English Electric: Full Power

Big Big Train

English Electric Recordings, 2013

http://www.bigbigtrain.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/07/2013

I remember when an album was much more than just a collection of songs. Those old LPs, with their gatefold covers and thick booklets of detailed liner notes, were gateways into alternate realities, with artwork and presentation that enveloped the listener in a new experience, propelling you down the rabbit-hole.

Big Big Train remembers that feeling, too.

In fact, remembering is at the core of Big Big Train’s very identity; their recent albums English Electric Part One and Two—as well as The Underfall Yard and Far Skies Deep Time before that—all live in memory, conjuring up England’s industrial past, a time when men worked building ships or mining coal or digging railway tunnels—hard, physical work that built a nation, and held both dangers and satisfactions beyond anything a posh office job could ever deliver.

The group also—as evidenced by this Yank’s use of “posh” in that last paragraph—draws you into a world whose essential English-ness seeps into every verse and chorus. Hedgerows and mummers and colliers and heaths come to life in these songs, again and again.

English Electric: Full Power represents the culmination of five years of change and evolution for the band, which has grown over this period from a core trio of co-founders Greg Spawton (bass/guitar/keys/composition) and Andy Poole (guitar/bass/keys/production), along with superb frontman David Longdon (vocals/flute/keys/composition), to include Nick D’Virgilio (drums/vocals, ex-Spock’s Beard), Dave Gregory (lead guitar, ex-XTC) and Danny Manners (piano and keys, ex-Louis Philippe). The Underfall Yard (2009) demonstrated the musical heights this collective was capable of, a genuine masterpiece of modern progressive rock. The two halves of English Electric then explored those heights thoroughly, unleashing a torrent of evocative songs and melodies that captured both a bygone era and many listeners’ hearts.

Full Power brings the sum total of EE together, shifting the run order somewhat and adding four new tracks. This might seem like a gimmick—and for those so cynically inclined, the band is also offering the four new tracks as a separate, modestly priced EP—but it’s nothing of the kind; these songs were always meant to be part of a broader, panoramic musical vision, and in this setting they can be heard with fresh ears.

[Author’s note: Rather than rehash my previous reviews of EE Part One and EE Part Two here, I’ll concentrate on the new tracks and reshuffled run order.]

The reconstituted double album kicks off with the new song “Make Some Noise,” an uncharacteristically straightforward anthem—another daring choice that works, delivering simultaneous bursts of energy and memory as the group looks back on their own lives, remembering the urgent, overwhelming drive to make music that first led them here. From there, disc one features much of my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 EE Part One, with a couple of key additions; Part Two’s melancholy ode to the shipyards “Swan Hunter” fits well between Longdon’s sprightly remembrance of his “Uncle Jack” and the rather jazzy new track “Seen Better Days.” The latter flows directly into “Edgelands,” a gorgeous new piano meditation in which Manners stitches together themes from several of these tunes, leading into the suitably ringing “Summoned By Bells.”

Closing out disc one in the same fashion as EE Part One, the urgent, dramatic “A Boy In Darkness” and the airy, joyous “Hedgerow” both feature the strings and brass that the group employs to boost a number of these tracks to the next level, a rich, layered sound that brings added depth and an air of timelessness to the proceedings. And unlike some of the awkward “let’s try playing with an orchestra” experiments attempted by other rock bands over the years, with this group it genuinely works; Big Big Train often feels like a prog-rock orchestra even when the brass and strings are absent. There is a density of sound, sophistication and seriousness of purpose here that can only be achieved with careful attention to every detail of each arrangement and performance.

Disc two opens with “Judas Unrepentant,” with guest Andy Tillison (The Tangent) delivering its urgent, propulsive keyboard line, before moving through the darker “Worked Out” and the expansive “Winchester From St. Giles’ Hill” to another new tune. “The Lovers” contradicts its rather pedestrian title with a dynamic prog workout, its quiet opening giving way to a dramatic bridge with Moody Blues overtones, lush background vocals over a dense jam.

The second disc closes with the core of EE Part Two. First the gentle, winking “Leopards” segues into the singalong choruses of “Keeper Of Abbeys,” another clever Spawton history lesson. Then “The Permanent Way” offers up a sort of overture for the entire album, drawing together themes from four or five different tracks and leading into “East Coast Racer,” a 15-minute epic that achieves a grandeur and sweep beyond the capabilities of all but a handful of the most impressive prog outfits. The album closes—as did EE Part Two—with the gorgeous “Curator Of Butterflies,” at once a character study and a lyrical contemplation of the thin line between life and death.

Still, to my ears the heart and soul of this entire exercise can be found in the magnificent “Winchester From St. Giles’ Hill,” a stunner of a song that puts you squarely at the crest of said hill, looking out over the land and seeing “The making of England; the long song” spread out before you. This, captured in a single line, is the essence of English Electric.

And then—because we aren’t done yet, no sir—there’s the packaging. Full Power is as sumptuously and lovingly packaged as any album I have owned in the CD era, its two discs serving as bookends to a hardbound 96-page CD-sized chapbook full of rich, colorful images, complete lyrics and liner notes, and detailed bios of each of the remarkable players and (and I don’t use this word lightly) artisans who were involved with this project. Often when I open up a package that’s arrived in the mail from a label or artist I’ll take a quick look at the cover and song list, mumble “Nice,” and set it aside for later. When Full Power arrived, I donned the idiot grin of a lottery winner, held this magnificent object in my hands like a diamond, and proceeded to sink into the folds of its pages for a half hour or more.

It’s almost too much, the packaging, in the sense that it gives the music a lot to live up to. But as the saying goes (thank you, Reggie Jackson), “It’s not bragging if you can do it.” English Electric: Full Power is a truly exceptional piece of work: visionary, deeply evocative and often moving progressive rock the likes of which hasn’t been heard in years and may not be heard again for years to come. Or, translated to the mother tongue: the noise these six blokes make together is bloody brilliant.

Rating: A

User Rating: A


Comments

Excellent review, and a fair summary of the attributes of one of THE albums of 2013.








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