Big Big Train does things in threes, apparently. In September 2012, the band released English Electric Part One, followed six months later by English Electric Part Two. These two albums were then combined, shuffled and joined by four new tracks six months later in English Electric, Full Power. This makes for two and a half albums in the space of a year. This was followed by an EP in 2015 while the band apparently got themselves limber for another flurry of releases.
The next round began with the release of Folklore in May of 2016. The companion album, Grimspound, followed April of 2017. Then a mere two months later, the band released The Second Brightest Star, which contains 40 minutes of new material and a reworking of about 30 minute’s worth of Grimspound and Folklore. The reworked material will not be the subject of this review, as the comments made in previous reviews of Folklore and Grimspound still apply.
I feel comfortable calling myself a fan of BBT, and I enjoyed both Grimspound and Folklore, but all in all the Folklore cycle has moved me less than did the English Electric cycle. Thus, when I spun The Second Brightest Star for the first time, I was anticipating another pleasurable, musical journey among obscure English characters and locations that would soon be followed by another Full Power ride on the train, to listen to the REALLY good stuff. That isn’t what happened.
Second Brightest Star’s new material, is the best the band has released since the second English Electric album and the title track moves me to an extent not heard since “Curator of Butterflies” (which remains my favorite song by the band). “Second Brightest Star” shows talented singer David Longdon off to excellent advantage. He sings much of the songs in a lower register than he sometimes does and his voice has a slightly huskier quality to it and the first 1:30 or so of the song features a melody lovely and dramatic. I found myself listening to the song four of five times before moving to the next track—it’s that good, including one of the best guitar solos BBT has recorded.
The second track, “Haymaking” is a light, jig-like instrumental penned by the band’s violinist, Rachel Hall. The whimsy of the track juxtaposes nicely with the opener’s heaviness (think emotional weight, not blasting guitars) and works as an excellent doorway into the rest of the album.
The band uses another instrumental interlude to bridge between the tracks “Skylon” and “The Passing Widow” and a third instrumental, “Terra Australis Incognita” ends the new material before the album presents reworked tracks from the previous two albums. These instrumental tracks are, however, not mere filler, as they each make for good listening on their own.
As with Grimspound, the contributions of Rachel Hall are quite noteworthy in The Second Brightest Star. She is credited with writing both “The Passing Widow” and “Haymaking” she arranged the string sections for the album, and her bowing (Violin, Viola, Cello) adds lovely color throughout the album. This is not to diminish the contributions of the other band members. Bassist Greg Spawton still writes the most material and the bands ensemble playing remains outstanding. Also making a welcome return on the album is a brass choir in “The Leaden Stour”, a feature used to great effect on the English Electric cycle that was rather missed in the previous two albums.
In short, The Second Brightest Star is perhaps the second brightest spot in the BBT oevre and whets the palate, which now eagerly anticipates the next trio of releases.
Big Big Train’s The Second Brightest Star was released on June 23, 2017. Buy it here.