Master James of St. George
The Underfall Yard
Big Big Train are proof that good things come to those who wait; the British prog flag bearers claimed their first Top 40 album with 2019’s Grand Tour, nearly 30 years after they formed.
The Underfall Yard, released a decade earlier in 2009, was a key staging post on their long crawl to success. Big Big Train had already released five albums by that point, to various levels of acclaim from the prog cognoscenti, but this pushed things to the next level.
Part of this was down to a new frontman, the late David Longdon, a man with a stellar, soulful voice, the range of which was matched by the emotion it carried – a scarce commodity in post-millennial prog.
But a bigger reason for its success was musical. Big Big Train were prog traditionalists, and The Underfall Yard’s six tracks evoked the graceful musical world building of Genesis and Yes, not least on the 12-minute Victorian Brickwork and the 20-minute title track.
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Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute.
Other albums released in December 2009
- The Mighty Mighty Bosstones - Pin Points and Gin Joints
- Puddle of Mudd - Volume 4: Songs in the Key of Love & Hate
- Thirty Seconds to Mars - This Is War
- Cold War Kids - Behave
- Twenty One Pilots - Twenty One Pilots
What they said...
"All in all, The Underfall Yard was a mostly positive result of past prog rock influences, daring modern pursuits, plethoras of musical talent, and the creative songwriting prowess. They built upon themselves in their previous albums, gained inspiration from a former prog rock titan, and executed a truly complex album as a result. Not just complex, but also noteworthy. Perhaps, the members of Genesis might be proud of these guys. (Sputnik Music (opens in new tab))
"The musical pedigree is pretty huge and diverse on this as well with the presence of once XTC member Dave Gregory and once Spock’s Beard (and lots of of others) drummer Nick D’Virgilio and there is no weak spot anywhere to be found. The production is top notch and the instrumental layering is so careful that it makes further listens a joy - it just continues to reveal more and more of itself." (Exposé (opens in new tab))
"The vocal harmonies part way through The Underfall Yard are gorgeous but the band fail to build on that high, the composition petering out into progressive no-man's land. Elsewhere, much of the music is pleasant, but what I found lacking from an album point-of-view were 'climactic moments'; no build-up to a crushing melody; or a sudden riff or rhythm to-die-for. Without these, the sonic textures are insufficient to propel the album into the premier league, and the overall feel for me was understated." (Sea Of Tranquilty (opens in new tab))
What you said...
John Davidson: I love this band and the albums The Underfall Yard, English Electric (Full Power) and Folklore are full of the most amazing and joyous rock music. Their more recent output is also top class.
They are the best prog band of the 21st Century - and there is some stiff competition out there. What makes them special is that they managed to blend technical proficiency and long form music with an emotional heart that is often missing from progressive rock. Their songs are inspired by stories and landscapes of England and while I'm not English, they none the less connect me to the land and history .
The Underfall Yard sees them still finding their feet a bit and Longdon and Spawnton would develop an even better writing partnership in the albums to come. That said, the songs on this soar at times, particularly on Victorian Brickwork and The Underfall Yard.
9/10 simply because their next two albums are even better. The extended edition (which the Spotify links to) contains some interesting variations on the the music of the original and is worth a listen as well.
Keith Jenkin: First album with David Longdon and the one that really establishes their sound and style for the next decade. The music is pretty old school and the melodies take a few listens to reveal themselves. I think the two English Electric albums are better entry points for anyone new to the band but this was still a game changer at the time and on release certainly one of the best British prog albums for several years.
Mike Canoe: Admittedly, I wasn't looking forward to listening again so soon to another album of six songs spread out over the course of an hour.
But where Porcupine Tree's Fear Of A Blank Planet took multiple listenings to penetrate and absorb, Big Big Train's The Underfall Yard is immediately warm and inviting. Granted the former was a pessimistic (if on point) view of the future while The Underfall Yard is a nostalgic (if melancholy) look at the past.
This album reminds me both in sound and spirit of the recent club pick by Genesis, Selling England by the Pound, which took on similarly sorrowful topics but bathed them in similarly gentle pastoral and choral melodies. Current favourites include The Last Train, Winchester Diver, and Master James Of St George - especially the whistled coda.
Greg Schwepe: If anything, our 2023 album selections to review have allowed me to become more efficient in my reviews. I can reuse the same thoughts and use the Copy + Paste function on my keyboard from week to week, and that’s a good thing.
This is the case with Big Big Train’s The Underfall Yard. I once again discovered a great album and new band to go nuts over. Flat out, I totally like this style of music, and eagerly scoured Spotify to see how many other Big Big Train albums I can explore.
Here’s where I use my efficiency. Pasted from a previous review; “What have I been missing?” and ”Um, how did I miss this band?”
I generally try to stay away from looking at any other review comments or do any internet perusing when doing a review on a band I’d never heard before. But somehow when finding The Underfall Yard on Spotify I scrolled down to the band’s profile and read “Big Big Train have revisited the sound world of early Genesis and Yes…” Oh, this is gonna be good. Do I even need to listen?
And by the time I was halfway through Evening Star I knew I was sold. And I thought there was no such thing as “new Prog Rock.” The long songs with various time signatures, the arpeggiated guitar, the various Proggy keyboard sounds, I liked it all. No need to review track by track. No need to hear me gush anymore.
Not sure if they purposely went down the “sound just like Genesis/Yes path”, or were just so influenced by them (and other classic UK Prog bands) that it all kinda oozed out in the end, but doesn’t matter for me. 9 out of 10 for me on yet another cool new find.
Chris Elliott: A prog Greta van Fleet, but less original. It's 2023. The world truly does not need a Genesis cover band, combined with that wistful nostalgia.
Bill Griffin: Not my first listen to Big Big Train but it is my first listen to this album. Initially, I thought that, while they had the early/mid period Genesis sound I love so much, Longdon's voice was not nearly as distinctive as Gabriel's or Collins' voices were. Then Victorian Brickwork started and, not only did they sound even more like Genesis, Longdon started slightly sounding like Gabriel. While Zeppelin clones bore me (they never give time to the acoustic elements of Zep), I can't get enough of Genesis through Wind And Wuthering. This delivers in spades. An instant addition to my record collection and is going into heavy rotation.
Alex Hayes: When I checked my phone early on Monday morning, to check if the Album Of The Week had been posted yet, I have to confess that I certainly wasn't expecting to see Big Big Train's The Underfall Yard on there as this week's selection. Not because there's anything wrong with it, not at all, but it just strikes me as a rather left-field choice. Kudos for going there.
I'd only ever previously heard of Big Big Train in passing. I was completely unfamiliar with the band, their history and body of work. Fair play to the official Big Big Train website for being so informative in that regard, and helping to fill in all the blanks. For an album like The Underfall Yard, that turned out to be very useful. This isn't music that's best appreciated through a fog of ignorance. Quite the opposite.
Did I like the album? Yeah, it was pretty damn good. I found parts of it a little samey, and also lacking in structure, but this was good quality, post millennial progressive rock, performed by very talented players. Big Big Train wear their influences very plainly on their sleeves. You can discern a bit of Yes here, a soupçon of Van Der Graaf Generator there. However, if there's one band that Big Big Train appear to favour over all others, then, yeah, it's Genesis, who else? The DNA of Gabriel/Hackett era Genesis is all over The Underfall Yard.
Where the album ultimately shines the brightest, however, is through its fascinating conceptual themes. I would strongly recommend The Underfall Yard to anyone interested in English history, heritage, and the legacy of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution. I live in an area where the shadows of those days still loom large, and these songs really spoke to me at times.
I know several steam railway enthusiasts that would simultaneously love and lament the song Last Train. It's subject, the closure of Hurn Railway Station in Dorset during the 1930s, would certainly strike a chord amongst them. I don't think they'll ever truly get over Beeching, and neither will parts of Britain's industrial landscape.
Parts of it were new to me too. I had never heard of the diver William Walker, or of his herculean efforts in shoring up parts of the foundations of Winchester Cathedral during the Edwardian era (as detailed in Winchester Diver). With its shout-outs to the likes of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the album very much succeeds as a kind of nostalgic paean for a period of great innovation and growth, but one that is now faded and covered in weeds.
Yeah, the lyrical themes were the highlight for me with The Underfall Yard. Victorian brickwork? Yep, I'm very familiar with that. A charming record.
Mark Herrington: In the progressive ocean of music, I tend to favour the heavier swells of the likes of Mastodon, Dream Theater, Gojira and Tool. However, from time to time, it’s good to pull into calmer waters. I love the Genesis trio of albums from Trick Of The Tail to And Then There Were Three’, a perfect combination of eccentricity and tunes that lodge in your subconscious. So this was a welcome choice this week, with more than echoes of the aforementioned albums.
I enjoyed this album, and shall return to it, being chock full of charming, memorable songs. The industrial history subject matter adds to the interest too. There is lots of great rock music still being produced in this Ccentury, but it sometimes requires a little searching to find it.
Uli Hassinger: Honestly, I've never ever heard of the band. So I was curious about what would greet me. What I got is a relaxing listening to a wonderful album. Especially the instrumentation makes it special. The dominant role of the flute is something that I like and which I only know from Jethro Tull. The brass sections make it sound very orchestral. The album is really something special.
What it lacks is more drama, more changes in pace and some surprising breaks. It is floating warm and tender all the way. This makes it a little bit boring after a while, especially during the extensive title song. It's best for a calm down hour after a hard days work.
I would prefer the previously discussed Porcupine Tree album, which is the essence of prog rock to me. I surely will listen to this album again but I'm not sure if I will check out other albums of them. 7/10.
Bill Griffin: Listening to this, I came to the conclusion that Genesis didn't just go commercial, they went American. They lost the Britishness to their music. I suppose it worked because they cracked the U.S. market but they also lost a very important part of their sound.
Final score: 7.65 (32 votes cast, total score 245)
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