Big Big Train’s latest and much spoken about album “English Electric” found it’s way to Progmeister HQ last week to initially mixed feelings. Please don’t read too much into that as like many we have been waiting in great anticipation for it’s release and found that on it’s maiden voyage in the wrong environment failed to impress. So many albums of this complexity can be misjudged having been listened to via the in-car entertainment device or worse, the bleeden i-pod. After such a disappointing start “English Electric” was given a spin on a decent in house music machine. The result, staggering. it sounded like a totally different album, more interesting, more involving and an addictive musical journey. Though Big Big Train have recorded something that will appeal to many, the mood and feel i got from it was that of a much loved and forgotten England where both rural and urban architecture were influanced by the railways. For those like myself who’s formative years were spent growing up in the sixties, they may well find this album compelling. I found that it conjured up black and white B movies like The Lady Killers and the likes.
Only one other album created such a feeling as this and that was “The Old Road” by the very talented and much missed Martin Orford with whom some of the musicians appearing here shared that magic moment. Martin himself appearing on the finale of “English Electric” singing backing vocals. Many Genesis fan will simply adore this album as i think it represents the direction that Genesis should have taken following Trick Of The Tail rather than their vane attempt at pop. Indeed from the outset David Longon’s sweet Phil Collins-like voice sets the scene for the eight songs which are brimming with musical talent and lyrical intrigue. The nucleus of Big Big Train Greg Spawton, David Longdon, Nick D’Virgilio, Andy Poole and ex XTC man Dave Gregory are joined my an able cast of many guest musicians which includes Tangent chief Andy Tillison playing some great organ and synth.
Dave Gregory’s jingly guitar gets things underway with “The First Rebreather”and should this be heard without knowing just who it was that were playing you would swear it was a new Genesis album. David Longdon and Greg Spawton take on the lions share of the playing on this piece with Mr Spawton’s keys sounding very much like Tony Banks and helped out by Andy Tillison adding a little speed to the synth solo and some great organ sounds. A slight change of direction for the following ditty “Uncle Jack” is taken with David Longdon playing banjo, accordion and flute really is a fresh approach to such a prog album. It is fresh and vibrant making it a shear joy t listen to. Moving back towards the epic style songs “Winchester From St Giles’ Hill” finds guest muso Danny Manners playing some great piano and organ. Dave Gregory taking on the role of concert master arranging the sumptuous string section. it really is a treat to hear real violins, cello and viola and David Longdon’s flute playing taking the song into a sombre conclusion.
Beginning like a Victorian romp “Judas Unrepentant” benefits from Andy Tillison’s deft touch with the organ and whilst being my least favourite song on the album is still a great piece of music with a big finish. By contrast “Summoned By Bells” is a beautiful song which brings the pace down a little. Danny Manners piano and double bass playing is a dream with all other hands to the pumps too. There is Tuba, Cornet,Euphonium, Recorders, Trombone as well as the numerous people singing backing vocals. Words and music are written by Greg Spawton who in my humble opinion has excelled himself. David Longdon’s voice is the strongest i have heard it here and is a singer i never tire of listening to. Staying with a slightly folk orientated sound “Upton Heath” is yet another dreamy song which makes this album something very special. Dave Gregory takes his turn on the banjo and with Andy Poole playing mandolin paints a very homely picture. What struck me here is that unlike many prog albums the timbre of the instruments have been beautifully captured in the recording process. Double bass and accordion sound really good, all adding to the overall theme and flavour of the album.
“A Boy In Darkness” paints a very bleak tale of an eleven years old boy employed in a Derbyshire mine though i suspect that the song covers many other issues to boot. A very powerful and memorable piece though many may consider a little too dark. This is more than made up for by the concluding opus “Hedgerow”. Utilising once again the everything but the kitchen sink philosophy all stops are well and truly pulled out. Dave Gregory’s Rickenbacker twelve string and Nick D’Virgilio’s dry rapid drum pattern give the opening of the song a very sixties feel. Dave Gregory even throws in a little Mellotron for good measure. Odd isn’t it? how first impressions can be so misleading. there are some genres of music that lend themselves to being listened to on the move and others not. English Electric is one such beast. It commands the listeners full attention and as a consequence rewards them with huge musical rewards. Good to see Rob Aubrey involved in the recording process which is always a good thing. Packaging and booklet are also a pleasant thing to own with some great images by Matt Sefton.
It’s all in the title folks. This represents everything i love about Prog. It is something that no other nation can copy only adopt, it is the very fact that it is English and reminds us of our great heritage. Prog fans will love this album for a long time to come for those of a certain age like myself it is a must have.
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