The Likes Of Us

Big Big Train

Inside Out, 2024

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


One of the things life requires of us is to reinvent ourselves over and over again. We may settle into a particular groove for a period of time, but inevitably the universe comes along to remind us how little control we have over our circumstances and how often we must adapt as they change.

Progressive rock collective Big Big Train’s previous studio album of new material, released in January 2022, was the last to feature longtime lead vocalist / songwriter / multi-instrumentalist David Longdon, who passed away unexpectedly in November 2021. Blindsided by this sudden, staggering loss, the group—led by founder and principal songwriter Gregory Spawton—took time to mourn and contemplate its future before resolving to forge onward. New lead vocalist Alberto Bravin, formerly of Italian progressive rock legends Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM), joined the fold in spring 2022. Then in early 2023 keyboardist-vocalist Carly Bryant left BBT and was replaced by Oskar Holldorff of Norwegian prog trio Dim Gray.

Fresh from signing a multi-album deal with Inside Out, the reconstituted band gathered in summer 2023 in Bravin’s hometown of Trieste, Italy to do something Big Big Train hadn’t done in years: record a new album with the entire lineup present and working together in real time in the studio. Said lineup now consists of: Spawton (bass guitar and pedals, 12-string acoustic guitar, Mellotron), Bravin (lead vocals, guitar, keyboards), Nick D’Virgilio (drums, percussion, vocals), Dave Foster (guitars), Holldorff (keyboards, vocals), Clare Lindley (violin, vocals) and Rikard Sjöblom (guitars, keyboards, vocals). (For a much deeper dive on the making of the album, see our recent interview with Gregory Spawton.)

From the opening notes of the album it’s apparent that Big Big Train has embraced the challenge before it—to reintroduce the band to its audience with new music that represents both continuity and a natural evolution. Opener “Light Left In The Day” serves beautifully as both an overture—foreshadowing various musical and lyrical elements of the album to come—and as a proof of concept for the new lineup. Bravin enters first, establishing his role as the new lead voice, before the ensemble moves into a lively instrumental segment that eventually deploys its full arsenal, from tricky time signatures and soaring brass to powerhouse drumming, bass pedals, keening violin, and smoking synth and guitar solos. Holldorff and Spawton in particular shine here, even as the song’s topic sentence—“Make the most of the light left in the day”—introduces a theme that suggests the lasting impact of Longdon’s passing.

The second track and first single released from the album, the thundering “Oblivion” is as heavy a song as the band has ever recorded, its riffy core bolstered by complex, shifting time signatures and Lindley’s soaring, slicing violin, offset with a dreamy, airy bridge. It’s also the only track here that neither Spawton nor Bravin was involved in writing, a collaboration between D’Virgilio and Foster. A departure in some respects, this dynamic number nevertheless ends up feeling like a complementary track that’s entirely in keeping with the character and strengths of this new-era lineup.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The new BBT’s inaugural epic “Beneath The Masts” earns that label and more. Its 17-minute span opens with pretty acoustic guitar and piano introducing a tale of loss that’s both specific in its physical details—the hill it describes sits behind the house where Spawton grew up—and sufficiently open-ended to invite the listener to weave its message into their own experiences. In interviews Spawton has revealed that it’s about the passing of his beloved stepfather and his sense of dislocation from his roots in the English Midlands. Sonically, it’s both evocative and adventurous. As D’Virgilio and Sjöblom’s voices rise in chorus with Bravin’s you feel a continuity of sound and purpose; then as the song develops Holldorff takes a moment at center stage with his fluid, energetic keyboard work, leading to a stinging guitar solo. At the song’s crescendo, guitars and violin and piano double and triple one another with stuttering, stabbing notes before returning to a plaintive synth melody. With energy and drive aplenty, “Mast” carries listeners through an emotional trajectory of loss and rebirth, even as it conveys a message of deceptive urgency: “Time waits in the wings.” This is what sets Big Big Train apart from its prog peers—the sharp insights and rich veins of emotion at the core of even their most grandly-scaled epics.

Next up, “Skates On” takes a more direct approach to a similar theme, a resonant Spawton reverie. “It’s time to get your skates on / We’re only here for so long / Time to get your skates on / We’re here and then gone,” sings Bravin. “Don’t take a rain check / Do it now / Make those memories / Live your dreams.” The entire track feels like a reflection of recent events—mortality, the seeming capriciousness of fate, and the importance of seizing the moment.

The album’s second extended piece, the 10-minute “Miramare,” is the one track here that’s steeped in the sort of historical focus that’s been common on past BBT albums. With the instrumentalists on fire and surrounded by a chorus of harmony vocalists, Bravin essays the story of a doomed romance (“Hope can be a great deceiver”) that is part of the legend of his hometown of Trieste. The one who really shines here, though, is Spawton, who since switching from guitar in 2009 has steadily grown into a top-flight bass player; he’s now regularly venturing outside the pocket to attack punchy riffs of his own.

After that the album settles into a thoughtful groove for its final quarter. “Love Is The Light” is a gorgeous and very personal Bravin ballad lit up by tag-team violin and guitar solos. Spawton’s rather pastoral “Bookmarks” celebrates connection and the restorative powers of friendship. The tempo picks up again with rangy, anthemic closer “Last Eleven,” another Spawton number celebrating friendship—“Together we are stronger”—that also demonstrates’ Bravin’s ability to hit those big notes.

Presented with the biggest challenge here, Alberto Bravin climbs the hill before him with a winning combination of enthusiasm, skill, and grace. He is a different singer than David Longdon, employing a voice with different qualities, while sharing some important ones: passion, personality, and a keen instinct for accentuating the inherent drama of Big Big Train's music. Oskar Holldorff, the newest and youngest member of the band, similarly steps into his new role with aplomb, fueling the band’s momentum with his fiery playing and strong harmony vocals.

The rest of the lineup remains at the top of their game, with longtime members D’Virgilio and Sjöblom continuing to anchor the group’s sound with their superb musicianship and harmony vocals, Foster bringing both power and a nimble touch on guitar, and Lindley delivering an evocative counterpoint with her violin on track after track.

This moment inescapably marks the beginning of a new era for Big Big Train. And while the new era will inevitably be different from what preceded it, it’s safe to say after digesting this album that, under the most difficult of circumstances, the band has made a series of very good decisions. The Likes Of Us delivers an engaging, charismatic combination of muscle and heart, a testament to perseverance and the power of friendship—and music—to heal. They have indeed seized the moment.

Rating: A-

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© 2024 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 Inside Out, and is used for informational purposes only.