“Transitions are a part of life, allowing for perpetual renewal. When you experience the end of one chapter, allow yourself to feel the emotions of loss and rebirth. A bud gives way to a new flower, which surrenders to the fruit, which gives rise to a seed, which yields a new sprout. Even as you ride the roller coaster, embrace the centred internal reference of the ever-present witness.” ~ David Simon
I’ve been a fan of Big Big Train since David Longdon first sang on their seminal album ‘The Underfall Yard’ in 2009 and they began that run of English pastoral progressive rock classics that continued with the two ‘English Electric’ volumes (released 2012 and 2013 respectively) and ‘Folklore’, released in 2016. In fact, I’ll never forget going to the launch of ‘Folklore’ at the Real World Studios in Box, Wiltshire, an amazing weekend of music and friendship that cemented my affection for this wonderful band.
The unexpected loss of David in late 2021 put a cloud over the band and their future but one that has gradually lifted with the announcement of Alberto Bravin as the new lead vocalist and the rebirth of the band has come full circle with the release of ‘The Likes Of Us’, Big Big Train’s fifteenth studio album. This new album is the internationally-based group’s first full collection of songs since David Longdon passed away. Besides marking the debut of new frontman Alberto, a former member of the Italian band Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM for short), it also heralds the beginning of a new relationship with the Sony Music imprint InsideOut, the group having self-released their music via a label called English Electric for almost two decades.
Since his appointment in the springtime of 2022, Bravin has become more than just a lead singer for Big Big Train. His name appears in the writing credits against five of the eight numbers featured on ‘The Likes Of Us’, and in a massive departure for the group Alberto also stepped up to co-mix the album along with the band’s longstanding engineer Rob Aubrey. Drummer Nick D’Virgillio and co-founding bassist Gregory Spawton had seen Bravin performing with PFM several years ago. Aware that the affable Italian seemed potentially to have the voice to make things work within the context of BBT, Spawton noted his name for his own possible future solo project. However, amid the process of his appointment, little or no discussion took place over what else Alberto might bring to the table beyond the fact that he also played keyboards and guitar.
“I reached out to Alberto purely as a vocalist, not as a songwriter or a friend, but he has become all of those things,” Spawton comments. “I always need somebody to bounce ideas off, and for the second time in my life, after David, I have another musical companion. Finding Alberto, who pays respect to the band’s traditions but also brings his own ideas and amazing energy, has been a miracle. I’m incredibly blessed.”
“I had no idea whether or not the guys would be interested in the other things that I felt I was capable of doing,” Bravin adds. “But luckily they did, and everything has progressed so naturally. Like Greg, I too have sought a musical partner all my life. I’m proud of the two albums I did with my previous band [PFM] and write a lot, but I’ve never had the opportunity to do something like this. Together with this extraordinary group of people I think we have made a beautiful album.”
“Initially, I wasn’t sure whether carrying on [after Longdon’s passing] was the right thing to do, though David and I knew each other so well that we did actually have a conversation during which he told me that should anything happen to him, the band had to continue,” Spawton relates sadly. “BBT was a big part of David’s musical life and it was his wish that the songs he wrote should continue to be heard. We will never forget David; it goes without saying that he is a big part of our story.
“But,” he continues, “had Alby been even only a little bit different [from Longdon] then I’m not sure that it would have been possible. It just might not have worked.”
“Step up to the mark, Make the most, Of the light, Left in the day.”
It’s a magical moment for me as the delicate vocal begins to open Light Left In The Day, a mainly instrumental album opener that sees the every so classy brass section join in as the music gently washes over you. The calm of the opening then gives way to symphonic crescendo of guitar, keys, drums and bass along with brass flourishes as we are treated to an utterly uplifting piece of music that is definitively Big Big Train at their absolute magnificent best. Honestly, tears of emotion threatened to overwhelm me at what I was listening to, the repeated keyboard motif, what an utterly marvellous way to open the album.
“Life was never easy, Walking uphill, Turning his cheek, It became his best skill, Was it something he said, Or could have done? Fade into oblivion.”
Oblivion is a powerful statement of musical intent, the bombastic opening with a crushing guitar riff, thunderous drums and Greg’s stylish bass knocks you off your feet and then Alberto’s vocal begins, this man can really sing, he has a distinctive vocal style of his own but, somewhere in the back of your mind, you feel a little bit of David Longdon’s emphasis in his delivery, a smile and a nod to carrying the torch onward. Then it’s gone, just a fleeting moment, the harmonised chorus is a delight and the fantastic musicianship is all that is good about this band, Dave Foster’s guitar work is intricate and yet dynamic at the same time, this is a song that shows a group of highly talented musicians in perfect harmony and they deliver a track that is potent and moving at the same time.
“On the streets far below, Car lights dance as workers journey home, One last time we sat alone, Words unsaid remain unspoken.”
Victorian Brickwork, The Underfall Yard, East Coast Racer, Curator Of Butterflies, Brooklands, these are all song titles that every BBT fan will instantly recognise, classic epics which the band have become synonymous with and which always bring the house down when played live. You can now add Beneath The Masts to that list, a song cast in BBT’s time-honoured storytelling style. Greg was born in Sutton Coldfield, in the midlands of the UK, and close to where he grew up there exist two huge radio masts.
“For the best part of my youth they were there, lights blinking on and off, to the backdrop of my early formative years,” he explains. In later years the bassist moved to the south coast of England, and it wasn’t until returning to the area of his childhood that the subject of the two masts returned to his consciousness.
“That visit, to see my beloved stepfather who was suffering from a terminal illness, triggered the song,” Spawton explains. “The hospice in which he was being treated was between those masts. Being tethered to the ground, I realised they are symbolic of my Midlands roots,” he continues. “It’s a sad song but it has a surprisingly upbeat ending that reminds us we are always part of a bigger whole.”
It’s a wonderful seventeen minutes plus of wistful, sepia-tinged nostalgic storytelling that instantly draws you into Greg’s world, the tender music and Alberto’s softly emotive vocal just add drama to the song. Clare Lindley really gets to shine on this track, her violin playing is utterly sublime but then again, every single one of these musicians is adding their own skill to the complete whole. As in the best BBT epics, the song builds slowly, adding layers of musicality all the time. This isn’t just music, it is art, there is huge skill involved in creating something as good as this, adding wonder for the listener, taking you on a fantastic musical journey with every twist and turn. I hope Alberto Bravin doesn’t mind me saying this but, while not sounding directly like David Longdon, his vocal performance here really does bring back to mind that incredible vocalist and also conflicting emotions but it is happiness that wins over the sadness and I’m sure David would be really proud of Alberto. Again, Dave Foster delivers some incendiary guitar playing and the brass section send shivers down your spine once more. Greg’s stylish bass playing, Nick’s dynamic drumming, Oskar Holldorf and Rikard Söjblom both adding keys and more emotive guitar, it’s all there and, as this quite wonderful piece of music comes to a close, I don’t mind admitting that there is a tear in my eye, bravo to you all!
“It’s time to get your skates on, We’re only here for so long, Time to get your skates on, We’re here and then gone.”
Harking back to the band’s pastoral progressive roots, Skates On seems to be telling us to make the most of our lives, it’s a more acoustic number that skips along quite lightly and with a nod to the classic middle England days of the 20’s and 30’s. Uplifting vocals and music that has a definite deftness and lighter touch combine to deliver something quite contemplative and reflective, “Make those memories, Live your dreams, We’re just a flare on a lens, The house will still be dusty, When the kids have flown, When you are gone…”
“Far away from all they have known, They will dream of home, There at the edge of a distant land, New walls rise on old stone.”
Alberto had a storytelling idea of his own, rooted in his own childhood. All he sought was help in bringing it to life. When the singer raised the subject of Miramare, a 19th century castle in Spain that had been built by the order of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian and his wife Carlotta of Belgium, a lightbulb went off in Greg’s head. He bought three giant books on the subject of the castle’s former residents to transform Alberto’s musical sketch into a full-blown musical novel. More than ten minutes in duration, Miramare marked the first significant collaboration between the pair, setting the bar at an astonishing level for the album that followed.
“It’s like a Shakespearean tragedy, with madness involved, and he [Maximilian] ends up before a firing squad,” Spawton states. “Alberto handed me the story on a plate.”
Telling stories is how music really started, troubadours singing tales around campfires, that’s how news passed from remote village to remote village and that’s at the heart of everything that Big Big Train create. When it is done as well as this then it is something quite remarkable to behold and the songwriting skill has to be applauded. Miramare is like a glorious ten minute audiobook set to music and you are drawn deep into this compelling and tragic tale as Alberto’s voice dominates proceedings, almost hypnotic in its timbre and delivery and the music is just exquisite, Clare’s violin imbuing some of the heartfelt passion that the story invokes. The highs and lows are superbly created and the crescendos reached are irresistible, Greg has really found another songwriting soul mate in Alberto and the partnership promises so much to come, musical storytelling really doesn’t get much better than this.
“Love is the light, Hiding in the corner of my eye, Love is your smile.”
I doubt you will hear a piece of music quite as beautiful as Love Is The Light this year, or any other come to mind. Poignant and heartfelt from the start, as Clare’s yearning violin plays, it’s a song that majors on Alberto’s gracefully profound vocals and the utterly mesmerising brass section, led once again by Dave Desmond. Ethereal and exquisite from start to finish, you find yourself lost in the moment, rooted to the spot, as the world carries on without you. This stunning song then reaches new heights with an incredibly moving, soulful guitar solo, one of those moments in an album that you will always cherish.
“One day we rode out, Side by side, For the last time, Nobody there, Knew we’d not, Ride together again.”
My whole body shivers as if someone has walked over my grave, Alberto’s vocal at the start of Bookmarks is a dead ringer for David’s, it’s uncanny and memories come flooding back. Another song that harks back to the future with a feel of classic BBT and the English pastoral prog they are so well known for. Initially, quite a subtle and subdued piece of music where keyboards, mellotron and vocal are all that is required to create a hushed, almost mesmeric, atmosphere. When the music builds, it does so carefully, still relying on the elegant, harmonised vocals to be centric to everything. A nostalgic, wistful track that flows serenely along with the accompaniment of the graceful guitars and violin.
“Shallow enders, Last eleven, Are we nearly there yet?, Can the likes of us, Find a place to call our own?”
None of the album’s eight songs were worked on with David Longdon. Although originally intended for an album entitled ‘Shallow Enders’ that never came to fruition, Last Eleven, the first song heard with Alberto’s voice, was written during the lifetime of his predecessor. An urgent guitar opens the song, there is feel of movement and pace about the music and Alberto’s high energy vocal delivery and Nick’s drumming is animated and spirited. An ode to the ones that make up the numbers, the oversights and the extras, it’s a track full of hope and optimism and that can be felt through the music and its catchy, infectious rhythm. A really uplifting and upbeat way to close out the album and one that leaves you almost breathless but full of confidence and belief, “Shallow enders, Last eleven, Are we nearly there yet? Can the likes of us, Find a place to call our own?”
What an emotional rollercoaster, I have spent the last four weeks listening to ‘The Likes Of Us’ at every opportunity. In the best tradition of Big Big Train albums of the past, it is not merely a collection of songs, it is a musical masterpiece that becomes part of your life and, for me, that means this album stands tall with the likes of ‘The Underfall Yard’ and English Electric’ 1 & 2. I know it is early in the year but it is going to take something incredibly special to topple this off the top of album of the year list and, for a long time fan of the band, that fills me with joy and makes me very happy indeed!
Released 1st March, 2024.
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