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Big Big Train - English Electric (Part One) CD (album) cover

ENGLISH ELECTRIC (PART ONE)

Big Big Train

 

Crossover Prog

4.21 | 1097 ratings

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zwordser
4 stars I recently highlighted Big Big Train on a community radio station show, which prompted hours of listening and research about this band and, in particular, their last three studio albums: The Underfall Yard and English Electric Parts I and II, partly because when I do radio shows, I prefer to give some background on the bands and what their songs are all about, rather than just play their music. This type of immersion almost always increases my appreciation, which it certainly did for Big Big Train, perhaps more than any other band. This review is for my favorite of the three mentioned albums: English Electric Part I, but it is only barely my favorite, and most of my comments here could apply to Part II, which together are a larger project. I understand there has recently been released (as I write this review) a box set of English Electric I and II with some new material, which seems appropriate enough.

With the English Electric albums, the band has done something I would describe as transcendent. Conceptually and musically, these albums are thoroughly impressive. With the latest lineup, especially (but not exclusively) the addition of David Longdon as the lead vocalist and a small army of guest musicians, Big Big Train did what all bands do when they reach their "classic" period (which I would argue they are in now): they extended past ideas/influences (primarily the prog greats of the 70's like Genesis and Yes) into new territory that amazes with its novel innovations, yet still seems like a natural next-step. The essence of the album's concept, perhaps ironically, lies in its simplicity: songs of real-life historical and personal stories and/or anecdotes of (mostly) common people and/or events in the home-country of England. Each one is distinct, but the overall effect is holistic and grand in a different way than with typical concept albums, (most of which are entirely fictional and based on an epic story of an individual hero or a set of characters). I can think of similar past "common-people" types of songs, such as Genesis's Get 'Em Out By Friday or Dancing With the Moonlit Knight, and I'm guessing there are similar-type concept albums, but English Electric goes a fair bit beyond anything I've heard in scope and development. Listening to English Electric is like admiring a big tapestry of the English countryside, past and present, that reminds you that the story of a nation is much more than just that of wars, leaders, inventions, and empires: it's the common working people too.

As for the music itself, I'll discuss it primarily on a personal note: I spend most of my music listening energies on Progressive Rock. By and large I absolutely love the stuff (most of it, anyway). However, when I'm not listening to prog rock, I usually want something simpler and I often listen to folk--I also enjoy going to folk festivals, contra dancing, and playing on and off in folk bands. The English Electric albums have a healthy dose of folky parts, especially Part I: I can listen to it either when I'm in the mood for prog or in the mood for folk music and really enjoy the album. The extra instrumentation of the violins, banjo, mandolin, etc., are a big part of what make this album so good, (and so "transcendent"--Genesis, for example, never got so folky). Especially songs like Uncle Jack, Upton Heath, or Hedgerow. These and some of the other songs on the album(s) would fit right into any folk festival, and would probably get a rousing reception. In spite of this, I wouldn't place the album or the mentioned songs in the category of "progressive folk". If you listen closely, or pick it apart, you realize that most of the folk elements are embedded in a matrix of high-quality, mostly symphonic-sounding prog rock (the typical synth moods, virtuosity, odd time-signatures, and the like) but if you're not thinking about it, its hard to tell the difference. The folky and rock/symphonic parts enhance each other beautifully.

I think the English Electric albums are destined to become classics, and give English Electric Part I 4.4 stars.

zwordser | 4/5 |

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