“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”
― Ernst F. Schumacher
In this ever increasingly complex life that we lead it is nice some times to have a bit of simplicity to allow us to take stock and have a little breather from our hectic and convoluted lives. For every million note Dream Theater solo from John Petrucci there is a counter balance in music that has an absence of complication, that can be enjoyed for it’s lack of elaboration and Chris Topham at Plane Groovy has sent me over a vinyl album that just captivates with it’s beauty, a beauty achieved through it’s ethereal sparseness.
Damian Wilson and Adam Wakeman got together in 2015/2016 to record 9 new acoustic songs that would become the album ‘Weir Keeper’s Tale’. This was released in 2016 and now Plane Groovy are releasing the vinyl version complete with wonderful album art by John Townshend.
Adam said that, “With this album, Damian and I both wanted to capture a real cohesive album of our songs outside of the writing we do with Headspace and other heavier bands. It gave us an opportunity to really focus on the songs as singer songwriters, and to concentrate on telling individual stories.”
And this collection of stories has been crafted into beautiful songs and given the home they deserve on this wonderful vinyl package.
(album art by John Townshend)
Once I’ve extracted the album from the shrink-wrap I get to admire the brilliant album art on both the sleeve and the inner liner, it truly is a thing of beauty and just oozes quality, what I’ve come to expect from a man as passionate about vinyl as Chris Topham is.
There’s satisfaction to be had from just handling the vinyl package and pouring over the liner notes after I’ve let the needle gently land on the record and the first notes ring out, the sound wonderfully rich and warm, not like the clinical music you get from CDs and digital.
Damian Wilson has a brilliant voice, powerful, deep and resonating but on this album we see the more humble and gentle side of him, as the graceful piano of Adam Wakeman opens Seek For Adventure you’re immediately put into a mood of repose and calm and then Damian’s voice joins in and it is just captivating. Together with the simple instrumentation it has a grace and charm and not a little wistfulness too. I was left open mouthed by the impact that this uncomplicated delivery could give. Adam’s backing vocals are unobtrusive but really add to the childlike innocence that the song conveys. Just sit back and enjoy this effortlessly classy music. The tempo increases with the title track Weir Keeper’s Tale, the piano has a bit more urgency and Damian’s vocal a touch more intensity but the wonderful warmth and bonhomie are still present and correct. It’s a humble and inelaborate little ditty that moves along at a jaunty pace and leaves such a feeling of goodwill in its wake. The choral backing is a lovely touch and adds even more elegance to this unembellished track, a short but exceedingly sweet piece of nostalgic artistry.
Adam Wakeman takes over vocal duties for the dreamy and thoughtful Catch You when You Fall with Damian providing the delicate acoustic guitar backing. Here the sparseness levels are at their highest, the music stripped back bare of any unnecessary trappings and it works brilliantly as a result. The guitar provides the opening bars allowing you to clear your mind of any frivolous thoughts and concentrate on what you are about to hear. Adam has quite a striking voice with an earnestness at its core and it really fits the song, a calm authority settling on proceedings. As I’ve said before, these songs really work on a vinyl release, the music is rounded and full of character, warmth and charm.
Damian himself said, “How we ever got convinced that the CD was a better medium than Vinyl, I will never understand. Cramming music onto a 16 bit CD loses a lot of information. The best way to hear what’s missing is to listen to the vinyl.”
With a feel of a singer/songwriter’s track Together Alone opens with that rich piano note that Adam conjurs up at will before Damian’s heartfelt vocal begins. There’s an almost melancholy tone but you can’t help but be caught up in the exquisitely delivered music. There’s a memorable chorus that I can’t help but sing along to and the whole track moves along at a fairly sharp clip. Actually making music this simple and yet so mesmerisng is an art in itself.
Murder In A Small Town is like a very short story (4 minutes and fifty-two second to be precise) that has been set to music, an American noir novel sung to you by Damian himself. The tender vocals and fragile acoustic guitar add an ethereal feel to the song and you soon get lost in its sublime and intangible ambience. I feel like I’m in a a shadowy half-world of calm serenity. The piano solo in the middle is a thing of heavenly refinement and adds even more gracefulness, it actually takes me a few seconds before I realise that I’m listening to silence as the needle comes to the close of side one.
Side two starts with the excellent Freedom Is Everything, the opening notes from the piano set up a rather engaging song that, again, has a feel of the great singer/songwriters to it, in fact I’d go as far to say that it actually reminds me a bit of early Simon and Garfunkel. Damian delivers another ardent and heartfelt vocal performance that comes straight from his heart, there’s passion and devotion dripping from every note and the simple but effective piano accompaniment is genius. When I’m sat back with a nice glass of red wine in my hand and listening to this beauteous creation, I’m in a very happy place indeed. There’s a somber feel as God Be My Judge begins, the acoustic guitar and Damian’s vocal give a contemplative and thoughtful edge to the song and the backing vocals in the background add a really wishful tone. A fragility runs throughout, a slight catch in Damian’s voice and the near intangibility of the guitar, a piece of music with its heart laid bare for all to see and judge. There’s a lump in my throat and moisture in my eye as it comes to a close.
That emotion stays with me as we come to the penultimate track and one of my favourites on the whole album. People Come And Go opens with a powerful, almost forlorn piano note and Damian has real pathos in his vocal, a subdued guitar in the background. The yearning feel disappears as the piano takes a harder tone and the tempo increases, Damian adds even more emotion and poignance to his voice leading into a hauntingly memorable chorus that has become a real ear worm for me. An incredible piece of music that touches my heart and really moves me on an emotional level. It’s a song that I keep returning to on a regular basis, maybe it’s the subject matter, I don’t know, I just love it and the part where everything goes quiet before bursting out into that brilliant chorus again is just inspired. So to the final track on the this release and what a way to bow out. Cold is the epitome of simplicity and grace, the beauty of a delicately strummed acoustic guitar matched with Damian Wilson’s exquisite and heartfelt vocal is near perfection. A song that takes wistfulness to a whole new level and one that takes you to a place of calm reflection, the fragile and tender guitar playing that closes out the song and the album is just divine and as the needle reaches the final grooves I just sit there in silent admiration.
This is one album that always seems to be on my record deck or playing in the car. A testimony to Damian Wilson and Adam Wakeman, it is an absolutely timeless record that takes music at its most simple and lifts it above the mere excellent and onto another level altogether. Nine incredible songs that deliver both emotionally and intellectually to give a listening experience like no other, I cannot recommend it highly enough but please buy the vinyl as that is what makes it so special.
And she’s not wrong Miss Ricci, 2017 has become a year of two all encompassing obsessions for me and, unfortunately for you, if you follow me on social media you will know all about them!
The first one was running. Even though I have been a frequent visitor to the gym for the past two decades, I could never get along with running. This all changed in January when I was persuaded to try road running and I haven’t looked back yet. Despite the occasional injuries I now run approximately 40 kilometres a week and this has been dangerous for my body.
The second one was my re-introduction to collecting vinyl and I can lay the blame for that squarely at the feet of Chris Topham, vinyl expert and sometime Virgin Airlines Captain. From the day he asked me if I would be interested in reviewing some vinyl releases on his Plane Groovy label I have been hooked and this has been extremely dangerous for my bank balance!
The latest release to get the Plane Groovy vinyl treatment and for me to review is the 2017 anniversary vinyl edition of ‘Amplify’, British rock sensations Tess Of The Circle’s 2016 release.
Tess Of The Cirlce is a British independent band that focuses on the songs of male songwriter Tess Jones and a collective of participating musicians. With a new line up for 2015/16, ‘Amplify’ was released on 22nd April 2016, giving shades of 70’s rock fused with hints of post-grunge and alt indie.
This was a follow up to 2013’s acoustic rock E.P. ‘Thorns’ and Tess was joined on the new release by returning lead guitarist Lee Clifton and new members Ben Drummond (bass), Paul Stone (drums) and Ange Loyd (backing vocals).
“We are thrilled to bring this record to vinyl after so many requests for it at gigs and festivals”, Jones says, “I hope the release satisfies existing fans as well as being a perfect opportunity to introduce us to music fans who may have missed out on us the first time around!”.
Once again, the quality of the package is incredible, the vinyl release is initially limited to 300 copies which are all individually numbered and signed by Tess Jones. The unique artwork for the album cover and reverse is both simple and yet striking and the 180g heavyweight vinyl itself comes in a plain white slipcase with accompanying numbered and signed lyric and credit sheet. It all adds up to yet another impressive vinyl release from Chris and what we have come to expect from Plane Groovy.
So to the music and that frisson of excitement I now get everytime I lift the needle for the first play of a new vinyl. I’m certainly not disappointed by the opening track Love Is The Drug You Crave, a solid punch in the solar plexus from the the guitar, bass and drums, man the sound quality on this vinyl is crystal clear and very powerful and it works perfectly with the hard rock vibe of this song. Tess’ vocal has that requisite smoky roughness to it that you’d want and expect and Ange’s backing vocals added in with the funky guitar sound give a Primal Scream touch to proceedings. Add in the dynamic rhythm section and, all in all, it’s a brilliantly raucous and rollicking opening to the record. The vinyl is mastered from the original 24 bit files and you can tell, you still get that warmth that is a signature of vinyl music but there is a clarity and purity that come through when plying it as well and it is very apparent on the psychedelia tinged brilliance of I’m Not Ashamed which opens almost like Pictures Of Matchstick Men by Quo before a delightfully groovy guitar tone takes up the reins and a Twin Peaks aura settles over everything. Tess delivers a really impressive vocal performance, the Britishness of his enunciation and the stylish backing vocals add quirkiness to the leftfield supernatural overtones I get from the song. Lee’s guitar playing is exemplary and right off the top shelf and gives real drive, I’m enjoying this album more and more with each song. I don’t know about the rest of you but, when I’m listening to an mp3 or, to a lesser extent, a CD, I’m usually listening to the music as an accompaniment to another task yet, when I get the vinyls out, it is an all engrossing listening experience usually enhanced by a glass of something alcoholic. As the opening bars of You Take Me Out Of My Head begin I’m actually mesmerised by the record spinning on the deck but the thumping riff and pounding drums soon bring me back to the world of the living. This track really puts the HARD in Hard Rock with it’s incessantly scintillating guitar riff and that rhythm section that never puts a foot wrong, wow it really ROCKS like early 70’s Led Zep on uppers! Tess gives a vocal jackhammer of a performance which is enhanced by the little snippets from Ange,
“It’s not enough, it’s not enough…”
A thunderous celebration of all that’s British about hard rock, it is an absolute monster of a song and I get the feeling that the band are having an absolute blast of a time playing it. It never lets up with its intensity and dynamic confidence, a powerful statement of intent for sure.
A calmness pervades with the gentle guitar opening to Believe (Into Her Arms), a much more pared back track, you can feel the honesty in Tess’ impassioned vocal as the needle tracks the grooves on the vinyl, it’s almost painful in its intensity. The assured delivery of Paul’s drums and the stylish bass playing by Ben add real class to this winsome song and it actually gives you chance to get your breath back after the energetic and compelling rock of the first three tracks. There’s hints of indie, Americana and country-rock running all the way through and the guitar playing is just sublime, as things come to a close let the final notes wash over you and enjoy the silence. Edgy, funky and in your face, the dynamism returns with the full on ferocity of Mother, Daughter, Son, an exuberant, devil-may-care thrill ride of jangling guitar riffs, frenetic drums and Tess’ irascible vocal. A song that just won’t let you sit still, it grabs you by the hand and invites you to join the joyous chaos, just under three minutes of unadulterated punk rock infused fun. And that’s the rambunctious and rowdy close to side one. as the needle tracks the final grooves I find a huge grin on my face and that’s what music like this is all about isn’t it?
A quick recharge of the glass and it’s time to flip the record over and listen to side two. Tess himself thinks that Digging At My Bones is the most ‘proggy’ track on the album and as the first notes ring out clearly I can almost see where he is coming from. There’s tension and fervor in the first words that he sings and the guitar has more keenness and emotion and they combine to give intensity and an edge that wasn’t there before. The whole instrumentation has more complexity and yet still retains that hard rock tinge and it’s a very palatable concoction. The bass playing is involved and the drums seem to have a life of their own and everything joins together to give a real meting pot of influences and a great song. Face The Changes is a much more straightforward track that has its roots in the Alt Rock and grunge communities, fans of Screaming Trees will appreciate the elegantly strummed guitar and the stylish vocal delivery from Tess and the backing vocals add another layer of polish to what is already a classy track. The bass and drums provide the foundations on which the whole song can build, turn up the volume and just listen to the nuances that you get from the vinyl as they come through your speakers, yet again this impressive band deliver. And now for something deliciously dark and dirty, the tuned down guitar note that opens Drowning Without You is inspired, Chris Isaaks meets The Doors down a back alley for a guitar slinging duel and the product of that encounter is utterly irresistible. The repeated riff is an utterly addictive earworm and just adds a dark humour to this really funky track. The tense vocals have a hint of menace and the swirling solo adds complete theatre, you can imagine this being played live in a darkened, underground club in the backwaters of America, it really is hauntingly memorable. Sit back with glass of something dark and soak in the atmosphere, you just wouldn’t get that from a digital file.
The guitar tone ventures even more into Mariachi inspired Doors territory on Summer Rain, an earnest, sincere song with a stark feel to it and Tess sings in almost subdued manner, his vocals becoming more heartfelt on the stylish chorus. The keyboards, guitar, drums and bass really do scream The Doors at me and it gives a real cultured timbre to the music. Definitely not the most joyous of tracks but the grave and sorrowful aura works really well delivering a sombre and wistful piece of music that leaves you in a contemplative mood. Hauntingly beautiful and simply ethereal, The Waves Break Us Down relies on the sparse instrumentation of acoustic guitar and delicate, ghostly strings and the stark, earnest quality of Tess’ vocals and it delivers perfectly, leaving me with goose pimples and a tear in my eye. The acoustic guitar, expertly strummed and the honest vocals with an emotional catch in them herald the opening lines of the final track, This Higher Ground and it is a brilliantly pared back and folk infused ballad. The uncomplicated purity of the music comes through perfectly on vinyl, as it was intended to be. I’m a real lover of strings and their unadorned innocence adds another layer of integrity and clarity to this refined and simply wonderful song. As the needle reads the final grooves and the album comes to a close I feel at peace and utterly calm inside, once again music making my world a fantastic place to be in.
To put it simply, ‘Amplify’ is an incredible album, a brilliant fusion of musical styles over a hard rock foundation. Tess Jones looks deep inside himself to deliver songs of heart and soul that are delivered with utmost emotion and incredible skill by this superb band, Tess Of The Circle. All of this is lifted several notches by the vinyl listening experience which brings something almost primal to the party. A compelling release that must become part of any vinyl lovers collection.
Exclusive two week advance release on 29th May 2017 through Burning Shed.
“No matter how much time passes, no matter what takes place in the interim, there are some things we can never assign to oblivion, memories we can never rub away.”
― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore.
Imagine, if you will, a deserted beach and a man in studious concentration, digging up the sand and then, like an artist who works in silica, crafting the most wonderful sandcastle. Like a medieval wonder it rises from the sand into a creation of unparalleled brilliance, a thing of spectacle for all to marvel at.
Fast forward twenty four hours to the same beach where the wondrous castle has disappeared, swallowed up by the unremitting tide, and the sand is pristine, not a single sign of the artist’s incredible work.
The artist may return to take up his labour of love once more but nature will always prevail, no matter what he does, and the sandcastles will always return to their constituent particles.
To me, this is something of an allegory of modern music. New records have such a short time-frame to impress the listener before the next big thing comes along. A lot of these albums will have been labours of love that the musicians have slaved over for months until they are as close to perfect as they can be. What do they do to make their achievements stand out enough for people to want to listen to and buy and to stay long in the memory to still be played in a years time or more?
British progressive rock stalwarts Big Big Train have long been known for their immersive musical productions with songs that tell stories from history and folklore and have been incredibly succesful. They are one of the bands that I turn to often for my musical fix and their pastoral progressive rock has been a big part of my life for the last four or five years.
April 2017 saw the release of their latest studio album ‘Grimspound’. On ‘Grimspound’, Big Big Train tell stories from the oceans and the skies, from the meadowland and the mead hall, tales of scientists and artists and poets and dreamers. Here can be found songs drawn from history and folklore, true-life tales of a flying ace, of Captain Cook’s ‘experimental gentlemen’ on his first voyage of discovery and the legend of a ghost waiting outside an ivy gate whilst the carriers of souls circle overhead.
Now, even though I liked the last year’s ‘Folklore’ (and still do!), I felt that, even though it had immediacy, it lacked the depth and endurance of albums like ‘The Underfall Yard’ and ‘English Electric’ and I don’t go back to it as often as I do the others.
Would ‘Grimspound’ be another engrossing tour-de-force that would take longer to really get into but, because of that, become a much loved classic? Let’s delve into the past and let the amazing story telling of Big Big Train do its magic…
“A statue of a young man
Glove held in left hand
With an Angel close by his shoulder…”
“The wonderfully atmospheric tale of Captain Albert Ball, a reluctant flying ace and hero of the Great War,“a young knight of gentle manner who learnt to fly and to kill at a time when all the world was killing … saddened by the great tragedy that had come into the world and made him a terrible instrument of Death”. DL
A haunting introduction paves the way for what is a classic Big Big Train track and really gives me the impression that the band have returned to their roots with this record. The build up is slow and measured before the guitars and drums herald the main part of the song and you are already rapt in attention. Lovely touches of flute and violin draw in David Longdon’s expressive and emotive vocal to tell the tale of this heroic airman. The music has a touch of pomp and circumstance in parts, befitting such a hero but also has gentle and subtle touches that would seem to mirror his compassionate soul. The build up to the chorus is spine-tingling and has you singing along with the words,
“I’ll be a brave captain of the sky.”
There’s a segue into a fast-paced instrumental section that has you on the edge of your seat, these consummate musicians once again showing their skill and class with guitar parts that are intricate and memorable and the mesmerising keyboards playing off against each other. Nick D’Virgilio’s drums and Greg Spawton’s bass are the glue that holds everything in place on this enduringly powerful piece of music before we are brought back down to ground and David’s voice over tells us more about Captain Ball and how he finally came to be shot down, aided perfectly by the stirring strings of Rachel Hall that almost seem to talk to you.
This amazing song closes out with another brilliant instrumental section interspersed by the repeated refrain,
“Brave Captain of the skies..”
Heart-wrenching guitars and that vibrant rhythm section hold your attention right to the suitably impressive end. Wow, what a start to the album!
“On The Racing Line, this instrumental is a further piece about John Cobb, the racing driver, who was the subject of our song Brooklands on the ‘Folklore’ album.” GS
An immediate and expressive instrumental that seems to convey the impression of speed and racing from the first note. Just let the music wash over you and be transported back in history to a time of gentlemen racers who would drive their cars to the track before risking life and limb careering round at high speed. The drums, keyboard and piano seem to be the motive force of this song, the descriptive strings and compelling guitar painting the pictures in your mind, it is all really inventive and quite majestic in delivery. Not just a piece of music but one that recreates history right in the depths of your mind.
“Farewell, my friends,
taking leave of England
headed due south;
In 1768, Captain Cook’s ship, HMS Endeavour, set sail from Plymouth. The voyage had been financed by the Royal Society and the Royal Navy and had a number of aims, including the observation of the 1769 Transit of Venus.
Along the way, the botanists aboard the ship were tasked with collecting specimens from all locations visited in the southern hemisphere. Cook called the scientists on the Endeavour, who included the astronomer Charles Green and the botanist Joseph Banks, his ‘experimental gentlemen’. GS
Experimental Gentlemen was the track that, upon first listen, made me realise that the band were reverting back to their older sound. The introduction is gentle and pastoral and lifts the soul, leaving you in some kind of reverie, flute and piano meandering around your mind before Nick’s drums direct everything into a more regimented sound. There’s a feel of ‘English Boy Wonders’ to the rhythm and vocals and the brilliantly evocative and descriptive guitar is a beautiful touch. Every time David Longdon sings the title line I find myself joining in and a smile appearing on my lips, this is Big Big Train at their expressive and illuminating best. Rachel Hall’s violin takes centre stage half way through as a more serious note pervades the song, aided and abetted by some emotive keyboard playing to give a real affectional feel to the song. Her violin follows the motif of the chorus and we are off again on this jaunty journey into the wonder of it all. The climax begins with a brilliant, rising guitar solo that grabs your attention before calm and reflection settles over the track and it segues into a piano led section where Greg’s subtle bass playing joins Nick’s drums as the foundation on which a haunting guitar and ethereal strings raise the hairs on the back of your neck, quite clever and very touching as this superb song comes to a close, leaving you enjoying the silence and solitude.
“Here, with book in hand,
follow the hedgerow
to the meadowland.”
“One of the characters who featured on our ‘English Electric’ albums was David’s Uncle Jack. The Meadowland in this song is an idealised place where people gather together to share their thoughts about the things they love. You may bump into people when you are out and about and spend some time talking with them, creating your own such space. As the song is set in the countryside, I couldn’t resist a final appearance for Uncle Jack, who follows the hedgerows up to the meadowlands, as he did many times in his long life.” GS
A short song as Big Big Train ones go, coming in at under four minutes go, it opens with a wistfully delicate guitar and violin that immediately gets under your skin with its sentiment and warmth. This is an exquisitely graceful track that really plucks at your heartstrings, David’s vocal is heartfelt and just brings nostalgia flooding back. The interplay between the violin and guitar is genius, I don’t mind admitting that I had a tear of joy in my eye as it came to an elegant close.
“What shall be left of us?
Which artefacts will stay intact?
For nothing can last…”
“Grimspound is a slightly older song than the others on the album. In fact, the drums were recorded by Nick at Real World back when we were making ‘Stone & Steel.’ Big Big Train music contains many historical and archaeological references, and this song is no different in that respect, because it is the name of a Bronze Age settlement on Dartmoor in Devon. When I came to write the lyrics for ‘Grimspound’, I decided that it would be a song about the folklore and myth that surround crows. It is specifically about life, from the perspective of Grimspound the crow.” DL
A slow building opening to the song, a gentle breeze blowing around your mind as the calming music settles upon your soul. There’s a touch of ‘Folklore’ to this track, a more folk edge to the music and the vocals and the repeated musical motif which has become a much loved instrumental earworm to me. Grimspound is a song that just epitomises Big Big Train and their wonderful brand of pastoral progressive rock with its unique Britishness that the fans can relate to. The music is catchy and grabs hold of you and won’t let go but in a gentle and jovial manner, it is music for long summer days in the meadows with meandering streams and for making lifelong memories. The delightful run out with the elegantly nomadic guitar line just adds to the class and charm.
“Upon nights this cold
So the story goes
Some folk say they see the ghost
of Thomas Fisher wait
Outside the Ivy Gate..”
“The origins of this dark song began when I was trying to write a piece called Folklore. This was way before we had decided to call our 2016 album by the same name. The Ivy Gate is a song about family and loss, the perils of childbirth, warfare and faith. It is also a supernatural tale concerning damnation. The Ivy Gate is set during a time of war and centres around the life and times of the ill-fated Fisher family. I met Judy Dyble when she attended the Saturday BBT show at Kings Place. We kept in touch and, as The Ivy Gate developed, I thought that it would make an interesting duet.” DL
The idea of The Ivy Gate being a duet between David and Judy Dyble of Fairport Convention fame borders on genius and gives an elegant fusion of traditional folk and the more pastoral, progressive rock tinged, version that Big Big Train produce. The deep and dark, banjo inspired opening gives real atmosphere and depth to the song right from the off. Judy’s voice adds drama and suspense to the song and a mysterious aura envelops the music, added to by the haunting strains of Rachel’s strings. I feel like I’m transported back in time to be in the middle of a supernatural Victorian spectacle and when David joins in it is almost spine tingling and dramatic. There’s a tense, nervous feel to the music, the violin and banjo adding real tension before the song erupts with Greg’s dynamic bass giving real drive and force to proceedings and progressive overtakes folk as the stimulus. Keyboards swirl, drums are pounded and we are back in the 70’s with a proper prog out instrumental section backing David and Judy’s vocal conjoinment, a powerful musical statement from the band.
“With an eye pressed to the spyglass
On the shores of distant oceans
charting undiscovered lands;
the collectors and observers,
curators and explorers,
reflectors of light.”
“A Mead Hall in Winter began life as a two-minute acoustic guitar and piano instrumental, which was originally intended for the ‘Folklore’ album. Somewhere along the way, Rikard developed his short instrumental into an epic progressive rock piece. Once we had received the initial demo from Rikard and had spent some time getting to grips with the complexities and twists and turns in the song, it was decided that, between the three of us, I would write the vocal melody and backing vocals and Greg would write the words. When I was developing the vocal melodies for A Mead Hall in Winter (which I demoed on the flute), I mentioned to Greg that the song reminded me a little of The Underfall Yard.DL
When David mentioned the connection to The Underfall Yard, I went back to that song and reminded myself of the words. The main theme of the lyrics is the concern that we are losing sight of the Enlightenment values which underlie much of the scientific and social progress that mankind has made in the last few centuries. I thought I would revisit that theme and explore it in greater detail on A Mead Hall in Winter.” GS
A proper ‘prog epic’ at over fifteen minutes, A Mead Hall in Winter is an early favourite of all the Big Big Train fans but, initially, it doesn’t grab me as I’m not a fan of the opening which I feel is a bit messy and almost sounds like an 8 bit Nintendo theme tune from the 80’s. Luckily, after 30 seconds or so, guitar and violin combine to good effect and, as far as I’m concerned, the blue touch paper is lit and we’re off. I love the way that the song seems to drop you slap bang in the middle of the Mead Hall, fire roaring, mead flowing and music playing, it’s really a rather immersive piece of music, one that asks the listener to get involved and become part off. David isn’t just the singer here, he’s a proper troubadour, a minstrel telling stories through the ages and his voice seems to go back in history to echo the early days of the band from ‘The Difference Machine’ and onwards. The captivating and addictive chorus will have you singing along with every word, the harmonised vocals are hauntingly memorable and the little snatches of violin and guitar are the glue that brilliantly hold it all together.
“Artists and dreamers and thinkers are right here by your side…”
Midway through the song we are treated to another entrancing and mesmeric instrumental section that leaves me open mouthed and slack jawed in appreciation. The vocals and instrumentals entwine and combine to deliver an intricate and yet amazingly accessible piece of music that demands to be listened to above all else, stop what you are doing and just concentrate on what is laid before you. The organ section that follows just leaves me transfixed as Rachel’s violin swoops in like Grimspound of the title and dances before your very eyes. Fifteen minutes of sonic delight come to a close with the beguiling vocals and enthralling music resounding in your ears, incredible stuff.
“All here is good,
still and quiet.”
“Sarah’s concept for the cover artwork of the ‘Grimspound’ album has always been that of a crow in flight. Amongst all of the pieces that we have written over the last few years about people and landscape and folk tales we have always featured some songs (or observations within songs) which are more personal in nature. This includes As the Crow Flies. One of the most profound experiences is caring for other people, whether that be for children or aged relatives or others who need support. As the Crow Flies is about the succession of moments of letting go as children prepare to take flight on their own.” GS
As The Crow Flies is perhaps the most personal and melancholy track on the album, when we talk of our children ‘flying the nest’ it is at once both a happy and sad time, it marks a big change in people’s lives and this song has a profound and yet and uncertain timbre to it, echoing perhaps the feelings when we must venture out on our own. The opening to the track has a very sombre tone to it, David’s vocal especially and the music feels like it is treading carefully, almost walking on metaphorical eggshells. The guitar work on this song is as exemplary as ever, almost as if the instrument is talking to you, an accompaniment to David and when Rachel Hall’s delicate voice joins in, it is a thing of ethereal grace and adds hope and longing to lift the feeling of loss that hung over everything. Ultimately our children are our hopes and our futures, we must let them out into the world to become what they are destined to be and to leave their own mark. The sentimental nature of the music and the vocals leaves its mark on my heart and soul and I’m left looking forward to the future, whatever it may bring.
‘Grimspound’ was a hugely anticipated album from one of Progressive Rock’s most revered bands and had to deliver on every front. And it has, many times over, songs like this are what have given Big Big Train the reputation they have today. They are not just music, they are historical tales that take that music and weave it around stories, factual and fictional, to deliver an deeply engaging and riveting spectacle that stays with you forever. This is one sandcastle that no tide will ever wash away…
It was 1986 when the CD revolution was gaining pace and I bought my first music system with a CD player, a Panasonic system with the works, twin tape decks, graphic equalizer, record deck, you name it. I bought it from Quay Televison in Bridlington which, over thirty years later, is still standing, unlike my vinyl collection!
The first CD I bought was Billy Idol – ‘Whiplash Smile’ and from that day on,the writing was on the wall for all my cherished LPs which I’d collected over the last 7 or 8 years. My first record player was a hand-me-down from my parents. One of those old Sanyo music systems that looked like someone’s sideboard but played the music really well to my young ears.
Well, thanks to Billy, my CD collection expanded and I ended up selling all my vinyls to Smugglers Records for what now seems a pittance.
Fast forward 30 years and a certain Chris Topham of Plane Groovy (also a Virgin Airlines pilot I’ll have you know) messages me and ask me if I’d like to start reviewing vinyl. I have to admit I was a bit of a naysayer when it came to the new vinyl revolution and wasn’t 100% certain but I agreed to give it a go.
The album in question was the 3rd release from ex IQ vocalist Paul Menel and true to his word, Chris sent ‘Spare Parts For Broken Hearts’ over post-haste, arriving just before my new record deck!
Here is the PR stuff about this new album:
“This album, the first from Paul Menel and his new band, The Essentials, represents a further step in Paul’s musical evolution from his early days with 1980s UK proggers, IQ. It demonstrates well his growth as an artist and as a man, not frightened to face his demons and to confront the emotional challenges of life in the early years of the 21st century.
Ably supported by his band, The Essentials, featuring the powerhouse rhythm unit that is Tim Churchman on drums and Steven Swift on bass, this album has again been produced by the legendary Gavin Monaghan – renowned for his work with Robert Plant and Peter Gabriel among others.
Appropriately to be launched on Valentines Day 2017, the album takes us on an emotional journey into maturity, with catchy songs set to become earworms and which talk of love lost and found and the trials of life.
It’s a toolkit for those looking to mend a broken heart & go on the next phase of their life journey with Paul and his band at their side as part guru, part fellow traveller, part court jester reminding us not to take life too seriously…
Available initially on vinyl and download only through Vinyl Specialist, Plane Groovy“.
The first thing that strikes me is the quality of the packaging, the artwork by Graeme Bell is visually stunning on the cover and the vinyl centres themselves and it comes with a stylish lyric and credit sheet, it definitely feels a quality product to me.
Now, the music. Before I talk about the songs themselves, please remember this is the first vinyl I have played in a very long time. My ears have become used to a diet of clinical mp3s and compact discs so the first thing that struck me is the warmth and quality of the music as the needle tracks the grooves. It almost feels alive and what others would see as possible imperfections, I see as being an essential component of the sound.
There is a permanency to vinyl that you don’t get from anything else and I dismissed this with a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders for such along time. I was absorbed in the packaging, artwork and lyric sheet for along time and the simple act of lifting the needle to put it on the LP for the first time is joyous in its own way.
The first notes of ‘Til Dawn Rolls In’ immediately grab my attention, an upbeat and absorbing track with some excellent sax work from Sam Rogers and great backing vocals from EmmaSkipp and Kaytee De Wolfe. It has a cultured pop song feel to it but one that is much more intricate and intelligent than the usual fare we are given and would not have been out of place in the 80’s alongside Duran Duran, Simple Minds and the like. Like the bastard son of the Stray Cats and Chris Isaak, there is a warped rockabilly feel to the gloriously dark Strife with its dirty guitar riff and Paul’s edgy, knowing vocal delivery. It’s a song with a real raw immediacy to it, pared back and dangerous and I really like it, on vinyl the sound almost leaps out from the speaker to assault you.
With a graceful piano and a vocal that Paul Carrack would be proud of, Walk In My Shoes is one of many highlights on the album. A real 90’s songwriter’s classic track. Haunting keyboards and backing vocals add lustre and polish to this brilliantly classy song. I’m sat at the keyboard swaying in time as I write these words, it walks the right side of cheesy but I am seeing big hair and even bigger shoulder pads and an audition for that classic 1990’s Volkswagen advert theme. The edginess returns with Crash And Burn, a song that has a real 60’s tone to it, even a Bond theme feel with its big band strings and echoing drumbeat. You’ll love the guitar sound too and Paul’s vocal is mesmerising and dominant,especially on the catchy chorus. This is elegant pop music for adults with a mature overtone and an over 18’s certificate, imagine a dark nightclub in London’s soho and a singer in a sharp black suit, his trident voice cutting through the smoky atmosphere and you won’t be far wrong. Compare notes by playing the mp3 and then the vinyl straight after and you can literally feel the extra dimension that the latter gives to the song.
Humour is brought to the table by the Man of Steel and Kryptonite, a lighter 60’s sounding song with a levity at its core. The dancing flute of Mat Taylor gives it a playfulness and Ben Drummond’s rhumba guitar adds a sassy overtone. Paul’s powerful vocal is aided and abetted by the wonderful backing of Ange Lloyd and the song bounds along with glee right until the close. There’s a cinematic expansiveness to the jazzy Pedestal, a stylish song that really showcases the songwriting ability of Paul Menel. There is a standout performance by violinist Julianne Bourne and the whole song just feels like it should be the soundtrack to some stylish and clever movie that has to include a drive in a classic Ferrari on the Amalfi Coast, such is its passion and verve.
Bloody hell, what’s happened? The music has stopped…. Oh, yes,it’s the end of side one, hang on while I go and change it over!
Side two, now there’s something I never envisioned saying two months ago, opens with They Call Her Leaf, a song that will illicit comparisons to a certain tall Scottish singer and this is not surprising seeing that Paul was the lead singer of IQ in the 1980’s when the neo-prog movement first started and Marillion were contemporaries. It’s a powerful, anthemic track with fantastic backing vocals from Vix Vox and a chorus that soon becomes a definite earworm. There’s bombast and not a little bit of grandiosity and Paul gives a definitive vocal performance. You know those tracks that kept turning up on E.L.O albums? The ones where Jeff Lynne was channeling his inner 50’s rock n’ roll star persona? Yes? well Paul gives us his own version with the superb title track Spare Parts For Broken Hearts. It’s a rocking tune that just takes the lead and never lets up, there’s accordion and violin joining in with his demonstrative vocal that shows us the broad palette that this splendid musician has.
Blues and jazz combine on the rollicking The Pleasures Of Vicarious Vengeance. A guitar sound that George Thorogood would be jealous of and Sam Roger’s uber cool sax are the ultimate driving force on this energetic, funky song and you just have to let your hair down and join the fun. Atmospheric and moody, Hey, Did You Hear About Paul takes a more serious tone with Paul’s vocal becoming more serious and thoughtful. Jake Henry gives gravity to proceedings with his smooth keyboard playing and an 80’s neo-prog nunace from Tim Churchman adds flavour to everything.
A tongue in cheek 80’s Let’s Dance period David Bowie influence is what I get from I Told My Last Lie Today, the driving piano beat, accordion and funk infused guitar just make you want to dance and there’s some great vocal flirting between Paul and Vix Vox. Paul Menel shows he can wear different musical faces with ease and skill. A really upbeat song that is fun of fun and wants you to get down and join in with the party. The final song on what has been a really riveting and enthralling musical journey is the wistful Happy Face, a track that could have come straight from a West End musical with its theatrical feel. Jake Henry’s keyboards and piano give it a simple grace and Paul’s voice with it’s emotional edge is really touching. Duel saxophones from Sam Rogers and Andy Sax add the requisite jazz notes and Bryan Corbett brings his trumpet to this amazing listening experience, the silence that descends as you hear the crackling of the needle end is actually quite deafening.
So, I really have to come to two conclusions here and I’ll talk about the actual songs and album first. Paul Menel and The Essentials have produced a musical experience that is brilliant and enjoyable from the first note to the last.There’s humour, pathos and emotion in spades and it’s a varied and immersive listening journey. It’s an album that I will be listening to a lot that’s for sure.
Now Paul and Chris Topham have a lot to answer when it comes to vinyl. Is it a better listening experience than CD or mp3? To my ears there is a warmth and connectivity to vinyl that you just do not get with the other formats. My enjoyment of this album was definitely enhanced by the vinyl experience, the packaging and the listening. And, curse you Mr Topham, I now have twenty further vinyls to backup that verdict!!