Big Big Train

English Electric Recordings, 2016

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


How do stories become legends, and why? What is it about humans that makes us hold certain moments and ideas close in memory and pass them down through the generations that follow? These are the questions at the core of Folklore, the ninth album from British progressive rock collective Big Big Train.

If that sounds a bit heady and esoteric to you, then it’s possible Big Big Train will not be your cup of tea. For while there are hooks aplenty to be found lurking in the folds of these songs, the music this very English band makes is the antithesis of shallow commercial pop. Rather than surface sheen and lowest-common-denominator appeal, BBT offers uncommon intelligence and complexity grounded in a keen appreciation for the inherent drama of history. Above all, they deliver tremendous craft; the level of care and consideration given to every note here, every arrangement and production decision, is (pun very much intended) off the charts.

This exceptional attention to detail is all the more notable give the fact that BBT is a true collective, with co-founder/bassist Greg Spawton and vocalist/flautist David Longdon writing the songs performed by an eight-person core lineup that also includes Nick D’Virgilio (drums, ex-Spock’s Beard), Dave Gregory (guitars, ex-XTC), Rachel Hall (violin), Danny Manners (keyboards), co-founder Andy Poole (acoustic guitar and keys) and Rikard Sjöblom (guitars and keys, Beardfish). With a five-man horn section and three additional string players sitting in on a number of these tunes, it’s a genuine rock orchestra that’s without a permanent conductor; this album was produced and arranged collectively by the group.

The opening title track lays out the album’s themes in emphatic fashion. An initial overture introducing the horns and strings quickly gives way to an expansive anthem that is both direct and multilayered, hooky and virtuosic, a difficult balance that many a prog band has struggled to achieve. “Folklore” also introduces the above-mentioned themes—the way stories are passed down from generation to generation, achieving a kind of immortality (“For it is said, so it lives on / We pass it down, it carries on…”).

Second in this album’s nine-song, 68-minute sequence is “London Plane,” which is “a 12-minute song about a tree” in roughly the same sense that the Mona Lisa is “a large painting of a woman.” The first four minutes are a gently lyrical ode to the tidal flow of history as a tree along the banks of the Thames River bears silent witness to events happening all around it. In the middle section of the song, earlier themes are fuel-injected into a frenetic jam with Gregory and Sjoborn’s guitars dueling Manners’ organ while Longdon’s flute dances high above the fray; it’s the musical embodiment of the lyric, the swirl of stories unfolding all around us blurring into pure emotion that is released at the spine-tingling crescendo.

The subtler charms of the two-song suite “Along The Ridgeway” and “Salisbury Giant” largely escaped me on my first couple of listens. It was after about the fourth time through that I realized both songs’ core melodies—featuring intricate, cinematic interplay among organ, violin, strings and horns—were in fact voracious earworms. “The Transit Of Venus Across The Sun” is all that and more, featuring supple, gorgeous melodies and cleverly arranged vocals, very orchestral through the first five and a half minutes until they return to the guitar figure that opens the song and move into a billowing, expansive finale. Thoroughly beguiling, “Transit of Venus” is another triumph.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Previewed on last year’s EP of the same name, “Wassail” is about as heavy as BBT gets, a thundering salute the Old English tradition of celebrating the harvest with a mug of hard cider and a sing. Its heaviness—and even some of its musical foundations—correspond directly with the title track’s, and like “Folklore,” it’s about tapping into humans’ primal instinct to preserve moments in story and song.

When I interviewed Greg Spawton in 2012, the last question I asked him was “Why progressive rock? What do you find special and compelling about the form?” He had a very thoughtful and insightful response at the time, but if you really want to know, the answer is “Winkie.” Because in what other genre could one construct an eight-and-half-minute song with seven distinct segments using both rock and orchestral elements to tell the story—in genuinely stirring fashion—of a heroic pigeon? It’s the true-life adventure tale of a World War II bomber crew forced to ditch their plane in the ocean before they could radio their coordinates, leaving their pigeon crewmate as their only hope of rescue, a tale told with tremendous gusto and featuring Manners on very Keith Emerson-esque organ and Spawton leaping around on bass like he’s been possessed by the ghost of Chris Squire. When the mellotron chorale and horns arrive in the eighth minute, all you can do is shake your head and smile as the song achieves full liftoff and takes flight, much like Winkie herself.

“Brooklands” finds an early 20th century auto racer in his old age looking back, steering smoothly between melancholy remembrances of racing and energetic instrumental sections that convey the sensation of speeding along. Near the end, a ringing, muscular jam gives way to this bittersweet coda: “Give me one last chance, please / I’m a lucky man / Race the fading light / I was a lucky man.” This and other references to racing in earlier songs suggest the idea of stories and legends as man’s effort to chase down time itself.

Closer “Telling The Bees” is a shimmering, poignant sing-along that begins with a son mourning his father and ends in celebration of life itself, a both serious and joyful song about the perpetual cycle of death and birth and how the act of passing traditions down keeps memories of the past alive deep inside. The surge of emotion the band conjures up in the song’s second half is tremendous, as Gregory’s lurching, soaring slide solo prefaces the album’s coda: “The joy is in the telling / The sorrow in the soul / Tears of happiness and sadness / Let them flow.” It’s a sublime ending to another exceptional album from one of the finest prog bands working today.

While every single performer on this album shines, special notice must be given to at least two. Over the course of the last decade, Nick D’Virgilio has gone from guesting on a couple of tracks to becoming a cornerstone of Big Big Train’s sound; his drumming is so effortlessly versatile, from the quietest moments to the heaviest jams, and the choices he makes are just right for the song every time. As for David Longdon, who once had a lengthy audition to front the mid-’90s edition of Genesis, I’m just going to go ahead and say it: Peter Gabriel only wishes he could sing this well. Again, it’s the combination of restraint and power, while investing each individual moment with authentic emotion, that brings these tales to life.

Folklore offers a majestic, eloquent, and often deeply moving vision of history as a tapestry of individual human stories, each one potentially a legend—much like this band itself. It’s early in the year yet to be plotting “best of” lists, but this album’s place on mine is already assured.

[P.S. For more on the backstory attached to these songs, see the fascinating blog entries about each song by songwriters Greg Spawton and David Longdon.]

Rating: A-

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