English Electric Part One

Big Big Train

English Electric Recordings, 2012


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Oh, you little buggers.

A strange thing to find myself thinking midstream in getting to know the new album from my current favorite prog band on the planet, to be sure. Big Big Train are simply the band of the moment in the progressive rock genre right now. Other than Porcupine Tree—Steven Wilson is some kind of mad genius, right?—there’s simply no other prog outfit active that can boast BBT’s combination of musical, vocal and compositional chops, melding affectionately recalled classic prog themes and structures with fresh new twists and bubbling emotion.

English Electric (Part One), or EEP1, is a departure from the group’s previous three releases (2007’s The Difference Machine, 2009’s The Underfall Yard and 2011’s Far Skies Deep Time EP) in the sense that there are no extended epics here; the longest of the eight tracks on this 58-minute album runs a relatively concise nine minutes. And let’s be clear: I loved—not liked, loved—all three of the aforementioned discs. The power and majesty of the music they contain—particularly in the longer tracks with their extended instrumental passages and symphonic structures—absolutely knocks me out.

My first listen to EEP1 was a bit underwhelming. Maybe it was the weight of expectations; maybe it was the less-than-optimal circumstances. In any case, I missed the epic scale and sounds of this disc’s predecessors, and while the album felt solidly good, my initial impression was that it lacked that extra wow factor that pushed the group's previous three releases into the stratosphere, the sort of visceral impact and melodic stickiness that keeps tunes in your head long after the speakers have gone quiet.

And then, the very next day, after another, still relatively uneventful listen, I discovered something unexpected. Somehow, when I wasn’t paying attention, the urgent opening guitar riff to "The First Rebreather" had made itself at home in my imagination and was simply refusing to leave. Having located it, I then realized that the soaring "A river flowing from the chalkwhite hills" refrain from "Winchester From St. Giles Hill” had taken up residence nearby, along with the jittering, hyperactive organ motif that anchors "Judas Unrepentant," the billowing chorus of “Upton Heath,” and the propulsive drum-and-guitar opening and “That is where you will find me” closing refrain of “Hedgerow.”

Little buggers, indeed. Clever ones.

So, yes, English Electric Part One might not have quite the grand scale and immediate impact of its predecessors, but the music remains sublime in its beauty, as well as remarkable in the vivid sense of place it conveys. The place being, of course, England itself, and the musicians being perhaps the most well-qualified quintet ever to walk in the footsteps of early Genesis. Multi-instrumentalist/composer Greg Spawton and multi-instrumentalist/producer Andy Poole (the group’s co-founders) are joined in the current lineup by vocalist/flautist David Longdon (a Gabriel-esque talent who nearly won the Genesis lead vocalist slot in 1996), drummer Nick D’Virgilio (Spock’s Beard, Genesis), and guitarist Dave Gregory (XTC, Peter Gabriel). my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Now, let’s dig deeper.

Kickoff cut “The First Rebreather” revisits a scenario similar to “Winchester Diver” from The Underfall Yard, a dramatic narrative about descending into underwater darkness, framed with a rippling guitar figure and featuring very Tony Banks-ian organ and synthesizer work from Spawton and guest Andy Tillison as the tune builds to a magnificent crescendo. Loved this one from the first.

“Uncle Jack” is a different beast entirely, a sprightly pastoral tune about Longdon’s beloved uncle, with—no surprise here—well-arranged vocals and terrific flute work. (By the by: it’s incredibly difficult to be a British band playing progressive rock, and feature flute, and not sound like Jethro Tull. You basically can’t.) Indeed, this tune comes off like a catchy, affectionate pastiche of Tull and Genesis.

“Winchester From St. Giles’ Hill” begins gently before seguing into a series of jazzy verses as the song builds to its payoff, the afore-noted dramatic chorus. The sweeping feel of the music is a perfect match to the lyric, putting you there on the hilltop, overlooking the city. In the latter stages, it adds more strings and backing voices, the guitar arrives and asserts itself and we circle back around for a final, surging refrain.

The rhythmic piano-organ figure that fuels the opening moments of “Judas Unrepentant” pays off nicely at the swelling choruses. Longdon sometimes seems to be forcing the words of his narrative (about a notorious art forger) to fit the music, but these considerations are ultimately swept away by the sheer drive this track achieves. Much like my impression of the album as a whole, “Summoned by Bells” begins modestly but builds steadily, moving from quieter to heavier sections seamlessly, featuring a jazzy, horn-dominated fugue section before the guitar reemerges to guide us across the finish line.

“Upton Heath” returns you to the British countryside for a sort of meditation, with a musical setting that’s practically country-prog, with a gentle upbeat melody, banjo, mandolin, flute and layered harmony vocals. The “Walk with me / Up on Upton Heath” refrain actually has a bit of a James Taylor / “Country Road” feel to it, with the mandolin and violin figures casting inevitable shadows of Nickel Creek.

And then we’re cast back underground, in the dark. The first three minutes of “A Boy in Darkness” offer a somewhat overwrought period piece about child labor in the mines… and then everything changes. First, the song blossoms into a dynamic instrumental middle section with a dizzying organ-violin-electric guitar jam reminiscent of Kansas at its best. Then we cut over to a Longdon flute solo over flashy bass work from Spawton. And then the latter third of the song delves into an intense, even eerie condemnation of child abuse, alluding to the scandals of the Catholic Church.

The album closes out back above ground, in happier circumstances. Starting out with a distinctly Byrds-like chiming guitar figure, “Hedgerow” develops nicely into a middle section that features a gorgeous violin solo followed by a terrifically proggy jam featuring organ, guitar, and mellotron, among others. Toward the end, complex, layered call-and-answer vocals and a full horn section generate moments of aching beauty before a backdrop of pastoral sound effects closes things out in the finest British prog tradition.

All of this is wrapped up in—once again—stunningly gorgeous packaging, this time featuring Matt Sefton’s evocative, largely textural photographs, extreme close-ups of rusty machinery, uncovering the beauty of decay. The BBT guys remember when albums were a complete package of music and artwork, and they deliver it.

In the end, this album does feel slightly downsized from the epic scale of the group’s last three discs, but the music perfectly matches the tenor of these songs, which are rooted deeply in everyday life in the British countryside. English Electric Part One might not knock you out of your shoes on the first listen like Big Big Train’s last few all did for me. But it's a grower—man, is it ever.

Rating: A

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© 2012 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 English Electric Recordings, and is used for informational purposes only.