Review – Big Big Train – Welcome To The Planet

From tragedy can often come triumph

I truly did not know if I could write these words and review this album without the huge shadow of David Longdon and his tragic, untimely death hanging over me and influencing the words that this critique would be comprised of. Music, however, had different ideas and the overwhelming feeling of joy that emanated from my first listen to the last album that the wonderful Mr Longdon would ever record with one of my all time favourite bands, Big Big Train, just seemed to salve my soul and relieve me of the feeling of loss that had hung over me since it happened.

Featuring the band’s new line up of David Longdon on vocals; Gregory Spawton on bass; Rikard Sjöblom on guitars, keyboards, and vocals; Nick D’Virgilio on drums and vocals; Carly Bryant on keyboards and vocals; Dave Foster on guitars; and Clare Lindley on violin and vocals, ‘Welcome To The Planet’ carries on the resurgence of the band first heard on last year’s brilliant ‘Common Ground’.

I know I won’t be the only reviewer (and fan) of the band who feels that Big Big Train had been treading water a little bit since the release of ‘Folklore’ back in 2016 but ‘Common Ground’ had hinted at a reinvention of the band and the best music they had created since the groundbreaking ‘Underfall Yard’ from 2009. ‘Welcome To The Planet’ has continued that return to the heady heights that the band reached and could well be one of their best releases ever.

The wonderfully upbeat opening track Made From Sunshine, complete with elegant vocals, a chorus to die for and an incredible guitar solo, shows where the band are heading. The brass is simply sublime and the song left me with a nostalgic tear in my eye. The energy that flows throughout the brilliant Connection Plan, all driven along by the dynamic violin, infuses the track with a high tempo, feel-good rhythm and had me singing along at the top of my voice.

The fact that the album only has one song over seven minutes in length does not detract from the enjoyment in any way, there’s a feeling of musicians being let off the leash to just go and enjoy themselves and, boy, do they ever! making us, the listeners, the eager beneficiaries of this expansive approach.

My enjoyment of the music is tinged by melancholy as the shadow of the larger than life Longdon is always just there, out of reach. Listening to the gorgeous Lanterna seems to banish those feelings of sadness, almost as if David is willing you to just enjoy the music, like his final gift to us all. The songs starts in an ethereal and whimsical vein before opening up into a jubilant and heartwarming musical journey, simply delightful. The graceful, elegant (and criminally short) strains of Capitoline Venus give David’s voice the stage to work his magic on us once again and I have to admit that, on first listen, I did shed a tear or two.

A Room With No Ceiling, penned by Rikard, is a proggy instrumental that fuses all that’s best of the band with a touch of psychedelia at the start before it launches into an accordion infused, merry romp. Proper Jack Froster is the band’s Christmas track from 2021 and takes their pastoral progressive rock and transplants right in the middle of a medieval festive ode. To my ears it is one of the better Christmas songs of recents years and deserves its place on the album, if being a nod to BBT’s past, rather than a glance in the direction they are now heading. The second instrumental on the album is Nick’s engaging Bats In The Belfry, a very impressive take on the drum and bass solo that is oozing character and personality from every note.

There’s always moment of calm, poise and pause on a Big Big Train release and the enchantingly refined Oak and Stone fills that brief for this album. Achingly stylish vocals and a wonderfully laid back piano give the song a sumptuous feel. It really is seven minutes of pure class from these masters of the genre. Now, onto the intriguing final track on the album and a song that could be the most polarising that the band have ever released. Title track Welcome To the Planet is totally different from anything that has gone before and, to my ears anyway, is utterly brilliant! Exuding atmosphere and ambience, it is a theatrically inspired piece of music that takes the band in a totally different direction. With an almost ensemble vibe, the song relies mainly on Carly’s powerful and charismatic vocal performance to drive it along but the wistful and nostalgic music gives a 70’s prog feel to everything, reminding me of Pink Floyd at their height of fame, and there’s surely nothing wrong with that, is there? This track closes the album on a triumphant note and maybe hints on a the future direction than Big Big Train could take, I love it!

The tragedy of David’s death has hit the BBT community very hard and this new album should be the catalyst for the healing process to start. It is a fitting tribute to wonderful man but, and this is the important bit, it is also a sublime collection of songs from a group of talented musicians who are, once again, right at the top of their game. Whatever the band decide to do, they have given us one of the best albums of recent years and a totally memorable start to 2022.

Released 28th January, 2022.

Order from Burning Shed here:

Welcome To The Planet (burningshed.com)

Nick D’Virgilio, Neal Morse & Ross Jennings share first single and video for “Julia” from debut album

Nick D’Virgilio (Big Big Train, ex-Spock’s Beard), Neal Morse (Transatlantic, NMB, ex-Spock’s Beard), and Ross Jennings (Haken, Novena) are pleased to announce their debut album titled ‘Troika’ will be released on Feb 25th, 2022.

The album is now available for pre-order here:

D’Virgilio, Morse & Jennings – Julia (lnk.to)

Today, the band is also sharing the album’s first single “Julia”.  You can watch the video by Christian Rios here:

Ross had this to say about the track:

“With my original demo clocking in at around the 8-minute mark and possibly leaning too close to ‘prog epic’ than the singer/songwriter vibe we were attempting to present on this record, Neal arranged my lengthy ballad into something more concise, in-keeping with the album’s essence and writing in a powerful new chorus in the process!

“This one was all about the 3-part vocal harmony interplay and ‘pull-at-the-heartstring’ lyrics which deals with themes of regret and forgiveness in the context of a broken father-daughter relationship.”

– Ross Jennings

Tracklisting:

1.Everything I Am (5:43)

2. Julia (6:07) 

3. You Set My Soul On Fire (3:22) 

4. One Time Less (4:53)

5. Another Trip Around The Sun (4:39) 

6. A Change Is Gonna Come (4:24) 

7. If I Could (4:02) 

8. King For A Day (5:47)

9. Second Hand Sons (4:43)

10. My Guardian (3:43)

11. What You Leave Behind (4:16)

 ‘Troika’ will be available as Ltd. CD Edition / Gatefold 2LP+CD / Digital Album. Each format includes a bonus alternative version of the track ‘Julia’ and is available for pre-order here: https://dvirgiliomorsejennings.lnk.to/Troika

Recorded during lockdown, the process began with Neal Morse writing some acoustic songs that he thought would be enhanced by strong vocal harmonies. He already knew how well his voice blended with former Spock’s Beard band-mate and Big Big Train drummer/ vocalist, Nick D’Virgilio who came on board and, considering a third man, the Americans sought out Haken’s Ross Jennings from the UK to complete the trio. All three found they had songs that would benefit from the three part harmonic blend, and so they pooled their resources, inputting creatively into each others compositions. 

Neal comments: “What a great pleasure it’s been to work on this album with these amazing artists! It was kind of funny… We had been working on the songs remotely for several months before I finally heard all of us singing together at the same time. The first time I brought the faders up, I knew we had the magic!“ 

Nick adds: “I’ve known and worked with Neal for over 30 years and I’ve been a big fan of Ross and the music he makes for a long time. I felt confident right away that this would be a fun project to be a part of. I was so right.”

Ross comments: “Receiving ‘The Call’ from Neal to participate in this project was somewhat of a prayer answered… As a long time fan of their work, I’ve been singing along to Neal’s & Nick’s records for years, so it felt really natural for my voice to slot right in.”

The tracks took shape with the musicians recording all of the music and vocals separately, yet the eclectic performances burst with the energy and excitement of the collaboration. Acoustic anthems, charged rockers and sensitive ballads are all part of the mix, and the unique blend of Ross, Neal and Nick’s voices and styles have created an album in which you will encounter these musicians in a way you’ve never heard before.

Review – Big Big Train – Common Ground

‘Common Ground’ is the self-produced new album from Big Big Train on their own label, English Electric Recordings. The new album, recorded during the worldwide pandemic, sees the band continue their tradition of dramatic narratives but also tackles issues much closer to home, such as the Covid lockdowns, the separation of loved ones, the passage of time, deaths of people close to the band and the hope that springs from a new love.

‘Common Ground’ sees the band taking in wider musical and lyrical inspiration from artists such as Elbow, Pete Townshend, Tears For Fears, Elton John and XTC, as well as acknowledging their more progressive roots.
 
Following the departure of long time members of the band, the core of Big Big Train is now Greg Spawton (bass), David Longdon (lead vocals, flute), Nick D’Virgilio (drums, vocals) and Rikard Sjöblom (guitars, keyboards, vocals). Carly Bryant (keyboards, guitars, vocals), who contributes vocals to ‘Common Ground’, Dave Foster (guitars), who plays on two tracks on the new album and Clare Lindley (violin, vocals) will join the band for the upcoming tour and there will also be the welcome return of a five piece brass ensemble. 

After finishing my first listen through of the new album, my first impressions were that, while it is familiar (especially with David Longdon’s distinctive vocals), there is something new and dynamic about it. Like all the best albums, it needs more investigation and listening to, but, to my ears, a subtle reinventing of Big Big Train is afoot!

So, a few days and many, many listens later, how do I feel about ‘Common Ground’ now? Read on and all shall be revealed…

It’s bloody marvellous, basically! I am a long time fan of the band and this is the first album that has really grabbed me and not let me go since the ‘English Electric’ series.

The wondrously upbeat Strangest Times with its brilliant Elton John inspired piano lines (take a bow Rikard Sjöblom) opens the album in fine style. David Longdon is in fine voice, especially on the ever so catchy chorus, and the guitar playing throughout is sublime, I’m left with a huge grin on my face as the track comes to a satisfying close. The track sees David writing about the Covid lockdowns, the separation of loved ones, the passage of time, deaths of people close to the band  “After the death of a collaborator Judy Dyble in July 2020, I time spent shielding with an ill relative. With everything that was happening around me and for the world with the relentless doomwatch tone of the news broadcasts, I spoke with Greg. I said I couldn’t just be writing songs about historical figures and scenarios. I felt that I needed to write about the here and now. In ‘The Strangest Times’.”

All The Love That We Can Give is a more laid back affair with a wistful feel to the keyboards and David’s vocal with a deeper tone. There are swathes of contemplative Hammond Organ and the guitar just sits in the background, like a conductor leading the band. Vocal harmonies abound and Greg and Nick prove what a fantastic rhythm session they are and then the track goes off into proper progressive rock territory, full of energy and intricate musicianship, another rather fine song indeed!

When the intro to Black With Ink starts I’m immediately drawn to a comparison with Kim Wilde’s Kids In America (wait until you hear it, then it won’t sound so daft!). The edgy keyboards and vocals sound like a call to action and the song just picks up and goes from there, it’s certainly up there with the best upbeat songs that the band have ever recorded. The vocal interplay is excellent and gives a real urgency to the track. If this is part of a new direction for the band then please count me in on the journey. To my ears, things get even better in the second half as a distinctive musical refrain starts to be heard (it’s one that continues to surface throughout the rest of the album too…) and becomes an earworm that you can’t get rid of, and don’t want to actually! Dandelion Clock is a nostalgic and thoughtful song that is dear to Greg’s heart a beautifully written piece of music with David’s vocal at its most plaintive and heartfelt. The chorus is a work of art and the whole track just works its way into your affections. A quite exquisite song that leaves you in a totally reflective and introspective state of mind.

Headwaters is the first of two instrumentals and is Big Big Train at their best when it comes to telling stories without words, a dreamlike, meditative piece that is painstakingly and perfectly created, just beautiful. Then we go to the opposite end of the musical spectrum with the vibrant notes of the energetic and dynamic Apollo. Nick D’Virgilio wanted “…to write the band’s version of Genesis’s Los Endos and to make a track that really showed off the talent of all the amazing musicians in the band.” And, boy, he certainly did that and has created one of the best progressive instrumentals of recent times.

The title track of the album sees the band in anthemic mood, Common Ground is a powerful piece of music, a statement of the state of humanity but delivered in a way that only Big Big Train can. Soaring vocal harmonies, powerful melodies and excellent musicianship create a an energetic and passionate song that grabs your attention and makes you listen and absorb the message within. The guitar and violin interplay is absolutely superb, this is a song that will have the audience at the live shows singing their hearts out, just outstanding!

It wouldn’t be a Big Big Train album if there wasn’t an epic song with a dramatic historical narrative that shows British pastoral progressive rock at its very, very best would it? Well, the band don’t let us down and deliver a transcendent fifteen minutes of heart and soul in the majestic Atlantic Cable. There’ll always be a place for tracks like this in the musical universe, soaring crescendos mix with intricate musical passages to create musical works of art that will always pass the test of time. Take songwriters of consummate skill and musicians at the top of their game and you will end up with superb songs of substance and heart and soul that have meaning and that tell the grandest of stories in the perfect manner.

Endnotes closes the album on an emotive note. Another one of Greg’s favourites (and mine), it is a perfectly composed song with heartfelt vocals from David that just bleed compassion and sentiment. The musical accompaniment is exquisitely elegant and the harmonies just make your heart sing and then, the brass! Oh my god, the hairs just stand up on the back of your neck as the notes sound out, there’s just something about that sound that makes my soul soar and Big Bg Train do it so well. What an incredible end to the album, I don’t mind admitting it has made me quite emotional.

So, there you have it, ‘Common Ground’ is recognisably Big Big Train but a Big Big Train that have moved the game on a little and given us an album of its time. Vibrant and upbeat, thoughtful, wistful and even melancholy at times, it is a collection of amazing songs that will touch you on a basic level and move you on many others. ‘Common Ground’ is the album that will make you fall in love with the band all over again and I can’t give it any higher praise than that!

Released 30th July, 2021.

Order the album here:

Big Big Train (burningshed.com)

Big Big Train announce new album ‘Common Ground’ out on July 30th, 2021

First single and video for title track out today!

UK tour dates revealed for March 2022

July 30th, 2021 sees the release of ‘Common Ground’, the self-produced new album from Big Big Train on their own label, English Electric Recordings. The new album, recorded during the worldwide pandemic, sees the band continue their tradition of dramatic narratives but also tackles issues much closer to home, such as the Covid lockdowns, the separation of loved ones, the passage of time, deaths of people close to the band and the hope that springs from a new love.

Watch the new video for the title track, created by Christian Rios, here:

“This is unashamedly a love song. It is about finding things that we share and have in common with other people. When my partner and I first came together as a couple, we lived not far from Avebury in Wiltshire, a very Big Big Train kind of place. The chalk hills and standing stones were part of the imagery of our ‘Folklore’ album, and once again I was writing what was literally happening in the location in which we found ourselves. I remember seeing my white chalk dust footprints upon the black of the car mats after we’d been walking around Avebury.  I’m pleased that we both get to have this time with each other and ‘Common Ground’ is about finding out the things that we have in common with each other and deciding what we want to do in life together.” – David Longdon

Tracklisting:

1. The Strangest Times
2. All The Love We Can Give
3. Black With Ink
4. Dandelion Clock
5. Headwaters
6. Apollo
7. Common Ground
8. Atlantic Cable
9. Endnotes

‘Common Ground’ is available for pre-order now as Double Vinyl, CD, and Bandcamp Download at these sites:
https://burningshed.com/store/bigbigtrain
https://bigbigtrain.bandcamp.com

‘Common Ground’ sees the band taking in wider musical and lyrical inspiration from artists such as Elbow, Pete Townshend, Tears For Fears, Elton John and XTC, as well as acknowledging their more progressive roots. As ever, Big Big Train will take listeners on a journey, be it waiting for the UK 5pm pandemic press conferences (’The Strangest Times’) to the library of Alexandria (‘Black With Ink’) to the bottom of the ocean (‘Atlantic Cable’).
 
For the ‘Common Ground’ tour, which will be their most extensive to date and which will culminate in the UK with a show at the prestigious London Palladium, Greg Spawton (bass), David Longdon (lead vocals, flute), Nick D’Virgilio (drums, vocals) and Rikard Sjöblom (guitars, keyboards, vocals) will be joined by Carly Bryant (keyboards, guitars, vocals), who contributes vocals to ‘Common Ground’, Dave Foster (guitars), who plays on two tracks on the new album, Clare Lindley (violin, vocals) and by a five piece brass ensemble. The band expect to announce North American tour dates shortly.
 
Big Big Train has taken lyrical and musical inspiration from periods of history that are recognised as great leaps forward. Now with ‘Common Ground’, they are making such a surge themselves.
BIG BIG TRAIN UK TOUR 2022
 
TUE, MARCH 15TH – YORK, BARBICAN
WED, MARCH 16TH – CAMBRIDGE, CORN EXCHANGE
FRI, MARCH 18TH – BIRMINGHAM, SYMPHONY HALL
SAT, MARCH 19TH – BATH, FORUM
MON, MARCH 21ST – GLASGOW, ROYAL CONCERT HALL
TUE, MARCH 22ND – MANCHESTER, BRIDGEWATER HALL
WED, MARCH 23RD – LONDON, PALLADIUM
 
TICKETS ON SALE FROM MAY 14th, 2021
https://myticket.co.uk/artists/big-big-train

Review – John Holden – Rise and Fall – by John Wenlock-Smith

John Holden’s ‘Rise and Fall’ has been in my possession for a while now and I was very gratified to be given access to this remarkable album some three months prior to its official release. I was also very pleased that I had been thanked  in the album credits, that having been an ambition of mine for quite some time.

‘Rise and Fall’ is the second album from John Holden and features substantial input and assistance from several core musicians including Joe Payne, Oliver Day and Oliver Wakeman, Sally Minnear, Jean Pageau and Michel St Pere from Mystery, not forgetting the always remarkably impressive Peter Jones. If, like me, you enjoyed John’s debut release ‘Capture Light’ (still available from John via Bandcamp) then I’m sure you will love this one too.

The album consists of just seven pieces, they are, however, lengthy and well written. It is also expertly recorded and produced by John himself while the whole album was mastered by Robin Armstrong of Cosmograf fame.

The guest list of collaborators is impressive with each bringing their own skills to bear. Especially worthy of note are the keyboard skills and musical arrangements of Vikram Shankar, a musician who is not very widely known yet. The album is a great place to discover him for yourself, he certainly looks to be a musician with a bright future awaiting him.

As a side note, the packaging on this release is again impeccable, as are the extensive sleeve notes in the booklet which give a deeper insight into each of these tracks.

So, without further ado, let’s dive right on in then shall we…

The opening track, Leap of Faith, features Peter Jones on vocals, recorder and whistles, in fact Peter bookends the album with a further performance on the last track Ancestors and Satellites with both tracks sharing a recurrent musical passage, albeit it in a different key.  

Leap of Faith concerns itself with the antics of Eilmer, A Benedictine monk who lived at Malmesbury Abbey in the 11th century and one who was fascinated by the flight of the birds and bats that lived around the priory He had it in his mind to fly like they did so attempted (like Daedalus, the Father of Icarus of Greek mythology fame) to fly using wings he had made attached to his back and arms. You can read the story in the song lyrics but I can say that gravity prevailed! This piece is very moving and very atmospheric with Peter Jones really bringing the tale to life in his own inimitable way.

This is a fantastic opener that sets you up for all that follows, which, in this instance, is the superb Rise and Fall voiced by Jean Pageau of Mystery. This talented vocalist gives a very emotionally raw vocal delivery that makes you feel his anguish as he sings of the relationship that one has with both their addictions and the person they care about, who also suffers the brunt of this addiction. This is a very honest song and another classy piece of work.

The next track, The Golden Thread, I consider a truly beautiful song, one that has extra depths to it as it is a requiem written by John’s wife Elizabeth who is a cancer survivor. She wrote this to express her deep love for John and also so that, if she were not around, the song and her memory would live on as a musical legacy of her life and struggle. This piece of music is very gentle with an almost classical tone to it and is sung by the remarkable talents of John Payne and Lauren Nolan as a duet, not being written as such initially but Lauren’s voice worked so well with Joe’s that adaptations were made to make it work in this way. The sentiments that this song espouses and expresses are both very warm, loving and deeply profound indeed with Oliver Wakeman and Vikram Shankar playing on the song to magnificent effect.

The music reaches a crescendo before fading away to the harder edged Dark Arts on which Billy Sherwood provides a bass part in the style of the late great Chris Squire, playing the sort of bass runs the great man would have done whilst alive. The track also features a spoken excerpt of Francis Urquhart of House of Cards fame, setting the tone for a politically charged song about the abuse of power by those in charge. Once again Joe Payne vocalises with real passion and power to deliver a truly remarkable track along with more fine keyboards from Oliver Wakeman. I heard this song in an unmixed state six months ago and was suitably impressed then, and still am, by its magnificent, powerful delivery and content that is right on point.

The next track is Heretic which speaks of how ISIS destroyed lots of priceless artefacts in Palmyra in Iraq after killing the 82 year old custodian Khaled Al-Assad at the site and smashing 3000 year old plus pieces in a show of cultural terrorism. He was beheaded in front of his family and his body was then hung in the central square. Again, whilst a dark song, there is hope that the displaced peoples will one day return and, as John says, “Empires rise and fall, ideologies are replaced but still the healing power of love endures.” Sally Minnear’s vocals are excellent on this too as she sings in tandem with Joe Payne.

After the Storm is about a journey one woman takes and utilises the weather outside as a metaphor for storms in her life and the ultimate realisation that, eventually, the storms both outside and inside her will pass leaving a calmer and clearer path ahead. This is mostly an acoustic piece and that adds a good contrast for the album with some fine playing from Oliver Day.

The final song, Ancestors and Satellites, returns to the opening section of Leap of Faith as Eilmer saw Haley’s comet twice in his lifetime with John using this comet theme again to show how little we’ve learnt in the days gone past. This song has vocal contributions from Peter Jones, Joe Payne, Sally Minnear and Lauren Nolan but mainly its Peter who sings this so delicately and with real warmth and all set to suitably atmospheric keyboards from John, and Vikram Shankar.

The song talks about cave paintings over 40,000 years ago and also of the Apollo mission that landed on the moon in July 1969 and of the footprints they left there for ever. There follows an ensemble of synthesizers playing a multi tracked passage to great effect and the massed vocals singing the chorus once again before the comet melody returns once again to bring the song towards its impressive finale. Another thing of note is the fantastic and powerful drum work from Nick D’Virgilio. On this track and throughout most of the album Nick adds his magic and his drive to power these pieces along in a most delightful and satisfying manner.

The vocals are impassioned and strong and Michael St Pere’s epic guitar line is heard, along with a bank of synths, sounding very epic and majestic to bring this fantastic album to a fine conclusion.

To think that this is only the work of John, Elizabeth and a few select friends funded from the sales of his earlier album and without and label support is remarkable. It shows John Holden to be a man with both vision and a purpose. I for one applaud him hugely for his fine efforts on this most excellent album. This is going to be one of the albums of the year for those who take notice.

Released 22nd February 2020

Order from John Holden here:

Review – Spock’s Beard – Noise Floor – by Jez Denton

Progressive Rock music is a funny thing. Often pretentious, up its own arse, quite frankly snobby and elitist. Almost like you have to be super clever to get it, the musical equivalent of Jeremy Paxman asking a contestant from an old Polytechnic a question about thermo-nuclear physics on University Challenge, with an obvious sneer because they don’t go to an Oxbridge college. In short, their seriousness can make them seem ridiculous and open to much mirth.

However, every now and then you come across a band that who have a sense of humour, who are self-aware and who can create great music whilst not taking things too seriously. One for whom progressive music doesn’t have to be dour and only for a niche, but can be entertaining, fun and welcoming whilst retaining all its virtuoso playing and performing.

With a name like Spock’s Beard no one could accuse this Californian band of being dour or elitist. Their music has always been both clever and accessible; something that they’ve continued to achieve on their new album, being released on the 25th May, ‘Noise Floor’. The album is full of what singer/guitarist, Ted Leonard, describes as ‘crazy prog,’ whilst also working on making the songs ‘more immediate.’

And for sure, they’ve achieved it with this collection of smashing tunes featuring beautifully played instruments; both trusted old friends plus new orchestral additions of strings and horns. Spock’s Beard have been developing their sound and style for over twenty years now and find themselves at a point where they can take time to develop and create their music which results in this album being released at a point when all members were in agreement that it was the best work they could put out there.

With all members of the band writing and recording demo’s independently before bringing them together to be worked on collectively in production, there is a great sense of exceptional quality being produced over quantity for the quantities sake. The album itself, and accompanying E.P, displays its influences with pride; the hints of 1970’s prog such as Yes, Genesis and Supertramp, influences that have led to songs of majestic beauty such as the wonderful Bulletproof that appears on the ‘Cutting Room Floor’ E.P.

It is fair to say that the album isn’t without flaws; the jazz instrumental of Box of Spiders jars slightly, but it doesn’t diminish from what is an accomplished and melodic journey through the slightly crazy world of Spock’s Beard. Die-hard fans will find more than enough typical output to allow them to enjoy the musical development that this album represents. And those for whom this will be their first exposure to the band will find plenty to enjoy and will also spark interest in finding out more of the bands back catalogue.

Released 25th May 2018

Order ‘Noise Floor’ from InsideOut here

 

Spock’s Beard announce 13th studio album ‘Noise Floor’

Legendary US progressive rockers Spock’s Beard have announced the release of their 13th studio album ‘Noise Floor’ for May 25th, 2018. As announced previously, for this album Ted Leonard, Alan Morse, Dave Meros & Ryo Okumoto are joined in the studio once again by drummer & original member Nick D’Virgilio.

Spock’s Beard is a band that is in a continual state of evolution, as is always the case with genuinely creative musicians. And their new album, ‘Noise Floor’, fits perfectly into this process.

We are always about evolution, not revolution. But what we have done this time is make the songs more melodic,” believes vocalist/guitarist Ted Leonard. “We still love our crazy prog, but now appreciate how important it is to grab people’s attention early on.”

As with all Spock’s Beard songs, most of the new album was written by the individual members, and then brought to the rest of the band as high quality demos. “We all do this type of thing in our home studios,” adds Leonard. “So, by the time they reach the stage where the entire band get to judge them, they are really developed, and therefore everyone can make a reasoned judgement.”  Much of what you will listen to here is very much the product of fresh inspiration from the Californian band.

One key change on this album sees the return of drummer Nick D’Virgilio, who originally left in 2011. There are also two violinists, a cello player, a viola player and an English horn featured on the album, thereby giving the sound a slightly more evocative and persuasive twist.

The album was once again engineered by long-time collaborator Rich Mouser and will be released as a 2CD digipak (featuring an EP of material from the same sessions), gatefold 2LP + 2CD & as digital download.

The track-listing is as follows:

Disc 1 – Noise Floor

1.     To Breathe Another Day
2.     What Becomes of Me
3.     Somebody’s Home
4.     Have We All Gone Crazy Yet
5.     So This Is Life
6.     One So Wise
7.     Box of Spiders
8.     Beginnings

Disc 2 – Cutting Room Floor

1.     Days We’ll Remember
2.     Bulletproof
3.     Vault
4.     Armageddon Nervous

SPOCK’S BEARD Online:
http://spocksbeard.com/
https://www.facebook.com/spocksbeard/
https://twitter.com/SpocksB
http://www.youtube.com/Spocksbeard

 

Review – Big Big Train – Grimspound – by Progradar

“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
Defiantly stands
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;
experimental gentlemen.”

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
counting constellations.
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…

Band photos by Simon Hogg.

Released 28th April 2017

Buy ‘Grimspound’ on CD from The Merch Desk

Buy ‘Grimspound’ on Vinyl from Burning Shed

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review – Nad Sylvan – The Bride Said No – by Tony Honour

(All artist pictures by Tom Wild)

After deciding that he wasn’t busy enough touring with Steve Hackett, in 2015 Nad Sylvan signed a Solo contract with InsideOut music to bring us his first solo album, the excellent ‘Courting The Widow’. May 2017 sees the arrival of the eagerly anticipated follow up, ‘The Bride Said No’.

Whilst ‘Courting the Widow’ contained heavy overtones that were firmly routed in 1970’sBritish Progressive Rock, perhaps not surprisingly heavily influenced by Genesis, Nad has fairly and squarely put his own stamp on this new album whilst still acknowledging those influences. The album opens with Bridesmaids, a haunting melody played by Nad, with backing vocals from Jade Ell and Sheona Urguhart, which is used as a recurring theme throughout the record. It segues directly into The Quartermaster, a powerful song based around Nad’s exquisite keyboards which acts as an introduction to the Bride’s suitor and sets the plot for the story. It is also to be released as the first single and contains a very abrupt ending which caught me completely by surprise on first listen!

When The Music Dies is considerably more melancholic and shows off Nad’s vocal range to its imperious best. The story continues with The White Crown which has very strong Medieval overtones. Jonas Reingold’s distinctive guitar riff gives the song a harder edge and is a great contrast to Nad’s guitar throughout the rest of the track. What Have You Done is my personal highlight. It opens with gentle piano from Nad and backing vocals from Jade and Sheona with Jade also sharing the lead vocals with Nad beautifully. Steve Hackett and Guthrie Govan share the guitar duties with Steve starting the incredible soloing and they complement each other magnificently. Crime Of Passion follows and is a much more powerful song that still retains a wonderful melodic balance. A French Kiss in an Italian café begins with a tasteful guitar intro, Nad’s vocals then set the scene and we are led to a meeting with a stranger. Wonderful guitar work from Steve and Nad accompany the vocals along with Tony Levin’s  ever expressive bass and there is a beautiful saxophone solo from Sheona to close the track.

The Bride Said No is the albums finale and at first glance is a nigh on 20 minute magnum opus. It lasts however 12 and a half minutes and magnificently concludes the album. Tania Doko this time shares the vocals with Nad who also contributes with a wonderful “Emersonesqe” solo added to more splendid guitar work and an incredible solo from Steve.

Drums and percussion are shared throughout by the excellent one-time Jethro Tull drummer Doane Perry and Big Big Train’s Nick DiVirgilio. Bass is provided by Jonas Reingold (of Swedish progsters Kaipa) and Tony Levin. The vinyl edition is three sided with the fourth being occupied by an etch in the manner of his stablemates Kansas’ last album. Doubtless, in the 1970’s, the likes of Todd Rundgren would have squeezed this on to two sides of plastic but I for one am ecstatic that we have three sides of pure listening pleasure which I am counting down the days to receive.

Released 26th May 2017

Pre-order ‘The Bride Said No’ from InsideOut Music

 

 

Steve Hackett: The Night Siren – New Album

Guitar virtuoso and rock legend, Steve Hackett (formerly of Genesis), releases his latest album The Night Siren on 24th March 2017 through InsideOut Music (Sony).  As implied in the title, The Night Siren is a wake-up call… the warning of a siren sounding in this era of strife and division.

‘The Night Siren’ showcases Steve’s incredible guitar as strongly as ever, along with musicians from several different countries who Steve invited to join him in celebrating multicultural diversity and unity.  This includes singers from Israel and Palestine, who both actively campaign to bring Jewish and Arabic people together.  There are also instrumentals from the USA and Iraq and a multiplicity of sounds, including the exotic strains of Indian sitar and Middle Eastern tar and oud, the ethnic beauty of the Peruvian charango and the haunting Celtic Uilleann pipes.

Steve is widely travelled, making friends everywhere he goes and has always embraced multicultural diversity.  In these times of unrest, he has been inspired to express his belief that the world needs more empathy and unity.  His wish to involve a range of musical sounds, instruments, musicians and singers from different parts of the world is both a development of his eclectic approach to music and shows how people can be brought together, even from war torn regions.

Talking about his latest work, Steve says, “This latest waxing represents a bird’s eye view of the world of a musical migrant ignoring borders and celebrating our common ancestry with a unity of spirit, featuring musicians, singers and instruments from all over the world.  From territorial frontiers to walled-up gateways, boundaries often hold back the tide.  But while the night siren wails, music breaches all defences. To quote Plato, ‘When the music changes, the walls of the city shake’.”

 The musical journey takes us from ‘Behind the Smoke’, focusing on the plight of refugees throughout the ages, to the penultimate track ‘West to East’ which reflects on the damage of war and the hope for a better world. From personal to universal, the themes celebrate the life force, breaking free from chains of repression.

Full Track Listing:-

  1.      Behind the Smoke
  2.      Martian Sea
  3.      Fifty Miles from the North Pole
  4.      El Niño
  5.      Other Side of the Wall
  6.      Anything but Love
  7.      Inca Terra
  8.      In Another Life
  9.      In the Skeleton Gallery
  10.    West to East
  11.    The Gift

In addition to singers Kobi and Mira (Israeli and Palestinian), also featured on the album are Nick D’Virgilio (drums) from the USA, Malik Mansurov (Tar) from Azerbaijan & Gulli Breim (drums & percussion) from Iceland, along with regular Hackett collaborators: Roger King, Nad Sylvan, Gary O’Toole, Rob Townsend and Amanda Lehmann.  Additional musicians who add to the rich flavour of the album are Christine Townsend (violin & viola), Dick Driver (double bass) and Troy Donockley (Celtic Uilleann).

Steve Hackett is returning with an exciting new show Genesis Revisited with Classic Hackett for a 15 date UK tour in April 2017.  Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the classic Genesis album Wind and Wuthering, Steve and his band will be performing several tracks from the album as well as fan favourites such as ‘The Musical Box’ and other Genesis numbers never performed before by Steve’s band including ‘Inside & Out,’ ‘One For The Vine’ and ‘Anyway’ as well as material from The Night Siren.

 

Tickets available from www.myticket.co.uk

‘The Night Siren’ will be released through Inside Out Music on 24th March in the following formats:

Special Edition CD/Blu-Ray Mediabook featuring 5.1 surround sound mix & making of documentary: 88985410452

Standard Jewel case CD: 88985410462

Gatefold black 2LP vinyl + CD: 88985410471

Digital Download

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