Big Big Train - Folklore Album Review

The ninth album from the acclaimed pastoral prog group Big Big Train takes a whimsical new route in storytelling. It’s folk, Jim, but not as we know it…

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“l like progressive rock because it’s like having a musical TARDIS,” Big Big Train’s David Longdon told Prog last July as the octet readied the successor to lauded 2013 album English Electric Part Two, and prepared for three super-rare, sold-out London shows.

“You can send it anywhere and as long as you have a story to tell, you can go into any style, any genre.”

Well, BBT might not be indulging any extreme metal or minimalist electronica tendencies just yet, but if you want stories, as ever, they’ve got ’em. For the last two years their time machine has hoovered up facts and fables from megalithic sites, 17th-century rituals, modern-age action adventurers and more. It’s what we’ve come to expect of these Anglo-American-Swedish chroniclers. Devotees of art, literature and legend, they keep mythic ideas and exceptional characters alive through poetry and song on a grand, almost orchestral scale. And there could only be one title for their new album. Folklore is a perfect fit given that these nine yarns were envisioned as twilit stories shared around a roaring campfire as family and friends draw close and imaginations spark.

The opening title track serves as an overture, a string-led largo-cum-brass fanfare that soon kicks up its heels for Celtic-flavoured funk that sets the storyteller’s scene – ‘We pass it down to the young from the old/We feel it deep down in the soul.’ Nodding to Steeleye Span, Fairport, perhaps even East Of Eden and Planxty, there’s a smashing Moog/guitar/flute-off at the end.

We blame bassist and band founder Greg Spawton for BBT’s lift-you-up-then-leave-you-weeping specials. He does it again with London Plane, an acoustic beauty spotlighting a long-standing, leafy resident and its vantage point of The Big Smoke from York Watergate, by The Strand. Time and tide wait for no man as, in sequence, the capital goes up in flames, Turner drifts by in his boat, and Skylon looms from across the river. A jazzy, Yes-like midsection eddies into a climactic guitar solo from Rikard Sjöblom, smoothed out by vibraphone. It’s only track two and there’s not a dry eye in this house.

A fantastical collection of mythic ideas and exceptional characters.

On Along The Ridgeway, childhood exploits abound around the White Horse Hills on the Oxfordshire/Berkshire border with the discovery of the Blowing Stone made famous by Tom Brown’s Schooldays. A real, perforated sarsen artefact, its sonic function was for King Alfred to summon his Saxon army. Sampling this in action – alongside BBT’s ebullient brass ensemble, Dave Gregory’s agile jazz-prog picking, Rachel Hall’s quicksilver violin and Danny Manners’ bubbling Hammond – we see George ‘slay his foe’, witness the Chalk Horse break free and welcome the lumbering, lonely Salisbury Giant.

We take to the metaphorical stratosphere for The Transit Of Venus Across The Sun. Brass, piano and Latin-chanted backing vocals conjure BBT’s own Major Tom, inspired by the late astronomer Patrick Moore. This time the journey is earthly, but just as isolated and heartbreaking, as Longdon’s poignant phrasing plots the protagonist setting ‘a course for the stars… never meaning to return’.

Familiar from last year’s titular EP, Wassail’s stately assurance is a sanguine leveller, flute trills, fruity fiddle and Andy Poole’s mandolin coming together in a gently cider-delic reel to celebrate the apple harvest’s winter bounty. Who else could bring us a seven-part saga about a World War II animal hero? Saving her stranded battleship crew, National Service Pigeon Winkie is a read-by-torch-under-the covers Boy’s Own adventure set to foot-stomping folk. You won’t hear another bonkers ditty like it this side of Thick As A Brick III.

At 12 minutes and 40 seconds, the longest track is Brooklands, time-travelling between a young cub’s calling to break records on the motor circuit and his older self wishing for ‘one last time’ as he races toward a fading light. Wistful and romantic, the second half experiences a bit of BBT G-force through Nick D’Virgilio’s titanic percussion. Telling The Bees resurrects the tradition of confiding important life events in our wise, 100 million-year-old friends. After Brooklands, it’s a low-key end, but it does get some Sjöblom blues’n’soul fire injected in the last two minutes.

Big Big Train’s emotional range may have narrowed slightly here. Whereas the previous English Electric sets are near-perfect articulations of modern progressive soul music, Folklore is a slightly more fantastical collection. But as a final lyric says, ‘The joy is in the telling.’ Spread the word.