BIG BIG TRAIN – Ingenious Devices

Apart from the mighty Yes, few prog bands have a musical history as complicated as Big Big Train. Their 2023 incarnation features just one original member – band founder Gregory Spawton – but even bis role on board the prog rock locomotive has changed over the years. He’s transitioned from guitar based duties to playing bass and bass pedals, making him very much the anchor when it comes to live performance. The band weren’t always about performing in front of an audience, of course; for decades, they were notoriously gig-shy and it was only after the arrival of vocalist David Longdon in 2009 that BBT started to think very seriously about the possibility of returning to the stage.

Longdon’s arrival proved to be absolutely crucial. His confidence played an important role in making BBT live shows work, but he also brought a great deal to the band’s sound and song writing. It could be argued that he was the essential ingredient that took the band forward with a giant leap, taking them from being a cult act to eventually becoming one of the UK’s most loved prog bands. After years of hard graft, Big Big Train certainly deserved that recognition. With the band at the peak of their powers, tragedy struck in November 2021 when David passed away, casting uncertainty over the band’s long term future. The final Longdon recordings, released at the beginning of 2022 on the ‘Welcome To The Planet’ album, were some of Big Big Train’s very best to date. The proggy bits conveyed a 70s cool, albeit with some very warm and more modern production values; Greg’s bass came through the complex arrangements with a hefty sound, very much providing the heart of tracks like ‘Proper Jack Froster’, and Longdon’s vocals rarely sounded better. In fact, the whole band really excelled. In terms of drawing the band’s most successful period to an unfortunately premature close, fans couldn’t have wished for a better record.

With the band ready to move forward but still in something of a transitional phase, their 2023 release ‘Ingenious Devices’ takes stock of the past, but also gives a gentle hint of things to come. Opening the disc, a revisited ‘East Coast Racer’ provides a very strong opening gambit, since the original is so beloved by fans, any tinkering could invite criticism. However, any revisionism is slight, and always very tasteful. We’re not talking the levels of Kate Bush ruining ‘This Woman’s Work’ or ‘Rubberband Girl’ here; thankfully, it’s very respectful. Taking Longdon’s vocal from the original studio tapes, it automatically comes with a familiar core, and the vocal takes used are a touch cleaner sounding than those on the ‘English Electric’ recording, but those familiar with the original cut might also glean pleasure in hearing a much punchier drum sound during the track’s busier moments. This, too, brings a benefit for Spawton’s bass, now dancing in a taut manner beneath the aggressive, jagged riffs that occasionally arise, but also really making a presence felt beneath the more pastoral, floaty elements. The keys occasionally come through with a jazzy lilt that seems a little more obvious than before, but the true spirit of this fan favourite is more than retained. The biggest change comes at around the thirteen minute mark, when the once string led coda is beefed up with an absolutely superb solo from guitarist Dave Gregory. The solo was an important part of the live recording, but to hear it in studio clarity, and in close harmony with brass before everything falls away to reveal a thoughtful piano, makes the re-recording worthwhile.

A reworked ‘Brooklands’ is a little braver. With newly recorded drum and bass parts, there’s a much bigger separation between the instruments that’s noticeable from the off, and this has the effect of casting more attention on the keys, before some newly added strings dominate. With a full orchestra recorded at Abbey Road, it sort of becomes the BBT take on the 70s fashion for orchestra and rock band collaborations, and although there are a couple of overblown moments, the added grandness brings a once underrated tune a new lease of life. The huge riffs that are shared between bass, guitar and strings at around the six minute mark really show off the potential for symphonic prog, and less than a minute after that, the voluminous sound reaches peak, with the guitars almost taking a melodic metal stance to combat the strings. It’s genuinely great, and with what sounds like a brighter lead vocal mix, there’s a real joy to be had in hearing this with a little more oomph all round.

Bridging these revisitations comes a new piece entitled ‘The Book of Ingenious Devices’ which fills a couple of minutes with some mournful orchestration. The swelling strings and slow melody create the perfect bridge, and although it maybe wasn’t the intention, their heart string tugging tones have the potential to make make the listener think of love and loss, and the fleeting nature of mortality. Much like the previous rearranged epics, ‘Voyager’ also has moments where smaller details really come through in the re-recorded version. The original cut (from 2019’s ‘Grand Tour’ album) is a track loaded with fine harmony vocals and a typically Big Big Train rhythm – a slow, thoughtful, almost floaty melody centring around the bass and keys – but in some ways, with hindsight, it feels a little too typical. The 2023 recording addresses some of those safer elements by beefing up the brass when required, and also applies a slightly heavier sound to a few of the guitar parts for extra weight. As with the other recordings here, the general mood of the track holds firm; it now sounds a little tougher in a welcome way.

Rounding out this collection is a live recording of ‘Atlantic Cable’ featuring the band’s still new vocalist Alberto Bravin. Replacing talented band members is always difficult, but replacing a vocalist can be even harder. Taking on the vocalist’s role was never going to be easy, and naturally, it’ll take some fans a while to accept the change, but on this recording, Bravin sounds like a very good fit for the band. He never aims to recreate Longdon’s style – nor does he steam in with something that could be considered vocally unrecognisable. It’s obviously a delicate balance, but his voice is strong enough to cling on to its own character, and his warmer tones weave in and out of Greg’s basslines as if he’d been in the band for much longer. His friendly melodicism also shows how easily it can slide into a rockier voice if the louder sections of the music require him to do so. With a versatile voice that works just as well alone as it does when joining some trademark BBT harmonies, it certainly bodes well for the future.

Big Big Train’s future will be different, of course, but bands should never stagnate. In the meantime, ‘Ingenious Devices’ is home to some very strong music, with twists on familiar pieces that, in the main, are actually an improvement. It’s not really an album in its own right, but it’s more than a stopgap. With enough optimism applied to suggest Big Big Train are far from the end of their changeable journey, this is a welcome release that most fans will enjoy.

June 2023