Progradar – 2016 – Best of the First Six Months

David

(Yours truly and Prog Guru™ himself)

Welcome ladies and gentlemen to the first official Progradar Reviewers and Friends ‘Best Of…’ feature.

I asked those who wished to contribute to cogitate over what great music they had heard, released 1st January to 30th June, in the first half of 2016 and come up with a list of their definitive five favourites.

Not an easy task, let me tell you but, here are the selections of nine (including me) erstwhile wordsmiths and friends, including a few words as to why these particular releases made the cut.

Emma

Emma Roebuck (Progradar reviewer)

Cover 2

Cosmograf – The Unreasonable Silence

This is Robin Armstrong on some amazing form.  I loved ‘Capacitor’ and I thought ‘Man Left in Space’ was a hard one to beat. I was clearly wrong and happy about it too. Robin is at his best when looking at the human condition when viewed through a less than regular lens. The mythology of Sisyphus and alien abduction combine to make such a lens.  I will treasure seeing his one and only live performance so far at Celebr8.3 fondly. The album is dark and melancholy which is the way I like my music to be honest.

This film might change your life and Relativity being high points in an album that is a mountain range of achievement.

Aftermath

Preacher – Aftermath

Their second album, and independently released like the Cosmograf album (and another 2 in my, selection if I remember rightly.) Preacher craft both songs and albums exceedingly well. ‘Signals’, the previous album, shows signs (poor, but unintentional, pun) of a band with tons to offer. They draw their roots from 70s Floyd and the melodic side of the genre.  It could be said that this is the album that Floyd should have released instead of ‘The Endless River’, I could easily agree but this is not that Floyd this is a band that use melody, harmony and song in a way that could go beyond the genre.

Stand out Tracks

War/ War reprise and Vinyl show how we look to emotions and actions and make things or deeds of them as people.

Cover

Drifting Sun – Safe Asylum

I was too young to be really aware of the genuine impact of the classic period of Prog rock. I caught the periphery in my early teens but felt no ownership of Yes, Genesis, VDGG, Floyd, Gentle Giant, etc only a serious attraction to the music as a 14 year old in 1975. In the early 80s, having ridden the horror that was punk, I remember seeing Marillion, IQ and Pallas in small pubs and clubs in 82 and it was a pure emotional and intellectual epiphany. It felt like I was hit in the heart and the brain with a piece of 2 by 4. I found home and ownership of music.  I liked ‘Trip the Light Fantastic’ immensely and when I heard this album I felt all those emotions again. I was in the Sheffield Limit club again hearing something of very high quality and I connected immediately to this music. It is Neo Prog of a very high standard.  They sound like themselves with echoes of the last 40 years resounding through the music.

Standout Tracks Intruder and DesolationRetribution.

Jump Over The Top Cover

Jump – Over The Top

I have been a fan of Jump for the best part of 21 years. It is the Classic rock society that I owe big style, not just for these but many others, in times of musical desolation.  I found my first sample of these by old school recognition and recommendation by word of mouth. Fast forward to many Jump gigs later, the new album ‘Over the Top’ comes out and it was ‘yes, get in!’. Some of the current live set had been used to fine tune some of the songs over the last 18 months or so and it shows. John Dexter Jones is a storyteller par excellence and the band are an excellent vehicle for those stories. The words are heartfelt and the music comes from the same place. If they lived in medieval times they would be the bards of old. The use of the past to illustrate the way of the world we live in now is the stock in trade here.

Stand out tracks, I want to say all of them but if I was to choose The Beach and the Wreck of the St Marie are those choices.

Cover-500K

Kiama – Sign of IV

Just when you think you have Rob Reed figured out, Sanctuary, Magenta and so on, he does something out of the blue and blows the socks of you. Take good old rock sensibilities from the 60s and 70s, put them in the hands of some very talented individuals and they become a band which sounds like they have been a unit for years. I recently saw them support Frost* and wow, just wow.

This is a hybrid, musically drawn from the past in a very real sense, and is a homage to how they used to work but it does not feel like a tribute band in anyway.  It results in a multifaceted album of light and shade with some fantastic songs and heartfelt lyrics. It is some of Luke Machin’s best work outside of Maschine & Rubidium.  Rob Reed has a blast playing with sound and tone to create things like ‘Muzzled’, which is a tribute to the Floyd Album ‘Animals’, using the tones from the period to reflect the music and the time it came out. Dylans voice is amazing, we need more Kiama …

Stand Out Tracks  Muzzled and Slip away.

Leo2

Leo Trimming – (Progradar and TPA reviewer)

Tales From The Bookcase Cover

Red Bazar – Tales From The Bookcase

This was my TPA’s review’s conclusion early in the year for this surprise package, and I’ve had no reason to change it since…

This is an excellent collaboration: Red Bazar have helped Peter Jones express more of his serious, darker side and also allowed him to display more vocal dexterity. In return Red Bazar have gained a talented and very fine rock vocalist who has added great lyrical skill and vocal feeling  to their own fine emotional musical palette…

This may be a bit of a dark horse, but Red Bazar may just have released one of the Prog albums of the year.

All Our Yesterdays cover

Matthew Parmenter – All Our Yesterdays

A favourite on two levels – it’s a great album of subtle artistry and fine music, and on another level the artist & his music  touched me personally. My Progradar review concluded:

Matthew Parmenter has stepped aside from the magnificent, gothic group dynamic of Discipline to create a solo work of art suffused with dramatic shades and emotional lyricism, conveying tragedy and hope. This is an album that is likely to captivate and beguile with subtlety and delicate emotion. It certainly gave me unexpected comfort – Inside.’

BEM023 cover

Nine Stones Close – Leaves

A darkly trippy and psychedelic album. Part dream, part nightmare – this is an album for which repeated listens gradually unpeal the layers, like all the best progressive releases. My Progradar review observed:

Nine Stones Close create rich musical landscapes suffused with a sense of the dramatic and psychedelic… They do not stick to their old formula and want to progress. My advice is stick with these guys because you are never quite sure in which direction their songs or this albums may turn, but it sure is an imaginative and fascinating ride!’

Cover

Big Big Train – Folklore

A much anticipated release does not disappoint as the album describes modern folklore, ancient legend, elegies for lost love and epic stories of heroism and loss … plus bees (!) in a rich tapestry of folk tinged progressive rock. Lyrically intelligent and insightful, conveyed with integrity and emotion, and played with consummate skill and passion. Impossible to ignore – we all sort of knew it would be great. Of course it’s great!

Cover 2

Cosmograf – The Unreasonable Silence

Simply stunning. Robin Armstrong has imagined a rich narrative of alien incursion (or paranoid breakdown?!) with sonic brilliance. The imaginative story is unnerving, whilst the music is captivating on a human level but cinematic in scope – ranging from crunching Purple riffs, through atmospheric acoustic passages to sweeping Floydian soundscapes. Undoubtedly, major contender for Album of the Year already from one of the best Progressive Rock artists of this generation.

Gary

Gary Morley – (Progradar reviewer)

HAWKWIND The Machine Stops

Hawkwind – The Machine Stops

Everything that Hawkwind evoke distilled into one disc. Great musicianship, tunes and tons of atmosphere make this the top of the pops for me. It’s been a long time since a Hawkwind album had such a buzz about it. Biggest regret – that I missed the live shows. Biggest hope – a proper live blu-ray & CD set is coming.

Aftermath

Preacher – Aftermath

Prog at it’s best for me needs a driver. Preacher use guitars. Proper guitars like your dad waffles on about when he talks about Pink Floyd, Steve Hillage, Jimmy Page and that time he watched Rory Gallagher play for 3 hours at the Hexagon Theatre and your mum was drinking pints and ended up paralytic, singing along to “Wayward Child” sat on his boss’s shoulders…

cover

I Am The Manic Whale – Everything Beautiful In Time

Local boy’s debut embraces everything that is good about music. It has great tunes, off the wall lyrics and subjects that place it head and shoulders above most of what passes for modern music from the under 30’s. I’m looking forward to their next offering, be it a live gig in Reading or more music.

cover-1

Gandalf’s Fist – The Clockwork Fable

‘The Clockwork Fable’ is a Steam punk opera, like a space opera or a soap opera but without the bad romance and dodgy backdrops.

I loved the variety of musical genres used to tell a totally bonkers tale of clockwork suns and steam powered boys looking for missing cogs in a giant machine all played out in a cavernous underground city. There are rock tracks, some great drumming, some “epic” prog , some plaintive melodies and a host of guest vocalists and musicians, all of which add to the mix without overegging the lily.

The first time you listen you get sucked into the world presented here. It’s a Post apocalyptic, dark dystopian world but there are flashes of humour and the absurdity does not detract from the sheer brilliance of the effort here.

Cover

Steven Wilson – 4 1/2

“left over’s” from ‘Hand .Cannot .Erase’ these track might have been, but as a snapshot of Mr Chuckletrousers ( © Angus Prune I Think) and his Zeus like stature in the modern Prog pantheon  this is sublime in its perfection. Hints of Zappa referencing impossible “stun guitar”, epic soundscape that demonstrate his skill as an arranger and bleak yet beautiful lyrics are all wrapped in a package that sticks 2 fingers up at the download and go generation. This is a quality production in every detail, lovingly constructed and presented for your pleasure.

Shawn Dudley

Shawn Dudley – (Progradar reviewer)

Press_cover

Messenger – Threnodies

It took several spins for this album to truly work its magic on me, but once hooked it just won’t let me go.  A beautifully organic record, informed and powered by vintage sounds but not a slave to them.  The tastefully arranged guitar work on this album is a particular highlight.  Favorite tracks:  Balearic Blue, Celestial Spheres. 

Press_cover

Haken – Affinity

Haken leaves the 1970s sounds of ‘The Mountain’ behind, makes a brief stop in the 1980s for the song 1985 and then ventures forward into the future on Affinity.  An endlessly inventive collection of intricately designed and passionately performed pieces it’s one of the most thrillingly forward-looking albums of 2016.  It’s time to drop the “Prog Metal” genre tag, these guys have transcended it.  Favorite tracks:  The Architect, Red Giant

purson-desires-magic-theatre-cover

Purson – Desire’s Magic Theatre

Purson’s follow-up to ‘The Circle And The Blue Door’ is essentially a solo album from Rosalie Cunningham who wrote, arranged, produced and performed the majority of D.M.T. herself.   A conceptual psychedelic journey influenced by her Father’s record collection and her own experimentation with mind-expanding substances.  Another case of an artist using the canvas of vintage instrumentation and production techniques to create very personal and unique modern music.   Favorite tracks:  The Sky Parade, The Bitter Suite.

Cover

Big Big Train Folklore

Another beautiful collection of immaculately arranged and produced “pastoral prog” from this master collective of musicians.  I recommend going for the extended track-list available on the LP and High-Res download editions, I believe an even stronger collection than the shorter CD version.  Favorite tracks:  Salisbury Giant, London Plane

Print

Knifeworld – Bottled Out OF Eden

A wonderfully quirky concoction of pop sensibility, progressive experimentation and the harmonic sophistication of jazz all mixed together into a thoroughly accessible brew.  And it’s fun!  Favorite tracks:  I Am Lost, I Must Set Fire To Your Portrait.

Roger

Roger Trenwith – (TPA reviewer and Astounded by Sound blog)

cover low

Bent Knee – Say So

An unparalleled triumph of invention, melody, and strangeitude, it will take some beating for album of the year.

cover

David Bowie – Blackstar

Hardly seems right relegating this poignant artistic statement and full stop on a career of a true visionary to No.2, but from a purely musical point of view, them’s the breaks.

Print

Knifeworld – Bottled Out OF Eden

A chronicle of loss leavened by hope, Knifeworld get better with each release. Criminally underrated.

cover

Body English – Stories of Earth

Is there a sub-genre called “prog-pop”? If not, this is it. A truly joyous record shining a light in this dark Year of Stupid.

KCr

King Crimson – Live In Toronto – Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Toronto, Canada, 20th November 2015

Whatever I put here means leaving out at least half a dozen albums equally as good, so this came out on top after a complicated mathematical randomisation process involving dice, incantations, dead frogs, toads, and copious amounts of single malt. The mighty Crim remake, remodel like no-one else. The version of Epitaph will make you shiver, unless you have no soul. Superb!

Kev

Kevin Thompson (LHS) – (Progradar reviewer)

Cover

Big Big Train – Folklore

Does this really need a reason?, best of the Band’s excellent output so far and an album that will always be on my desert island disc list. As near to perfect as it gets…

Press_cover

Long Distance Calling – Trips

There are so many bands in this area of music it’s hard to stand out, but, on this release, Long Distance Calling have…..

cover-1

Gandalf’s Fist – The Clockwork Fable

A tremendous 3 disc concept package of such quality. Never been better value for money and shames the bigger bands!!

cover

Iamthemorning – Lighthouse

A delicately beautiful album from this Russian duo added further poignancy with the heartfelt vocals from Mariusz Duda on the title track.

Cover Album low res

Downriver Dead Men Go – Tides

Another band who came recommended and I’d not heard before buying. Slow, dark and emotional, this Dutch band surpassed my expectations.

David

David Elliott – (Prog Guru™, TEP, Bad Elephant)

Cover

Lazuli – Nos Âmes Saoules

There is nothing else quite like them, and they keep on going from strength to strength….

cover low

Bent Knee – Say So

My first exposure to this amazing American band…genuine innovators, and hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck exciting!!

Cover

The Dowling Poole – One, Hyde Park

Unashamedly unoriginal, but huge fun, and immaculately crafted. Big smiley music.

Print

Knifeworld – Bottled Out Of Eden

Banging tunes, a great groove, and more bassoon!!

Press_Cover_01

Frost* – Falling Satellites

A great return to the arena from the masters of modern progressive. Progressive rock with pop sensibilities – what’s not to like?

John Simms

John Simms – (Progradar reviewer, Rev Sky Pilot blog)

Cover

Big Big train – Folklore

Consistently turning out excellent pastoral English progressive music, BBT have hit the motherlode again with this suite of songs celebrating the British folkloric tradition. From the sublime beauty of ‘Transit’ to the quirky tale of ‘Winkie’ the Pigeon, this is music of the highest calibre.

IoK cover

Anderson/Stolt – Invention of Knowledge

This, for me, is simply the best music anyone connected with Yes has produced since ‘Awaken’. It draws on the bestaspects of Yes and Flower Kings and produces something sublime and beautiful. It was a very close call between my Top 2.

cover

Southern Empire – Southern Empire

One of the up sides to Unitopia folding a few years ago is that we now have both UPF and Southern Empire to carry on the legacy. This is a fine collection of melodic progressive rock music, exhibiting high levels of virtuosity and songmanship.

Print

Knifeworld – Bottled Out of Eden

Another band with a unique style and approach to music making. This is a wonderful follow-up to ‘The Unravelling’ and Kavus and his band of minstrels continue to delight.

BEM021 album cover

Mothertongue – Unsongs

The best music is that which stands out from the crowd, and Mothertongue certainly do that. Ecclectic, bizarre, unexpected and bonkers, this is a wonderful collection of (un)songs.

Hutch

And finally my thoughts, this selection of five albums was incredibly difficult to pick but I’m pretty certain that, at this moment in time, it is my definitive top five!!!

BEM021 album cover

Mothertongue – Unsongs

With its incisive, intelligent lyrics and first-class musicianship, Unsongs is unlike anything you will have heard in recent years. The music will lead you on a roller-coaster journey of acid jazz inventiveness that’s a big heap of noisy and light and also includes a lot of brass because everyone likes brass, right? A musical breath of fresh air that you will return to again and again, it’s just brilliant!

Cover

Big Big Train – Folklore

The acknowledged masters of pastoral progressive rock and intelligent and incisive storytelling return with a fresh collection of tales gleaned from our heritage and history. With their penchant for heartfelt lyrics and beautiful music it is an involving and mesmerising journey that everyone should take at least once in their life.

Cover 2

Cosmograf – The Unreasonable Silence

Thought provoking, questioning and inventive, ‘The Unreasonable Silence’ has all that I ask for in my music. A well constructed and intelligent concept brought to reality by a gifted musician with incomparable support from some incredible guests. It makes you really think about what you have heard and, above all, is a peerless, outstanding and incomparable listening experience that you will not forget any time soon.

cover

Iamthemorning – Lighthouse

‘Lighthouse’ is an amazing musical journey from the first note to the last. It is bewitching and beguiling and removes you from your everyday life to a place of wonder. Darkly captivating, it is not all sweetness and light but is a musical legacy that iamthemorning can build on and the ‘Lighthouse’ can light the way. These two exceptional artists have now moved into the major leagues and it is well deserved, album of the year? why not!

Tilt Album

Tilt – Hinterland

A superb album by a cast of very accomplished musicians. Brilliant vocals, burning guitar solos, a thunderous rhythm section and songwriting of the highest quality combine to deliver one kick ass release that I keep returning to again and again. By the way, three of these guys are better known as Fish’s backing band but, oh my god, have they risen well above that soubriquet now….

So, there you have it, a small selection of our own, very subjective, opinions on what has been the best music of a highly impressive first six months of 2016. You may agree, you may not but, one thing that everything agrees on is that the music just keeps getting better, and long may it continue!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Progradar Big Big Train Feature Part 1 – Review – Stone & Steel – by Progradar

stone_and_steel_web

There’s a place inside us where we can still be that small child who was in awe of every new experience, every sight and every sound. You know that unfettered feeling of sheer joy when you happen upon a picture book scene that is near perfect. Living in Yorkshire, I get to see and appreciate these virtually every day and they still fill me with a sense of wonder, life’s shackles thrown off momentarily by the sheer beauty of nature.

To be honest, we need these moments of purity and astoundment to counter the wear and tear of everyday life, to stop us being ground down by what can become a normality of drudgery and boredom, a very grey day indeed!

For me, music can often release that inner child and leave me enjoying the purity of something that is intended for you to enjoy and make your very life a better place to be. I have found that, as I get older, music touches me with more and more intensity and really has become my raison d’être and why I will happily get out of bed in the morning to face every new day as a fresh challenge to be enjoyed and overcome.

My copy 1

I’ve been a big fan of Big Big Train for a while now and a self-acknowledged ‘passenger’ along with many other fans of this great English progressive rock band.

After the undoubted success of ‘The Underfall Yard’ and the ‘English Electric’ albums (Parts 1& 2 and then ‘Full Power’) the band decided that the time was right to take to the stage for live performances again.

Unsure how easy it would be to do justice to the band’s recordings on stage, Big Big Train’s now established line up of David Longdon, Greg Spawton, Andy Poole, Danny Manners, Dave Gregory, Nick D’Virgilio, Rachel Hall and Rikard Sjöblom decided to try out live renditions of their songs in a controlled environment.

The wonderful surroundings of Peter Gabriel’s converted water mill, Real World Studios is where the recording took place and, to add even more lustre and brilliance to the event, the five piece brass ensemble that featured on both ‘The Underfall Yard’ and ‘English Electric’ albums was included.

Real World website

Recorded in August 2014 ‘Stone & Steel’ (the title referencing both the band’s lyrical themes of English landscape and history, and the very fabric of Real World Studios itself) documents the weeks rehearsals and the band’s transition from studio to stage.

Set up

‘Stone and Steel’ features performances of nine songs recorded live at the Real World sessions and four songs recorded live at the band’s London gigs in August 2015 alongside interview and documentary footage. All live performances are presented in 5.1 and stereo.

I’m not one known for staying power when it comes to watching music DVDs, I tend to dip in and out again but I sat through the whole three hours (including bonus material) in one sitting and loved every single minute of it, that inner child was transfixed by the moment and the spectacle.

In fact, the day I got home and saw that ‘Stone & Steel’ had been delivered, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the quality and design of the Blu-Ray packaging along with the glossy 64 page booklet with some fantastic pictures of the Real World sessions and the live concerts at King’s Place (although my head is obscured by the much more interesting features of the lovely Rachel Hall).

Honestly, like a kid with a new toy, I couldn’t wait to get in in the player and press ‘play’ for the first time……

Band at real world

As with all things BBT, ‘Stone & Steel’ was never going to be a mere performance blu-ray, you always get more than you expect from these guys and the excellent documentary style pieces that intersperse the music are a proper insight into the band and the whole Real World recording experience.

The opening introductory video of the band members arriving and setting up is really interesting as is Greg’s reluctance to be in front of the camera, not that he has much choice in the end!

Having been lucky enough to have been invited to the ‘Folklore’ album launch (more about that and a review of the new album in the next installment…) I get even more of a shiver up my spine as they set up for recording in the ‘Big Room’ and we see David Longdon arriving at reception, I’ve been there!!

We see the unveiling of a work of art, David’s B4 joke (it’s funny, honest!) and you begin to feel part of the whole process, received into the welcoming bosom of the band as a participant in something special.

These interludes, despite being an enjoyable and  definitive part of the whole experience, are mere introductory pieces to the main event, the actual musical performances.

playing live

The ‘live’ renditions of songs that are extremely familiar to all fans, like members of our own family, are something quite special. From the true story of a man called Alexander Lambert who dived heroically into the flooded Severn Tunnel in 1880, the wonderful The First Rebreather, through the spine tingling version of Master James of St. George with its delightfully intricate vocal melodies, to the rollicking toe-tapping tale of forger Tom Keating that is Judas Unrepentant, I was kept rapt in attention to this masters of their musical art.

Normally I like to absorb music while I am doing something else, almost a process of aural osmosis if you like but, this time, I just sat on the settee and turned up the volume to feel like I was actually there in the studio. This feeling of integration is only enhanced by the rather whimsical delivery of perennial fan favourite Uncle Jack. Performed acoustically in the ‘Wood Room’ at Real World it has a folk meets hillbilly feel and I love its childlike and carefree feel. Dipping out of material garnered from ‘The Underfall Yard’ and ‘English Electric’, we are treated to a rather enchanting & pared-back rendering of Wind Distorted Pioneers from ‘Goodbye To The Age of Steam’, one that takes you away to another place of calm serenity.

Then the lump in the throat nostalgia of Summoned By Bells takes you on a meandering and emotive journey of yesteryear. A song inspired by Greg’s memories of his mother and “the golden thread of continuity running down from the past.”  There then follows a haunting version of Kingmaker, a track that originally appeared on their 1992 demo album, ‘The Infant Hercules’. I’d heard this before, a reworked version appeared on the import and iTunes version of the ‘Far Skies Deep Time’ EP released in August 2011, but this interpretation is utterly spellbinding.

There’s no doubting that Big Big Train’s studio albums are works of art in themselves but, to see and hear these singular musicians actually performing them in a live situation, controlled or not, makes you feel quite privileged.

To close out the Real World recordings we are treated to two of the band’s seminal works, both from, possibly, their most venerated piece of work ‘The Underfall Yard’. Here the brass band really come to the fore on this recording, on both the title track and the electrifying brilliance of Victorian Brickwork, these musicians add to the band to give something just, well, utterly astounding. The hairs on the back of my neck rise as soon as I hear the first strains of the brass, something that has become definitely synonymous with Big Big Train now.

There’s over thirty minutes of music spread over these two masterpieces and not a note is wasted. Almost hypnotic in their delivery in this unique setting, it really is a musical experience like no other, you sit rapt, your attention focused on the performers in front of you on the TV set. There is no disappointment just a phenomenal performance of two of the band’s finest songs and, as the final notes of Victorian Brickwork play out, I am reminded of why I love music and why this band attract such devotion from their fans.

back cover

But it doesn’t end there, oh not by a long shot! I was also a lucky blighter who was able to attend one of the Kings Place concerts in August 2015 and, as a very welcome addition to the blu-ray package, we are treated to four tracks from those remarkable performances.

Kings Place

(That’s me, right behind Rachel’s right shoulder, I know, you can’t see me!)

From the edgy, sing-a-long high energy of Wassail, through the tear inducing wistful beauty of Curator of Butterflies and the achingly poignant brass enhanced sentimentality of Victorian Brickwork right to the grand finale of East Coast Racer, it was an unforgettable experience and one that I will never forget as I was present at one of those eagerly anticipated shows.

The stunning memories that come flooding back can almost threaten to overwhelm you, such is their severity. I said at the time that it was a life affirming weekend and I stand by that now, even as I cringe at the lone voice (mine) shouting out “apart from the encore!” as a reply to David Longdon’s statement that East Coast Racer would be the last song……

For fans of Big Big Train there is never a feel of ‘Stone & Steel’ being a completist release, one that you buy just so you have an artist’s full collection of works. It stands alone as being brilliant retrospective of the recent endeavours of this most English of Progressive Rock bands. If you are new to this wonderful world, it is also a great introduction to them and one from where you can branch out and further your education (for further it you most definitely should!).

For this inner child it is a musical release that, once again, takes me back to that moment of wonder and delight, that feeling of pure joy that, in this weary modern age, we rarely feel nowadays.

Released 21st March 2016.

Buy ‘Stone & Steel’ directly from the band.

 

Review – David Longdon and The Magic Club – Wild River – by Progradar

cover

I’m what you might call a music completist. You know the sort of person I mean, I begin to really appreciate a band or artist’s music so I have to seek out and devour all their output, be it studio or live albums or DVD/Blue-Rays of live performances, I have to listen to, and have, them all.

To me, it’s a worthy endeavor, whether you start with the first release and follow that particular artist all the way to the present day, like Dream Theater for me (the jury is out on ‘The Astonishing’ at the moment though..) or you hear a latest album and work your way back through their discography, this was how I got into Big Big Train (‘English Electric Full Power’).

Whichever way round, I get a certain satisfaction out of investigating all of a musician or band’s achievements and I will often unearth a gem I didn’t previously know about.

Bringing Big Big Train back into the discussion, it was an earlier solo album from lead vocalist David Longdon that was the next part of my musical education with this celebrated English pastoral progressive rock band.

I used my ‘musical treasure hunter’ skills and the ‘X’ marked the spot when I uncovered ‘Wild River’ by David Longdon and The Magic Club.

David 1

David initially played in a band with school friends Simon Withers and Ian White under the name Greenhouse. It was this experience that would be the inspiration for the Big Big Train song ‘Make Some Noise.’

Throughout his twenties David played in the Nottingham based band O’ Strange Passion and eventually The Gifthorse. The style of these bands included acoustic based music with art rock tendencies. He ended up being signed to Rondor Music UK (Publishing house for A&M records – The Police, Joe Jackson, The Carpenters, Supertramp) as a songwriter with a development deal.

David is also a long term member of the Louis Philippe band, playing on the Jackie Girl (1996) album, where he met both Danny Manners and also Dave Gregory who he would later introduce to Big Big Train.

It was in the final days of The Gifthorse that David was invited to audition as a potential replacement for Phil Collins as lead singer in Genesis. He survived the auditioning process and worked from May to November 1996 on recordings that would become the Calling All Stations album. They were also working with Stiltskin vocalist Ray Wilson at the same time. Eventually they decided which one out of the two would get the job.

David  sings lead vocals on two tracks (‘Ray of Hope’ and ‘Endgame’) on Martin Orford’s The Old Road album (2008) which led to David Meeting Rob Aubrey who in turn introduced David to Greg and Andy of Big Big Train and the rest, they say, is history!

BBT Live 2

‘Wild River’ was released in 2004 and I’m still struggling to believe I had never heard even one note up until about a month ago. It was recorded by David Longdon and an inpressive group of musicians collectively know as ‘The Magic Club’, too many here to list but a certain Dave Gregory does appear in the (very) small print…..

The album notes credit David with ‘Vocals, acoustic guitars, electric guitars, mandolin, keyboards, flute, percussion and wrist watch’ so, there you go, a man of many talents obviously.

The opening track Always begins with a delightful acoustic introduction before David’s vocals begin in a slightly wistful manner and Andy Lymn’s stylish drums seem to take a life on of their own. It is a decidedly upbeat song, even if you take into account the slight melancholy aftertaste, dictated by the excellent viola and violin of Beth NobleLee Horsley’s strident Hammond organ gives it an edge and David has voice like honey, it just seems to soothe any irritable bone in your body and it lifts this song above the merely good to become something memorable. One you will find yourself humming in the shower as the harmonies of the chorus imprint themselves permanently on your brain. Honey Trap is another track with an uplifting feel to it, almost modern folk in appeal. The musicians work together seamlessly to produce a musical tapestry across which the elegant vocals of David Longdon can paint a wonderful tune. The strings seem more potent and upfront on this song, providing the perfect counterpoint for the vocal harmonies, especially the dulcet tones of the harp. I just feel as if I’m being carried along an a mellifluous sound wave of pure joy. There’s a timeless feel to the music and feel of longevity and this is emphasised even more by the delightful mandolin that stands out in the intro to Mandy. David’s vocal takes on a more narrative tone in places and the whole song has a touch of traditional folk running through it. The Hammond seems to be in the background, almost as if it is directing proceedings. The softer edge of the first two tracks is replaced by a more definitive note and  the occasional lapse into a near reggae beat just adds real colour to proceedings. A real foot-tapping, hand-clapping classic that would be at home in a traditional rural public house where much ale has been drunk and many tales have been sung.

Spectral Mornings

(Photo courtesy of Angus Prune)

Beginning with a more apprehensive note, the guitar having a more aggressive feel and the violin a cutting note, About Time appears to be a more serious tune. David carries on with the more narrative vocal on the verse and the whole song has a more mature note to it. The chorus sees that reggae riff appear and the vocals deliver a heartfelt rendition. The flute, harp and mellotron all work overtime in the background to give the required gravitas and really add to the darker complexity of this interesting track. I like listening to music that demands your full attention and this is a song that is definitely of that ilk. Dim the lights and let it wash over you as you discover more and more sophisticated nuances. Mandolin, mandola and double bass kick off Vertigo with an unambiguous folk atmosphere and this is only emphasised by the use of the Irish bodhran. That softer timbre returns to David’s vocals, emotive and slightly mournful, it is a song that plucks at your heartstrings with its open and honest feel. Beth Noble’s backing vocals have a delicate fragility and the clashing guitar solo really does hit you hard on this darkest feeling track on the album so far. I really enjoyed the whole pared back feel that let’s the vocals shine through and I’ve always been a sucker for a great double bass. The next track is far and away the most impassioned and sentimental song on this release. Simple in composition  yet beautifully ethereal in its delivery, Loving & Giving is a thing of uncomplicated beauty. David Longdon’s voice is the instrument that holds sway over your emotions, adorned simply with acoustic guitar, double bass and the exquisite strings that add a humble fragility. Jane Upton adds her alluring vocals to this most charming track, the harmonies are a thing of wonder. A tear of joy and hope may have been wiped away and I needed a moment to compose myself after it came to a natural close.

Inside cover

Wild River is a tribute to David’s father, Eric, who died in 1994 and, to me, is a real slow burning blues-rock track. It opens, already beginning to build an atmosphere, with a gentle guitar and David’s ominous sounding vocal. Powerful, expressive and soulful, it is almost a lament. The Hammond organ sits there, just in the background, orchestrating this compelling and touching song. The impassioned vocal delivery is asserted even more on the chorus. The Greasley Singers choir add another layer of finesse, it is an undoubted highlight of this most impressive album and when the intense violin solo is delivered, it is like a weighty presence on your soul, this whole track just bleeds sentiment and sorrow, the impassioned guitar solo (from Michael Brown) and rousing drums are incredible, and you just feel emotionally spent when it comes to its dramatic close. Edgy guitar and fluent harmonica open up the defiantly rocky This House, bluesy, funky and jazz infused with equal measure, it really drives hard and fast. The staccato guitar playing and Les Eastham’s brilliant harmonica are the real highlights of this track and, with David adding a fervent, stirring vocal, it is literally on fire and uber-cool. There is a feeling of a sentient presence awakening at the beginning of In Essence, superb atmospheric guitar work from Michael Brown again, before things open up with dancing vocals and intricate instrumentation. A song that takes the soul route to your mind. Edgy guitar work, stylish bass play and elaborate drumming provide the backdrop on which David gives a sleek and polished vocal performance. A song for the discerning listener and another one that asks for your full and undivided attention.

studio

It’s all about the strings and keeping it simple, Joely is a delightful little ode. It begins with some really fetching string work in combination with the precise vocal enunciation of Mr Longdon and needs nothing more to deliver a rather charming song that is beguiling because of its skillful simplicity. It almost moves into Americana and country territory in places before it closes with the sublime poem ‘The Heart of Winter’, written and recited by Jerry Hope. Powerfully delivered, it takes you into a heightened sense of consciousness that leaves the hairs standing up on the back of your neck. The simple introduction to Falling Down has an impatient feel imbued by the drums and bass before the strings join in and the vocals overlay everything with a velvet touch. Gentle and benign it continues until we reach the chorus where everything opens up into another well crafted piece of songwriting. I feel I’ve been led by the hand on a fantastic musical journey with a multitude of amazing musicians that come together as one rather than any of them standing above the others. The mellotron is there but you don’t notice it, the guitars add substance but without overpowering anything and , above all, is the stunning vocal performance of David Longdon. Sentimental and rousing, this song is another reason to make sure you listen to this album without daily life intruding. The final track on this stunning album is On To The Headland and it is a fitting close. This song sees David and his guitar in a reflective mood and it is this restrained and simple delivery that really seems to impact on you. I sit back and let this guileless track just touch my senses and leave me at ease and at one with the world.

It may be over ten years since ‘Wild River’ was released but it doesn’t seem to have aged a day and can stand comparison with any of contemporary music that has been released recently. There is an uncluttered and uncomplicated honesty at the core of the music and this is all brought into vivid focus by David Longdon’s utterly unique and incomparable voice. If, like I was, you have yet to experience it then please search this album out immediately!

Released 2004

Buy ‘Wild River’ from the Big Big Train webstore

An interview with Greg Spawton (and a little Kings Place reminisce) – by Progradar

BBT Kings Place

It is almost three months since the three seminal gigs of the year. When that fantastic community of friends and music fans, now known as The Passengers, got together for a brilliant social event and a series of concerts like none of us had known for quite a while.

It wasn’t just about the music, it was about meeting people I had just conversed with online for the best part of three years and friends I have met recently through a shared love of the band Big Big Train’s music.

Greg Spawton, Danny Manners, David Longdon, Andy Poole, Nick D’Virgilio, Dave Gregory, Rachel Hall and Rikard Sjöblom  took a huge risk when they decided to perform live at three dates at London’s Kings Place in August. Yes, they were playing to an adoring audience but it had been many a year since any of the material had been heard in a live setting. Add in the fact that they were going to play with a brass band and it was no mean feat that they were attempting.

To cut a long story short, and as better and briefer wordsmiths than I have already spoken about, it went down a storm. I came down on the Friday and stayed with some friends.

Saturday saw me meet up with Mike Morton of The Gift and assorted other friends and Passengers at the Old Parcel yard pub in Kings Cross where we spent the afternoon reminiscing and wondering what the evening’s entertainment was going to bring.

BBT Kings Place 2

The anticipation was building to a crescendo as we walked to Kings Place, just round the corner. Many of the great and good were in the bar before the gig and it was great to meet up with Jerry Ewing and his sister Sarah, Joe PayneChristina BoothDavid and Yvette Elliott and many other friends I have made in the music industry over the last few years.

I am not going to waffle on about the concert itself, only to say that it was a real life affirming event for me. The depth of emotion and sheer brilliance on show will stay with me forever.

If I had to pick a couple of  tracks to epitomise the whole evening for me, it would have to be Victorian Brickwork from the first set where the addition of the superb Brass and the way the track finished just left me an emotional wreck and, from the second set, the utterly sublime and beautiful Curator of Butterflies, I cried…. a lot……..

BBT Live 2

Showing just how much they are in touch with their fans, the band did a ‘meet and greet’ with everyone after the concert. Many ales were quaffed with great friends and a fantastic night finished with aplomb.

BBT live 3

So, after the dust had settled, Greg luckily enough agreed to answer some questions for me about the band, the gigs and the future…..

Greg Martin

Pic courtesy of Martin Reijman

Progradar: When did the idea of doing some live concerts first come up and was it just one band member’s idea which you extrapolated on?

Greg: We had talked about it from time-to-time over the last few years. However, our focus has been on writing and recording new music so it seemed, to me, to always be a distant prospect. As a firm idea, it started to come up in conversations in 2013.

However, our studio recordings are complex, layered things, with strings and brass in the brew alongside the normal rock instrumentation, so we were a little worried how difficult it would be to recreate our sound in a live setting.

Therefore, we decided to do a dress-rehearsal in 2014, with no audience present. This worked pretty well so we started the process of selecting a venue and a team to work with. 

Progradar: Did the addition of Rachel and Rikard to the ranks make this more of a reality?

Greg: Absolutely. The fundamental decision we had to make was whether we stripped things down and played a more basic version of our songs with a smaller line-up, or whether we should try to present our music as we want it to be heard, with all the layers and the bells and whistles.

Rachel and Rikard enabled us to take the latter approach. Rachel had performed on the ‘English Electric’ albums and was already a big part of our plans. We also needed to find a musician who could cover guitar and keyboards with equal dexterity. There are not many people like that around, but Rikard ticked all the boxes. Soon after the 2014 rehearsals, we invited them both into the band. 

Progradar: What made you decide on Kings Place in the end?

Greg: We like to do things our own way on our terms and we didn’t want to play something on the usual circuit. Kings Place came to our attention when Danny played a show there with Jonathan Coe. It was in the smaller Hall Two, but I was struck by the potential and thought it would be worth checking out Hall One.

Generally speaking, there were a few things we had to take into account: location was important as we wanted the venue to be an accessible place, close to public transport. The stage had to be big enough to accommodate a large band, but we had little concept of likely ticket demand so didn’t want to over-reach and book a venue with too high an audience capacity. We needed a place with good acoustics and with access to recording facilities as we wanted to record the gigs. We made contact with a few other places, including the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre and we looked at some places in Winchester.

Bristol was also an option at one stage. In the end, I went up to Kings Place with Rob Aubrey and we liked it the minute we walked in. The staff were great, very welcoming and it met all of our other requirements. Not all London venues offer welcoming staff and they were brilliant all the way through. They rarely do rock gigs there and so I think they looked on us as a way of expanding their enterprise. It brought quite a buzz to the place and they thought our fans were lovely.

BBTBand

Progradar: When deciding on the set list, what factors did you take into account?

Greg: If we had decided to gig without the brass band, we would have looked at a very different set list. However, as we knew we would be playing with the brass band this enabled us to select some of the pieces where the brass plays a significant part. This brought East Coast Racer and Victorian Brickwork straight into the reckoning.  Above all, we wanted to create a set list which showed all aspects of what we do, from the epic progressive rock through to folk and pop music.

Sometimes we get to cover lots of different things in one song, such as Summoned By Bells or Hedgerow. Other times, it was the contrast between songs which we wanted to demonstrate. We were particularly keen to offset some of our melancholy moments with some which are more joyful and communal. Once we had decided on the set list we needed to make one or two musical changes to songs for live performance.

For example, East Coast Racer needed a new ending as the closing section on the album was simply a restatement of an album theme and wasn’t right for the live version which we wanted to play at the end of the gig to bring things to a close. One of the original options I thought about when writing East Coast Racer was to have a guitar solo at the end, so we decided to revisit that idea. Danny composed a new chord sequence to allow the solo to develop.

We also changed the opening section of Make Some Noise to give it a more folky, foot-stomping feel. And Dave Desmond added more brass to The Underfall Yard.

Progradar: Did you ever consider varying the setlist for each night?

Greg: We had a couple of other songs on the rehearsal back burner and, at one stage, thought about varying the set list. The crucial thing though, was to try to play things well. We only had limited rehearsal time together so we didn’t want to cram in too much at the risk of lowering the quality.

BBT Live

Progradar: How involved was Rob Aubrey in the planning and sorting out sound when you’d finally agreed a venue?

Greg: Rob had huge involvement in every aspect of the sound. He liaised with Real World and Kings Place about all aspects of the sound and arranged for their monitoring engineer to visit our rehearsals which was a big help as sorting out monitoring for 13 musicians is a headache. One of the advantages we had with rehearsing at Real World was that we could record everything we did, allowing us to playback the songs and fully work out keyboard and other levels ahead of the gigs.

The more you can sort in advance, the more things are in control on the night. We had a rather random meeting with Michael Giles at the pub on the first night of rehearsals and the first thing he said to us was: ‘record everything and listen back to it’. The other big help we had was finding Zab Reichhuber who controlled and prepared the lights and the videos and slides. She is a very talented and impressive young woman.

Progradar: How did rehearsals go and, honestly, did you really feel ready by the Friday of the gig?

Greg: Rehearsals were brilliant. They were hard work and a lot of fun. By the time we arrived at the venue we felt ready enough, but there were still a couple of areas where we tripped up during the first show.

That may be nerves, or just the different environment. In the 70’s, progressive bands would get extremely tight due to constant touring. Not many of us have that opportunity these days as the more limited audiences will enable most bands to play maybe 10 or 20 shows each year or just do one-off shows, so it is a different set of circumstances.

We had a really good couple of hours on the Saturday afternoon at Kings Place where we sorted out some of the monitoring niggles and then had time to work through the bits that were unsteady on the Friday show. We were pretty tight on Saturday and Sunday.

Progradar: The massed ranks of Passengers were going extremely giddy in anticipation of these concerts, does that put added pressure on you as a band to perform?

Greg: In the weeks running up to the gigs we became increasingly focused on gig preparation so we absented ourselves from social media for much of the time ahead of the shows. At rehearsals we were in a little world of our own. Nick and Rikard, who have both played a lot of gigs, were very confident about the audience response. That settled my nerves a bit.

BBT Badge d

Progradar: How much extra does having the brass section there playing live add to the performance?

Greg: A huge amount. The brass band has become an integral part of our sound since ‘The Underfall Yard’. The sound of a brass band is not something you can easily replicate on keyboards, so without them, we couldn’t properly perform quite a few of our songs. The guys in the band are some of the best brass players in the country and they are all really great chaps to hang out with, so we are truly lucky to have them onboard. We are recording with them again for ‘Folklore’ and ‘Station Masters’ so they are part of our long-term plans.

Progradar: How did the reaction of the audience make you feel, was it what you were expecting or something on a different level?

Greg: It was at a completely different level. Personally, I had no idea what to expect from the audience. It was a seated venue so I wondered if that may make things a little subdued. That didn’t particularly worry me as it is nice to think that people are listening carefully, but I didn’t want it to be too restrained.

When we were standing stage-door before the gigs the atmosphere sounded quite lively and we became aware that the audience were likely to be quite enthusiastic. Then we walked on and had a great welcome and it went on from there.  It was amazing really.

Progradar: Did you enjoy meeting the fans after the concerts and sharing a drink with them?

Greg: For all of us it was one of the highlights. It was lovely to meet so many listeners and share a few words. There was such a friendly atmosphere, it was heart-warming. I really don’t like the whole paid meet and greet thing that seems to have caught on in some parts of the music business although I understand the commercial reasoning and I know that it is popular with some fans.

Progradar: What was the buzz like on Saturday morning after the first performance the night before?

Greg: We were pretty tired early doors, but very happy. We also wanted to spend some time running through some sections again and we had a good couple of hours playing in the afternoon. After that we felt pretty relaxed and were looking forward to the show.

Big Big Train Pic

Progradar: Did the Sunday matinee feel any different to the two evening gigs?

Greg: Each of the gigs was different. The audiences reacted to different songs and passages of music. We all liked the matinee. Sunday evening exits from London can be a terrible thing so it didn’t feel that people had to rush off afterwards.

Progradar: At any point did you wonder what you had let yourselves in for?

Greg: It has been a major organisational challenge and a steep learning curve. In order to make the band a profitable concern we try to do as many things ourselves as we can which means cutting out middle-men like promoters. At times, in the weeks ahead of the gigs, so much energy was expended on planning itineraries and transport and food and accommodation that it seemed there was little time for music. It was also a big musical challenge but we got into our stride pretty quickly at rehearsals so worries about that began to subside.

Progradar: What do you get from performing live that is different from recording?

Greg: I am a songwriter rather than a performer and haven’t played a gig for many years so it has been an interesting experience. The obvious difference is the interaction with the audience. There is no part of the writing and recording process which is at all like that.

When things are going well on stage and the band is playing well and the audience is into things it is a pretty amazing thing to be part of. Having said that, I love writing and I am looking forward to finishing off our new album. All aspects of the music making process are very satisfying and all parts can have their moments of frustration.

Progradar: Now things have calmed down a bit, what were the highlights of the weekend for you?

Greg: It was very cool to perform with my friends and bandmates and watch them in their natural environment.  The atmosphere both backstage and onstage was such a positive thing. And the audiences were amazing. They seemed very engaged. I liked that there would be applause during the songs for solos.

I saw Elbow in February and came away thinking that they have an ability to make a gig both a communal event with lots of singalong moments and, at the same time, a very personal one, with people reacting individually to songs that moved them. That was what we were reaching for with these gigs, and that seemed to happen.

Finally, after everyone had gone on Sunday and the gear was on its way back to base I got to have dinner with my lovely wife at St Pancras. It had been a very busy few months ahead of the gigs and then there were rehearsals and the shows so it was nice to finally have some time to relax and reflect.

Progradar: Were there any negatives, what would you possibly do different next time?

Greg: We’ve already started thinking about this. The main thing is monitoring. We will probably hire or buy our own monitoring desk next time and get things fully set up at rehearsals. This will save time in setting up at the venue and keep us fresher. 

I still think we will aim to play two or more nights in one location rather than a conventional tour but, depending on how things go with record sales, we may well look at a bigger venue next time.  It would be great to play live with Rachel’s string quartet at some stage as well, but that would make things even more complicated so we may leave that idea for a while.

Progradar: Does the thought of doing it again fill you with dread or joy and, if it’s the latter, when can we do it all over once more?

Greg: Definitely joy and definitely in 2017!!

BBT LIVE4

 

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’……

Border

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)

Logo

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