Goodbye To The Age Of Steam (2011 reissue)

Big Big Train

English Electric, 2011

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


While the original edition of Goodbye To The Age Of Steam wasn’t the first music released by British progressive rock ensemble Big Big Train—limited runs of the group’s home-recorded “demo albums” From The River To The Sea and The Infant Hercules were sold directly to fans prior to that—it was the group’s first official album, recorded in 1993 and issued the following year on fellow British proggers IQ’s house label Giant Electric Pea (GEP).

“Anything before Age Of Steam was teenage frippery,” says BBT co-founder and principal songwriter Gregory Spawton now (as quoted in the band’s superb 2022 coffee-table biography Big Big Train: Between The Lines / The Story Of A Rock Band). Meaning, this album represents the band’s true beginning, the moment when the group’s founding lineup of Spawton (songwriting, guitars & occasional keyboards), Andy Poole (bass and production), Ian Cooper (keyboards), Steve Hughes (drums) and Martin Read (vocals) gave first official notice of their intentions.

Co-founders Spawton and Poole were both enamored of classic prog in the Genesis-Yes-Gentle Giant-Van Der Graaf Generator orbit. While the band’s vision for its music was less clear early on than it would become in later iterations, from the beginning Spawton the songwriter—who wrote all of the lyrics and most of the music for Age Of Steam—would draw on his background as a history buff with a university degree in archaeology. “‘Goodbye To The Age Of Steam’ was a phrase I found in a book,” he says, “and it sounded like a farewell to the Industrial Revolution. Of course, there are massive contradictions to that…[b]ut there remains a nostalgia for that sense of community, that pulling together which emerged from those times.”

As one might anticipate in the case of a band with a lengthy backstory that is making remarkably complex music today, their earliest official offering can at times feel a little basic by comparison. Not so much in the compositions, which are often adventurous and dynamic, but in the arrangements, which reach for complexity but lack the sophistication and polish of modern BBT, and in the production, where all the brightening up they’ve done on this freshly remixed reissue can only do so much to address the reality that the album was recorded 30 years ago employing a more limited sonic palette. It’s simply a less refined BBT than the one modern fans are familiar with.

The album opens strong with the driving “Wind Distorted Pioneers,” which moves energetically through several musical ideas in a short amount of time while featuring strong guitar-keyboard interplay over a shapeshifting beat. The lyric foreshadows the band’s later my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 English Electric era, describing “the plains / And wooded hills / Broken by grey lines / And wheels and bright steel” before the track cross-cuts into the rather melancholy opening theme of “Head Hit The Pillow,” which finds Spawton musing about “How it seems like England’s dreaming / And down along the shore, the weathered chairs and bingo halls.” The rather cool and theatrical reading Martin Read gives these lyrics inevitably leads to speculation about how these songs might have come off with a more emotionally engaging performance.

“Edge Of The Known World,” besides previewing a phrase recycled two decades later for Grimspound’s “Experimental Gentlemen,” offers a nod to future bandmate Dave Gregory in its adoption of a sophisticated British rock tone reminiscent of Gregory’s then-current band XTC. Like the following “Landfall,” it’s a consistently imaginative piece even if it doesn’t always achieve its ambitions.

“Dragon Bone Hill” is a gentle, elegant solo acoustic guitar interlude leading into “Blow The House Down,” whose prominent piano line and wistful lyric feel like precursors of more recent BBT creations, as does the nimble, athletic jam that kicks off around 4:40. It’s one of the stronger numbers on the album musically, full of shifting tempos and fresh ideas around every corner. Mellotron adds a wistful touch as Read sings about the dissolution of a relationship (though addressing his lover as “baby” does feel a bit off for a prog band).

Another highlight follows as “Expecting Snow” features a shimmering duet between Spawton on acoustic and Cooper on the keys; it’s a sublime instrumental cleansing breath before BBT gets their prog on for the final two tracks. Ten-minute mini-epic “Blue Silver Red” features multiple segments with strong playing by all involved, a synth tone that sounds like it’s emulating a flute, wonky time signatures and occasionally skronky guitar soloing; you can feel the group trying to push themselves and raise their game.

The album proper closes with “Losing Your Way,” whose seven and a half minutes encompass prog, Brit-pop, and bright pastoral folk-rock, the latter coming to the fore as Read sings about “the girl with the flowers in her hair.” Ironically the latter, which feels substantially out of sync tone-wise with modern BBT, also feels like a more natural fit for lead vocalist Read, whose rather Broadway approach too often feels like it clashes tonally with the rest of the band.

The 2011 reissue of Goodbye To The Age Of Steam found Spawton, Poole and the band’s longtime sound guru Rob Aubrey—who was at the boards for both the original 1993 album sessions and every one of the band’s latter-day recordings—remixing the album and adding a trio of bonus tracks. The most intriguing of these, “Expecting Dragons,” features Spawton and contemporary members David Longdon and Nick D’Virgilio combining themes from “Expecting Snow” and “Dragon Bone Hill” to create a sort of instrumental overture for the reissue. The other two bonus tracks—a remixed version of early BBT song “Far Distant Thing” from The Infant Hercules and an extended alternate version of “Losing Your Way”—are less intriguing, but nice extras to include for completist fans.

Goodbye To The Age Of Steam showcases many of the raw elements that would evolve over time into the Big Big Train we know today—bright melodies, shifting time signatures, references to history and philosophy mixed with more personal and romantic themes. That said, in the context of today’s band it serves mainly as a milepost illustrating how far the band has come since.

Rating: B-

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