English Electric Part Two

Big Big Train

English Electric Recordings, 2013


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Six months after issuing the superb English Electric Part One, progressive rock collective Big Big Train have returned from the wilds of Bournemouth with Part Two, cementing the title that has been theirs alone since 2009’s The Underfall Yard: the finest prog band working today, period.

In its own way, it’s remarkable that the title even exists anymore, inasmuch as prog has fallen in and out of favor again and again over the past forty years even as musical genres have grown more and more segregated and specialized. The simple act of speaking of progressive rock as a going concern to a general audience that has so often overlooked it requires a certain stubborn devotion.

In English Electric Part Two, that devotion is rewarded thoroughly by a BBT lineup that now includes co-founders/multi-instrumentalists Andy Poole and Greg Spawton, Nick D’Virgilio (drums, backing vocals), Dave Gregory (guitars, string arrangements), David Longdon (lead vocals, flute, banjo and more) and Danny Manners (piano, organ, synthesizer).

The second act begins with the magnificent “East Coast Racer,” a 15-minute epic that wears that label as convincingly as any I’ve ever heard. The story is about a steam engine built for the express purpose of trying to set a new speed record in 1938. But by focusing the lyric on the emotional bond between the designers and builders and the engine itself, composer Greg Spawton transforms a slice of history into a love song for a locomotive.

And what a love song. The arrangement and execution turn this gamble into a triumph, moving from a reflective solo piano intro into a churning electric overture that sets the table for what’s to come. Alternating between wide-open symphonic passages and heavier, darker moments for the first third, they cut back in the middle section to just Manners’ tense, jazzy piano. Then, as the narrative moves the engine onto the tracks for its record-breaking race, the music accelerates steadily behind it. At the two-thirds mark, the arrangement adds yet more drive, strings and brass swelling, sweeping the song up into the sky, whereupon Longdon lets go with a ringing “She fliiiiiiiiiiiies” that sends chills up and down the spine. Every second of the nearly four-minute denouement that follows is necessary to both recover from and reinforce this remarkable moment.

On a side note, having heard that strings and brass would play a large role in Part Two, I was concerned that the symphonic elements might prove a bit much for my tastes. To the contrary, they only add to the impact of the core arrangements, elevating songs like “East Coast Racer” from terrific to stunning.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“Swan Hunter” follows with a tale from the shipyards, the melancholy reminiscences of a shipbuilder whom times have passed by (“Tell me what do you do / When what you did is gone”). The images of “Gleaming vessels / Filling up the sky / Dwarfing rows of terraced houses” are rich and evocative, and Gregory’s rippling licks form the glowing heart of the dense arrangement.

Returning to the underground world referenced often in Part One, “Worked Out” explores the brotherhood of coal miners engaged in this dirty, difficult work. Big Big Train, serious fellows who also love to laugh, offer a touch of lightness at the intermission with “Leopards,” a breezy four-minute bit about that guy we’ve all known (or been), who keeps insisting he’s going to change—soon.

The prize for catchiest melodic hook on this album goes to perhaps the quirkiest of them all. “Keeper Of Abbeys,” a seven-minute track Spawton wrote about the odd old fellow he found tending the grounds at an ancient, ruined abbey, features an earworm of a chorus. Halfway through, the lyric ends and the song moves into an inspired instrumental jam featuring a violin solo by frequent guest Rachel Hall, followed by two Gregory solos, first on electric sitar, and then on electric guitar. Brilliant stuff.

“The Permanent Way” is a fascinating conglomeration of musical and lyrical themes from the band’s last several releases, including direct lifts from “The First Rebreather” and “Hedgerow” from EE Part One, as well as subtler references to The Underfall Yard and the Far Skies Deep Time EP of 2010. It sums up what BBT’s work has been all about these past four years, exploring the stories of the working men and women who, in Spawton’s words, “helped forge the English landscape.”

There has been some discussion on Big Big Train’s ever-lively Facebook group of the decision not to close the album with “The Permanent Way,” given its summing-up feel. Spawton has suggested that felt a bit too obvious, but to me the bigger issue is that the song they chose to close the album, “Curator Of Butterflies,” is impossible to follow. A soaring, exquisite piece about life and death and nature and loss, it ends in a parallel to the climax of “East Coast Racer,” as the string section carries an already-gorgeous song into the clouds and Longdon lets go with a final, soaring coda: “she’d be freeeeeee.”

Like each of the band’s last several outings, English Electric Part Two was produced by Andy Poole and mixed and mastered by Rob Aubrey. It’s essential to mention this because every bit as much care and craft has been put into the sound of the last few BBT discs as into the songs and performances themselves. Crisp, clear, full and rich, the production and mix is absolutely spot-on in every respect in terms of maximizing the impact of the finished work.

In its current configuration—production team included—Big Big Train could be regarded as something of an all-star team. The trouble with such lineups is they often underperform for one reason or another. Not so here. This is as fine a collection of musicians as you’ll ever hope to hear, fronted by a world-class vocalist, delivering on the promise of one outstanding song after another. Questions of whether or not “prog is back (again)” or whatever seem entirely irrelevant when you’re in the grip of an album like this, music that takes you on a journey, that expands your field of vision, that moves you, again and again.

Big Big Train is the very personification of the “East Coast Racer”—sleek and sure and moving down the tracks at a speed guaranteed to astonish.

Rating: A-

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© 2013 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.