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).





Yes – Fly From Here – Return Trip

1 04 2018

Fly From Here – Return Trip is a new version of the 2011 Yes album, with the addition of the previously unreleased track Don’t Take No For An Answer and a full-length version of Hour Of Need, which was only previously available in Japan. The biggest change is that producer (and co-writer of many of the tracks) Trevor Horn has re-recorded the lead vocals, effectively making this the final Drama line-up Yes album. Drama is my favourite Yes album, and I am a huge fan of The Buggles, so this was a must-buy release from me.

fly from here return trip

From the opening instrumental that ushers in the Fly From Here suite, the influence of Trevor Horn and keyboard player Geoff Downes (aka The Buggles) looms large, and has many parallels to the second Buggles album, Adventures In Modern Recording.  The 2010 reissue of Adventures in Modern Recording contains a couple of early versions of songs from the Fly From Here suite, and two versions of the stunning track I Am A Camera (recorded by Yes on Drama as Into The Lens).

Fly From Here Pt 1 – We Can Fly is the first track to feature Trevor Horn’s re-recorded lead vocals. I never had a problem with the vocals of Benoît David on the 2011 version of the album, but hearing Horn on lead vocals is such a joy. As a side note, I loved The Producers Made in Basing Street album in 2012 but I was disappointed that Horn did not contribute more vocally to the album, so you can imagine how happy I am with Fly From Here – Return Trip.

The new version has some differences in arrangement and lengths of tracks – which includes a shortening of Fly From Here Pt 1 – We Can Fly, and some added production touches to the end section of the track.

My favourite song on the album is Fly From Here Pt 2 – Sad Night At The Airfield. A haunting, melancholic piece that sounds so much better on the revised version of the album.

“I want to be the one who always gives you shelter
Finds a way to keep you warm”

Some of the albums finest keyboard / synth lines from Geoff Downes add bright colours, and a simple, but powerful Chris Squire bass-line drives the song. This is one of the most moving pieces in the vast Yes catalogue.

Yes 2018

Fly from Here Pt III – Madman at the Screens is also shortened on The Return Trip. The Steve Howe composition Fly From Here Pt 4 – Bumpy Ride has always been my least favourite track on the album, but the Yes guitarist redeems himself with the much stronger The Man You Always Wanted Me To Be, one of Fly From Here‘s key tracks. There is a real fluidity and harmony to all the band members performances on this song.

Life On A Film Set (recorded as Riding A Tide on The Buggles second album) is another of my Fly From Here favourites. Horn’s vocals are so clear and strong, and he really is underrated as a vocalist. I love the acoustic and lead guitar interplay during the tracks mid-section, and Life On A Film Set is a song that I would imagine appeals to fans of the bands earlier work.

I’m glad I have finally got to hear the full-length version of Howe’s Hour of Need, which is so much more fully realised here.

I enjoyed the album on it’s 2011 release, but Fly From Here – Return Trip is the definitive version and has turned what was originally a very good album into a truly great album.

“Armies of angels are leading me on
Take me away from the heart of the storm”

At the time of writing this review, Fly From Here – Return Trip is only available from Pledgemusic – via this link. If it becomes available via other retailers, I will add the links to this page.

Fly From Here – Overture
Fly From Here Pt 1 – We Can Fly
Fly From Here Pt 2 – Sad Night At The Airfield
Fly From Here Pt 3 – Madman At The Screens
Fly From Here Pt 4 – Bumpy Ride
Fly From Here Pt 5 – We Can Fly (Reprise)
The Man You Always Wanted Me To Be
Life On A Film Set
Hour Of Need (full length version)
Solitaire
Don’t Take No For An Answer
Into The Storm

Read my review of The Producers – Made in Basing Street





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/





Daniel Cavanagh – Monochrome

11 10 2017

Cover by Danny BranscombeMonochrome is a new solo album from Daniel Cavanagh, following hot on the heels of the latest Anathema album, The Optimist.

The album is described by Cavanagh as having “…a late night, candlelit feeling, evoking the light of dusk as the summer sun sinks below the horizon, setting the scene for thoughts and meditations that many people will relate to.

Album opener The Exorcist ushers in this mood beautifully. Sustained piano notes hang over synth sequences as the arrangement evolves. A close cousin to Are You There?, Cavanagh delivers an emotional vocal. Sometimes the most simple arrangements hit you hardest, and this is most definitely the case with Monochrome.

This Music features Anneke Van Giersbergen as co-vocalist. Sparse lyrics let you focus on the instrumentation, which delivers one of the most joyful, uplifting songs on the album.

Anneke joins Daniel on the beautiful Soho. A slow-building arrangement, this is one of Monochrome‘s strongest performances. Soho could easily have graced any of the recent Anathema albums. The second section of the song has an array of well-crafted reverb and delay treatments on the synth pads that underpin the piano line.

Piano is the lead instrument on Monochrome, and the albums longest track, The Silent Flight Of The Raven Winged Hours, is where the playing really shines. There is a wonderful mixture of piano tones and its clear that the effects and treatments are being ‘played’ as much as the actual instruments. The mostly instrumental The Silent Flight Of The Raven Winged Hours is the most progressive sounding track on the album and at times, feels a little like it could also be drawing inspiration from the post-rock sound of bands such as Mono (particularly Hymn To The Immortal Wind) as much as from the emotional intensity of Talk Talk and Sigur Ros.

The guitar intro of another mostly instrumental track, Dawn draws us back to the classic recent Anathema sound. The violin of Anna Phoebe shines on one of the shorter pieces.

Oceans Of Time builds from its feather-light intro section. Brush drums and organ underpin this soothing, calming piece. Layer upon layer is gently added to the mix as we arrive at the middle section of the song, which is a piece of pure beauty. You can almost feel the tension in the studio as everything is stripped back to the piano and acoustic guitar. Its an intensely moving part of my favourite track on the album.

Artwork by Danny Branscombe

The album closes with Some Dreams Come True. There is magic living in these notes – I’ve always loved the Anathema songs where a motif repeats and slowly mutates, which is what happens with the first part of Some Dreams Come True. Fans of Steve Reich will surely approve. The arrangement builds in the second part, almost reprising the songs that have gone before.

Monochrome feels like it was made for a particular purpose. To calm, reassure and lift your mood. It feels a million miles away from the sort of album you can dip in and out of, in this playlist obsessed, instant gratification era.

So whether you listen to this album on CD, vinyl or via streaming, pop on your best headphones, close your eyes and immerse yourself in this music.

The Exorcist
This Music
Soho
The Silent Flight Of The Raven Winged Hours
Dawn
Oceans Of Time
Some Dreams Come True

Buy Monochrome by Daniel Cavanagh on CD

Buy Monochrome by Daniel Cavanagh on vinyl

Buy The Optimist by Anathema on CD

Buy The Optimist by Anathema on vinyl





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





White Willow – Future Hopes

6 03 2017

Future HopesFuture Hopes is the follow up to the mighty Terminal Twilight from 2011 (one of this blogs earliest reviews)- so its been a long wait for new music from White Willow, the Norwegian progressive and (increasingly) electronic band.

Album number seven revolves around core members Jacob Holm-Lupo and Mattias Olsson and features for the first time vocalist Venke Knutson, who has had several pop hits in her native Norway.

Deep bass synth lines usher in album opener Future Hopes. It’s clear early on that the metal leanings of earlier White Willow albums have largely given way to a more progressive palette, topped off with layer upon layer of synths. Don’t worry, this is not a guitar free zone by any stretch of the imagination. The title track Future Hopes has some moving guitar solos towards the end of the track.

Silver And Gold is the most stripped back arrangement on the album – with just Venke, Jacob and Ketil Vestrum Einarsen performing on this track. The 80s music loving fan in me welcomes the Fairlight drums on this song. Silver And Gold is a beautiful piece of music, and Venke’s breathy vocals are perfectly suited to this track.

The prog is dialled back in on In Dim Days, a classic White Willow piece. There is plenty of space for exploration and lengthy instrumental passages on In Dim Days. The bass and drums work really well on the album’s heaviest track, and there is some nice hammond work from Lars Fredrik Frøislie (who has a huge part to play on the CD album’s closing track).

Recent White Willow music (I’m talking to you Floor 57 from Terminal Twlight) has often had me thinking “That would sound great in a J. G. Ballard film adaptation” and Where There Was Sea There Is Abyss is one of those moments on Future Hopes. One of two instrumentals on the album, this short atmospheric piece presses all the right buttons, reminding me a little of the textures and mood of side two of Bowie’s Low. It really sets your imagination flowing, which is always a good sign of potential longevity in a piece of music.

Photo by Dagfinn Hobæk

A Scarred View is the album’s masterpiece. Clocking in at a vinyl side filling 18 minutes and 16 seconds, it has all the time and space it needs to develop from its Vangelis Blade Runner like opening. A tale of arid desolation and drought damaged landscapes, the song contains some of the album’s best vocal and guitar performances. A Scarred View is one of those tracks with so much going on, and so many layers revealing new musical delights on each listen, that you never tire of hearing the song. It really does not feel like an 18 minutes long track.

Old school prog and 70s electronica fans will love the middle section of the song, with its heady mix of hammond organ topped with layers of moog, prophet 5 and especially arp solina (a mid to late 70s Bowie synth staple).  It takes me back to my youth, attending the laser shows at the London Planetarium, to a soundtrack of progressive and classic rock by the likes of Alan Parsons and Yes.

The whole album sounds rich and warm, especially A Scarred View. It is recorded so well, with plenty of space in the mix for the peaks and troughs, and sounds wonderful cranked up loud through a good amp and speakers. Buy Future Hopes on CD and vinyl if you can – not MP3 (I opted for CD but kind of regret not going for vinyl now, as I would imagine the album is made for that format).

Animal Magnetism is a CD bonus track, that was released nearly two years ago – you can read my review of the standalone release of the song, a cover of The Scorpions track. I loved it then and I still love it now!

Damnation Valley is the second instrumental, and another CD bonus track. Possibly a homage to Damnation Alley, the 1977 post-apocalyptic film? A bar-room piano and mellotron soaked piece, its a soothing end to this version of the album.

The album artwork from the legendary Roger Dean, and the quality album mastering by Bob Katz add to the whole album experience, and that’s what I believe albums should be – experiences. If you love the music of Genesis, Alan Parsons, Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis and all those progressive and classic rock artists from the golden era of the mid to late 70s, then this is an album you are likely to fall in love with.

And if you are already a fan of previous White Willow (and The Opium Cartel) releases – you don’t need me to tell you this is a must have album for your collection. Future Hopes is likely to be considered by many as a career high for the band.

Buy Future Hopes by White Willow on CD from Amazon

Buy Future Hopes by White Willow on vinyl from Amazon








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