Summer's Lease

Big Big Train

Belle Antique, 2020

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


To the many modern innovations originated or inspired by the nation of Japan, let’s add: the first career-spanning collection from British progressive rockers Big Big Train. Following the success of the Japanese release of the band’s 2019 studio album Grand Tour, their Japanese label Belle Antique suggested the band release a “best of” set to introduce their back catalogue to the Japanese audience.

The resulting compilation Summer’s Lease “traces the story of Big Big Train from some of its earliest tracks through to the music of the contemporary line-up,” according to the band, while adding fresh twists in several respects, including one entirely new and unreleased track, plus enhanced or re-recorded versions of several others. Only available in Japan currently, Summer’s Lease will become available in the UK through the band’s Burning Shed electronic storefront this fall. (No domestic US release is planned, though the album is available as an import.)

This two-disc set’s tracklist—a combination of songs requested by Belle Antique and additional material supplied by the band—is both on target in terms of summarizing the band’s 30-year, twisting-and-turning musical journey, and unique in the strategies employed to achieve a consistency of sound across a span of time that has seen the band evolve dramatically both in terms of lineup and musical reach.

For one thing, the four early tracks covering the years 1990-2008, prior to the arrival of current frontman David Longdon, are all reimagined versions of the original recordings. Instrumental overture “Expecting Snow,” from 1994’s Goodbye To The Age Of Steam, takes the already-enhanced version from the album’s 2011 re-issue and adds more keyboards, while the wistful “Wind Distorted Pioneers” from the same album receives an entirely new recording featuring the modern lineup. The ringing, distinctly early-Genesis-feeling mini-epic “Kingmaker,” an early-’90s composition that’s received multiple releases over the years, is here featured in the live-in-the-studio recording initially included as a bonus track on 2016’s Blu-ray concert release my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 A Stone’s Throw From The Line. Finally, this collection’s title track is a live-in-the-studio recording from the same Stone’s Throw sessions, with the modern lineup offering an evocative take on a song from 2007’s The Difference Machine.

The era kicked off by band co-founders Greg Spawton and Andy Poole’s recruitment of vocalist/flautist Longdon, drummer/vocalist Nick D’Virgilio (Spock’s Beard), and guitarist Dave Gregory (XTC) is first represented by “Master James Of St. George” from 2009’s The Underfall Yard, again taken from the live-in-the-studio Stone’s Throw sessions, with later additions Danny Manners (keys), Rachel Hall (violin/vocals) and Rikard Sjoblom (guitar/keys/vocals) on board for this rousing, multilayered rendition. Closing out the first disc is the one track presented out of chronological order—“London Song,” a nearly 34-minute epic whose components first emerged in bits and pieces over the past five years, before being combined into a single download-only suite in 2017. Even that version has been further enhanced here with a fresh mix that adds keyboard elements to improve the flow between sections. And while I tend to think the band has made the right decisions about what they’ve chosen to include in full on past studio releases versus what they’ve edited down, it’s still both enjoyable and quite impressive to witness the complete widescale epic in this form.

The second disc encapsulates the heart of the current lineup’s back catalogue. Opening with Spawton’s surging, elegiac “Victorian Brickwork” from 2009, we move through the playful, keyboard-centric “Judas Unrepentant” into a trio of tunes from 2012’s English Electric Part Two. Their now-signature epic “East Coast Racer” gets the blood pumping, while gorgeous ballad “Curator Of Butterflies” and melodic lament “Swan Hunter” accentuate the melancholy, the latter reaching its climax with the magnificent, cinematic “The Transit Of Venus Across The Sun.”

The one entirely new and unreleased track here, “Don’t Forget The Telescope,” is a lively, entertaining D’Virgilio composition that’s as rhythmically complex as you might anticipate, while providing space for each player to stretch out on the song’s core melodic themes. (The name is a winking in-joke for fans, referencing an incident at one of their recent live shows.) The generous 137-minute collection closes out with Longdon’s stirring suite “Brave Captain” from 2017’s Grimspound.

The packaging, another BBT trademark, is both beautiful—featuring another striking image of the English countryside from artist Sarah Louise Ewing—and generous in its inclusion of lyrics in both Japanese and English, as well as full track-by-track credits, liner notes, and band photos. For the fan who cares about such things—and shouldn’t you, really?—it’s pure heaven.

The story told across these two hours of music is inevitably missing some important pieces; I could easily compile an entire alternate two-disc set of songs that were omitted that I would like to have seen included, beginning with the title track from The Underfall Yard and several more from the underrepresented English Electric Part One. But the point on a collection like this one is to offer a taste, not the full meal, and in that respect Summer’s Lease is a resounding success, offering a broad overview of the band’s catalogue while suggesting multiple new paths for the intrigued listener to explore.

Rating: A-

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© 2020 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Belle Antique, and is used for informational purposes only.