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Big Big Train

English Electric 1

Review by Alison Reijman

Big Big Train is an English band, who, as their name suggests, have been gathering speed and momentum over their 22 year career. Their previous studio album The Underfall Yard released in 2009 received many plaudits for its rich seams of atmospheric prog, all steeped in the history and culture of England.

It is not hard to trace a direct line back to the great storytellers of the 70s, predominantly Genesis, but English Electric 1, the first part of a double album, is an album like no other. Drawing on bucolic natural landscapes, Victorian coalmines and market town communities, this is a collection of songs full of light and darkness which fuses folk music with prog. That however is only a brief overview in describing the immensity of this exceptionally beautiful album. The attention to detail as heard in the painstakingly intricate musical arrangements and the peerless production is staggering.

Many are already citing this as the most English album since Selling England by The Pound. But Big Big Train are very much a modern progressive rock band who have set the bar very high for themselves, and indeed, their contemporaries. How can they possibly better this on Part Two?

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2012  Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
The First Rebreather

This sets the scene, David Longdon’s plaintive voice combining with minor guitar chords and a flute to begin painting an aural picture from yesteryear. There is a huge Genesis vibe throughout as it opens up into different musical channels. Among the guest artistes is The Tangent’s Andy Tillison whose masterful keyboards blend with Longdon’s flute. There are also strings and a wonderful guitar solo from Dave Gregory (ex-XTC) before Longdon raises his vocals several notches and Tillison comes in with a melting Moog underpinned with keyboards and understated drums from Nick D’Virgilio.

Uncle Jack
“Uncle Jack” starts with a jaunty banjo to launch into a delightfully uplifting folk tune with Longdon playing on accordion, flute, as well as banjo. The melody line lilts along on the breeze and the lyrics are a nature masterclass. What is more, Andy Poole is credited as baritone bee while Lily and Violet Adams are both soprano bees so listen out for them in the mix! It is an uplifting and action-packed three and a half minutes of rural delights with birdsong bringing it to an end.
Winchester From St Giles’ Hill
This starts with the most gorgeous flute and piano passage. It is a glorious musical picture during which Longdon delivers an amazing emotionally-charged vocal performance on the chorus. Flute and piano seem to dance together before Danny Manners’ piano creates the movement of water before it all seamlessly changes into a wash of strings and huge guitar. Being a resident of the historic city of Winchester, this is my personal highlight on the album.
Judas Unrepentant
Here is a wonderfully uplifting proggy song about an art forger. It offers lots of interesting instrumental delights such as big choppy keyboards and Greg Spawton’s chugging bass. It all lends a rather Baroque feel especially when Longdon’s flute and Manners’ piano come together with Rachel Hall’s mournful violin. The instrumentation, which also includes another keyboard contribution from Tillison, never smothers the story telling and I defy anyone not to have the very catchy chorus-line swimming around in their heads afterwards.
Summoned by Bells
This is the one song which echoes the mood of The Underfall Yard, the tinkling piano and yearning violin accompanying Longdon in telling the story of a close-knit Midlands community from the recent past.  The range of instruments used is diverse, including Jan Jaap Langereis on recorders and some very effective female backing vocals.  There is a distinct nostalgic quality before the tempo quickens. But then it changes again to a dreamy brass section with a searing guitar line from Gregory.
Upton Heath
This is a musical meditation, the song starting with a simple acoustic guitar and drums before Longdon delivers his most laid back vocal performance to date. Restrained and delicate, the song floats along on the gentlest of breezes with an ethereal female chorus, violins, banjo and Poole’s mandolin shaping it in to a sublime folk number.
A Boy In Darkness
“A Boy in the Darkness” is the darkest, most visceral song of all, a disturbing comparison of child abuse past and present. Part 1 is set in an English colliery in 1842 with Longdon narrating the horrific conditions in which one particular eleven year old boy had to work. He emotes the title line against the backdrop of a huge swirl of musical turbulence. Part 2 links the past with the present and launches with Tillison’s brooding organ, big strings, flute and a huge guitar. These all mesh together to make the most deeply haunting maelstrom of melody. Part 3 is a modern day parable and the new interpretation of what hell is now for a young boy. Strings and keyboards are still very much at the fore as Longdon sings the lyrics with a heart-felt tenderness, lyrics which he found very difficult to express at the inception of this song,
Hedgerow
This brings it all to joyous climax returning to the countryside so beloved of “Uncle Jack” with a lovely jangling guitar which has a real 60s feel to it. It morphs into an almost anthemic refrain which dances across your mind before changing tack again to a guitar and synth passage and you even hear a dog barking in the mix!  Rachel Hill’s melancholic violin break with organ accompaniment then slows it all down. But then it’s back to the main theme with its singalong refrain that builds and builds as more voices are introduced. This involved the entire personae dramatis at the recording studio on the day in question including IQ’s Martin Orford who gets a credit.   Trumpet comes in and the chorus builds to a fantastic climax ending with birdsong and a dog barking. Top that for a fantastic finish to an album!
 
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