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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Big Big Train

The Difference Machine

Review by Gary Hill

This latest disc from Big Big Train is a fine example of how an artist can combine classic progressive rock sounds with more modern textures in a mélange that, while nodding to the music of others is as a whole something unique. There are sections that will make you think of bands like Genesis, Marillion and others, but I doubt anyone has combined those elements into a composite that’s quite like this. Featuring guest appearances from Marillion’s Pete Trewavas and Nick D’Virgilio and Dave Meros from Spock’s Beard. I suppose the easiest comparison to give you an idea of what the music sounds like would be The Flower Kings, but this doesn’t completely cover it. With three epics separated by short instrumentals and some great music, Big Big Train’s The Difference Machine should be on every prog fan’s playlist.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2007 Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.
Track by Track Review
Hope This Finds You
They lead things off with an instrumental. It starts off with somber atmospheric tones and carries on in this manner with melody gradually appearing over the top. It becomes quite lush and dramatic for a time, but then drops way down to near ambience again. This gradually makes its way further down to essentially fall off the sonic map, creating a seque into the next piece.
Perfect Cosmic Storm
At over fourteen and a half minutes in length, this is the longest cut on show here. It begins with just a touch of the atmosphere that ended the last track, but it quickly rises up with crunchy guitar. After running through in this fashion for a time it drops back to a more sedate keyboard oriented segment. The band pound out after a time into the verse section, a fast paced progressive rock excursion. Even this doesn’t last long, though. Instead it gives way to a ballad-like section that builds up quickly as the group launch into a fast paced progression of changes, capturing both classic and neo-prog elements. This is one of those tracks that moves so fast that it makes the job really hard on a reviewer like myself to keep up. Sections of frantic fusion jamming, mixed with keyboard oriented ballad-like segments and killer vocal forays. A fast paced segment later is just plain stellar and then they launch into RIO like jamming with saxophone wailing over the top. The one constant in this track is change as metallic elements are replaced by jazz, then prog and other sounds in an always altering, constantly reworking pattern of musical identities. They drop it back to a nearly classical sedate movement later in one of the longer lasting sections of the track. This gives way to a great jazz saxophone burst and then more synthesized textures as the resolution. The building process from here is the most coherent and consistent we’ve heard so far. It’s a smooth, prog ballad journey that’s quite satisfying. More saxophone takes us back into the jazz realm. This gives way to a killer melodic prog segment that’s one of my favorite parts of the disc, but they move out into something more akin to fast paced fusion from there – only lingering for a short time on this more melodic movement. It comes back to it after the other motif, though. This turns rather funky as they power it up. Then it drops to just bass and keys and they restructure the composition once more. Now we get a more energized take on the melodic motif that came before. The vocals at times remind me of something from Chris Squire’s Fish Out of Water album. They crescendo and then drop it to atmospheric elements that feel a bit like classical music. This rises back up in crunchy fashion from there in a new movement. With a rather stuttering rhythmic pattern, this is quite cool. It gives way to a more funky, almost jam band meets fusion act, mode. They begin augmenting and altering this concept and then launch into a killer keyboard solo section. A crunchy riff takes over after this and threatens to turn the track to metal. It’s one part Zeppelin, one part Dream Theater and a bit of Rush all rolled together. Rather than turn us into more metallic zones, though, it shifts out into a reprise of the song’s central vocal themes. Then they move off into another instrumental excursion from there. We get some nice keyboard and guitar elements alternating here. Space takes over after a crescendo and then the sax weaves a new melody line over this unusual backdrop. This ultimately fades down to take us out in a satisfying way.
Breathing Space
Less than two minutes in length, this is the second shortest number here – and one of three instrumentals. This is really well titled because it’s atmospheric nature serves essentially as a bit of “breathing space” or perhaps a palate cleanser between two epic pieces. Keyboards become quite lush on this, but never rise very far into the musical realm. A section of silence ends it.
Pick Up If You're There
This comes in as more of a straightforward hard rock tune. This one is far more consistent through here than the previous epic. At over thirteen and a half minutes, though, it’s no less epic in terms of length. It has a more melodic, guitar driven texture feeling a lot like more modern progressive rock – think Echolyn, perhaps. About two and a half minutes in it threatens to veer off into a new jam. They eventually take into another fast paced prog movement and then change it out to nearly classical sounds. They pound out from there in a hard edged prog jam that is more in keeping with the neo-prog movement. This doesn’t stay around long, though, instead altering into a classic prog oriented jam. Once more they aren’t content to stay in one place for an extended period, though. Instead they drop it back to atmosphere and then transform this out into a variant on the song’s central themes to move it forward. Eventually this shifts to a ballad-like structure that calls to mind old Genesis quite a bit. From there the next stop is another fast paced jam, this one more in keeping with classic progressive rock. This takes a turn to harder edged music and then shifts again to something more like lounge jazz. This is intensified out into a fiery jazz segment, complete with smoking saxophone solo. The guitar takes over from the sax as this moves onward. This gives way eventually to a rather Yes-like fast paced jam. They drop things back down a bit as this carries forward, but the bass still races on, dragging the track with it. More elements are added once more to bring it all back upward. The soloing gets fast and intense before they resolve back out into the chorus. I hear those Squire elements on the vocals again here. They drop it back towards the more sedate after a time. Then a more rock oriented guitar sound threatens to pull the whole thing back up again. Other instruments come across in pretty lines of melody and rather than deliver on the promise of harder rocking sounds that guitar drops away gradually, leaving just the beautiful melodies to end things.
From the Wide Open Sea
The final short instrumental of the disc, this one is the briefest at less than a minute and a half. This is another ambient piece. It’s pretty and sedate.
Saltwater Falling on Uneven Ground:
The final epic of the track, this one is a little over twelve and a half minutes. It comes in tentatively, with sheets of sound layering over the silence. They shift this out into the most fusion-like territory we’ve heard so far as they come up from there. This resolves out into a more sparse approach for the vocals. This section feels like a cross between classical, folk and Genesis music. They power this out after a time, still remaining focused on the song’s themes we’ve heard to this point. It drops back down again, to near silence and begins another gradual building process from there until it bursts back out into the territory that came before. An alternating pattern ensues between these more rocking and sedate segments. The next vocals, though, are carried on top of very textural sounds. Eventually the vocals drop away and the song feels ready to burst up into a new mode. This does come in with a more bouncy neo-prog motif that serves for the backing of the next vocals. They work through a series of alterations and modifications of these musical themes. We get more ambience after this, though. It falls to near silence and processed vocals come in to end the lull. They work through with bursts of textural music combined with these vocals in a motif that is not that different than some early Marillion. This slowly begins to morph into something more akin with a ballad structure. It never fully changes over, though. Instead, they create a new sparse and open arrangement as the next phase of the operation. The building process here is definite, but very gradual. Layers of melody are added to increase the volume and the power of the piece without fully rising above its origins for quite some time. A harder edged guitar sound serves as the resolution to this section and the transition into the next one. They power up with a lot of majesty and drama as they create this next musical motif. It turns rather noisy before fading away, leaving more atmospheric textures. Once again, they move things along at a leisurely pace. Vocals come over this textural sound. I can hear both Genesis and Marillion on this section. This finally moves out into a rather jazzy like arrangement of its main theme for the next mode. I can definitely hear Genesis as it moves away from the jazz and into a more energized version of the approach that preceded it. Once more it drops back to the more textural modes to carry forward. They come back up from there in more melodic and slow paced prog stylings to grow back upward. Then it shifts out into an expansive, harder rocking jam that’s still quite melodic. This is a very powerful and inspiring sound. The next set of vocals come in over this backdrop. They resolve out into more jazz mellow tones and then drop to just piano, alternating with silence at first. This becomes a slight piano melody, but doesn’t last long, instead serving to end the piece.
Summer's Lease
At around seven and a half minutes in length, this falls somewhere in between the epic length tracks and the short instrumental ones. It feels a lot like a Genesis ballad as it begins. After a verse they move this upward into a segment that has some of that Genesis sound still in place but joined by ELP and jazz. As they take it into the vocal section, though, it’s Genesis all the way again. This holds the number for a time, then piano ballad approaches carry it onward from there. This is gentle and quite pretty. They rise up gradually after this motif, but don’t climb far. Instead they stick with a slightly more energized Genesis approach to move it forward. The saxophone wails over the top at points. The balladic motifs give way to a more hard edged jam after a while, the group pounding with progressive rock intensity. They crescendo and the saxophone takes control of the arrangement for a time. Vocals and sax exist together for a while. Some tasty keyboard sounds can also be heard here. This instrumental segment moves in a number of related sections, with minor alterations taking it eventually to near silence. Keyboard textures remain in a slow and somber approach, eventually taking the track out. While I like this song, I think it wasn’t the best choice for disc closer.
 
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