Review – Big Big Train – Wassail

Wassail

“Next to love, Music is the best solution to any problem. Music feeds the heart with what it needs in the moment…

Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

For those of us that feel music like we feel the blood in our veins, it is something we cannot live without. Music follows me on every journey I make, music accompanies my moods perfectly, be it happy, sad or just melancholy. I could not imagine my life without the joy of listening to music being core to it.

Like most people my life has been like a sine wave, peaks and troughs of highs and lows and I have learned to cope with the lows and appreciate the highs more and more because of the music that I listen to.

“I believe in music the way that some people believe in fairy tales.”

Four years ago I went through the darkest period in my life. I won’t go into it in any detail as that is not what I am writing about but, suffice to say, I looked deep into my own soul at times and didn’t like what I saw.

What kept me going through the sleepless nights, the broken heart and the soul searching was music, music to soothe my soul, music to lighten my mood and music to make my heart soar.

It was at this point that I took a real, deep seated interest in what has since become my favourite band, English progressive rock band Big Big Train. I had touched on ‘The Underfall Yard’ briefly before but it hadn’t immediately connected with me. By lucky happenstance I was listening to morow.com when they played ‘The First Rebreather’ from the band’s album ‘English Electric Pt1’ and the rest, as they say, is history!

Their unique take on traditional UK progressive rock, infused with historical traditions and a real heart of its own has always resonated with me since and the amazing ‘Curator of Butterflies’ from ‘English Electric Pt2’ picked me up when I was down and out so many times during that bitter and melancholy part of my life, it kept me sane.

Fast forward four years and the Progressive music scene is eagerly anticipating the release of the band’s new E.P. ‘Wassail’, yours truly maybe more than most…

We can’t have a Progradar review without some background to the band. Here I will make it short and sweet as, earlier this year, I did a potted history of the band.

BBTBand

Big Big Train were formed in 1990 by Andy Poole and Greg Spawton and have, up to date, released 9 full albums (if you include ‘English Electric – FullPower’) and, with the release of ‘Wassail’,three E.P.s. Over the last 25 years they have established a respected place on the UK progressive scene. They have honed their sound over the years to feature rich arrangements, a mix of electric and acoustic instruments and an amalgamation of influences from post-rock, folk, classical and pop.

After a few changes over the last quarter of a century, the band’s full line up now includes, in addition to Greg and Andy, David Longdon (vocals),Nick D’Virgilio (drums), Dave Gregory (guitar), Danny Manners (keyboards), Rikard Sjöblom (guitar,keyboards) and Rachel Hall (violin) and it will be this eight piece band which will play Big Big Train’s first live gigs in seventeen years at Kings Place in London in August this year.

In addition to ‘Wassail’, later this year, the band will be releasing a DVD/Blu-Ray of live performances filmed at Real World Studios last year entitled ‘Stone and Steel’ and have begun work on a new album called ‘Folklore’ which is scheduled for release in early 2016.

Talking about the new album ‘Folklore’, Greg Spawton said:

“We have written some songs with a London theme or setting. There are no plans for an album about London, but songs on the theme will appear on the next few releases. Folklore has a very broad definition and many of our new songs will include folklore elements (or will feature stories which we think may pass into folklore.) ‘Folklore’ doesn’t mean that we are embarking on a particularly folk-rock direction. We love folk music, and there will always be elements of folk in BBT music, but the title of the album is more about the subject of the songs, not so much the sound of them.”

Now onto ‘Wassail’……

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Wassail

“Apple tree, old apple tree. Bountiful we raise a glass to thee,
We sing our song, Stand fast, stand strong,
Bough and leaf bear fruit aplenty..”

Wassailing is a traditional ritual from the West of England, dating back to early medieval times, to wake the cider apple trees and scare away evil spirits by banging pots and pans and firing a shotgun overhead, thereby protecting the harvest later in the year. Much singing and drinking takes place as part of the ceremony……..

The first of the three new songs on the E.P. and the title track, Wassail begins with a dynamic guitar and flute combination, enhancing a feel of powerful folk infused progressive rock. When David Longdon’s eminently recognisable vocal kicks in it does so with that polished timbre that we have come to associate with this mercurial singer. The guitar, bass and drums are polished and immediately resonate with you. All the harmonies intertwine with Rachel’s charismatic violin and the mould is set for another exquisitely melodic and anthemic offering from this most iconically English of bands. The chorus and repeated chant of the title is powerful and catchy and I find myself singing it at the top of my voice as the keyboards swirl around catching your imagination. Yes, on this track, the band do seem to have definitively heavier folk leanings but temper it with a touch of the usual Big Big Train magic to deliver something that is recognisably an evolution of their trademark sound. The break in the middle of the track where the violin seems to plead with your senses and David’s voice holds a feel of longing and desire is as good as they come and heralds a superb instrumental section that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Potent, compelling and intense it should be an absolute winner in a live setting and the stylish close out to the track is quite sublime.

(Words and music by David Longdon)

Lost rivers of London small

Lost Rivers of London

“Lost rivers of London, long lost rivers of London
By the palace and the abbeys, by the lakes in the par
black waters rise from one hundred springs and wells.”

Beneath the streets and buildings of the capital, a number of ancient tributaries of the Thames have been buried. However, as writer Tom Bolton has said, it is hard to stop a river from flowing and the tributaries are still there running under the ground down to the Thames.

Another newly released track, Lost Rivers of London is an evolution of the band’s idyllic and singular ‘pastoral’ sound. The introduction is a collection of enchantingly played notes that dance lightly across your senses immediately invoking sepia tinged memories of unspoiled and picturesque days of yore. Immediately surrounding you in a protective cocoon, you are left to enjoy the musical delights to follow. The vocals are perfectly balanced, lilting and lulling, mesmerising you with their velvety smoothness, the harmonies quite bewitching in their brilliance. In places David’s voice soars up to the heights infused with a potent dynamism, it is the centre of this superb track around which everything else orbits. Just when you think the musical inventiveness has run its course, this talented band throw in another curve ball with some intricate guitar work and a jaunty medieval tinged flute note. I love the wah-wah pedal style of the guitar and the evocative keyboard notes, they add a real sense of fun to proceedings. For me, this is the best song on the E.P. and one of the best the band have done with superb musicianship and a vocalist at the height of his power, I am left open mouthed in admiration as it comes to its stylish close.

(Words and music by Greg Spawton)

Mudlarks

Mudlarks

Mudlarks were 19th century scavengers who eked a living from the sale of anything they could find in the mud of the River Thames at low tide. Modern-day mudlarks search the foreshores of the lost rivers that flow into the Thames, hoping to find traces of London’s history.

The third and final new track is an instrumental entitled Mudlarks which begins with a delicate piano and elegant keyboard, neatly joined by an articulate violin, the sound is very reminiscent of classic 70’s progressive rock with a modern touch as you catch little fillips of the flute dancing around in the background. There is a feel of something building as strident guitar, bass and drums join the throng, a quite jazz infused feel to the early parts of the track. It is here that Danny Manners’ talkative keyboards joust with Greg’s measured bass to add layers of sophistication. The whole song mesmerises and hypnotises as it rises higher and higher, the superb interaction between the two guitars of Dave and Rikard just roots you to the spot as they weave more and more complicated spirals around your psyche. Intricate yet immensely accessible and satisfying it comes to a rewarding conclusion that leaves you lost in thought.

(Music by Greg Spawton)

Wales - Castles - Flint Castle by William Turner

Master James of St. George

“Master James of St. George, of the fields and the sky.
He used to build castles of stone, steel and blood.
But lines get broken down.”

To finish the E.P. we are treated to a live version of Master James of St. George, first released in 2009 on the band’s 6th studio album ‘The Underfall Yard’. A firm favourite with fans from the start, this track is one that grows and grows from fairly humble beginnings before it takes over your whole being. That dainty little drum roll that has become instantly recognisable opens the track before the subtly meandering guitar entwines itself around the song. Enter Mr Longdon stage left with his lush vocal delivery raising and lowering as if wafted along on a cloud. There are subtle differences between this live version and the recorded track, as you’d expect. The strings are more pronounced and the vocal pairings have an added lustre to them. The soaring treatment of the verse is uplifting and takes your heart with it. I have always liked the way that this track seems to be founded on building blocks that have a real solidity yet it has an ethereal quality to the music in parts, especially on the elegant guitar runs. All in all just a delightful version of a song that was already well loved by the fans and this version just redefines its splendour.

This version of ‘Master James of St. George’ is a powerful performance recorded live at Real World Studios.

(Words and music by Greg Spawton)

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You can put your heroes on a pedestal to be knocked off when they don’t reach your lofty expectations but, with ‘Wassail’, Big Big Train have just enhanced their reputation as purveyors of unique and sublime progressive rock which is founded on the elemental history of this blessed isle. A history that is fundamental to the everlasting allure of this captivating group of musicians.

Order the CD version of the album and you get a brilliantly packaged CD with the striking artwork of Sarah Ewing which just adds to the whole experience.

Released on 1st June 2015

Buy Wassail CD from Burning Shed

Buy Wassail mp3 from bandcamp

Buy Wassail bundles at The Merch Desk

 

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