An Interview With Rikard Sjöblom – by Progradar

On the early May Bank Holiday Monday Rikard Sjöblom of Gungfly, Big Big Train and (formerly) Beardfish took the time to have a chat with me about the new Gungfly album ‘On Her Journey To The Sun’ and we also discussed ‘Grimspound’, the new Big Big Train release, the demise of Beardfish and lorry driving.

Listen to the full audiofile here:

You can also read Kevin Thompson’s excellent review of (and find a link to order) the new album here:

Review – Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly – On Her Journey To The Sun – by Kevin Thompson

 

 

Review – Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly – On Her Journey To The Sun – by Kevin Thompson

Right! Listen up class! Roll call before we start, David Elliott, Martin Hutchinson, David Rickinson, Emma Roebuck, Tony Honour, Leo Trimming, James R Turner and Rob Fisher, all present and correct.

As announced in assembly this morning we have a very special guest in our music lesson today. Martin Hutchinson, down the front please, I am not having you and Leo Trimming messing about at the back of the class.

No David Elliott, it isn’t Denzil Dexter from the Fast Show.

As I was saying, we have a guest who is going to play the music from his soon to be released new album On Her Journey To The Sun, under the band collective name of Gungfly, so please give a big round of applause for Mr Rikard Sjoblom and his fellow musicians:

Petter Diamant (drums), Rasmus Diamant (bass), Sverker Magnusson (keys), Martin Borgh (keys) and David Zackrisson (guitar).

Those of you familiar with Mr Sjoblom’s previous work with Beardfish, recent forays with Big Big Train and solo output may have some idea what to expect from this accomplished multi-instrumentalist. If not, those admiring the opulent Santana/Mahavishnu type cover of this album may also hope to glean some clues as to what lies between the grooves of the latest from this excellent musician.

So pay attention, we will discuss each track on completion and there will be homework………

Well girls and boys that was the first track, Of The Orb, what do we think?

Yes Leo, I can see you waving frantically and please take off that top hat, we are not holding auditions for Alice in Wonderland. So you think it is reminiscent of some of your Dad’s old 70’s material, with the keyboard sounds, mixed with more contemporary progressive instrumentation. And you like the synthesiser and guitar harmonies David Elliott along with Mr Sjoblom singing the catchy line throughout of “Stay with me, care for me, I will be yours”. It is quite an epic track in length, Martin Hutchinson, and please try not to shuffle so much on your seat. Oh, you’re chair dancing because you think it’s catchy, well don’t get carried away.

Back to the music, this is the second track On Her Journey To The Sun….

You liked that did you Emma Roebuck, thought it was jazzier, had a bit of swing to it but is maybe more of a pop tune. Yes, Petter and Rasmus Diamant are brothers and yes their drums and bass do work well together to create an effective rhythm section. It’s Mr Sjoblom to you young Rob Fisher, not Rik, but yes he does have a high voice sometimes, anyone know what this type of vocal is called. It’s not ‘girly’ Hutchinson, it’s Falsetto.

Track 3 is entitled He Held An Axe….

Would you you like to take a moment out from digging a tunnel to your brain via your left nostril David Rickinson and give us the benefit of your opinion. You thought the acoustic beginning to this one was good and the way the same chords segued into the electric guitars which loop throughout parts of this track and then back to the acoustic sound. Yes Mr Sjoblom’s voice does change, he has quite an impassioned vocal range and the lyrics do seem to be about quite a gruesome story, I thought that would get your interest.

Number 4 is, I believe, My Hero….

It was an exciting, heavier track Tony Honour, I quite agree, but could you please remove your gum, there is no chewing in class. Don’t stick it under the desk put it in the bin thank you. You think the guitar work sounds quite complicated on this one and it is more up tempo. Well the guitars played by Mr Zackrisson and Mr Sjoblom do have some very fine interplay and yes, you could call this one a ‘rocker’ with some powerful drumming. Please note David Elliott you will get a headache if you keep trying to head-bang like that.

On to Track 5 class, If You Fall, Pt 1….

Emma Roebuck, you think this has a beautiful piano introduction and a gentler organ melody. Anyone else? Yes it does sound quite sad in a way Leo, maybe a bit wistful and it is quite a contrast to the previous track. It is shorter than the other songs which also enhances the change in pace, with a fading ending, which as you will hear, adds emphasis to the intro of  Track 6, Polymixia….

A ‘funky’ start you say James R Turner. Why are there no vocals you ask? It’s what is known as an ‘instrumental’, with no singing. It is the longest track so far James and yes it has multiple layers on top of each other which reveal themselves subtly and I’m sure you would be able to distinguish many melodies and time changes with further listening. You feel there is a sprinkling of whimsy do you Rob Fisher and it is bubblier, with more of an upbeat. I’m glad you think so and have decided to join in the discussion as I thought for a moment that you had nodded off. Please take note how the length of this track allows these wonderful musicians to stretch and show their instrumental talents to the best of their abilities.

Hand up again Martin, oh you need the toilet. Okay be quick about it and no, it isn’t an excuse for everyone else to go, you can wait until the end of  the lesson. Whilst Martin is out of the class, the band will have time to retune and I would like the class to ponder on the rather delicious keyboard contributions on this album from Messrs Sverker Magnusson and Martin Borgh which are most excellent indeed.

Now Mr Hutchinson has returned to the fold we can continue with Track 7, Over My Eyes….

You seem quiet Miss Roebuck, why don’t you take a moment from drawing love hearts on your exercise book and tell us what you thought of this song. Who is the lady playing the exquisite  violin on this one you ask? It is none other than the lovely Rachel Hall who plays in a band I consider to be one of  the front runners in Progressive music today, Big Big Train. If you remember I told you at the start of the lesson that Rikard, apologies Mr Sjoblom, plays in the very same band. Yes it has a rippling piano lead in, Emma, and the violin does float above it like birds over the farm fields under a darkening sky, very imaginative. You can stop the sniggering David Elliot the birds would not be plopping on your head, I swear shaking yours has done some damage.

We now have Track 8 which is called Old Demons Die Hard….

What are you whispering to David Elliott, Rickinson? You think the title is about me, don’t be so facetious, see me afterwards. Tony Honour the view out of the window is not that interesting, why not give us your thoughts on this song. It has a blues and jazz feel to this one in places with some intricate guitar work that at times reminds you of your Mum’s Steely Dan LPs. She still has LPs, I’m impressed. It has got some very good bass work too, yes I would concur.

Now class, we have another of those instrumental tracks, Keith (Son Of Sun)….

Mr Hutchinson your thoughts on this one? You thought it was quite ‘lush’, smooth and laid-back did you. A bit like Mr Trimming with his feet up on the desk at the back there, take them off please Leo.  That means you won’t be able to walk does it, very funny. You can wait behind with Rickinson at the end of the lesson as well. It sounds like a church organ at the start you say Turner, I suppose it does and yes there are intricate rhythms which show great restraint to create a ‘chilled’ tune. Well I can’t argue there Turner and I would say the jazz influences give it that sort of  vibe.

Does anyone know what ‘penultimate’ means? Your hand will drop off as well as your feet Leo, if you keep waving it that frantically, but please enlighten us. You are quite correct it means second last, which Elliott unfortunately was in last week’s cross country.

And so we come to the penultimate and longest tune on the album, The River Of Sadness….

Mr Fisher, you have your hand raised. You feel it takes you on an emotional journey with all the differing changes of tempo and you like the various soloing with whirling keyboards and guitars which go from laid back to more aggressive. Yes Emma, it does showcase everything the band are capable of whilst being a track that sums up the album nicely and despite it’s length it seems to be over quickly and you would like to hear it a few more times to hear all the subtle nuances. Well you all have a digital file of the album to listen to tonight as part of your homework so you can do so when you get home.

So who noticed it was actually two tracks and that The River Of Sadness leads straight into the final haunting tune with spoken vocals which reflect that maybe it’s All A Dream. Yes Martin, I agree that it is the ominous synthesiser rumble combined with the echoing piano keys that create the atmosphere on this and in being brief leaves you wanting more.

Well that’s it and there’s the bell for home-time, if we could give Mr Sjoblom and his associates a huge round of applause before we leave for taking the time to gift us the thought provoking music on this wonderful album. Please listen to it again tonight and I expect at least a two page essay on my desk tomorrow with your full review and no rude diagrams in the margins this time Trimming.

Make sure you consider the impressive mixing and production values and don’t fail to mention Mr Sjoblom’s accomplished 12 string fretwork along with his other talents.

By all means let your parents have a listen and please inform them the album is released on 19 May,  should they wish to purchase on 2 CD Special Edition and will be available on all digital platforms. You might also mention to your Mum, Tony Honour, that it will also be available on 180g double vinyl which may pique her interest.

Class dismissed! Not you Trimming, Rickinson. You two can stay behind and help Mr Sjoblom and his band take the equipment out to the van. Not fair you say Mr Turner and Miss Roebuck, anyone else think so? Very well you can all give a hand, but don’t be late home and be careful with the equipment.

Released 19th May 2017

Pre-order On Her Journey To The Sun on all formats from Inside Out

 

 

 

Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly Sign To InsideOut For New Album ‘On Her Journey To The Sun’

Following last years disbanding of Sweden’s much-loved progressive rockers Beardfish, vocalist and driving force Rikard Sjöblom has turned his attention to his solo project Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly, and signed with InsideOutMusic for the release of their next album ‘On Her Journey To The Sun’ on 19th May 2017.

Rikard had this to say: Gungfly was born out of necessity, songs came to life whenever there was downtime with Beardfish or if a song didn’t quite fit within Beardfish’s (otherwise quite broad and eclectic) frame of styles. I basically started recording songs, mainly pop-oriented material, but being the type of songwriter and musician I am, some prog slipped through the radar as well. With the break-up of Beardfish all of the prog-related material I write needed to go somewhere and Gungfly was ready and able for this step!”

Band photo by Peder Andersson.

Review – Big Big Train – Folklore – by Progradar

Cover

“And I thought about how many people have loved those songs. And how many people got through a lot of bad times because of those songs. And how many people enjoyed good times with those songs. And how much those songs really mean. I think it would be great to have written one of those songs. I bet if I wrote one of them, I would be very proud. I hope the people who wrote those songs are happy. I hope they feel it’s enough. I really do because they’ve made me happy. And I’m only one person.” – Steven Chbosky – The Perks Of Being A Wallflower

If you’ve been a follower of my reviews then you’ll know that I like to open with a pertinent quote so, when it came to reviewing the latest release from one of my all time favourite bands, I searched long and hard for one that I thought captured my feelings the best.

In the last five or six years I have been through some exceedingly tough times, some of the lowest of my life and yet, throughout, I have been kept sane by my love of music and, especially, by the emotionally uplifting songs of Big Big Train so, when I first saw the quote above, it resonated with me immediately and on a very intimate level.

The new album is called ‘Folklore’ and yet the press release states that,

“Despite the album title, ‘Folklore’ is by no means a collection of traditional-sounding folk music pieces. On ‘Folklore’, Big Big Train are reimagining and breathing new life into traditional themes, and also creating a few new ones along the way. The crafts of songwriting and storytelling beat strongly at the heart of the Big Big Train and inform every track on the new album.”

Well, this got me thinking about how folk and, in particular, how storytelling through song actually began? Are you sitting comfortably? then we’ll begin…..

orpheus

Older than civilization, storytelling has always played a central role in in our lives and societies.  Tales were told to replay and celebrate historic events. They were salutary and cautionary tales, lessons.

Some of the oldest, greatest tales, myths, and legends are written in verse– the Iliad and the Odyssey, the old testament, and some of the traditional Irish epics. Even Tolkien used song in the Hobbit and LOTR as back story. Just as in our world, the people of Middle Earth told the tales of the great heroes through verse.

Think of Orpheus, arguably one of the most famous musicians. Gifted by the gods, he was a man who, armed with only his lyre, was able to charm beasts, defeat the Sirens, and brave the Underworld to win back EurydiceHe used music to fight his battles.What a concept! Now, if everyone did that, the world would be a much better place.

Throughout history, people have used song to convey their messages. Troubadours would travel the countryside, telling their tales and singing their songs to kings and noblemen. These songs were silly, they were tragic, they were entertaining.

Slaves in the American South would create and sing songs while they toiled away in the hot fields, they were a distraction from the horrors of their everyday lives. During the Depression, folksingers used song to fight back against the government, to raise awareness, and again, to give hope.

Songs are a powerful way to get your message across. They are our fears, our desires, our hopes, our dreams, our losses, our celebrations, our sorrows, our joys, our memories, our experiences. They are, each and every one of them, a story.

(adapted from Caitlin Nicholl’s Storytelling Through Music)

And, in Big Big Train, we have the modern troubadours and storytellers of our generation. They keep history alive by reimagining it to music and verse.

‘Folklore’ features the same line-up (eight piece band and brass quintet) that performed three sell out shows at Kings Place in London in August 2015, with the addition of a string quartet. The album was mixed and mastered by the redoubtable Rob Aubrey.

band

 

Folklore – Ancient stories told by our ancestors around the campfire, being passed from generation to generation. The passage of time sees the coming of a written language and electronic communication, but we still tell our stories and pass them on.”

The opening to Folklore is quite inspiring with the strings and then the brass building your anticipation before a short lull. And off we go….. The intricate drumming of Nick D’Virgilio backs the instantly recognisable vocal of David Longdon on what definitely feels like a folk inspired opening to the track. A song about the history of folk songs and storytelling, the guitar riff, though intentionally low in the mix, is really addictive and then the vocals build up towards the memorable chorus that has you singing along immediately. This song is anthemic in style and delivery, intended to fill the listener with a passion and pride and the powerful voice of Longdon, aided and abetted by some impressive backing vocals, really delivers in that aspect.

“For it is said, so it lives on
we pass it down, it carries on
Oh down we go into folklore….”

When I first heard the song I must admit that I thought it was very much in the vein of Wassail with its intricate instrumental sections and rather upbeat tempo. The guitar solo is absolutely wonderful and quite inspiring. To be honest, although I liked it, it was not one of the tracks that resonated with me immediately but, after a few listens, I was singing along to the chorus with the best of them. It is motivating, uplifting and inspirational and the way the song runs out is just brilliant.

David

London Plane – Once upon a time, a great tree took root on a river bank and watched through the years as a city grew around it…”

Across their burgeoning discography, Big Big Train have given us many poignant, emotional and moving songs and London Plane falls immediately into that category. The second longest track on the album, it opens with a gentle guitar and flute that immediately pluck the heartstrings before David’s lush voice sings a tale of a mighty tree that sees the birth of London and it’s growth and aggrandizement across the centuries. The heavenly backing vocals give a wistful and whimsical feel. It is contemplative and reflective and leaves me with a lump in my throat, especially when the quite wonderful chorus breaks out with its delicately harmonised vocals and that ethereal flute playing in the background.

“Time and tide wait for no man
and now the ship has sailed
and the crowds fade away.
But by the water’s edge
at the end of the road
I still reach for the day’s last light.”

A song that draws you into its warm embrace to a place where time stands still and the weight of hundreds of years of history just washes off your shoulders. The humbling guitar solo in the middle of the song just seems so perfect and well, right and leaves me on the edge of joyful tears. No one writes music about the history of our Island like this band and it connects on so many levels. There’s a nice intricate instrumental section where the strings get to come to the fore, backed by that fantastic flute, and there is some rather excellent guitar work, all adding a progressive gravitas to the warmth and emotion of the pastoral feel to the music. As the song comes to a memorable close, the emotive guitar solo (and, oh, what a solo!) and the music filling your heart with joy, I find myself thinking we have another Big Big Train classic on our hands.

strings

Along The Ridgeway – A journey along an ancient pathway, where legends are reborn…”

A dolent sound signals the introduction to Along The Ridgeway, another tale rooted deep in the history of this magical land. Graceful piano and plaintive brass usher in David’s vocal, this time with the merest mournful hint to them. David Longdon was born to be a storyteller, his emotive, stirring voice draws you in and leads you on a journey that becomes more life affirming the further this amazing album goes on. You ride along a mystical pathway buoyed by the music, the brass adding a further depth and the brilliant violin of Rachel Hall counter-playing with Rikard Sjöblom’s lively keyboards.

“And by the light of the moon
Alfred sounds his stone
and legends are reborn.”

The soaring chorus, backed by the wonderful brass playing just takes you on a high before the voices sing the repeated mantra of the Salisbury Giant and we segue straight into the instrumental of the same name…..

brass

Salisbury Giant – Big Big Train tell the true story of a medieval giant.”

An instrumental telling the tale of the Salisbury Giant, a pageant figure of the Salisbury guild of Merchant Tailors who would be led, by the hand, through the streets, first recorded in 1496 when led by the Mayor and Corporation, they went in procession to meet King Henry VII and his Queen, who were staying at nearby Clarendon Palace.

“Here comes the Salisbury Giant
here comes a lonely man
a crowd of people lead him by the hand.”

It has an urgency to it, the staccato strings, deep in tone, are almost apprehensive. The Hammond organ adds a feel of  Hob-Nob, the giant’s companion, who was the mischievous character who cavorted in front in the procession clearing the way for the Giant. There’s a definite capricious feel to the music as it leads you on a merry dance, occasionally opening up to soar high with the sparkling strings and then that repeated mantra runs this delightful little track out to a close.

Kings place

The Transit Of Venus Across The Sun – When the astronomer lost the love of his life, he set a course for the stars. Inspired by the much-loved astronomer and educationalist, Patrick Moore.”

Damn, I’ve got something in my eye again, a love song and a song of love, The Transit Of Venus Across The Sun opens with some signature Big Big Train brass that makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck and the violin just adds that extra bit of poignancy and emotional blackmail. A better opening to a song you will not hear this year, I’m already transfixed and we’ve only just got started. As the brass fades away the song expands with some delicate guitar and piano before David Longdon takes on the role of Bard and takes us on a magical mystery tour of the celestial heavens. Take a minute and just let the music and lyrics wash over you and absorb them into your very being, this is music that soothes the soul and calms any fevered brow. The soulful chorus is a thing of wonder and beauty that leaves you becalmed and in a place where nothing can hurt you.

“So many words left unsaid
so many deeds left undone
so many tales without an end
the transit of Venus across the Sun.”

Take some more spine tingling brass and add it to the mix and you are, literally, in a musical heaven. When I first got the album, I played it back to back five times and was impressed more and more with each listen and it is songs like Transit that touch you to the core, the guitar solo elegantly played at the end is just fantastic.

Signed album

Wassail – The old ways get a 21st century reboot in this pagan inspired progressive-folk groove.”

The title track from Big Big Train‘s ‘Wassail’ E.P. that was released last year, it gets a fine reworking here. The guitar and flute opening brings the memories of the live Kings Place gigs flooding back and David’s frontman antics with his Wassail mask. Perhaps, on first listening, it has less of an impact because it isn’t a ‘new’ track, so to speak. However, after you’ve sung the catchy chorus at the top of your voice a few times, it certainly comes flooding back. Definitely a more folk-direction for the band, this song had some thinking that the whole album would be like this but, paired with the title track, they just add another string to this celebrated band’s already imposing bow.

“We sing our song
Stand fast, stand strong
Bough and leaf bear fruit aplenty.”

A more direct and powerful track, compared to the delicate nuances of some on this album, it is still cleverly written and, as expected with musicians of this calibre, superbly performed. I always find myself gravitating to the more emotionally complex tracks that Big Big Train produce but, when the moment takes you, this rollicking, roller coaster of a folk-fest really hits the spot.

Tobbe & Greg

(Me, Tobbe Janson & Greg Spawton at the Real World launch)

“Winkie – A ripping adventure story about a true life war heroine, the first to receive the Dickin medal in honour of her achievement. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first prog epic about a pigeon…”

Well, where do I start, a Boy’s Own prog epic in 7 parts about a famous pigeon, the Winkie of the title, that saved the crew of a bomber lost in 1942. It’ll never work will it? Well, on first listen, I wasn’t convinced but, once again, give this song time to work its way into your affections and you will be hooked…..

The opening does nothing to prepare you for what is to come, flute and the cooing of pigeons before a folkish rhythm takes up the mantle, foot tapping commences and off we go. David takes on a more literal storytelling role on this track and relates the story verbatim as almost a chant with parts of this ripping yarn given like radio messages. The whole tale is gripping and involving and the music rushes you along all the way on the edge of your seat. Intricate keyboards, powerful guitars and clever drumming all add to the authenticity of the account of the loss of the crew and their subsequent rescue.

“You flew safely home Winkie
Hey, the inaugural recipient
You flew straight, flew true,
Winkie….”

The use of the keyboards and flute to denote Winkie’s flight is really clever and has you rooting for our heroine all the way through. It’s a hopeless task, with only an S.O.S from the radio, can Winkie save the day? Come on, you didn’t think it was going to end in heroic failure did you?

“But thank God, fifteen minutes in
the crew are found, safe and sound
Thanks to their winged saviour…”

A true prog epic about an heroic pigeon, who’d have thought it? Well, thankfully for all of us, Big Big Train did…..

Brooklands

Brooklands – John Cobb, racing driver, lived life at high speed on the racing line. Time passes, but the ageing driver yearns for one more adrenaline filled lap of the track…. Cobb died in 1952 while attempting the world water speed record at Loch Ness.”

Great songwriters are inspired by their surroundings and experiences and a visit to the historic racing circuit at Brooklands is what gave Greg Spawton the idea for this almost biographical tale.

The longest track on the album, Brooklands opens with an almost melancholy feel engendered by the violin, guitar and drums before opening up with sepia tinged hues of nostalgia and a much more upbeat note. David sings about the car travelling around the track and the experiences that the driver remembers from his youth. Intensely visceral, you almost feel like you are there in a time before the track became weed infested and broken and life was much more carefree. The driver recounts how he was lucky to be able to have lived such a life.

“I was a lucky man, a lucky man.
I did the things I can,
the things I can’t explain.”

Things are brought sharply back into focus and up to the present day, the racer, now in the twilight of his years, wants to feel the wind in his hair and experience the excitement one more time. The brilliance of the songwriting leaves you completely involved in the narrative, these are songs that all share a story with the listener, one that is involving and intimate and affectionate. The intelligently crafted music is almost lyrical in the way that invokes the wind in the hair feel of the car flying round the race track, dangerously exhilarating and bracing.

“On the racing line
lived life at high speed
too fast too far.”

To use music to evoke feelings and emotions and to do it well is a seriously impressive skill and is, for me, what separates proper songwriters and musicians from the run of the mill artists that churn out insipid chart fodder and Big Big Train are true masters of that art. The rolling piano, flowing guitar and powerful drums all paint pictures in your mind that are finished off by the exquisite flute playing, add in the engrossing and captivating vocals and the musical tapestry is complete.

Telling the Bees

Telling The Bees – Traditionally, bees were told of births, deaths and marriages within the bee-keeper’s family, as it was believed that otherwise they would leave the hive.

Once again, taking a traditional piece of ‘folklore‘ and reimagining it, Telling The Bees is a moving story of how, when his father dies in the First World War, a young boy takes on the responsibility of the bees, grows up to become a man, finds love and starts his own family.

“The bees are told…..and we carry on….”

Written by David Longdon, the guitar introduction gives it a feel of his ‘Wild River’ solo project. Imagine yourselves sat around in a circle, rapt in concentration, as this modern day troubadour relates another nostalgia soaked tale rooted deep in the history of England. Telling The Bees is a wonderful piece of music that has the ability to whisk you away to the sun drenched summer fields and to a time when life was much more simple and easy going.

“The joy is in the telling
The sorrow in the soul
Tears of happiness and sadness..”

David’s vocals are honey sweet and velvet covered as they seem to lift any worries or cares from your shoulders and the music is just beatific and awe-inspiring. The musicians produce something akin to delicate reverence, a guitar solo that drips honesty and love and the vocals are nigh on perfect. As this charming and graceful track brings a close to what can only be described as a stunning album, I honestly do wipe a glad tear of joy from my eye…..

Folklore Banner

It was always going to be hard to follow ‘The Underfall Yard’ and the ‘English Electric’ albums but the acknowledged masters of pastoral progressive rock and intelligent and incisive storytelling have returned with a fresh collection of stories and tales gleaned from our heritage and history. With their penchant for heartfelt lyrics and beautiful music it is an involving and mesmerising journey that everyone should take at least once in their life……..

Released 27th May 2016.

Buy ‘Folklore’ on CD direct from Big Big Train

Buy ‘Folklore’ on vinyl from Burning Shed

Buy the ‘Folklore’ download from bandcamp

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

stone_and_steel_web

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

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

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

My copy 1

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

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

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

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

Real World website

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

Set up

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

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

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

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

Band at real world

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

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

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

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

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

playing live

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kings Place

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

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

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

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

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

Released 21st March 2016.

Buy ‘Stone & Steel’ directly from the band.

 

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

BBT Kings Place

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

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

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

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

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

BBT Kings Place 2

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

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

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

BBT Live 2

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

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

Greg Martin

Pic courtesy of Martin Reijman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BBTBand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BBT Live

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BBT Badge d

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Big Train Pic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greg: Definitely joy and definitely in 2017!!

BBT LIVE4

 

Guest Review – Beardfish – +4626 – COMFORTZONE – by Shawn Dudley

Yet another hardy soul has taken the responsibility of writing a review for you goodly folk, this time we welcome Shawn Dudley with the pen (or should we say keyboard?).

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One recurring theme with my music purchases over the past 10 years has been a constant stream of bands from Sweden.  The country has provided a surfeit of riches and one of the most valuable is the wonderfully eclectic and enthralling Beardfish.

Their 8th studio album ‘+4626-Comfortzone’ is another meticulously arranged addition to an already impressive string of releases.

After a short thematic introduction Hold On wastes no time demonstrating the many traits that drew me to Beardfish in the first place.  The love of vintage instrumentation and production sounds, the knotty and complex arrangements that would make Gentle Giant proud, the occasional side trips into Zappa-esque absurdity, the uniquely personal songwriting of Rikard Sjöblom and, last but not least, their love of “the jam”. The joyous melding of progressive rock precision with the loose improvisational vibe of a late night jam session, they remind me of Nektar in this regard.

Thematically ‘Comfortzone’ is more dense and layered than the relatively straight-ahead approach of 2013’s ‘The Void’.  Thus it’s not quite as immediate an experience and takes a few spins to really process.  The narrative focuses on the apathy and complacency that can result from growing up in a small town, the feeling of being trapped yet not wanting to lose the comfort and security that familiarity provides.  As someone that grew up in a small rural community of under 500 residents the subject matter of this album holds special relevance.  A town populated by people watching the world pass by from their front porch…as if they were nailed there.

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While lyrically the album can be a little bleak, the music never is.  The playing is uniformly excellent and years of lineup stability has given them a rock solid cohesion.  The mix is well balanced and uses a wide stereo spread, it’s a little compressed but not overtly.

Individual track highlights include the aforementioned Hold On, the lovely title track (some great Robert Fripp inspired guitar work in the intro on that one), the viking-rock riffage of King and the album centerpiece If We Must Part (A Love Story Continued).  Special mention to the comic-relief provided by the hilarious Ode to A Rock ’N’ Roller, in a genre that primarily takes itself very seriously, the quirky humor of Beardfish is always a welcome change of pace.

While I’m thrilled that Rikard Sjöblom has been contributing to Big Big Train of late, I hope he still finds the time to continue the Beardfish journey.  The only thing more exciting than a new Beardfish album…is the prospect of what the next one will be like.

Released 12th January 2015

Buy direct from the band

About the author – Shawn Dudley

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Shawn Dudley, Los Angeles, CA.

Audio engineer, film buff, guitarist, lifelong music fanatic.

 

 

 

 

Review – Big Big Train – Wassail

Wassail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now onto ‘Wassail’……

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Wassail

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

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

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

(Words and music by David Longdon)

Lost rivers of London small

Lost Rivers of London

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

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

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

(Words and music by Greg Spawton)

Mudlarks

Mudlarks

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

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

(Music by Greg Spawton)

Wales - Castles - Flint Castle by William Turner

Master James of St. George

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

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

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

(Words and music by Greg Spawton)

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

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

Released on 1st June 2015

Buy Wassail CD from Burning Shed

Buy Wassail mp3 from bandcamp

Buy Wassail bundles at The Merch Desk