Big Big Train was founded around 1990 and existed primarily as the studio project of Greg Spawton and Andy Pool until 2009, at which point they largely stabilized a band lineup (‘stabilize’ being a relative term). Starting with their sixth album, The Underfall Yard, they began to enjoy some acclaim in the progressive rock community. In 2012, they released the first part of a double album, English Electric Part I, which was followed a year later by English Electric Part II. This move was not only super-proggy, but smart, as it also encouraged extra sales for the second album.
With EE parts I and II, BBT set themselves an incredibly high standard. The music and lyrics on both albums were superb and they combined melody and complexity to a degree that few bands have been able to do. Because of this, expectations were high for their latest release, Folklore which came out on June 1, 2016. At Proglodytes, we have a few fans of the band and thought we would approach the review of Folklore differently. What follows is a conversation/review by two of our reviewers, Xerxes and Proglodette, about Big Big Train’s latest output.
XERXES: This review is coming out quite a while after the album was released, but honestly, I needed the time to bite, chew, swallow and digest the thing. It was easily my most anticipated release of the first half of 2016, because I was so taken in by EE. So in order to be fair to the album, I needed to spend some ‘quality time’ together. The band released a video for the title track, Folklore, before the album came out, and while the video itself is rather silly, the song definitely whetted my appetite.
PROGLODETTE: Well, the video seemed like a bunch of game adults were trying to recreate “Safety Dance”, but they were tired, and didn’t really remember how it went. But I did enjoy the song. I’ve also been excited for this album to come out. This first song is exuberant, and sets up a joyful mood. Certainly not the most complex track on the album, but it was a smart early release. It’s fun, and not terribly difficult to internalize. It’s a good preview for what will follow.
X: Let’s go ahead and discuss the title track some more in depth. As the opener, it sets the mood and overall theme for the album, being an exploration of story-telling as an integral part of the human experience. The song begins with something that made me think it was about to quote Fanfare for the Common Man, before it gets its full prog on…
P: Nice. Musically speaking, it’s a dance. The figure between all of the vocal bits is old-fashioned and actually toe-tappy. I love the call and response in the verse. They actually say “Hey ho!” How fun is that?
X: Dance? We don’t dance in prog.
P: Don’t worry. It’s not twerking or anything; more like a Maypole. Can you handle that?
X: I suppose. As long as there are people with flowers in their headset.
P: They had “flowers in their HAIR, SAID ‘Hey boy, do you want to score?’” Wrong generation, wrong genre… But this–this is an anthem for your local RenFaire!
X: “Misty Mountain Hop”? I thought they had flowers in their headset. Never thought it made any sense, but then, most Zeppelin lyrics don’t… Fine. Yeah, it does have a bit of a RenFaire feel, but more grown up. I was uncertain about the “Hey, Ho! So we go” refrain the first few times through the song.
P: It is, as I said, exuberant. Celebrate, Xerxes! We can’t all be Steven Wilson.
P: I really like the central instrumental section. We keep the dance riff, but the other instruments get a chance to play off it. Do you suppose they were actually jamming? Do these guys jam? Either way, I thought it was interesting.
X: I suspect there was some jamming, but largely the song must have been composed. Songs with that many instruments layering over one another so carefully don’t happen accidentally. I agree with you that the instrumental sections are strong, but what makes the song for me is vocalist David Longdon. The song is right in his comfort zone. He sounds like a more lyrical Peter Gabriel and presents the song with precision and passion. I really think he’s the center of this particular piece.
P: I agree with the Gabriel similarity. I sure do like his voice.
X: Track two goes from the upbeat and fun Folklore to a much more somber feel. “London Plane” starts out with a flute figure over acoustic guitar that provides a brief introduction before Longdon comes in again, and this melody. Wow.
P: This is a beautiful piece. These guys really know how to pace themselves. This is ultimately a thoughtful, subdued song, but it builds and drops, builds again, and suddenly we get this upbeat organ solo out of nowhere. I don’t know how, but these transitions are seamless.
X: It’s a long song, over 10 minutes. Whenever a rock band takes one of those on, I’m always curious to see whether the musical ideas can support the length. Sometimes the weight of the length is just too heavy for the musical ideas of a song and it becomes uninteresting. BBT has, so far, not once had that happen. The gradual build to the midpoint of the song, followed by the “Time and tide wait for no man” climax at 7 minutes is fabulous. This song is the type of song that demonstrates what I love about the genre.
P: “Along the Ridgeway” isn’t precisely a long song, coming in at just over six minutes. The intro to this song is played on, of all things, a rock. I was almost relieved to discover this, because I was sure it was some kind of brass, but COULD NOT place it. Horn? Muted trombone? PVC pipe? But no. It’s a rock! There is a small brass choir sprinkled throughout, though.
X: Alfred’s stone. One thing that has to be mentioned about BBT is how quintessentially English they are. One of the ways that is demonstrated is the lyrical and musical references to English lore, history, geography, etc. Folklore is replete with this kind of reference, and “Along the Ridgeway” is no exception. The sounding of Alfred’s stone is meant to invoke the stories of Alfred’s battles against invading Viking hordes (who no doubt were listening to “The Immigrant Song”). I enjoy the Anglocentricity, but I am very grateful to Mssrs. Longdon and Spawton for their blog posts that explain what the songs are about.
P: Dude, you have Zeppelin on the brain. Great keyboards in the middle.
X: I’m always ready to get the Led out!
P: Focus. “Salisbury Giant” comes next, with low strings heralding the approach of the titular gentleman.
X: Love the musical representation of a lumbering figure. The shortest song on the album, at only 3:36, and most of that instrumental. Makes for a fun interlude on the way to the next piece, “Transit of Venus Across the Sun”.
P: This sounds like an honest-and-for-true brass quintet. Oh be still, my heart! Please tell me this isn’t sampled. Pretty please? They must have had a mess of guest artists on this album. (A mess, many of you may not know, is the collective noun for studio musician.) And, oh my, I love Mr. Longdon’s voice.
X: It’s legit, not sampled. This is a very nice song. It’s about astronomer Patrick Moore, and the imagery of the transit of Venus represents the life of his beloved, Lorna, who was killed in WWII. Moore lived until something like 2012 and said he never loved anyone else. Totally romantic, right?
P: And you said proggers don’t do love songs…I really like the ending, where the whole band plays along with the brass choir, reprising the intro.
X: From here we move to “Wassail”. It was actually the first thing released from the album, having come out as an ep in the Summer of 2015. The song is clearly tied into “Folklore” as it shares the same chord sequence and it uses the same mandolin/violin/flute riff. It’s probably the closest thing to a single on the album.
P: Yeah, I think it has the same kind of energy as “Folklore”. But without any hey ho’s. You can’t have everything. And like many of the other tracks on this album (and other albums), they completely change the mood a couple of times throughout the song. There’s a nice mellow bit in the middle, which moves seamlessly into an energetic instrumental break, with various band members trading solos.
X: Folklore moves next to “Winkie”. Yeah, it’s called Winkie. I have to say that I was concerned by the title as being too silly or something. But then I learned that Winkie was a pigeon and that made it all okay.
P: Nevertheless, I think it was a bold move to name a song Winkie, even if it is a pigeon. But these are the guys who wrote the song about everyone’s favorite, friendly, neighborhood forger.
X: We are not talking any pigeon. “Winkie” tells the story of how a blue chequered hen saved the lives of her aircrew and would become the inaugural recipient of a PDSA Dickin Medal (the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross). Funny you should refer to Judas Unrepentant, musically, the two are quite similar, and they both have a very definite narrative structure with dates and specific events. It still seems a little weird to have a song named Winkie about a heroic pigeon, but there it is.
P: How does a pigeon be heroic and save an aircrew?
X: Listen to the song.
P: You know I don’t hear lyrics.
X: Internet. Ok. After the pigeon song, we have the longest song on the album, “Brooklands”. It’s a quite respectable 12:44 in length.
P: That is not an automatic pass.
X: Indeed not. In fact, it may be the weakest track on the album. For some reason the song doesn’t draw me in the way basically everything else on the album does. I do like the instrumental break in the middle though. Neat percussion in that section.
P: I really can’t count some of this. It’s going to bother me, and I’m going to have to spend some time with it. But I’m always impressed when a complex meter can disguise itself as dreamy and lyrical.
X: Last song, “Telling the Bees”. It continues the tradition from EEII of ending an album with a song about insects.
P: I dare them to end their next album with The Cricket Collector.
X: Or a cover of Arena’s “Butterfly Man”!
P: How about Steam Powered Giraffe’s “Honeybee”? Would that be too soon?
X: Ooh…. a compilation album! It could end with Alice Cooper’s “I am the Spider”! — back to the song. It’s actually quite sweet, but now I’m comparing it to “Curator of Butterflies” from EEI, and it doesn’t have the same oomph. Which actually gets me to my overall take on the album. BBT is a very good band and this is a very good album, but I’m afraid I prefer the EE albums a little more. Credit where it’s due, though. “London Plane” is as good a melody as they’ve done. Gorgeous.
P: I agree about “London Plane”. That’s probably my favorite piece on the album.
Anyway, I love the English Electrics, and I just haven’t spent the kind of quality time with this album yet. That will come. But I think this album is great, and I suspect it’s going to grow on me. A lot. I loved the arranging, and the inclusion of all the string and brass choirs. The band’s backing harmonies are very distinctive, and I love how they include constant musical and textual tributes to their homeland. I think it gives a timelessness, despite very modern music as well as, at times, tribute to the classic English prog bands of the 70’s. And have I mentioned that I think David Longdon is a wonderful singer?
But even so, to anyone who is a fan of Big Big Train: You really didn’t need to read this clear to the end. You want this album. You know you want it. Go ahead. You’ll love it.
X: Agreed. If they do three more albums this good, they will get themselves high on the list of all-time prog bands.