BIG BIG TRAIN – Welcome To The Planet

For even the greatest bands, there’s rarely such a thing as overnight success. This was certainly true for British prog band, Big Big Train. They spent the second half of the 90s and the early noughties recording independent albums that clicked with a small core of people, but remained largely hidden from the prog world at large. Works like ‘Goodbye To The Age of Steam’ and ‘Gathering Speed’ set out a rich musical stall that showed a love of Anthony Philips, and despite changes in line-up and sound, their music retained a very pastoral, very English heart that inspired all who heard it. Despite cult adoration, genuine success often seemed elusive; it wasn’t really until the release of their sixth proper album, 2009’s ‘The Underfall Yard’, that the band started to gain the kind of attention they’d long deserved.

Part of that album’s success came from a bigger focus on dramatic song writing, and there’s no denying that with the arrival of vocalist/multi-instrumentalist/song writer David Longdon, it felt as if the missing piece of BBT’s complex musical jigsaw had finally been put into place. Longdon instantly brought a much bigger sense of drama – and melody – to the band’s art. His deep and rich tones were able to bring true life narratives to life with a real ease. His natural presence on record drew listeners in, no matter the scenario. The tales of a diver working beneath a flooded Winchester Cathedral and rural train lines became intensely vivid. The album’s ‘Victorian Brickwork’, driven by Greg Spawton’s huge bass tones and retro keyboard parts, became an instant fan favourite, but a huge part of the number’s melodic core came from David’s soaring vocal melodies, dropped so effortlessly into the quieter sections.

In many ways, that set the template for the next decade. The addition of different musicians along their journey – including ex-Spock’s Beard drummer Nick D’Virgilio, ex-XTC guitarist Dave Gregory, Stackridge violinist Rachel Hall, and Gungfly’s Rikard Sjoblom – allowed BBT to truly progress and expand upon some great sounds, yet stay true to their original vision. The ‘English Electric’ albums (released in 2012/13, and subsequently reworked into a definitive edition) had an air of a now unstoppable all-star prog band, and despite wandering into something of a comfort zone, award nominated works ‘Folklore’ (2016) and ‘Grimspound’ (2017) bought the band further, well deserved success and a raft of new fans and admirers. The next few years saw the band maintaining a prolific streak, despite some drastic changes within. Between 2018-2020, several members alighted – including founding member Andy Poole – but Spawton and Longdon kept the creative fires stoked to the delight of a still growing fan base.

Big Big Train’s 2022 release features a markedly different band to the much loved ‘English Electric’, and yet there’s something about it that clings on to a familiar sound, an aspect that is very much welcome. Long time fans will also champion some very bold musical experiments that take BBT forward at the same time. Almost everything about the album is grand, in the best possible way. ‘Made From Sunshine’ opens with a very “live in the studio” sound with elements of faint chatter, before exploding into a swinging, almost pop/rock rhythm. Musically, chiming guitars are underscored by bubbling keys – again with an almost power pop tone – before harmonious vocals rise to complete a particularly commercial picture. David’s voice is almost chocolatey; his sense of melody overrides almost everything as his heart swelling performance gains traction, then, with the belated arrival of some very melodic horns, the number reaches its peak: part prog, part pop, part retro, yet still sounding relevant. Sort of an odd cousin to ‘Make Some Noise’, it’s an incredibly catchy way to kick things off. ‘The Connection Plan’ aims similarly high in terms of hooks, even if it tackles them from a slightly unexpected angle. Dominant strings lead the charge via a pointed folk melody, and soon enough, the rest of the band launch into a quirky slice of prog where busy harmony vocals and buoyant rhythms almost seem to call back to Nick’s time with Spock’s Beard, before slower, grander musical passages weave into the tapestry, bringing something much closer to past BBT sounds circa 2013. A few spins shows this tune’s more frivolous elements actually hold up very well, but if anything makes a lasting impression, it’s Greg’s bass work. Adopting a punchy sound throughout, his heavily rhythmic style has plenty of muscle; his playing has strength enough to pull the most disparate elements of the track together with a fat tone that long time fans will easily recognise. His playing, as always, has a very distinctive character, whilst echoing some of the finest Michael Rutherford moments from 1972. With busy melodies that are unafraid to take BBT’s prog sounds into a new direction, and some superb multi-tracked vocal elements given prominence, this number gives ‘Welcome To The Planet’ an early highlight. For many, the more pastoral sounds from the intro of ‘Lanterna’ will bring a very welcome return for some of BBT’s more reflective moods, with a strong acoustic base presenting a melody that has a bell-like clarity. Demonstrating gentle finger picked tones, these opening riffs are classic BBT with their strong (and unavoidable) influences from Ant Phillips. Musically, there are tiny flourishes from the classic Genesis LP ‘Trespass’, very much linking this as far back in BBT lore as ‘Goodbye To The Age of Steam’, but things soon take a more dramatic turn. Ushering in a heavier riff, the guitars then power forth with something that’s closer to melodic metal than typical prog, and yet their tough edge really suits Longdon’s voice. Throwing himself head first into a huge performance, David tells everyone of “the place where the land meets the shore”, “the spires” and “places for travellers”; his gentle narrative very much adding more vivid imagery to the BBT universe. For those well versed in ‘English Electric’ and beyond, the way his voice soars as he implores us to look to the sky has such a moving quality – an almost haunting beauty. If only for a few seconds, it becomes everything, so heartfelt and encompassing, that could easily be considered the pivotal moment of the whole six minutes. Eventually, the different aspects of the track come together, and huge harmonies, soaring lead guitars and a very percussive tambourine present some classic BBT sounds – every bit like a visit from an old friend.

A beautiful interlude, ‘Capitaline Venus’ features a classic Longdon vocal set against a very Ant Phillips inspired shimmering guitar. In a timeless case of less is more, the vocal carries everything, showing off one of prog’s finest talents, before ‘A Room With No Ceiling’ experiments with wandering bass and echoing sounds that almost feel as if they could drop into the intro from U2’s ‘Exit’ at any second. Teasing with even more unexpected styles, a jazz oriented riff then steers the band towards a brilliant jam dominated by the rhythm section, and understated groove really captures D’Virgilio’s essence as a musician. He’s a man who knows that what’s not played can be just as vital as being flashy. Eventually descending into a fuller arrangement, accordion-like sounds jostle against a groove-led bass, whilst Nick keeps the jazz-rock chops in full flow. Things are in danger of going “full Gentle Giant” but, thankfully, a collective ear for a strong melody wins through, and changing the mood, a light reggae rhythm suggests a love of early Police. In terms of instrumentals, this is terrific: it’s clever without sounding like pure muso wankery (Liquid Tension Experiment should take note), but still features enough mood changes and stylistic twists to please those demanding proggers. No matter which way you approach it, this stands as a satisfyingly full five minutes.

The album’s second half – thematically linked by songs regarding winter – leads off with another highlight. ‘Proper Jack Froster’ is archetypal BBT, both lyrically and musically. The track’s lyrical concerns reawaken many childhood memories and, in doing so, are particularly vivid throughout, with pictures painted of sledging, of friendships in sub zero temperatures and the small town pleasures they bring. Just as the band have been known for their striking lyrical imagery from a pastoral viewpoint, their gifts for making cold and potentially bleak landscapes seem incredibly inviting are just as effective. However, it’s the music that wins out here, since ‘Proper Jack Froster’ comes with an absolutely stunning – and surprisingly catchy – arrangement. A multi-layered and very rich melody grows from violin and ringing guitar, moving into a very Paul McCartney-esque rumpty tumpty rhythm driven by Spawton’s bass. He brings a hefty bottom end, but never masks the subtler parts of the arrangement which, by now, have grown to include some fantastic electric piano flourishes. The vocal melody moves between the busy bounce and a proggier mournfulness with ease, and although Longdon sounds a little scratchy at first, he very quickly reaches within himself for a deeper tone which works brilliantly against a selection of great harmonies for the bulk of the performance. Once a slower passage and violin return, there’s something at the heart of the song that’ll feel so much more familiar to lovers of the last couple of BBT long players, but this feels like so much more than a retread of past recordings. By the time the inevitable climax is reached, Longdon seems in particularly good voice as he calls out against a wall of harmonies, themselves sounding like a very welcome throwback to some of the biggest moments on the much loved ‘English Electric’ double set. There’s so much about ‘Proper Jack Froster’ that’s familiar, yet at the same time, it never suggests a band coasting. This is undoubtedly a track fans will love, but manages to accessible enough to potentially bring new people to the band.

In some ways, the album peaks there – ‘Proper Jack Froster’ is arguably one of the greatest songs to appear in the BBT catalogue to date – but the remaining trilogy of numbers add their own charm to an already superb disc. ‘Bats In The Belfry’ mixes more great prog tropes with jazz rhythms, opening like a finely tuned homage to classic Greenslade. The combination of deep keyboard grooves, mellotron drones and cinematic strings brings a very 70s prog sound into the present, before bright sounding brass and clanging guitar riffs do battle above more funky rhythms. Ushering in a rock edge, harder edged guitars drive a busy melody forward, before an interlude of soaring lead guitar and quirky keyboards add one final twist, when BBT blend taut drumming and bleeping sounds with great interest. At the point you might start to feel as if this arrangement has no way back, it stops dead, and without missing a beat, the band slides into ‘Oak & Stone’, another more “traditional” BBT melody, loaded with lavish harmonies. At the centre of everything, a very powerful vocal from David evokes a classic sound whilst understated piano and gently brushed drums draw the listener deep into a world of beautiful sadness. Fans will certainly hear echoes of the quieter parts of previous works, but there’s plenty about this late night torch ballad that takes BBT forward, and with a genuine ease. The instrumental part of the number is especially lovely, as mournful violin glides atop a jazzy piano – it’s hard not to be reminded of ‘We Ache For The Moon’ by Evoletah. Everything builds gradually, naturally, in a stately fashion, until a heartfelt melody pulls the best from the band’s vocals once more, whilst for the older progger, a darker tone from a mellotron adds something of a retro heart. In closing, the title track offers something uncharacteristically bombastic with its militaristic drums and brass punctuating a theatrical melody, and a dual male/female vocal very much casts the band in the mould of Nolan/Wakeman (only better). It’s great to hear new member Carly Bryant taking on such an important role, even if the slighter qualities of a soft, haunting melody make this less than immediate. However, those willing to spend the time will slowly uncover some pleasing flute melodies, slide guitar flourishes and more throughout. Despite focusing on a repeated refrain, the detached nature of the voices actually makes everything more about atmosphere than hooks, but a couple of very gentle nods to 70s Floyd, elements of 70s rock and – eventually, something derived from 30s jazz gives the arrangement plenty of interest as the album’s final bow. It definitely has the potential to be one of the most divisive pieces the band have recorded, but those who like it will love it.

‘Welcome To The Planet’ captures this new, vastly different line-up of Big Big Train in fine form throughout, both melodically and creatively. It really benefits from a semi-streamlined approach in terms of arrangements. Nothing here exceeds eight minutes, and several numbers sit comfortably within a four minute framework, allowing hooks to dominate over any obvious musical excess during its first half. Despite what some prog fans will have the world believe, longer doesn’t necessarily equal better, and that’s more than proved by BBT’s tightness and restraint here. This recording would have been a worthy successor to 2021’s ‘Common Ground’ even if it had arrived under ordinary circumstances, but the fact that its release comes just a couple of months after David Longdon was cruelly and prematurely taken from the world gives the material even more of a poignancy. Over the years, he’d really helped to shape BBT into a bigger, better band – as demonstrated by his presence on the live stage – but this is a genuinely lovely epitaph. Despite everything being coloured by a cloud of extreme sadness, this fourteenth offering from Spawton and company is everything most BBT fans could’ve wished for…and more.

January 2022

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