The older I get, the more interested I become in prog music. Generally, that statement would require further clarification via the addition of the word ‘metal’. However, more recently, this has become less and less necessary as I have found myself taking great delight in some of the more laid back forms of the genre, more rooted in rock.
Some of the blame I lay at the door of fatherhood; it’s not exactly ‘dad rock’, but whilst I still need to submerge myself in the heavier ends of the music spectrum on a frequent basis, sometimes I need to listen to something less in-your-face to counteract the crying, screaming and general noises associated with a baby…and some forms of extreme metal for that matter.
That said, the biggest portion of blame can be laid at the door of Big Big Train, the Bournemouth-based progressive rock sextet consisting of Greg Spawton, Nick D’Virgilio, Dave Longden, Dave Gregory,Andy Poole and, now, Danny Manners.
Previously unaware of Big Big Train, talk on the Internet, mainly on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook around the release of their eighth album, ‘English Electric Part 1’ got me intrigued. People whose opinion I respected and trusted spoke in glowing terms about the album and my curiosity piqued to such an extent that I could no longer resist. I listened.
On a first spin, the combination of the long compositions, a track led by a banjo, plenty of brass involvement and frequent interruptions meant that my attention wandered and I was less than enamoured. As such, it was only the constant badgering of wise people that forced me into a second listen. I’m indebted to these people because I listened again. Then again. And again. I was hooked, meaning that it reached number 8 in my Top 20 of 2012. And here’s why:
‘English Electric (Part 1)’ is, as I stated in my Top 20 of 2012 countdown, prog rock heaven. As many other reviews have pointed out, there are similarities between Big Big Train and Hackett-era Genesis. However, in my mind, much of this has to do with the feel and atmosphere of the album rather than the actual musical content per se. Yes, both bands play high quality progressive rock and there are some undeniable similarities but without question, they both above all offer the listener music that feels quintessentially English. I mean, where else could you hope to hear a track about the flora and fauna to be found in the hedgerows of the countryside for example? In fact, the lyrical content of the album takes the listener on a tour of England, taking in many aspects of our history and beautiful landscapes along the way.
The album begins in pretty upbeat and urgent fashion in the form of “The First Rebreather” courtesy of some great guitar work. Over its seven-plus minute length it opens up and offers plenty of beautiful melodies and lots of great instrumentation, most notably from the keyboards which end the track in a lovely, epic fashion.
Up next is a charming little ditty by the name of “Uncle Jack”. It is led by a banjo and has a light, airy and folky feel to it. It is the first track too which introduces the topic of the hedgerow with a charming section that lists much of the wildlife to be found there. As I said, this is quintessentially English.
A woodwind melody opens up one of my personal favourites on this remarkable album, “Winchester From St Giles’ Hill”. I adore the central chorus to this piece, as the vocals of Dave Longden in particular really shine, sounding full of emotion.
The brilliance does not let up at any point and, after the magnificence of the preceding three tracks, it is business as usual courtesy of “Judas Unrepentant” which tells the tale of Tom Keating, a famous art forger who is now at rest in a churchyard less than five miles from my home on the Suffolk/Essex border. Again, the chorus is a memorable one and I particularly like the acoustic guitars and the mid section which features an instrumental passage dominated by a piano and violin duet of sorts.
Such is the quality of “Summoned By Bells”, I don’t even mind the closing few minutes. Normally, I cannot stand brass in my rock/metal – my prejudices cannot help but think that it is a waste of an opportunity for a guitar solo or some such. However, I cannot deny that the quiet and subtle interplay between the brass and electric guitar works to great effect, bringing the track to a close very nicely indeed.
“Upton Heath” is another bright and breezy composition full of those trademark melodies and is the perfect pre-cursor to “Boy In Darkness” which, by contrast is a much darker beast. Exploring the lives of children in the coal mines of 19th Century England, it is a sad and thought-provoking tale. The music behind the lyrics matches the mood and, coupled with an impassioned chorus, really sends shivers down my spine each and every time I listen.
Before you know it, the album reaches its climax and, thanks to “Hedgerow”, it is a suitably rousing and epic anthemic finale, reprising many of the melodies that feature throughout the album as well as the character of Jack seen previously. With a continuation of the superb musicianship, including an exquisite violin solo at the mid-point, it encapsulates everything that is so wonderful about this album in a nine-minute microcosm. And the soft sentimentalist in me loves the inclusion of Jack himself and his dog, Peg.
And there you have it. I have probably not been as eloquent as others in their review of this album but hopefully it gives you an idea of how highly I regard this album. It really is a gem from 2012.