Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Spotlight 2016: Big Big Train - Folklore

WARNING - you may need to be sitting down with a glass of something you enjoy. Because if you play the accompanying videos in full - you will be here some time. And I want you to. But trust me, it'll be worth your time. Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin.

If Big Big Train are a mystery to you, here's a small history lesson - if not, just bear with me a minute.
Formed in 1990 by Andy Poole & Greg Spawton, originally with various musicians, the band now has a stable line up - 

  • David Longdon - lead and backing vocals, flute, acoustic guitar, mandolin, percussion
  • Nick D'Virgillo - drums, percussion, backing vocals
  • Greg Spawton - acoustic guitar, bass guitar, bass pedals, backing vocals
  • Andy Poole - acoustic guitar, mandolin, keyboards, backing vocals
  • Dave Gregory - guitars
  • Danny Manners - keyboards, double bass
  • Rachel Hall - violin, voila, cello, backing vocals
  • Rikard Sj√∂blom - keyboards, guitars, accordion, backing vocals
photo courtesy of Kain Dear

The band started their recording career with the release of 1994's Goodbye To The Age Of Steam and are now on their ninth release with the magnificent Folklore.

The band are very much perceived as a Progressive Rock band but with Folklore, they have turned their attention to a more pastoral view of their place in the musical firmament.

They've gathered together songs that in the best tradition of English folk music, tell stories. But with the Progressive framework that followers of BBT have come to know and love. 
BBT have always enjoyed looking into the past for their inspiration and they do do again on Folklore but this time with a specific aural objective in mind. 

With five of the nine songs on Folklore over 7 minutes long, they have plenty of time and space to weave their musical magic.

The album opens with the stunning title track, Folklore. Somber strings give way to plaintive brass which has an almost military feel, like a requiem to the fallen but then the violin and drums kick in and the song begins properly. It's very much in the Bellowhead territory before the organ kicks in to send the song off in a different direction again with layered voices and harmonies. It's an upbeat, rabble-rousing opening song with the traditional violin and flutes weaving together with the Progressive guitars and Organ to create a thrilling mix of the old and the new. It really is a thrilling opening track.

London Plane is a lovely, gentle song. Very much in the Pink Floyd or Marillion way when they decide to get softer. Guitar based initially, the gentleness gives way to a focused work out featuring the guitars, flute and keyboards before David Longdon's vocal brings it back down into it's softer harmonic waters before the guitars and keyboards start to soar again. It's a sweeping piece of music and at over 10 minutes it has more changes than a Las Vegas Showgirl.

photo courtesy of stuart wood

Along The Ridgeway uses harmonies, piano and plaintive strings to weave an almost waltz like magical spell. Guitar arpeggios are the bed on which the harmonies play around before they are joined by subtle brass. Some lovely Byrdsian Rickenbacker - probably by Dave Gregory - leads into the next section of vocal interplay. There are just SO many colours in this one relatively short song.

Ominous cello and violin introduce the next track Salisbury Giant, a mere vignette at only 3 and a half minutes long. A mainly instrumental piece with some lovely Hammond Organ work.

With Transit Of Venus Across The Sun we are back into the 7 minute territory. Opening up with a gorgeous brass and violin passage before the early Genesis-like guitar work introduces David Longdon's vocals which really are stunning all the way through this record. This track will remind you of Marillion at their best. 

With a flute and some very English Folk vocal we are into the next track Wassail.  It's harmony driven and dramatic with plenty of keyboard flourishes, it's definitely the most folk-oriented track on the album.

How many songs do you know about Pigeons - (and can we please BURY that bloody Genesis song!!)? Well, here's a song called Winkie - and it's about a pigeon that saves the lives of a bomber crew back in World War 2. I know, I know but stick with me here. It's very Progressive in approach and performance - complete with bugle, drum and pealing bells. It's Prog Jim, but not as we know it. Well, it's actually just as we know it, Captain. And what a joyous thing it is. Could have been plucked straight out of 70s Prog album. Just sit back and enjoy. and I hope those headphones are comfortable.

We're almost home on this majestic voyage that Big Big Train have taken us on but we have one last epic track. Brooklands. This is twelve minutes of Folk tinged progressive music just as you would expect. Fine musicianship, sweeping musical statements and solos that soar.

I've tried not to spoil the stories relating to the songs on the album by revealing them to you. I thought it better that you discover them for yourselves if you choose to do so. But suffice to say that the titles of the tracks will lead you in the right direction.

It's always difficult in album reviews not to reveal too much about an album and I hope I have given you a flavour of the scope and grandeur that have gone into the making of Folklore. 

Well, where do we go from here? Hmm, how about MY favourite song on the whole album. The absolutely glorious, beautiful thing that is Telling The Bees. I won't tell you what it means - go and Google it - or watch the video. But I haven't heard a Coda as good since Made Again from the Marillion album Brave. If you went on that emotional journey with Marillion, you'll know exactly what I mean.

Folklore is one of THE albums of 2016 - so check it out - invest - and tell your friends - then go back and discover the other jewels in the Big Big Train crown.

artwork by Sarah Louise Ewing

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