Big Big Train – English Electric (Part One; 2012) – an album review

Every once in a while, I stumble across what we sometimes uncharitably refer to as a Neo-Progressive Rock band who are so good, who fill my heart with such joy, that I develop a big old teenaged crush on them. Such was my feeling upon discovering The Flower Kings, TransAtlantic, and more recently Carptree and IZZ. And now, I can happily add Big Big Train. For me, this is what progressive rock sounds like in 2013, and so, in anticipation of the upcoming release (March 4th) of the second part of English Electric, I give you my review of English Electric Part One.

Big Big Train - English Electric pt 1

tl;dr Version: Big Big Train? That has got to be the goofiest band name ever. Tell me you’re making this up, monkey-boy.

‘Splain, Lucy Version: Not one bit of it. Big Big Train has been this well kept secret for almost two decades. They started back in the early 90s on the same wave as bands like Dream Theater and The Flower Kings, amongst others. They were a little rough around the edges back then, and their line-up didn’t solidify around the team that are making the music that is making their name now, but they’ve been consistently interesting and distinct, while nicely hinting at their influences without being particularly nostalgic. This is Prog for the new century, looking back only enough to borrow a few licks and a couple of really warm keyboards.

Boring Version: As a matter of fact, while I haven’t played the early albums as much as the later albums, I’d say I’ve enjoyed most of it quite a bit. But for my money, they don’t get really good until 2007’s The Difference Engine. Somehow, that’s about the point where the songwriting and the arrangements start coming together. But it doesn’t quite land in the Realm of Wonderful until their following album, 2009’s The Underfall Yard. At that point, orchestral instrumentation and the talents of the legendary Dave Gregory of XTC fame entered into their repertoire, and they were soon followed by former Spock’s Beard drummer/vocalist Nick D’Virgilio coming on full time, and new vocalist David Longdon came in, all helping to cement their sound with a very classic feel, one part classic Genesis, one part classic Yes, one part Marillion, and a few parts of things that aren’t any of that.

My point is, there’s something wonderfully British about this band, and they wear their influences on their sleeves, but they do it with a sensibility that isn’t reflective of those influences. It’s the 70s revisited after having lived through the 80s and 90s and decided to update those classic 70s sounds and arrangements. Not quite as whole-cloth original as, say, Carptree, but fascinating and fresh, nevertheless.

Let’s play the album. I’m including links to Youtube videos of the songs, so you can listen along. Enjoy.

The First Rebreather starts with guitar and percussion followed very shortly by vocals, and builds quickly to some flute and percussion, organ ever-present, and then it all comes together for the second verse. The drums on this track, particularly in the bridge up to the chorus, has a truly classic Genesis feel. The arrangement is very much classic Gabriel-era Genesis. This is a good thing. It doesn’t stick slavishly to that sound, either. There is the middle section, which feels like a strange variation on swinging crooner jazz from the 1950s, but in a meditative minor key. The chorus itself is elegiac, with a synth line that hints at Trespass and Duke by turns. And then, after a slow dissolve, it slips away on the tide.

Uncle Jack is a charming, short folk pop number with a clever lyric and an infectious banjo-led melody. There’s flute and some tasty Steve Howe-esque jazz fusion guitar playing, and a wall of delicious vocal harmonies almost entirely throughout, which only gets better when the men start alternating lines with a female vocal section, and then the song sneaks away long before it’s had a chance to overstay its welcome. Truly a radio-friendly wonder. I love it to bits.

Winchester From St. Giles’ Hill brings us again to 70s prog country. Opening with Gabrielesque flutes and Banksian piano chords, it then slides into a classic Yes verse section, with vocals supplied by King Crimson. The chorus is an impassioned plea on behalf of an idyllic English country town, complete with men’s choir and string section, and then the verse returns. The chorus returns once again, followed by a recapitulation of the flute and piano intro as a middle section, which gets extended and transforms into a lovely instrumental passage of piano, flute, and acoustic guitars with light tympani and bass, which is then joined by some lovely orchestration that just takes it to a gorgeous crescendo, and then the rock instrumentation crashes in, and it becomes this classic Genesis rock exercise, but it quickly gives way to an almost a cappella return to the chorus, building and building as the band surges forth to the finale. If you’ve gotten this far without enjoying what you’re hearing, you may need to consult a physician. It goes on on a brief recapitulation of the intro, and is gone.

Judas Unrepentant starts with a very Genesisian instrumental exercise, all skipped beats and bouncing bass and keys, and then the lyric begins telling a wonderful story about a brilliant restorer that takes to making clever forgeries that he manages to sell to big galleries around the world for decades without getting caught. The song boasts one of the most infectious choruses I’ve heard in a prog rock song in ages. If you’re not cheering for the rogue artist by the end of the song, you may be a replicant. I’m sorry to break it to you. It’s just that good. The whole song is a brilliant history lesson, but the music is absolutely pitched perfect as a Genesis epic tale. You could mistake it for something from Trespass, Nursery Crime, or particularly Foxtrot, with its epic tales and light and shade. Eventually our hero gets busted and put away, but he has the last laugh, as he never tells them which of his restorations were fakes, and so his work goes on being traded without any clue which are the fakes, except that even the ones that are known fakes are celebrated and sold for significant sums, because they were just that good and the artist that notorious. I don’t usually dwell on the lyrics in these reviews, preferring to keep my commentary to the music, but the music is almost too good to comment on. This is one of my favourite songs by this band, and the coolest thing I’ve head since discovering Carptree a few years ago.

Summoned By Bell is a beautiful piano-driven ballad in a slightly jazzy vein, but very much in the mould of Entangled and Your Own Special Way, with the additionof some lovely flute and tasteful twelve-string, and vocals straight from those great mid-seventies Banks-dominated Genesis albums. It’s such a gorgeous song, even when the rock instrumentation crashes in and takes into the next level. Then the male chorus with the Mellotron and piano breaks it up, and the bridge section slides in, low key na-na-nas leading back to a raucous section where David Langdon gets to rock out, followed by that gorgeous chorus, and then an impassioned false outro. This song was a bit of a sleeper for me, but it gets better with each successive listen. It fades away on a slow groove of brass with jazzy rhythm section, Steve Hackett-stype electric guitar wending in and out on the wind, the horns taking much of the lead. Just beautiful.

Upton Heath opens with acoustic guitar, upright bass and shaker, followed by drums and vocal call and answer, but the chorus is joined by female singers, and a beautifully recorded mandolin-and-acordion part. The verse returns with full backing vocals from the guys and gals, and then the chorus with the mandolin and accordion. The bridge has violin and I’m pretty sure viola, as well as that ever-present acoustic guitar quietly picking away. The call and answer verse, the chorus as thick as butter, and then the brief instrumental with flute over all. The opening verse line is used to bridge to the outro, which recapitulates that Trespass riff swipe, this time sung by the girls, and it’s so damned pretty, you almost shed a tear as it winds down. A perfect song to dance with your lover too.

A Boy In Darkness is a very moody piece, very intricately orchestrated, stand-up bass and strings, acoustic 12-string quietly chiming in the background, and then the chorus, a low, impassioned exhortation. A Boy In Darkness is not a happy story. Church bell rings, the chorus storms in like the Spanish Inquisition, and then the Hammond organ introduces a rave-up, violins and guitars trading with the organ, drums pounding, a very Ian Anderson flute part… as a matter of fact, this part could have come straight from a Jethro Tull section quite nicely. It eventually, reluctantly gives way to the return of the story. It becomes clear that the boy in darkness has been abused, and is having trouble telling anyone what has happened to him. Haunted and miserable, it’s hard to tell if there is any resolution to the tale before the rave-up returns on a dark, sinister note and ends the tale.

Hedgerow 12-string Rickenbacker and a peculiarly-effected mandolin or acoustic twelve-string (I can’t tell which) open this mellow pop number that feels like something I can’t quite place, until the bridge arrives, at which point it turns into the most glorious hint of a revisitation of the psychedelic Beatles-era. The instrumental section is crunchy Genesis to my ear, but I could be missing it, it’s so short. Then there’s a long passage with violin and guitars kind of playing on a variation of the slow progression from I Want You (She’s So Heavy), except not a whole lot like that. You’ll have to hear it to understand. Then the rock instrumental kicks in, and it’s Genesis again, and then they return to the verse, which now seems to be a bit like a 70s Yes pop riff. And then the clouds open up and here comes that Beatlesque psychedelic section again, and it gets bigger, and bigger and bigger. It offers a brief refraIN, complete with English coronet, the female backing vocalist, avery McCartneyesque lilting bass line, and then it sneaks off with ambient outdoor noises, birds singing, dogs barking, bugs chirping. The End (of Part One).

Ummm… I’m gonna go on record as saying this album, which I discovered late, almost certainly takes the lead for album of the year of 2012, for me personally. I heard a lot of great albums last year, including the glorious return of my beloved Big Wreck, as well as stellar albums by Rush and Foo Fighters amongst many others. The Anthony Phillips/Andrew Skeet collaboration was beautiful as well. So many great albums. And yet, here I am in 2013, and I’m thinking the only thing that could be better that this album would be if classic Genesis reunited. And here’s what it could sound like. It wouldn’t, I’m sure, but it could. All of the ex-Genesis guys have worked extensively with orchestration (except Mike, but he’s busy anyway) at this point, and I could easily see them working such arrangements together, if they could convince Phil to let Chester play drums in the studio.

Now, to be completely fair to Big Big Train, they are NOT simply a Genesis clone. PLEASE don’t take that as the overwhelming message of this review. When I describe something as having a Genesis feel, you have to understand that Genesis is my all time favourite band (followed shortly by several others, including Yes, King Crimson, The Beatles, Pink Floyd and The Police, amongst many, many others). It is meant simply as the highest compliment I can pay a band, when they enter into those fugue-like passages and bring out something not only progressive but soulful, not only intricate but moving.

Sure, there is a motif borrowed from Trespass, but it’s the same riff that Genesis themselves have mined endlessly throughout their career, and the arrangements, particularly of the rock sections, just sound so much like 70s Genesis to me that its hard not to draw the comparison. But these guys are utterly brilliant and deserve to be recognized as their own special thing. I’ve heard many bands enter this area, and none has ever amazed me so much with their ability to pick up where the band left this sound in 1980 and move it thirty years forward. Absolutely fantastic.

It goes without saying that I will be greatly looking forward to the release of the second half of this double album, to see if they can really carry it off. If they succeed, or even surpass this effort, I may have to declare my undying love. Absolutely brilliant album. I need to play it for my friends. All of them. This is The Stuff.

© 2013 Lee Edward McIlmoyle

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