Artist: Big Big Train
Album Title: Wassail EP
Label: English Electric Recordings
Year Of Release: 2015
Those that follow me on social media will know my thoughts about Big Big Train. They were a band I discovered relatively recently following some persistent badgering on twitter and Facebook, around the time of the release of ‘English Electric Part 1’ back in 2012. I wrote a review of it on this very blog if you’re interested. If anything, the band then bettered it with ‘English Electric Part 2’ released just a year later. I suspect that witchcraft may have been involved there somewhere.
The result has been something of a love affair for me. Normally more accustomed to the heavier climes of metal, there is something really rather magical about the quintessentially English pastoral prog rock leanings of Big Big Train that, to a certain extent, cannot be put into words. Or at least, I struggle to do so. The compositions are not heavy and they contain elements within them that would normally leave me cold. The inclusion of brass instruments for example. Generally, I’m not a fan, but Big Big Train pull it off, and pull it off to really great effect.
Over the years, it is not only my love affair that has grown because the band has also expanded significantly. Formed back in 1990 by Greg Spawton and Andy Poole, Big Big Train now boast a full eight members. Joining the original duo now are vocalist David Longdon, drummer Nick D’Virgilio (Spock’s Beard), guitarist Dave Gregory (XTC), keyboardist Danny Manners, violinist Rachel Hall (Stackridge) and most recently of all, Beardfish guitarist/keyboardist Rikard Sjöblom. Add to this a five-piece brass ensemble for some rare upcoming live appearances, the line-up makes for impressive reading.
Based on the content of this EP, it’s fair to say that the line-up delivers exactly as you’d expect them to as the four tracks are a delight. It would be a little disingenuous to refer to ‘Wassail’ as a stop-gap release, but with a highly anticipated full-length album, ‘Folklore’, due out in early 2016, it’s hard not to refer to it as such.
Nevertheless, Big Big Train have delivered real value for money here. The disc is housed in a lovely digipack case complete with a lyric booklet. And then, of the four tracks on offer here, three are brand new, two are exclusive to this release and the fourth is a live studio recording of the superb ‘Master James Of St George’, previously released on 2009’s breakthrough album, ‘The Underfall Yard’.
First up is the title track and, to these ears, it is the standout track on the EP. One of the reasons for this is that it has a slightly different feel to it than more recent compositions. Right off the bat, it wastes no time in making a big impression, thanks to a grittier and stronger guitar tone than is usually the norm with Big Big Train. The guitars duet with a flute with really charming results, creating the kind of music that begs you press the repeat button frequently. As the song develops, the overt rock and folk elements become more evident, the latter particularly at around the three-minute mark when things quieten and a lone violin quietly takes centre stage. It denotes a change in melodic direction for the entire mid-section of the track where things get appreciably moodier, before the relatively simple but hugely effective chorus returns for a rousing, almost anthemic finale. I cannot tell you how good this track is – you’ll have to listen to it to discover this for yourselves.
‘Lost Rivers Of London’ follows and is immediately more recognisable as the Big Big Train of the ‘English Electric’ recordings. The pastoral progressive rock stylings return with vengeance. The melody contained within the chorus and indeed the melodies throughout this track are an absolute delight; for a progressive rock track with lots going on, it is testament to the quality of the songwriting that the song has such an immediately engaging feel to it. I don’t mean this in a condescending way, but ‘Lost Rivers Of London’ almost instantly sounds like an old friend; there’s a warmth and inclusivity about it that I cannot help but adore. The fleeting medieval-inspired melodies are a wonderful touch and atop it all, David Longdon puts in a great performance. As always, he sings with real passion but I’d suggest he has rarely sounded better than he does here.
Completing the trio of new songs is ‘Mudlarks’. Ostensibly an instrumental with just a smattering of background vocals for effect, this track sees the musicians really cutting loose, with an ‘anything goes’ feel to it. That’s not to say that the result is messy or lacking in direction or cohesion, it just has more of a playful, mischievous edge to it whilst maintaining that pastoral feel overall. At it’s heart is a wonderfully bright and breezy central melody around which there’s a demonstrable freedom to experiment musically. Keyboard solos are prevalent throughout the track, experimenting with all kinds of different sounds both old and new. The bass plays an important part, as do the guitars which come more to the fore as the track develops. It flies by and before I know it, I’m listening again.
If the quality of music on ‘Wassail’ is anything to go by, ‘Folklore’ could be a very special album indeed and, whilst I don’t like to make wild predictions or jump to conclusions, we might just be looking at Big Big Train’s best yet. At the very least, I expect the octet to further cement their place within the upper echelons of the progressive rock world, and rightly so. I’m so glad I have Big Big Train in my life. Consider me one very excited and impatient chap.
The Score Of Much Metal: 8.0
If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here:
NightMare World – In The Fullness Of Time
Helloween – My God-Given Right
Triaxis – Zero Hour
Isurus – Logocharya
Arcturus – Arcturian
Kamelot – Haven
Native Construct – Quiet World
Sigh – Graveward
Pantommind – Searching For Eternity
Subterranean Masquerade – The Great Bazaar
Klone – Here Comes The Sun
The Gentle Storm – The Diary
Melechesh – Enki
Enslaved – In Times
Keep Of Kalessin – Epistemology
Lonely Robot – Please Come Home
The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment
Zero Stroke – As The Colours Seep
AudioPlastik – In The Head Of A Maniac
Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints
Mors Principium Est – Dawn of The 5th Era
Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter
Neonfly – Strangers In Paradise
Knight Area – Hyperdrive
Haken – Restoration
James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld