Tim Bowness – Butterfly Mind track-by-track album review

17 04 2022

Tim Bowness releases his 7th solo album Butterfly Mind as a Ltd. 2CD Edition, Ltd Edition LP+CD and digital album via InsideOut on June 17 2022.

Butterfly Mind features the stellar rhythm section of Richard Jupp (in his first major session since leaving Elbow) and Nick Beggs alongside a spectacular generation and genre spanning guest list including Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull), Dave Formula (Magazine), Peter Hammill (Van Der Graaf Generator), Martha Goddard (The Hushtones), Gregory Spawton (Big Big Train), Mark Tranmer (The Montgolfier Brothers, GNAC), Saro Cosentino (Franco Battiato), Italian Jazz musician Nicola Alesini, US singer Devon Dunaway (Ganga), Stephen W Tayler (Kate Bush) and, marking his first studio work with Tim for nearly three decades, former no-man violinist Ben Coleman.

Produced by Tim Bowness and Brian Hulse, Butterfly Mind was mixed and mastered by Steven Wilson.

Say Your Goodbyes bookends the album, with part one featuring added vocals from Peter Hammill, ushering in the album with a sense of foreboding as the sparse electronics give way to a powerful, distorted industrial arrangement that harks back to the no-man of Bleed / Say Baby Say Goodbye. This is not the first time I spot the DNA of no-man running through strands of the album, which should come as no surprise as Butterfly Mind was mixed and mastered by Steven Wilson and features Ben Coleman on three of it’s tracks.

Always The Stranger arrives at pace, propelled by the powerful beats of former Elbow drummer Richard Jupp, who adds a real feeling of urgency throughout the album.

“Yes, even their laughter gets you
and even their smiles destroy you.”

The backing vocals from Martha Goddard and the Bowness / Brian Hulse (now a regular contributor to much of Tim’s work) synths glisten underneath the delightful evolving arrangement. Nick Beggs adds a deep, mature bass line to one of my favourite tracks on the album.

The frenetic pace of Always The Stranger makes you savour the downtempo delights of It’s Easier To Love even more.

“Maybe it’s your age,
but everything feels colder.”

A fine Bowness ballad, It’s Easier To Love features a warm, restrained string arrangement from Saro Cosentino and added accompanying vocals from US dance / electronic vocalist Devon Dunaway, adding a unique, welcome texture to the song. Heavily treated / delayed sax from Nicola Alesini adds a delicious topping to the mix of instrumentation, that naturally evolves and builds throughout the song.

The second appearance from Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson (who also appears on the opening track), has Anderson really leaving his mark on one of the album’s heaviest tracks, We Feel. Peter Hammill adds guitar along with Brian Hulse, and Nick Beggs delivers a powerful and very inventive bass-line, one of his finest performances on the album. Devon Dunaway drops a Bowie like backing vocal around the mid-way point.

Tim has pulled out the stops with the multiple and varied guest appearances on Butterfly Mind, with musicians offering measured contributions that paint textures not heard before on his solo albums, whilst wisely having a core, stable band of Bowness, Hulse, Beggs and Jupp supplying the album with its cohesive identity.

Lost Player is one of the simpler arrangements, with a reverb-drenched drum pattern and sci-fi soundtrack synth waves, which then surprisingly shifts gear at the two minute mark, giving a chameleon-like transformation of sequenced synths and wordless, reflective hums from Bowness. This abrupt change in tone and theme should not work so well, but it really does deliver one of the albums most emotional moments.

Only A Fool features wonderful Associates like piano lines from Dave Formula (Magazine), on this percussive heavy, pacey piece. The bassline from Mr Beggs is simply delicious, and is another track I return to often, when not listening to the album in order, as the artist intended of course!

“The numbers are frightening,
so much blood on our hands.
we don’t need reminding,
the punch never lands”

After The Stranger features Gregory Spawton (Big Big Train) on bass pedals, on this short continuation of the earlier Always The Stranger, with 90s trip-hop referencing percussion from Richard Jupp.

Photo by Mark Wood

Glitter Fades is a tale of passing time and fading influence. Take us back… The electronic beats blend so well with the deep, late 80s feel of the electronics, and the lead vocal lines from Bowness are perfectly supported by Martha Goddard to add a touch of lightness. Stephen W Tayler contributes clarinet, and I’m reminded at times of the late Eighties synth soundscapes of Richard Barbieri during this very accessible and addictive track.

“We were a golden generation,
the darlings of a cultured age”

Ben Coleman adds violin to the final three tracks, starting with About The Light That Hits The Forest Floor. A late addition to the album, its another personal favourite. Unlike anything else on the album, the arrangement is light, measured and more organic. Deep bass and brush drums add to the warm mood offered by the song. The last couple of minutes are pure magic, as electronics melt into Coleman’s trademark emotive violin lines.

“It was the fight that made you hope for more”

And then we have Dark Nevada Dream. The longest track on Butterfly Mind is also its best. Hints of no-man from the Flowermouth and Returning Jesus eras sit deep in the arrangement. Dave Formula adds pulsating Hammond organ lines, with another fine Devon Dunaway contribution to the chorus.

“Speaking less,
drinking more”

Dark Nevada Dream skips by in an instant, and on my first listen one of my favourite parts was the Bowness spoken section towards the end of the song. It’s not quite a Bowness rap, so don’t worry, but it fits perfectly with the arrangement of one of my favourite solo tracks from Tim.

The core quartet excel on this song, and the contributions from the guest musicians take Dark Nevada Dream to another level.

I am sure this will be most listeners favourite track, and when the inevitable Best of Bowness album is compiled in a few years, Dark Nevada Dream will surely feature.

Say Your Goodbyes, Pt. 2 closes the album in a similar vein to the start of the journey, with the startling difference being the violent end section from Ben Coleman, duelling and driving out the organ swells, and bursting out of your speakers / headphones with clarity and force.

If you have opted for the vinyl version of Butterfly Mind, I would also recommend seeking out the limited double CD version. Disc two of this set features alternative takes of tracks from the album. The highlights include a powerful and raw take on Lost Player. This is the original solo demo from Tim and the track that started the whole project off, as Lost Player was the first song Tim wrote after eight months of doing covers and Plenty re-recordings. I also love the stunning alternative version of About The Light That Hits The Forest Floor along with the track that was for a while due to take its place in the original running order, Clearing Houses.

Photo by Mark Wood

Clearing Houses contains one of Tim’s most moving lyrics, driven by a direct simplicity that makes it sit amongst the finest of recent Bowness stories. Its so true that the four walls that surround and protect us throughout key points in our lives hold so many memories, and are so much more than just bricks and mortar. When we move to a new home, we often reflect on the loves, losses and growth we have witnessed. Clearing houses can mean taking time to reflect on the ghosts that live on in the photos taken in the home we are leaving for the final time. Alongside another fine Ian Anderson contribution, Clearing Houses deserves to be heard and enjoyed as so much more than ‘just’ an album out-take.

Butterfly Mind is the most rewarding solo album from Tim to date. Although it has a rich consistency due to the four key musicians who feature throughout, the guests add spice to every song they touch. I sometimes worry that utilising such high profile guests can take away the focus, but none of the musicians or vocalists on Butterfly Mind overshadow the songs or the arrangements. They all add unique flavours and a different personality to the mix, always adding and never detracting from a career best album.

Butterfly Mind Tracklist

Say Your Goodbyes, Pt. 1
Always The Stranger
It’s Easier To Love
We Feel
Lost Player
Only A Fool
After The Stranger
Glitter Fades
About The Light That Hits The Forest Floor
Dark Nevada Dream
Say Your Goodbyes, Pt. 2





Big Big Train – Welcome To The Planet track-by-track album review

13 01 2022

Big Big Train release their new album Welcome To The Planet on their own label, English Electric Recordings on 28 January 2022. The new album comes shortly after their 2020 release, Common Ground, and was completed before the untimely passing of their vocalist David Longdon in November 2021.

David is one of my favourite vocalists, and as each album from Big Big Train is released, it has been a joy to listen to the band progressing, exploring new lyrical themes and musical landscapes. David’s rich vocals, along with his powerful and intelligent songwriting, will be missed by all fans of the band.

Welcome To The Planet is the second album recorded during the pandemic, and with the new line-up of the band.

After teasing us with a series of stand-alone streaming releases, the album was confirmed late last year. Big Big Train founder Gregory Spawton explained the short gap between albums: “The experience of the pandemic has shown us that we need to make the best use of our time on Earth. With that in mind and with new band members on board giving us a fresh head of steam, we decided on a speedy return to the studio to write and record Welcome To The Planet.”

The album opens with Made From Sunshine, a duet between David Longdon and Clare Lindley, the band’s violinist. An uplifting, optimistic take on new life and new beginnings bringing joy. It will bring a smile to your face, and acts as a perfect tonic for these troubled times we find ourselves living through.

“It’s clear to see, we’re on cloud nine.”

The Connection Plan is a Nick D’Virgilio song about connecting with others despite our differences. Driven by an insistent violin and a bass-line that cuts through from Greg Spawton, lovely mellotron lines feature to warm the hearts of the traditional prog-heads!

The vocal arrangement of the chorus is a real highlight of The Connection Plan.

“Kill the spotlight, power and might”

Two Greg Spawton composed tracks take their place in the album’s well-sequenced running order. Lanterna was inspired by the 16th Century Lanterna di Genova (the Lighthouse of Genoa).

Lanterna has a beautiful, slow-paced but intricate introduction section that highlights the warm timbre of David Longdon’s voice, before the tempo picks up and the band kicks in.

The riffs intertwine and fight for your attention, with some of the guitar lines reminding me of the work of Alan Murphy on Kate Bush’s Experiment IV single.

Capitoline Venus is a pared back recording featuring David on vocals / keyboards and Greg on 12-string guitar. A short, sweet and direct love song.

“I have seen enough. And found home”

A Room With No Ceiling is the first of two instrumental tracks on Welcome To The Planet. Written by guitarist/keyboardist Rikard Sjöblom, A Room With No Ceiling is a jazz-hued progressive piece that drips with delicious hammond organ and rhodes piano, topped off with accordion and military paced drums. The refrain at the end of this song is very moving.

Proper Jack Froster kicks off the second section of the album. The lyrics tell the tale of Greg Spawton’s early childhood in the Midland’s. The song is a nostalgic and personal track, with a powerful vocal interplay between David and Carly Bryant. Wurlitzer electric piano and sleigh bells feature on Proper Jack Froster, as it perfectly captures the spirit of a 70s winter snowscape.

“Flying down the hills
On a sledge with rusty rails
One last run then home”

The album’s second instrumental is the Nick D’Virgilio penned Bats In The Belfry. One of my favourite tracks on the album, the percussive heavy piece is the most powerful performance I have heard from D’Virgilio as a member of Big Big Train. The drum section after the mid-song breakdown is stunning, and makes you want to go back to the beginning of the track to hear it all over again. And again.

Oak And Stone is the longest song on Welcome To The Planet, weighing in at just over seven minutes, so no “epics” on this album, but this is not an issue as all the tracks are so strong and the album works so well as a complete body of work.

Oak And Stone looks back at a life lived. The warm, laid back drums from Nick and the strong vocal performance from David (with powerful harmony vocals from Nick and David) in the coda make this such an enjoyable track, that will probably be an early favourite for many fans.

“Time to put this thing to rest
Time to leave the empty stage”

The album closes with the title track, and the band have saved the best till last. Written by new keyboard player Carly Bryant, and featuring Carly and David on vocals, the amazing rich harmonies, along with the dystopian lyrics, deliver a haunting track that give me strong J. G. Ballard vibes.

The space in the arrangement, with the sparse lyrics, make this track stand-out in the Big Big Train catalogue, and is a perfect example of how new band members are always welcome to add their creativity and personality to the mix with this most collaborative of bands.

The biggest surprise with Welcome To The Planet is the wide variety of styles and moods that inhabit the album. Having the writing split amongst the band members – both established and new – gives Welcome To The Planet a sense of vibrancy and playfulness that makes it one of the best albums from the band.

Buy the album (vinyl, CD plus bundle packages) at Burning Shed
Buy the CD from Amazon
Buy the vinyl from Amazon

Part One
Made From Sunshine
The Connection Plan
Lanterna
Capitoline Venus
A Room With No Ceiling

Part Two
Proper Jack Froster
Bats In The Belfry
Oak And Stone
Welcome To The Planet





Big Big Train – Common Ground track-by-track album review

4 07 2021

Common Ground, the self-produced new album from Big Big Train is released on 30th July 2021, on CD via their own label English Electric Recordings, and on double LP in a gatefold sleeve via Plane Groovy.

Recorded during the worldwide pandemic in 2020, Common Ground sees the band continue their tradition of dramatic narratives but also tackles issues much closer to home, such as the Covid lockdowns, the separation of loved ones, the passage of time, deaths of people close to the band and the hope that springs from a new love.

The Strangest Times is a direct reaction to the worldwide pandemic. Referencing some of the strange changes to our lives (waiting for daily Government press conferences, social distancing), this is a new departure for Big Big Train. Instead of the mainly historical stories, this is as close to home and personal as it gets, with lyrics that reference this time in our history, when so many of us were confined to our homes and missing our loved ones and our way of life that we had probably taken for granted.

Six months ago this song would not have worked, as I think a lot of us were looking for an escape from Covid in our everyday lives and our art and entertainment, as it was all too raw, too over-powering and all-encompassing. But how can artists ignore one of the most significant events in our lifetimes, that touched so many of us in such a negative and personal way? As we slowly see chinks of a semblance of normality on the horizon, its now possible to listen to artists addressing what happened, and The Strangest Times touches on what we all went through, the loss and sacrifice many people endured and how our worlds changed, in some ways permanently, whilst looking to nature to heal us and offer respite from the terrible news that was hitting us from all angles.

The track is musically urgent and reminds me of the All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes period Pete Townshend (who is referenced as one of the influences, along with Elbow, Tears for Fears, Elton John and XTC on the Big Big Train website).

All The Love We Can Give, with its lower register than usual vocals on the verse, contains my favourite David Longdon performance on the album. The song reminds me a little of Mansun’s playful late 90s album Six, with a variety of twists and turns in an exiting and at times visceral arrangement.

I’m going to get shouted down here, but I keep finding myself singing Kids In America during the first section of Black With Ink. Its probably just me, so ignore me (We’re the kids in America, whoa-oh!). The switching of lead vocals to various band members and the darker mid-section makes this one of the most enjoyable tracks from the early part of the album.

Dandelion Clock is the final track that makes up the first part of the album. Drawing on that wonderful pastoral feeling that Big Big Train can dial in at ease, the song feels like it is bringing the power and beauty of nature into a four minute pop song. And before you know it, Dandelion Clock is over and we are heading into part two of Common Ground.

The short, beautiful instrumental Headwaters is driven by reverb heavy, deep piano and sets the scene for the albums second instrumental, Apollo. This is the most traditionally progressive track on the album, and the nearest in sound to previous Big Big Train recordings on an album that sees the band add new colours and layers to their music.

Common Ground was the first track released from the album and has a mid 70s feel that always draws me in. The vocal harmonies are delicious on this track, with lyrics espousing tolerance, kindness and the life-changing power of love.

“We claim our common ground”

In a slight change of tack, this album has fewer narrative led songs, with more personal experiences driving the themes, which is understandable from an album conceived and created during Covid. Deviating from this journey is the tour de force that is Atlantic Cable, a tale of a 19th Century early communication system. Lyrically the song is about joining together, and breaking down barriers, so a very optimistic take on history.

The arrangement transitions smoothly throughout the 15 minute piece, with male and female vocals interweaving. This is the track I am most looking forward to blasting out on my vinyl copy at the end of July.

“The wisdom of strangers, of those left behind
We look up at the same stars…”

Endnotes is a lovely way to end the album, with what feels like a lyrical and musical tip of the hat to early to mid period Elbow. As a side note, Elbow’s Asleep in the Back is an amazing, very progressive album that does not get the attention it deserves.

The lyrical imagery and use of brass lifts your mood on Endnotes, and overall, whilst it touches on some dark and upsetting themes, Common Ground is an uplifting, emotionally rewarding and positive album, and one of the finest releases from the band.

The performances from all band members are strong on Common Ground, and the new members have certainly left their mark, with an interesting tilt of the band’s axis giving Big Big Train a new determination along with a welcome exploration of new moods and musical flavours. Surely that’s the definition of progressive?

Part One
The Strangest Times
All The Love We Can Give
Black With Ink
Dandelion Clock

Part Two
Headwaters
Apollo
Common Ground
Atlantic Cable
Endnotes

Burning Shed Big Big Train store (incl CD / vinyl and merchandise bundles for Common Ground)

Buy Big Big Train’s Common Ground on CD from Amazon
Buy Big Big Train’s Common Ground on vinyl from Amazon





Big Big Train – The Underfall Yard (Remixed and Remastered) Review

29 03 2021

Big Big Train are releasing their 2009 album The Underfall Yard for the first time on vinyl, as a triple 180g LP in a trifold cover. The set is made up of the original album over 2 LPs with a further album containing 48 minutes of material, including a 2020 studio re-recording of the title track preceded by a previously unreleased brass prelude, and a new song Brew And Burgh.

The Underfall Yard cover

The Underfall Yard (Remixed and Remastered) is also available as a double CD.

The Underfall Yard was the first Big Big Train album to feature David Longdon on vocals and also the first to feature Nick D’Virgilio as the band’s drummer. Former XTC guitarist Dave Gregory appears on most tracks, along with Francis Dunnery (It Bites) and Jem Godfrey (Frost*) on the title track. The 2020 version of The Underfall Yard is a remix as well as remaster, so is the definitive version of one of the most popular releases from the band.

Big Big Train

One of the main upgrades in sound is the separation and space offered in this mix. This is particularly noticeable on the album opener, Evening Star. The choral, wall of sound vocals are so much richer, and when the brass makes it’s first entrance half-way through, it really hits the mark. I’m reviewing this from a digital stream, which sounds amazing but I cannot wait to hear this on vinyl at the end of April.

David Longdon’s stunning vocal arrangements on Master James of St George are really noticeable on this remix / remaster, and the powerful instrumental sections, often underpinned by deep bass notes, fly out of the headphones / speakers.

“But lines get broken
Lines get broken down”

Victorian Brickwork is one of my favourite Big Big Train songs, and is all the more heart-breaking when you read the story behind the lyrics in the updated interview with Greg Spawton conducted by Dave Bowler on the band’s UnderFall Yard micro-site.

“Call up the boys, call them now
Time to bring them home
They will call if they want to”

Last Train is the story of the last day at work for a 1930’s station master, and almost feels like a template for some of the music the band has released since this album.

Winchester Diver has a notable upgrade, with the opening synth line replaced by trumpet in the 2020 mix. The mellotron and flute also sound so warm in this 2020 restoration. I have always loved the album, but believe me, you will be blown away when you hear how it sounds now. It’s like upgrading from a Crosley record deck to a Linn!

The quiet section, with Winchester bells, at around the 4 minute mark also has such depth and clarity.

The 23 minute title track, the final track on the album proper, is a joy to listen to. Greg Spawton’s paean to Victorian engineers is a career highlight. Each individual passage, riff and motif flows beautifully from the one before, never out-staying it’s welcome.

“Using just available light
He could still see far”

Just hearing the main album remixed and remastered would justify the purchase of this new version of the album, but the additional tracks are not mere add-on’s, they work well on their own. Sensibly, they are separate from the main album, so you can enjoy the original concept and flow that you already love.

Songs From The Shoreline features a new 2020 recording of Victorian Brickwork married to Fat Billy Shouts Mine (from Far Skies Deep Time), as well as a new version of the title track. Both versions are studio versions that are informed by the live performances from recent years, along with an additional piece, the brass Prelude To The Underfall Yard. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, brass bands were often used as part of the early 70s musical palette and they have dropped off the radar since, which is a real loss. The sound and feeling evoked can take me back to another time and place, and as someone who spent 5 years living in Yorkshire in my formative years, hearing Prelude To The Underfall Yard is an incredibly moving experience.

The album ends with a new song, written specifically for this reissue. Brew And Burgh is a moving tale (referencing lots of earlier Big Big Train songs – Big Big Train bingo if you will!) of friendship and companionship. A warning, the video may make your eyes rain.

So as a final thought, if you already own The Underfall Yard and are thinking, should I buy the album again? My answer would be a hearty yes. It is such an improvement that you will find yourselves falling in love with the album all over again.

The Underfall Yard
Remixed and Remastered
Evening Star
Master James of St George
Victorian Brickwork
Last Train
Winchester Diver
The Underfall Yard
Additional Tracks
Songs From The Shoreline:
(i) Victorian Brickwork (2020 Version)
(ii) Fat Billy Shouts Mine
Prelude To The Underfall Yard
The Underfall Yard (2020 Version)
Brew And Burgh

Buy from the Big Big Train store
Buy From Burning Shed





Big Big Train – Grand Tour album review

28 04 2019

Big Big Train release their new studio album Grand Tour on May 17th 2019. As with all Big Big Train albums, the songs tell stories that steer clear of the usual topics touched upon in modern rock music. The new album is inspired by the 17th and 18th century custom of the ‘Grand Tour’, where young men and women travelled to broaden the mind.

The band state that the Grand Tour takes you on an “epic journey over land and sea and through time and space…” with songs “…inspired by the legacy of the Italian Renaissance genius, Leonardo da Vinci; songs telling the story of the rise and fall of Rome…and of the shipwreck of a great poet, lost in a tempest off the coast of Italy.”

It’s clear that a great deal of thought has gone into the sequencing of Grand Tour, with clear ebbs and flows as the album progresses. Although there are three lengthy epics as part of Grand Tour, album opener Novum Organum is short, sweet and succinct. A percussive synth bell backing slowly builds as piano and voice enter the soundscape.

“For science and for art”

The albums lead single Alive is an uplifting track that showcases the quality production and intelligent arrangements that filter through on every track. The backing vocals and vocal interplay is a noticeable highlight on Alive and many of Grand Tour‘s tracks. I love the bass and drums duel around the three-quarter mark.

The Florentine features some of the most intricate performances on the album. Around 3 minutes into the track, a naggingly addictive guitar line teases in and out of the strings and Nick D’Virgilio’s intricate drum parts. The outro seemingly has lyrical nods to the Elvis Costello / Clive Langer song (also recorded by Robert Wyatt), Shipbuilding. Or maybe Close Your Eyes by no-man?

Roman Stone is a movement in five pieces, and became one of my favourite tracks on the album after the first few listens. The mood and pace shifts from melancholy progressive textures, to dark jazz interludes, then to a more pastoral (a term you will read in a lot of Big Big Train reviews) and gentle pace. Greg Spawton delivers a masterclass in powerful, and at times restrained, bass playing to underpin a complex, shifting arrangement.

“Trade new gods for old gods”

Pantheon is a haunting instrumental track, and the most progressive performance on the album, with some delicious time-signature twists and turns. Theodora in Green and Gold features soaring Fripp-like guitar lines and David Longdon is joined by Nick D’Virgilio on lead vocals for the middle eight.

Ariel is the longest track, and contains the albums most powerful vocals from David Longdon. The various vocal parts throughout the eight different sections are simply stunning – with warm, multi-part harmonies slipping in and out of the evolving arrangement. By the end of the 14 minute plus track you will be left breathless.

“Laudanum plays the poet’s soul like
Orpheus’ lyre, Prometheus’ fire”

Except there is no respite, with another 14 minute track, in the shape of the gentler Voyager carrying on the story of exploration, this time far away from our planet, lifting off into space.

The changes between the sections on Voyager are more subtle, so it has more of a feel of one continual piece. The orchestration on this track, and indeed the whole album, elevates the bands music to new heights. The feeling of elation as Voyager returns will stay with you long after the song has ended.

As I mentioned earlier, the sequencing is top class. Ariel and Voyager are two long tracks that would not normally be placed side by side on an album, but in this instance placing them together feels right. Fans of Porcupine Tree and Pink Floyd are likely to fall madly in love with Voyager, a modern progressive masterpiece.

The theme of a return continues as the album wraps up with Homesong. Feet firmly back on the ground, the song lifts your mood with familiar imagery, and an appreciation of the places and the landscapes that we love.

“We are home now
We have found a way back home”

Grand Tour is an album that rewards you with repeated listens, which is the sign of an album that will stay with you over the long haul. The album has so many strong lyrical, vocal and musical highlights, that picking out a favourite is difficult, but the final three songs are such a powerful statement, and it’s rare for an album to have so many emotional highs in swift succession.

The more I play Grand Tour, the more I become convinced that this will turn into my favourite Big Big Train album so far.

Novum Organum (2:33)
Alive (4:31)
The Florentine (8:14)
Roman Stone (13:33)
Pantheon (6:08)
Theodora in Green and Gold (5:38)
Ariel (14:28)
Voyager (14:03)
Homesong (5:12)

Buy Big Big Train’s Grand Tour on CD from Amazon

Buy Big Big Train’s Grand Tour on vinyl from Amazon

Buy Big Big Train’s Grand Tour on CD from Burning Shed

Buy Big Big Train’s Grand Tour on vinyl from Burning Shed

Visit the Big Big Train website.





Big Big Train – Merchants of Light

24 07 2018

PrintMerchants of Light is the new live album from three times Progressive Music Award winning band Big Big Train. The album features the best performance of each song played at the band’s three sold out shows at Cadogan Hall, London, in the autumn of 2017.

The title track from their 2016 album Folklore ushers in the 16 track live album. The brass / strings and Shaft like rhythm guitar lines snuggle up together better than they should on this powerful opening track. Brave Captain from Folklore‘s companion album Grimspound works equally well in its live setting. As I mentioned in my original review, from the half way section of the song, there are shades of Dire Straits Private Investigations in the piano lines and the breakdown.

Last Train was originally on the 6th Big Big Train album The Underfall Yard from 2009. The song tells the story of a station masters last day at work. One of the more progressive songs on this live album, the harmonies are a pure joy to hear.

London Plane is built on a solid foundation of an intricate vocal arrangement, and serves up an adventurous mixture of jazz and prog flowing through the instrumental sections.

Meadowland is a gentle pastoral sounding track, with subtle brush drums, violin and restrained piano. A Mead Hall in Winter is one of this live album’s highlights. Synths and strings jostle with jaunty organ, throwing musical nods to 70s giants Genesis and Yes, with a sprinkle of early Steely Dan thrown in for good measure.

Swan Hunter from English Electric Part Two and its tale of a long-lost shipping industry has become one of the band’s standards. The use of brass always evokes a feeling of the early 1970s to me, and this fine version of Swan Hunter is no exceptionDavid Longdon’s vocals are in fine form here and throughout the album.

Big Big Train live by Simon Hogg

My favourite Big Big Train song is The Transit of Venus Across the Sun. It’s the brass again! The arrangement is so light and gentle, with no bombast used in getting the emotion across. There is real beauty in both the arrangement and performances from all the musicians.

East Coast Racer gets a fantastic reception from the crowd, and is the longest track on the album. The song charts the history of Mallard, the worlds fasted locomotive.  East Coast Racer is the band at their most progressive and highlights some of their finest melodies and harmonies.

A great version of  the mid 70s pop / rock influenced Telling The Bees is followed by one of the oldest songs on this album in Victorian Brickwork. This track is one that will appeal to fans of the first progressive era of the early 70s. The twists, turns and swells will lift the darkest of moods, and is modern progressive music at its finest.

Drums and Brass is an instrumental interlude that leads into the albums final track, Wassail.

It is easy to get lost in the music of Big Big Train – from the fascinating stories told through the lyrics, to the varied musical styles. If you have not heard the band before, Merchants of Light would be a great starting point, and it is highly likely that you will set off on a voyage of discovery to take in all of the bands recent albums.

Tracklist:

Folklore Overture
Folklore
Brave Captain
Last Train
London Plane
Meadowland
A Mead Hall in Winter
Experimental Gentlemen part two
Swan Hunter
Judas Unrepentant
The Transit of Venus Across the Sun
East Coast Racer
Telling the Bees
Victorian Brickwork
Drums and Brass
Wassail


Buy the Merchants of Light double CD from Amazon

 

Also available now is the Swan Hunter EP, that includes 3 versions of Swan Hunter (a radio edit, a 2018 remix of the album version and a live version), plus a new recording of English Electric: Full Power‘s Seen Better Days (an emotional duet with no-man’s Tim Bowness) and a 2017 live at Real World Studio version of Summer’s Lease (originally on 2007’s The Difference Machine album).





Big Big Train – Merry Christmas

2 12 2017

As my favourite time of the year approaches, I always add my Christmas playlist to my phone. Since the late 80s I’ve not had many new tracks to add to the playlist that includes Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime, Jona Lewie’s timeless Stop The Cavalry, December Will Be Magic Again by Kate Bush, Christmas Wrapping by The Waitresses and my favourite festive song of them all, Greg Lakes I Believe In Father Christmas.

front cover by Sarah Louise Ewing

Finally, I have two new songs for my most wonderful time of the year playlist courtesy of Big Big Train. The lead song from the single is Merry Christmas and it follows in the tradition of the aforementioned I Believe In Father Christmas and Stop The Cavalry by being a story with a social conscience.

“When did the ringing of tills drown the pealing of bells?
Who cares as long as the products sell?”

David Longdon’s lyrics are a call to arms – reminding us to forget for a short while our commercialism, our faces stuck staring at our phones and asking us to try to remember the innocence and beauty of our memories of Christmas from the past.

“What wouldn’t you give to believe again, like you believed back then?”

Naturally, the music of Merry Christmas has all that you would expect from a future Christmas classic – a choir, brass band and sleigh bells adorn this gem of a song. Watch the heart-warming video, starring Big Big Train fan Mark Benton, below.

Merry Christmas will become a permanent fixture in my seasonal playlist, right before Greg Lake’s Chrimbo classic. They sound great together, by the way.

The vinyl and CD versions contain another new song, the six minute plus Snowfalls. A hymn to winter, its a wonderful companion piece, and really captures the spirit of the season.

“Tread lightly while snow falls from the clouds carried on the cold winds, from far away.”

Its definitely worth buying the physical version to hear Snowfalls, which could easily have graced any of the bands recent albums.

Pic Simon Hogg

Whilst Merry Christmas is limited to a particular time of the year, the Greg Spawton penned Snowfalls has more longevity. Building slowly, the instrumental layers are added as the song builds. The keyboards give the effect of snow falling throughout the track.

Snowfalls is a recording that highlights the bands effective use of dynamics, from the lightest of touches to the powerful crescendo’s that drive many Big Big Train performances.

In the spirit of charity at Christmas, a donation to the Night Stop homelessness charity will be made for every copy of the vinyl, CD, and download sold. So what are you waiting for – the links are below.

The single tops off a very good year for Big Big Train – with the Grimspound and The Second Brightest Star albums, and a short run of successful live shows.

Let me raise a virtual glass to the band – and here’s to some more new music soon…..

Buy the single (CD / vinyl) from:

Burning Shed
The Merchdesk

CD single from Amazon

Vinyl single from Amazon

Buy the digital version of Merry Christma

https://bigbigtrain.bandcamp.com/





Big Big Train – Grimspound

22 04 2017

Grimspound-album-cover-art-blogThree times Progressive Music Awards winners Big Big Train return with Grimspound, the follow up to last years Folklore album.

Album opener Brave Captain is the story of First World War English fighter pilot Albert Ball, from the viewpoint of Big Big Train vocalist David Longdon who stumbled across a memorial to Captain Ball as a child in the early 70s. This mixture of history and personal reminiscence runs deep in many of the bands songs, and makes them stand out from the crowd.

Grimspound‘s detailed album notes, as well as giving background and context to the lyrics, also explain the inspiration behind the songs instrumental passages.

Brave Captain is a powerful song, and heralds a subtle change in direction for this album. The songs on Grimspound seem to have added a hint of the 70s classic rock sound to the progressive mix. An addictive guitar line with synth / organ swirls push the song to its end section, reminding me a little of the sublime Private Investigations by Dire Straits. The powerful ending also feels like a cross between the twin guitar lines of classic Thin Lizzy mixed with the end of Bat Out Of Hell. You took the words right out of my mouth, I told you I can feel a classic rock influence!

On The Racing Line is an adventurous instrumental track, and a continuation of the story behind the song Brooklands on the Folklore album.

Experimental Gentlemen is an album highlight, book-ended by a beautiful intro and lengthy outro, with some mesmerising performances by the whole band. Watch a video of part two of the song below.

Meadowland returns to one of the characters from the two English Electric albums, and in the sleeve-notes, the band dedicate the track to the late John Wetton.

“Here with science and art
and beauty and music
and friendship and love,
you will find us”

This short nod to the band’s more pastoral past works really well at this stage in the album.

The albums title track reflects on what we leave behind, the mark we make on our world, in this increasingly digital age. The lovely shuffling drums pick up the pace as the song progresses through a lengthy instrumental section.

And then we have The Ivy Gate, my favourite track on the album. With a banjo intro that reminds me of the theme to the wonderful Deadwood TV series, the song features former Fairport Convention vocalist Judy Dyble alongside David Longdon.

A sad tale of war, loss and suicide, the evolving arrangement adds to the songs charm, and the track contains some wonderful bass work from Greg Spawton.

There is a moment of pure beauty when The Ivy Gate drops back to just the lead vocal as the main event in the song occurs, and sparse guitar, piano and vocals hang heavy in the air. Its one of the most moving performances I’ve heard in a long while.

Photo by Simon Hogg

The penultimate track is the albums longest piece. A Mead Hall in Winter delivers all the twists and turns, evolving time signatures and beautiful harmonies that characterise the best in classic and modern progressive rock.

“Meet me at the mead hall in winter,
set the world to right
with songs, science and stories
hold back the fading light”

The middle section of A Mead Hall in Winter finds the band heading off into a jazzy, almost Steely Dan territory at times. The interplay and the solos are razor-sharp, with none of the riffs or phrases outstaying their welcome by a single second. The tight rhythm guitar and multiple synth lines are a joy to listen to as the layers drop off to reveal a Yes / ELP inspired end section.

As the Crow Flies is a touching end to the album, with lyrics about letting go – of your children as they grow old, of your loved ones as they age. The song starts as it ends – “All here is good, still and quiet”. Songs like this remind you that your final destination is not important, its what you do on your journey that matters.

“Hope not to fall
or drift away”

I was a big fan of last years Folklore, but Grimspound turns it up a notch, and is a much more complete album, with strong performances from all the band members. The songs reveal new moments of wonder at different points, and the music deserves to be heard in one piece, with your full attention and played loud through good speakers or headphones.

I hope you enjoy Grimspound.

Buy Grimspound on CD from Amazon

Buy Folklore on from Amazon


Buy English Electric (1 & 2) CD on Amazon





Big Big Train – Folklore

10 06 2016

Big Big Train - FolkloreFolklore is the ninth album from the English progressive band Big Big Train. I first heard the band quite late in their development, around the time of album number 6, The Underfall Yard, but I really started to take notice with the two English Electric albums from 2012 and 2013.

One of the most interesting aspects of Big Big Train for me is the lyrics. They are often incredibly nostalgic, and tell unique stories – of times long gone and landscapes no longer seen. Drawing on art, literature, landscapes and history,  Big Big Train deliver stories of master forgers, mining communities, shipbuilders and curators of butterflies, with music that matches the imagination and variety of the words.

So onto Folklore, the new Big Big Train album. I’ve been living with the album for nearly two weeks now, and its already one of my favourite albums of the year. Make no mistake, this is a classic album, from beginning to end.

Opening with the title track, strings and brass (real, not synthesizer) usher in one of the albums most powerful tracks. Driven by a mesmerising drum groove and shaft-like guitar line, its a real statement of intent. The breakdown towards the end of Folklore is so moving, real hairs on the back of the neck stuff.

“Sometimes truth hides behind the lines,
grist to the mill, fuel to our fire.”

London Plane is a gentler piece, with wonderful layered harmonies, and a long, very proggy instrumental section.  Reviews of Big Big Train often mention the band’s Englishness. I’m not going to get into a Brexit / stay or leave referendum argument in this review, don’t worry, but certain bands really evoke where they are from, or where they draw their influences. You can hear New Jersey in early Springsteen as much as Big Big Train have the English countryside and Northern cities dripping from every organ solo or acoustic flourish.

Along The Ridgeway has some great guitar from former XTC mainstay Dave Gregory, and a key feature on this album, some fine brass arrangements. The track seques into Salisbury Giant, an organ and violin driven piece that builds on the melodies from the previous track.

The Transit Of Venus Across The Sun is my favourite track on the album. Opening with a brass arrangement that owes as much to Peter Skellern as it does to Genesis or Peter Gabriel, the song takes many twists and turns on its journey. Vocalist David Longdon delivers his best performance on this track and the mid-section chanting that gives way to delicious harmonies has to be heard to be believed. Its a stunning track.

“Here be dragons taking flight..”

Wassail reminds me of mid-80s Peter Gabriel, and is the most immediate of the songs of the album, with a blazing hammond solo halfway through the song.

Songwriting duties on Folklore are split between vocalist David Longdon and founding member, bassist Greg Spawton, yet there is a real feel of consistency throughout the album.

The subject matter for Winkie is based on a true story – read more in this BBC news piece. This is the most progressive track on the album, with some Chris Squire like bass from Greg Spawton.

Brooklands is the album’s longest track, with lyrics from the point of view of a racing driver reminiscing about racing at the long closed Brooklands racing track in Surrey. As much a song about the passage of time as it is about a specific racing driver, the music compliments the lyrics well, giving a real feel of speed and movement.

“Just give me one more run…”

The album closes with the pastoral Telling The Bees. The song has a real early 70s vibe to it – on first listen I almost expected Rod Stewart to start singing! If you don’t find yourself swaying and nodding your head to this song, you need to check your pulse.

Telling The Bees is the perfect ending to a wonderful album that I can’t recommend enough.

Buy Folklore from Amazon

Buy Folklore vinyl from Burning Shed

Buy English Electric Full Power from Amazon








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