Big Big Train – English Electric pt 2 (2013) – an album review

Here we go with round two… buckle up!

BBT-EE2 front coverjpeg

tl;dr Version: Big Big Train? Are you serious? Who the £μ¢% are they? Is this another one of your precious Prog Rock acts no one has heard of? Why the hell do you keep doing this to us? What decade are you even living in? 1973 called, and they want their faded blue jeans and full perm back.

‘Splain Lucy Version: I’ve already told you, Big Big Train are amazing, so shut it! If you didn’t take my word for it last time, I don’t know why you’re even reading this. GTFO, and while you’re at it, lose my URL. I mean it. I don’t think I can be associated with anyone who can listen to English Electric Part One and NOT be impressed. I can accept that not everyone can fall in love with this stuff, but I cannot accept someone who can hear music like this and not be moved at all. I’m deadly serious now. If you did not like the previous album, even slightly, PLEASE LEAVE.

Boring Version: Okay, with that over, let’s get to the nitty gritty. I wrote a review for the first part just a few weeks ago, and I’m pretty happy with how many people read that, considering the album was a year old when I wrote the first part. However, in case you happen to be new, Big Big Train are a modern Progressive Rock band that have been recording since the early 90s. Their music can best be described as a really fresh take on classic Progressive and Symphonic Rock, incorporating elements of Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, IQ, Marillion and The Beatles in pretty even measure, but managing the very neat trick of sounding entirely unique and deserving of praise for their own considerable accomplishments.

I said in the last review that they were a perfect example of how Genesis would sound if they were still making Prog Rock today. That may have been a very unfair comparison. Talk about ‘damned by faint praise’. I don’t mean to say they sound derivative, because despite wearing their influences proudly, they really are the freshest thing I’ve heard in Progressive Rock since I discovered Carptree a few years ago (for the record, my love of Carptree is also an obscene thing that would make young maids blush).

So, they put out their best album yet last year, and I’m still playing it repeatedly, like I have no other good albums to listen to or something. And I’ve been waiting anxiously for this second album to drop, more so I can assess English Electric as a complete piece of work than to simply compare halves. I expect differences. I expect not to be quite as awestruck this time around. I’ve already previewed the second half, and I thing it’s brilliant, but I can already tell it will take a few more listens for it to sink in. But then, so did the first half a couple of months ago. Now look at me. Total fanboy.

I say second half, but I should probably refer to it as Part Two, just to keep things straight, and also so I don’t irritate the band, should they come across this review.

For the record, I am listening to the first part as I write this section, but will have to listen to the second half as it exists on Bandcamp.com, because I am broke this week, and can’t order the album for download until I get my financials sorted. Please feel free to buy your own copy, or listen along on Bandcamp as I delve into Part Two.

And if you enjoy this album review, perhaps you might consider gifting me with a copy. *makes puppy eyes*

THE REVIEW
Once again, I will try to avoid reviewing the lyrics, because they take longer to consider, and I want to give you my impression of the music first, so you know what you’re getting. If lyrics are your thing, trust me when I say, these men write great lyrics. Very poignant tales, and very movingly delivered by David Longdon, plus the band and their guests on backing vocals.

East Coast Racer opens slowly and quietly, but that last just about as long as it takes for you to reach for the skip button, and then it kicks in and smacks your fingers bloody and raw, and you deserve it. This track is the opening salvo, and it’s a fifteen-plus-minute epic, with flutes and strings and swirling organ and vocal harmonies and slashing rhythm guitars up front and melodic riffing guitars buried in the back, and the clock reads 3:30. Capiche. This is Kitchen Sink time. It’s not all in your face every second, as there’s this refrain passage they return to that sounds like a mad mix of Beach Boys and… I’m having trouble classifying this one for you. There is a LOT of symphonic stuff going on in this, but it also has some truly chewy progressive stuff happening, with a great skip beat like something out of Jungle or Drum N Bass, matched with a very Emersonian piano solo, guitars and bass burbling away in the background adding colour and texture. Then the vocals return, and then the strings, scraping and sweeping in turns, and this is still over the breakbeat, pounding away in 9/8 and shifting to 5/8 and then I think I counted 13 a few times, I don’t know. There’s a LOT going on in here. But there’s space, too. There’s this whole section that has strings and then brass joins in, and it just gets warm and huge, quietly, gently coaxing the late 60s on Cor Anglaise. Beautiful, huge… actually, you should be listening to this through headphones, just so you can hear the choral effect and all the instruments, before the fade. Is that harp I hear in the pastorale section? Oh! It isn’t over yet. It head fakes you with a gentle false fade and then revisits the outro from A Boy In Darkness, but warmer, slightly less sinister. This too slowly fades, except the piano, which takes a while to wind down. Lovely, haunting melody to end with.

Swan Hunter comes in pretty suddenly, piano and vocals, joined by bass and a very charming guitar riff. The verses are slightly Genesis, with the chorus being a little more like a Marillion chorus. There’s a soft instrumental with banjo and possibly a sousaphone or French Horn, and then strings and tuba join in, before the bridge arrives. Then they break it down to a quiet refrain that recapitulates the chorus, followed by the big outro and the highest note I’ve heard David Longdon sing since discovering this band. Beautiful guitar in the outro, like a Clapton solo. Lovely piece. It would have played beautifully on 70s FM radio.

Worked Out starts with a guitars and bass, plus this rhythm that suggests machinery, which I suppose is what the song is getting at. The chorus is warm and lovely, and then there’s a slightly moody chorus segment that is call and answer between a small choir and David. Lovely bridging section that leads back to an even more infectious verse, piano and guitars burbling away. The instrumental section gets into classic prog rock mode, with flute, fuzz guitar and strings, followed by a segment with 12-string Rickenbacker jangling away along with the flute. A very Hackett-like guitar line arrives, buzzing away, and is then joined by what I want to call an Asia-era Steve Howe type guitar line, but it’s probably closer to Leslie West. Then the chorus returns, followed by a guitar part that soudns familiar to me and yet I can’t place. This is followed by a very Patrick Moraz-like synth solo, but sounding so fresh you won’t call it out for

Leopards opens with a string quartet in BBC light chamber music mode, and then turns into a very pretty acoustics-with-violin number. Charming. Slightly ‘Oriental’, but with country flourishes, including lap steel guitar. Banjo plunking away in the background as a very Beach Boys-via-Jellyfish harmonic section waltzes in (the song is in waltz time), with guitar throughout. This is a strangely stirring, evocative piece of pop confection that defies classification.

Keeper of Abbeys starts off as a folksy number with accordion, but quickly turns into a psychedelic pop song, beautifully arranged and orchestrated, with a very hooky verse that goes by at breakneck speed for a second time before the number goes into half speed for a moody bridge section, drenched in vocal harmonies and Hammond Organ, before the instrumental breaks in like a Santana number. Then the drums lead us to a segment with strings and accordion, as well as sitar, followed by a jaunty gypsy-like violin solo and strings in the background. The solo is taken over by electric sitar, which sounds cooler than most electric sitar solos I’ve heard, so very nice work. An electric guitar solo in Gilmour-mode rides by, and is soon joined by a properly Floydian segment, including faithfully convincing Rick Wright organ. The song rides out on this Floydian groove. Nice touch.

The Permanent Way begins with grand piano and flute, followed by cello, and then is joined by acoustic guitar and then Hammond Organ, and then the brass section comes in and gently quotes a segment of what I think is Summoned By Bell. Having already heard this piece once, I know to expect the return of the Hedgerow chorus melody, with a new lyric that is then joined by choral treatment, before sailing back into the piano and strings in the verse. Gorgeous touch. They add a vocal hook as they head back to the chorus, but they head fake us and go into an organ solo that sounds for all the world like early Journey to me. Then that bit of Genesis riff I mentioned in the previous review returns triumphantly, and they build on it with Oberheim(?) synth, but they cut away to the piano and strings, as well as a voice-over from some classic bit of movie or television. This gives way to a Hackett-esque solo that in turn is joined by piano and organ, before going into a slow decay, violin and guitar weaving and dodging each other, as well as Moog flourishes. It’s a very Marillion outro, but arranged in a way Marillion haven’t done, so it’s old and new at once. Very nice.

Curator of Butterflies opens on grand piano, just David singing a lovely melody against beautiful piano chords that might have come from a song not quite written by Billy Joel. The French Horn adds colour, followed by twelve string and brushed drums and what I’m pretty sure is a double bass being tapped for the kick. Strings, glorious strings, and then the bass kicks in and the song breaks out like that moment near the end of Marillion’s Brave. Very much like that. Gorgeous. Flute. Passionate vocal. Then a lovely, understated electric guitar melody. There is a break that leads into a quiet 12-string string quartet moment, possibly accompanied by spinnet or clavinet, and David doing a beautiful Steve Hogarth-type vocal. The guitar here sounds a bit like Walter Becker, I think. Very Steely Dan to these ears. Or am I thinking 10CC? Point is, late 70s AOR feel, and gorgeously so. Some Steve Rothery flourishes. Flute returns, harmonizing with the guitar and piano, and then Vox Humana chorus, as pretty as the outro to Layla. It ends on the piano. Lovely. Just lovely.

SUMMARY
Well, let’s see… on first listen, I didn’t think it was as strong. I also figured it would take me a few listens to get it. Turns out I was wrong. It’s an absolutely lovely 57ish minute meditation. Pretty. Snarly. Clever. Fun. Not quite as obvious as the first part had been, with it’s massive hooks and too-clever-by-far lyrics, but this part wins on sheer elegance and beauty. Taken as a separate entity, I think it stands up to anything in their (or anyone else’s) canon. Compared to Part One, it’s more relaxed, though no less ambitious. They clearly decided they could afford not to have too many rave-ups on this half, though they get in a few really crunchy sections and some clever time signature work that doesn’t hit you in the face with its obvious brilliance. A more water colour rendition, as opposed to the acrylic boldness of Part One. Taken as a whole, I think English Electric may be the best double album I’ve heard in years. Perhaps ever. Remarkable. If they never record another note, they’ll have achieved a landmark piece of music that needs to be listened to.

My bias is obvious here. This is music I dearly wish I’d written, or somehow been involved in. The best I can do is write this review and hope that it’s not as much of a wet, sloppy kiss as I fear it is. It’s as gorgeous, as luscious a collection of music as you’re ever likely to hear. If you don’t hear it, then I’m truly sorry for you. If this album doesn’t prove to be my album of the year for 2013, it’s only because the first part keeps taunting me from 2012.

Finally, thank you for reading. Now go buy the album. Buy both. And don’t be afraid to tell them I sent you.

© 2013 Lee Edward McIlmoyle

2 Responses to “Big Big Train – English Electric pt 2 (2013) – an album review

  • Great review…and love the album too..that riff you mention from Genesis in “The Permanent Way”. Would that happen to be from Stagnation?

    • Thank you.

      And yes, I know BBT very smartly mutate the riff to make it their own (which I fully applaud them for), but I believe the progression originates from Stagnation (FYI for non-Genesis fans: Trespass; 1970), which was also isolated and played at the end of Genesis’ Big Medley in the 1992 The Way We Walk Tour as well. I seem to recall hearing it in an earlier demo song of theirs as well, but I can’t track it down, so I can’t confirm it.

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