Artist: Big Big Train
Album Title: Folklore
Label: English Electric Recordings
Date Of Release: 27 May 2016
Albums like this need to be consumed for some time before any thoughts are committed to paper or PC. However, I was desperate to review ‘Folklore’ by Big Big Train before it was officially released and so, after less than a week, here I am typing my review of the English progressive rock band’s ninth album. Admittedly I have listened to it to the exclusion of just about everything else in that time; in the car, on the dog walk, on the headphones late at night once the family are in bed. So I’ve at least scratched the surface, I suppose.
I have been a relatively late convert to the Big Big Train cause. I only discovered them upon the release of ‘English Electric Part 1’ a few years ago and even then it was only because I was badgered long and hard into doing so by a few social media acquaintances. Nevertheless, the impact upon me has been great; here is someone who goes by the name of the ‘Man of Much Metal’ and has a collection that boasts more metal than a steelworks in his collection.
Mind you, as I’ve got older, my tastes have expanded somewhat but if you’d told me 10 years ago that I’d be bowled over by a classic pastoral-style English progressive rock band, I would probably have laughed. Even more so once I got to realise that this particular band enjoys adding liberal amounts of brass to their compositions and includes a fair amount of folk influences as well. On paper, this just isn’t my thing at all. And yet, I love this band. There’s something about them that means I can forgive them all the elements that I normally hate. In fact, more than that, I even embrace these ingredients.
Big Big Train 2016 consists of bassist Greg Spawton, guitarist/keyboardist Andy Poole, vocalist/flautist David Longdon, drummer Nick D’Virgilio (Spock’s Beard), guitarist Dave Gregory (XTC), keyboardist Danny Manners, violinist Rachel Hall (Stackridge) and Beardfish guitarist/keyboardist Rikard Sjöblom. Joining these eight exemplary musicians for the recording of this album is a brass quintet and a string trio.
And listening to ‘Folklore’, there are a several reasons as to why I believe the octet and friends have a hold over me.
Firstly, Big Big Train are masters of song writing with the unnerving ability to pen everything from subtle and fragile pieces right through to up-tempo rocking numbers and everything in between, sometimes all of it within the same song. Their talent allows them to execute extremely technical and sophisticated material in a manner that makes it seem smooth, cohesive and deceptively simple. Secondly, they create great stories to accompany the music. Listening to Big Big Train is like a history or a geography lesson as days gone by or interesting places in the UK are sung about. It can be nostalgic, melancholy, joyous or amusing depending on the subject matter but it is always fascinating and an enriching experience. And thirdly, there are the melodies.
Now I understand that most bands can, when required, write a decent melody. Some bands do it really well too. But on ‘Folklore’, every track on the record contains a hook or a vocal line or a chorus that will pull you back time after time. Further, it is no exaggeration to state that there are about three or four moments on the album that produce something truly magical. And by this I mean really magical. You know what I’m talking about – those moments, either fleeting or more substantial, that make you stop dead in your tracks, send shivers down your spine and that befuddle the mind due to the aural beauty. I’m not kidding, either.
To begin with, there’s the chorus of sorts within ‘London Plane’.
“Sailing on the English way
Racing on the high tides
Here by the riverside
Reaching for the day’s last light”
David Longdon’s vocals are wonderful and coupled with these lyrics and the melody that sits behind, it is a show-stopping moment within the context of an already beautiful song about the birth and growth of a city from the perspective of a tree that grew on the river bank. The first half is very pastoral, very relaxed and gentle, complete with fleeting flute embellishments, strings and soft, delicate keyboard sounds. The mid-section then indulges in some extended instrumentalism that features a plethora of sumptuous keyboard textures, lovely guitar work and the sounds of an elegant flute floating atop it all. The final section reverts back to the more laid back meanderings but with a slightly increased sense of urgency created by yet more ear-catching lead guitar work.
Then there are the closing moments of ‘Winkie’, a song bound to raise a titter amongst the pre-pubescent or the childish amongst us. The song opens up with a gentle melody that hints at what is to come later in the piece. Leading up to that magical moment is a really superb song that is ambitiously but flawlessly and cohesively comprised of a number of distinct parts, each one slightly different in tone and execution, from cinematic, to contemplative, to euphoric.
Above all, the composition couples superb progressive rock with a thoroughly engaging true-life story about a carrier pigeon called ‘Winkie’ who won the Dickin Medal for playing a vital role in the rescue of aircrew who crash landed in the North Sea in 1943 during World War II. It’s truly gripping and is enhanced by top drawer song writing and execution that is both sensitive to the topic and highly memorable.
I’m a sucker for those long and flamboyant tom rolls on the drums and here, Nick D’Vigilio indulges my weakness several times to my delight. On top of this, there is plenty of drama, tension and musical dexterity in which to take delight. And then, as the eighth minute approaches, the song reaches its glorious spine-tingling climax, accompanied by the words:
“You flew safely home Winkie…
…you flew straight, flew true,
The final, arguably the best of these magical moments arrives courtesy of ‘Brooklands’. It is a gorgeous song, the longest on the album at over 12 minutes but it deserves its length. It talks of John Cobb, a racing driver in the 1930s who set various records during his time behind the wheel. Sadly, Cobb died in 1952 attempting to break the water speed record at Loch Ness. Given the subject matter, the song, named after Cobb’s local racetrack is subdued and melancholy but also full of poignancy and a strangely uplifting feel towards the close of the song. Much of the extended instrumental sections are fast-paced and exuberant to cleverly reflect the central character’s love of speed but the killer blow for me comes when Longdon sings the following powerful words so passionately atop a gorgeously rousing yet heart breaking melody:
“Racing away from the shoreline;
Back there as a young lad at Brooklands.
Mountains rise into the distance.
Jetsam drifts on the water”
I’ve singled these moments out but it is fair to say that every one of the nine songs on offer on ‘Folklore’ delivers something special. This is a remarkably consistent, intelligent and thought-provoking album that is backed up by some of the best progressive rock that I have heard in a long time. Well, since ‘English Electric Part II’ to be exact.
The album opens with the title track, a song that is truly addictive, to the point that I, my partner and even my eldest daughter at the age of 3 ½ find ourselves singing it all the time. It could be parenting done right or more likely it is down to the fact that ‘Folklore’ is a really nice up-tempo prog rock anthem with more than a hint of folk music about it. Beginning with a sumptuous string arrangement, it soon changes tack. The violin of Rachel Hall takes centre stage regularly, but then so do the various guitarists with strong riffs and lead breaks, Longdon’s flute and the keyboards which add depth and richness. Then there’s the chorus which, had it not been for the aforementioned moments, would steal the show.
Elsewhere, ‘Wassail’ remains a delight having first been aired a year or so back on the EP of the same name, whilst ‘Telling The Bees’ is a real grower of a song to close out ‘Folklore’. It again straddles the line of poignancy and positivity and, with more than a hint of folk and acoustic country music to it, it slowly builds in intensity and moves from melancholy to much more positive climes all the while getting under the skin of the listener in the best possible way.
Then there’s ‘The Transit Of Venus Across The Sun’ which, again, is beautiful, even more so when you discover that it was inspired by the late Patrick Moore, the much loved British astronomer. It opens with a gorgeous brass arrangement (did I really say that??) that is joined by some equally wonderful strings. As it develops, it gently builds eventually joining together two distinct melodies into one glorious yet understated crescendo.
So there you have it. I could have waxed lyrical about each musician’s individual performance or the crystal clear and warm, welcoming production. But where Big Big Train are concerned, these things can be taken as read and anyway, I think I’ve exhausted my store of superlatives. Equally, I could have dropped the names of Genesis, Yes and many other bands into the review as reference points but whilst there are echoes of others within the music, Big Big Train are very much their own band with an ever-increasing identity all of their own and this should remain utmost in our minds at all times.
More importantly from my point of view, is the way that the album makes me feel. It makes me run the gamut of emotions if I’m honest, from elated to tearful, but does this in a very sensitive and subtle way. And, strangely enough, Big Big Train makes me proud to be English. It’s a rare feeling in this day and age, but they have a knack of focusing on topics and people worthy of our admiration and attention rather than the opposite.
‘Folklore’ is another amazing addition to the Big Big Train discography and is something all lovers of quality progressive rock should cherish and take to their hearts. I know that I have.
The Score Of Much Metal: 9.75
If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here:
Airbag – Disconnected
Katatonia – The Fall Of Hearts
Frost* – Falling Satellites
Glorior Belli – Sundown (The Flock That Welcomes)
Habu – Infinite
Grand Magus ‘Sword Songs’
Messenger – Threnodies
Svoid – Storming Voices Of Inner Devotion
Fallujah – Dreamless
In Mourning – Afterglow
Haken – Affinity
Long Distance Calling – Trips
October Tide – Winged Waltz
Odd Logic – Penny For Your Thoughts
Iron Mountain – Unum
Knifeworld – Bottled Out Of Eden
Novembre – Ursa
Beholder – Reflections
Neverworld – Dreamsnatcher
Universal Mind Project – The Jaguar Priest
Thunderstone – Apocalypse Again
InnerWish – Innerwish
Mob Rules – Tales From Beyond
Ghost Bath – Moonlover
Spiritual Beggars – Sunrise To Sundown
Oceans Of Slumber – Winter
Rikard Zander – I Can Do Without Love
Redemption – The Art Of Loss
Headspace – All That You Fear Is Gone
Chris Quirarte – Mending Broken Bridges
Sunburst – Fragments Of Creation
Inglorious – Inglorious
Omnium Gatherum – Grey Heavens
Structural Disorder – Distance
Votum – Ktonik
Fleshgod Apocalypse – King
Rikard Sjoblom – The Unbendable Sleep
Textures – Phenotype
Serenity – Codex Atlanticus
Borknagar – Winter Thrice
The Mute Gods – Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me
Brainstorm – Scary Creatures
Arcade Messiah – II
Phantasma – The Deviant Hearts
Rendezvous Point – Solar Storm
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld II
Antimatter – The Judas Table
Bauda – Sporelights
Waken Eyes – Exodus
Earthside – A Dream In Static
Caligula’s Horse – Bloom
Teramaze – Her Halo
Amorphis – Under The Red Cloud
Spock’s Beard – The Oblivion Particle
Agent Fresco – Destrier
Cattle Decapitation – The Anthropocene Extinction
Between The Buried And Me – Coma Ecliptic
Cradle Of Filth – Hammer Of The Witches
Disarmonia Mundi – Cold Inferno
District 97 – In Vaults
Progoctopus – Transcendence
Big Big Train – Wassail
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