Review: English Electric Part One – Big Big Train

Big Big Train is every Prog fans’ dream: Genesis and Marillion influences wrapped up in modern packaging with wonderful lyrics and a full battery of instruments.  I could stop the review right there, but that wouldn’t be doing justice to such a great band and album.  BBT is considered one of the top British ambassadors of what is now called Prog Rock (yet another label but let’s not go there).  But however you want to label them, BBT makes great music that is at once familiar and challenging.  English Electric Part One is one of their best albums yet in their long history.

The album is composed of a series of songs that represent a snapshot of English life, a theme that BBT have tackled a number of times.  I think what makes this album different in some ways to their past releases is that they have embraced more closely the classic Art Rock bands of the past.  If you enjoy Genesis’ A Trick of the Tail and Marillion’s Seasons End, then you will flip over this album.  The packaging is a fold-out Digi-pack with full lyrics and nice artwork.  I also like that they list who played what on each track – just the nerd in me, I guess.  I will describe the music in more detail after I introduce the band:

Big Big Train is: Greg Spawton – principal composer, guitars, bass, keyboards and backing vocals; Dave Gregory (ex-XTC and now also in Tin Spirits) – guitars; Andy Poole – producer, guitars, keyboards, backing vocals; David Longdon – principal composer, lead vocals, flute, banjo, vibes, tambourine, accordion, keyboards, guitars, mandolin; and Nick D’Virgilio (ex-Spock’s Beard) – drums and backing vocals.  There are a host of guest musicians as well, and I won’t list them all, but special mention should be made of Andy Tillison, The Tangent’s great keyboardist, who contributes on a number of tracks.  Also, there are string and brass players, lending a very organic and full (not sampled) sound to this well-recorded production.

Greg Spawton at one time pretty much composed all the BBT albums, but since David Longdon arrived, he has shared in composition and the results have been a more diverse sound.  And given that Longdon’s voice is in the Peter Gabriel/Phil Collins/Steve Hogarth camp, the music has an authenticity to style that some newer bands can’t touch.  Here is a summary of some of the tracks on this CD:

“The First Rebreather” opens the album with a wonderful melody that reminds me of Genesis’ Duke and throughout its 8-plus minutes, has playful keyboards, smooth flute and wonderful harmony vocals in counterpoint.  It tells a story of workers of rock at the edge of the sea.  Dave Gregory’s guitar soars throughout this album and people that haven’t heard him since his syncopated style in XTC will be surprised for sure.

“Uncle Jack” features banjo and has a wonderful folk-like English melody that bounces along in pure joy.  It describes the beautiful English countryside with hedgerows and nature’s critters.

“Winchester from St Giles’ Hill” describes just what it says and it captures the images perfectly in the lyrics and music.  The music reminds me of Marillion’s song “Season’s End” and then develops into a lovely string and flute orchestral passage – pure emotion.

“Judas Unrepentant” is the story of a classic painter forger and definitely could be on an early Genesis album with Tillison’s signature Hammond sound.

“Summoned By Bells” describes a return to a town outside London after the fires of World War II and recollections of those times.  The music is large and powerful and a full-blown 9-minute plus concept piece.

“Upton Heath” is a soft folk song again featuring banjo prominently in the mix with a gorgeous chorus.

“A Boy in Darkness” describes child labour in the mines in 1842 and as you might expect this is darker music with plenty of strings and divided into three sections, so a mini-suite of over eight minutes. It includes Jazzier elements and a nod to Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick.

Hedgerow ends the album with a heavier, rockier version of Uncle Jack.

English Electric Part One is an absorbing, creative listen. Each track has memorable melodies, wonderful playing and thoughtful lyrics.  Most of the songs veer off in different directions too and are complex enough to keep you interested with repeated listens.  If you are craving to hear well played, well-composed Rock music that will give you a nostalgic lift but also move you in ways that a lot of music may not these days, I can highly recommend this album and I look forward to Part Two in 2013.

Check them out at their website

Release Date: September 4, 2012

–Bob Metcalf