Big Big Train: English Electric Part One

Shockingly strong album keeps the veteran band on track.

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Big Big Train’s career got off to a somewhat shaky start, with various member and label changes hindering their progress. However, they’ve been on a creative roll over recent years. 2009’s The Underfall Yard and, following a year later, the Far Skies Deep Time EP were monumental releases that repositioned them as one of this country’s finest exponents of prog. That determined and fruitful musical direction continues apace with English Electric Part One, another step in their seemingly irresistible ascent.

The core of their appeal is the musicianship, with the band having that rare knack of ensuring that every note has a purpose, constantly driving things forward without ever succumbing to aimless wandering. With Big Big Train’s core of Andy Poole and Greg Spawton proving a solid base, and featured players Dave Gregory (XTC/Tin Spirits) and former Spock’s Beard drummer Nick D’Virgilio, such a trait should be expected, but the music is still at times simply sublime. The masterstroke of recruiting of vocalist David Longdon four years ago notably strengthened their writing abilities.

Genesis comparisons will no doubt abound, essentially due to Longdon’s uncanny but inadvertent resemblance to Gabriel when he hits the higher notes, as well as the use of wandering flutes and the fleeting appearances of Moog synths. (The fact Longdon auditioned to replace Phil Collins in Genesis back in 1996 adds yet another parallel.) Yet for Big Big Train to be lumped in with the countless Genesis clones would be a superficial, lazy and unfair dismissal of an enormously talented and imaginative band.

Whether creating smooth songs of nonchalant elegance such as Winchester From St Giles’ Hill, the unbridled, sweeping Upton Heath or the jaunty Judas Unrepentant, this band are ludicrously adept. They even have the nerve to add a startling northern brass band into the mix which, for some incredible reason, works perfectly on Hedgerow.

The songs collected on English Electric Part One are whimsical English tales, crafted around lyrics that introduce a string of working characters – art forgers, miners and the like – all tied together into a loose concept. It has a rather sentimental, Victorian feel to it and in truth, the album works all the better for containing this a nostalgic tone.

Indeed, you can’t help wonder if the second part of this set – due next year – might be a musical adaptation of the life of Fred Dibner. It sounds like a daft proposition, but the band are such convincing raconteurs that they’d pull off songs about chimneys and steam engines with glowing panache. Stranger things have happened.