The Underfall Yard
English Electric Recordings, 2009
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 12/11/2009
I haven’t been to England in years -- unless, that is, you count the trips I’ve taken recently while driving through California’s Central Coast listening to Big Big Train’s magnificent new album The Underfall Yard.
Of all the things that might strike me about these British progressive rockers’ latest outing -- the superb arrangements, the world-class musicianship, the depth of feeling poured into some of their most personal songs -- the sense of place is what loomed largest in my mind as I sat down to write this review. It’s quite simply one of the most British albums I’ve ever heard.
While it’s true enough that most of the classic prog bands were/are British -- and the music here feels like a charismatic melding of early Genesis and classic Yes, with more than little Floydian melancholy, reimagined with modern dynamics and sparkling production -- it’s the lyrics that cement the character of the music. This is an album grounded in history, with a literary quality to its lyrics about passing eras, the end of empires large and small, and the effects of societal change on those who can’t or won’t adapt.
The Underfall Yard is Big Big Train’s sixth studio album, the follow-up to 2007’s superb The Difference Machine, and their first with new vocalist David Longdon. Longdon joins founding members Greg Spawton (guitar, keys, songwriting) and Andy Poole (bass, production) as the core trio of a steadily evolving conglomeration of musicians that now includes Nick D’Virgilio (Spock’s Beard) as a “permanent guest” on drums and background vocals. Dave Gregory of XTC also contributes guitar on five of these six tracks.
To call Longdon a “good fit” for Big Big Train would be an epic understatement. The newcomer to a band of avowed Genesis fans is not only at times a dead ringer vocally for Peter Gabriel, he actually worked with Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford for six months in 1996, competing for the lead vocal slot in the post-Phil Collins edition of Genesis that eventually featured D’Virgilio on drums and Ray Wilson at the mike.
The new lineup’s debut outing opens with the instrumental “Evening Star,” effectively the overture to an album about the end of eras of one sort of another, and the losses that pile up with the passage of time. Even the five-line narrative of the subsequent six-minute-plus “Master James Of St. George” conveys a deep sense of loss; Master James “used to build castles of stone / Steel and blood / But lines get broken down.”
The emotional core of the album resides the stunning “Victorian Brickwork,” Spawton’s elegy for his father, a navy man whose serial departures frayed the connection between father and son. Two minutes into this 12-minute track, the soft, pastoral opening gives way to a guitar-bass-drum-organ theme that frames the remainder of the song, a lively and complex motif that feels like an outtake from The Yes Album. The mid-song climax comes as Longdon/Spawton declares “Now I know who I am / I know what I mean / And I know where I came from / From the sea” before the music falls back into a long, dreamy jam that evolves into a gorgeous, soaring orchestral section where strings and horns build toward a magnificently sad crescendo, a segment that could easily be subtitled “Soundtrack To An Era Passing.” The chorus then returns, this time as a gentle coda: “Lost in low light and ocean tides / The love you never meant to hide.” Gorgeous and absolutely brilliant.
Next up are a couple of uniquely British tales. “Last Train” traces the literal “end of the line” for a railroad man whose branch line is being abandoned, and features especially fabulous Gregory guitar solos. And “Winchester Diver” -- whose opening instrumental section has a rather Ian-Anderson-fronting-the-Alan-Parsons-Project feel -- spins the tale of the lonely, impossibly dangerous work done in 1906 by a lone diver shoring up the foundations of Winchester Cathedral as worshippers and clergy continued about their business above.
The epic title track -- 22 minutes of turning, twisting, captivating prog -- is a veritable all-star jam, with terrific, fully-integrated guest appearances by Jem Godfrey (Frost*), Francis Dunnery (It Bites) and Dave Gregory, and especially percussive flute work from Longdon. Favorite moments include the powerful jam between 6:30 and 7:20, where Godfrey duels the rhythm section to a draw, and the flowing, distinctly Greg Lake-ish acoustic guitar / analog synth section from around 15:05 through 15:35.
As wonderful as The Difference Machine was, The Underfall Yard is its equal and more. Longdon is a magically good fit for the group, and the addition of brass and strings to half these tracks lends extra weight and substance to the naturally-present orchestral elements of the music. Indeed, there is a distinctly British beauty to the music, which manages to be both reserved and passionate, stark and sophisticated, keenly aware of history while drawing a clear through-line to the present.
The best prog taps into the imagination and emotions in ways that carry the music beyond the scope of entertainment and into the realm of art. With The Difference Machine and now The Underfall Yard, Big Big Train has firmly established itself as one of the most impressive and affecting progressive rock acts working today.