. Having acquired a new lead vocalist in Alberto Bravin they completed a successful return to touring in 2022 and 2023, and also found time to write and produce this new album, The Likes of Us, to be released on 1st March. It is a nice touch that David’s fiancée, who did the striking portrait of David for his solo album Door One, has also provided the artwork for this album.
Some of the creative work for The Likes of Us was done in May 2023 when the band de-camped together for a week in Bravin’s home town of Trieste, in north eastern Italy, making a pleasant change from the day-to-day normality of collaborating online. However, before I go any further with laying out the context, most of you have probably heard some – if not all – of the four tracks that have been given a public airing so far, either by way of a single release or as part of the recent tour setlist, and will be familiar with Alberto’s all-round contribution to the band. Bravin is a man who clearly does not lack self-confidence and he has clearly influenced the development of the band in many ways.
Having heard the new music, I would guess that you are probably feeling quite happy that after 2022’s unusually experimental Welcome to the Planet, the new line-up has for the most part reverted to what it does best. Listening to the album from start to finish I can confirm that the new line-up has hit the ground running and delivered an exceptional album. It’s unmistakeably Big Big Train, so it cannot be described as ground-breaking, but of its kind it is a gloriously executed collection of songs. It really is a masterclass in song-writing, musicianship, arranging, production and engineering.
Although the new dynamic has clearly resulted in some changes in the sound, it has also retained the essence of what the band is about. My gut feeling, and this may change as I continue to explore the album, is that I’m not completely taken with all of the new elements, but the end result is just so absolutely gorgeous that I can’t possibly hold that against them. Let’s just roll with it for the time being and get lost in the music.
Alberto’s immediate background playing keyboards and supplying backing vocals in PFM (Premiata Forneria Marconi) didn’t suggest such an impressive transition into the multi-faceted frontman we have seen so far, which is presumably one of the reasons the offer to audition and then to join Big Big Train weren’t hard to turn down. It should also be recognised that it is not too long ago that Dave Foster joined the band and his impact on this album is also hugely significant. Both Alberto and Dave appear to have made the most of the opportunity to come out of the shadows and play leading roles.
Big Big Train’s traditional brand of pastoral English prog is still in evidence but The Likes of Us is a far more accessible melodic prog album and, in some places, breaks out unashamedly into arena rock territory. Light Left in the Day starts things off in quintessential BBT style. Alberto sings a short poem, accompanied by 12-string guitar, and after a few bars of brass it breaks out into a delicious melody, introduced delicately on the piano. Soon the song evolves into an instrumental extravaganza, not surprisingly, but this time it is noticeably led by electric guitar and keyboards. There are some trademark brass and violin parts going on but this is our first introduction to an arrangement style where the guitar and keyboard parts are the main point of focus. And it’s Alberto who closes the track out with the main melody reprised in a climactic synth passage.
Oblivion featured in the 2023 tour set and was the first official single release from the album. Once again, it’s a familiar style of song, but there is an aggressive intent provided by the punchy rhythm section, the vocals and the guitar phrasing that sets it apart from companion pieces such as Alive from Grand Tour. The arrangement is cleaner and somewhat simplified, the sound crisper and it comes across as a much more straightforward rock song. We have had a bright and energetic start to the set and it is both a reassuring and a refreshing listen.
Beneath the Masts is the album’s centrepiece, a 17-minute track originally written by Gregory Spawton and melded into the final epic version by the band during the recording session in Italy. It’s a lyrical tale inspired by landmark TV masts in his home town of Sutton Coldfield. The first part of the track is in the traditional BBT mould, followed by a lengthy jazz-inspired instrumental section led by Nick D’Virgilio, but with contributions from all the band. This section then bursts into a melodic reprise of the song and a soaring guitar solo to close out. It’s a worthy addition to the catalogue of BBT epic songs, an interesting and vivid lyric accompanied by some complementary and contrasting mood music, executed with all the finesse we have come to expect.
I would say the least impactful song in the set is Skates On, a light and whimsical song that at least allows the listener to calmly reset after what has been a rip-roaring opening sequence. Into the second half of the album, we begin with the story of Miramare castle, a landmark in Alberto’s home town of Trieste. This story and the musical arrangements are as close to the traditional BBT style as we get on this album and Alberto gives a wonderful virtuoso vocal performance. The instrumental passage features an intense violin solo that emphasises the new levels of energy that seem to have permeated through the band. This is pure class.
The second song performed on the 2023 tour is Love is the Light, and it’s another showcase for Alberto’s vocal prowess. Not wishing to detract from the artistry involved, this is basically a cliched pop/rock ballad. It sounds great but it doesn’t have the usual and unique BBT stamp of originality. If it appears in the setlist again, this may be your signal to make a quick trip to the bar, whilst the arena rock fans are busy loosening their tonsils to join in with the ‘woh wohs’ chorus.
The penultimate track is Bookmarks and this is another lush slow to mid-pace song, but this time the emotional and personal lyrics tell a more powerful story and the arrangements, including the 12-string guitar and the vocal chorus, make for a much more interesting listen.
The album closes with the first track laid down after the passing of David Longdon, Last Eleven, dating back to 2022. Nick D’Virgilio takes the vocal lead, and shares the duties with Alberto, a welcome opportunity for Nick that I’m glad is still part of the toolset for this new line-up. The lyrics are both poignant and prescient;
Headed for the light
Blinking and stumbling
Hoping it will all be alright
We came up from the darkness
Turned our faces to the sun
Together we were stronger.”
This track has been a slow burner for me, but it has revealed itself to be the perfect ending to the album. The many cricket references in the lyric strikes a chord with me personally (and let’s face it, that’s not a sentence I was expecting to be writing in a prog album review), but simply put it’s just a fine way for the group to sign off this utterly superb set.
Whatever the goals that the band have in terms of future direction and continuing to grow the fanbase, this album appears to be the perfect release at the perfect time. I’m sure that there will be some reservations about the signals that the more rock-based approach to the arrangements and production may indicate, but they also shows that there is so much more to come from the band. After the traumatic nature of the last few years that is something for which we can all be grateful.
01. Light Left in the Day (6:10)
02. Oblivion (5:27)
03. Beneath the Masts (17:26)
04. Skates On (4:28)
05. Miramare (10:17)
06. Love is the Light (6:11)
07. Bookmarks (6:23)
08. Last Eleven (7:55)
Total Time – 64:17
Alberto Bravin – Lead Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards
Nick D’Virgilio – Drums, Percussion, 12-string Acoustic Guitar, Vocals
Dave Foster – Guitars
Oskar Holldorff – Keyboards, Vocals
Clare Lindley – Violin, Vocals
Rikard Sjöblom – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
Gregory Spawton – Bass, Bass Pedals, 12-String Acoustic Guitar, Mellotron
Dave Desmond – Trombone, Brass Section Lead
Record Label: InsideOut Music
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 1st March 2024