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Big Big Train - Folklore CD (album) cover


Big Big Train


Crossover Prog

4.02 | 628 ratings

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5 stars I have long intended reviewing albums that have had an impact on me. Having been immersed in this album for the last four days, I feel it would be a fitting first review for Prog Archives. I apologise in advance for the length, but I have written the sort of review I like to read.

The short version is as follows: the album is absolutely fantastic. It needs time and many listens to let the melodies and sum-total to sink in, but it is worth it. Anyone who enjoyed English Electric or The Underfall Yard is very likely to have a similar appreciation for Folklore.

I discovered Big Big Train with their sixth album, The Underfall Yard, and slowly fell in love with their music. Slowly because it takes time to digest their subtle but meaningful melodies and the music itself is often merely pleasant on first listen, revealing its deeper and more lasting qualities over time. Much of the best music in all genres does this but in Big Big Train's case, the difference between how their music sounds 'nice' at first but grows into something so much greater is stark. The seamless complexity of much of their arrangements contributes to this. For me, as a mature band Big Big Train creates music that is at the same time epic, grand in scope, intelligent and complex, yet also fragile, delicate, subtle and moving. Most importantly it is at times utterly beautiful.

Many reviews compare the sound of Big Big Train to past and current bands in order to better describe it. I prefer to compare the mood, emotions and thoughts that the band inspires in me to other touchstones. At times Big Big Train sounds like a Turner painting - mystical, fiery, emotional, with a sense of otherness, of the world rotated ever so slightly and viewed through different eyes - at times like Constable - pastoral, bucolic and celebratory of landscape and the life within it, users of the available light. Sometimes Big Big Train feels like Elgar - with the deep nostalgic melancholy of things lost, yearned for, passing yet cherished - sometimes like a Salvation Army band warming the streets and sometimes like a folk band, celebrating the joys of everyday life and traditions both new and old. Big Big Train are at times Ted Hughes - honestly and viscerally depicting nature while finding Crow in a landscape of broken abbeys, open moors, industrial fragments and edgelands - and at others TS Eliot, ending the world with a whimper, but such a poignant one, full of longing, loss and love.

The knowledge that past albums have taken time to take root and move me was important when listening properly to Folklore, their most recent release. As expected, the album sounded very good at first but, albeit with a few exceptions, nothing stood out as special. By the third or fourth listen, melodies and meanings were starting to take shape. By the fifth or sixth, I was confident that Folklore is right up there with Big Big Train's best (which is essentially everything they've released over the past nine years!) Folkore is perhaps the most cohesive of all their albums, and their albums always fit very well together, being intelligently sequenced. This cohesiveness impacts on the lack of immediacy of some of the melodies for me. The two folk-rock songs and the bustling energy of Winkie stood out on first listen, Telling the Bees was quite distinct (and distinctively a David Longdon piece), but initially the other songs had a similarity in style and mood that didn't differentiate itself for a while. These latter songs are the ones that have also offered the most reward, for me at least. The nostalgia and poignancy that appears throughout, and especially in Brooklands, one of their finest songs, sings to me. English Electric Part One will probably remain my favourite of their albums (and a contender for my favourite album by any band) but Folklore is right up there with it. Big Big Train reached their musical heights with The Underfall Yard and have sustained it for the fourth album in a row now. Few - if any - bands have matched this achievement to the ears of this listener.

Folklore opens with a string quartet playing at first wistfully and with more than a hint of melancholy. The progression is different to yet to me reminiscent of the strings accompanying Nick Drake's Way to Blue, another quintessentially English tune, worthy of his whisper. As an introduction to what follows through the course of nine songs, it is perfect. A brass fanfare adds some gravitas and the feeling of something epic to come. Big Big Train always manage a sense of the epic with aplomb. The scopes and vistas of their soundtracks are immense and deep at times but have real substance. They are never superficially grand. The subjects of their songs are often humble, idiosyncratic and closely observed - art forgers are more likely to appear than classical heroes - but the emotions and meanings touched upon are timeless and moving.

A couple of piano rolls fore-echo the piano's appearance at some of the most critical and poignant moments of the album, such as the latter part of Brooklands, and then the potent, steadfast folk rock of the title track comes in with a powerful rhythm section and a touch of synth. Nick D'Virgilio's drums are the sole accompaniment to David Longdon almost chanted vocals and the band's mantra-like sung refrain. The song takes something ordinary - the passing down of stories and more from generation to generation - and holds it up as something special, which it is. The video of the song has a real charm to it: there is clear pleasure in the band members in the call and response singing, coupled with the joy with a complete lack of pretension among the fans of the band called upon to perform in accompaniment to the chorus. Instrumentation is added a little at a time (and as an eight-piece with some of the most talented musicians in prog, there is much instrumentation to add). The keyboards are stellar throughout the album and the over-driven organ on the pre-chorus adds exactly the kind of tension I like. Rachel Hall's violin and the keyboards blend well, complementing each other through the song. There are little touches that reveal themselves here and there on closer listening.

The title track is a very accessible opening song, but it also has substance, setting out the theme of the album (and indeed of the band for some time): the telling of stories, literal or more abstract, and revelling in the history, landscape and tradition, 'folk' or otherwise, of England and the world of which it is a part. The instrumental sections are sumptuous and I already find them much anticipated when listening, raising the hairs on my neck and providing an ideal context for traded solos on the guitars of Dave Gregory and Rikard Sjoblom (a brilliant addition to the band) as well as Danny Manners' keyboard and Rachel Hall's violin.

London Plane, along with Brooklands, is probably my favourite song as well as one of the longest. It opens with a gorgeous vocal melody over a simple acoustic guitar. Told from the perspective of a tree that once grew by the Thames before the Victoria Embankment shifted its course. The song is laced with nostalgia and the passing of time, a theme I find runs throughout much of Big Big Train's music. There is deep melancholy and gentle sadness here, but it is not wallowed in, it is merely shown with honesty. Turner appears, painting the Houses of Parliament as they burn, kindling the skies he saw in the same way as he did Tambora sunsets and the slow death of the Temeraire. A first chorus now moves me deeply where at first it sounded merely pleasant. A second chorus is more rousing and makes a more literal statement of the theme. The song's length allows for a simply stunning middle section, which serves to break up the slow tempo of the rest of the song by use of blistering runs, with skittering flute, sometimes Barre-esque guitar and organ, and is quite special in its own right. After the intense interlude we witness the rising of Skylon in the early fifties. Time and tide wait for no man. The city itself is older than the lives of individual human beings or even of a tree, but everything is finite. Everything has its end and that is its beauty. The final notes of the string section echo this.

Along The Ridgeway/Salisbury Giant - a thematic and musical pair - at first seem to maintain the misty, lush, rich mood of London Plane, with a sedate tempo and a melodic warmth. The song opens with a recording of the blowing stone being sounded. This is a natural trumpet formed in a sarsen stone near the Ridgeway, an ancient track running across the chalk hills of the Berkshire Downs. The song has a heartbreaking verse melody showing the Ridgeway shrouded in mystery, myth and magic. Moments such as the line '...cross fields of summer lease...' to me link together enduring folkloric ideas and stories to childhood's fleeting but timeless memories. I pitched camp once in gathering dusk, not far from Uffington's White Horse and the weather turned wild overnight. Images of Wayland and of dragons are surprisingly easy to conjure up. We are introduced to the Salisbury Giant, led in effigy, before stalking strings introduce a darker and more tense passage, widening the range of musical ideas at play on the album.

The Transit of Venus Across the Sun is a great example of Greg Spawton taking an element or impression of a story and doing so much more with it. I am lucky in that so many of Big Big Train's reference points are already well known or interesting to me or, if not, something I can experience affinity for. Astronomy and the story of the quests embarked upon during the transit of the nineteenth century are both a rich source for ideas. Therefore I should have been disappointed to learn that the song was inspired more by the life of Sir Patrick Moore, a quirky and fascinating character, yet also someone who expressed deeply unpleasant and at times xenophobic views. However, it speaks highly of Greg Spawton's ability to capture what matters in humanity in his music, that he acknowledges this and yet has created such a beautiful and touching song about loss, endings and the intimation of something 'other', something beyond. Moore's unpleasant ideas are outweighed by something else. He lost the only love of his life during the Blitz - which may account for much of the bitterness he held, and it is possible to feel a sense of sadness and great pity for this - and lived without marrying or having children. The words are ambiguous and open enough to reflect this story and yet be fairly universal. 'So many words left unsaid. So many deeds left undone.' These lines reflect thematic unity throughout the album. In London Plane, centuries are viewed; in Brooklands time also runs out though with less regret; in Telling the Bees, time and generations pass. Throughout Folklore it is all passed down and carried on.

Wassail was the one already-familiar song, having been released as an EP in 2015. It is a pristine slice of folk rock, with clear Tull-like moments. Prog needs more songs that worship the apple tree and its fruit. The violin is prevalent again here. David Longdon's lyrics are highly evocative and they lifting a good song higher. It is the middle section that makes it all that more special, raising from a powerful toe-tapping tune to something with yet more depth. It is the bookend companion to Foklore and the two work very well in partnership, sharing themes and moods. I shall enjoy the next cider I drink all that much more.

Winkie is a very distinctive song and was one of the more noticeable songs on first listen. It is a very energetic and at times heavy ('heavy' in Big Big Train terms) pieces. It is a eclectic and changeable track with the lyrics presented in seven sections, and the song itself in nearly as many. The subject matter - the rescue of a ditched bomber crew in the North Sea following the 120 mile flight of their pigeon - is ideal for Big Big Train. A lush string, flute and choir opening refers to a theme reprised at the end before an almost bouncy, organ-heavy riff alternates with quieter lo-fi vocals. The song will travel through several styles and sections, while remaining very much a single song, and is quite narrative in its retelling. It is probably the most dramatic and epically composed piece of music about a pigeon of which I am aware. It gets especially good as it progresses through its changes. Winkie's flight is visceral and the drama feels genuine and meaningful throughout. There is, I feel, an element of wit to the musical arrangement that allows one to take it seriously without a hint of pretension.

Brooklands is already among my absolute favourite Big Big Train songs (along with East Coast Racer, Hedgerow and Victorian Brickwork). Melodies that on first listen sounded good now are intensely moving, given familiarity, lyrics and context. The opening strings sing poignantly and have a cinematic feel. Nick D'Virgilio's drums, which are absolute perfection throughout the album, drive the verses in their intricate restlessness. We are taken into the imagined world and last moments of a real-life driver who revelled in the exhilaration of speed at Brooklands in his youth, dying later in a record attempt on Loch Ness. The experience of living with such vitality is so well depicted through the music and words, it has that universal quality of the best music. I feel I can empathise deeply with what is touched upon, without ever having driven a car, let alone piloted a boat at speed on a Scottish loch. The sense of reflecting on life at its end while wanting it to continue, being transported to a youth long passed, yet being grateful for everything life brought, is perfectly rendered. The melody to 'Where did all the time go?' is something that simply connects with me on a level that only music can, as is the 'I was a lucky man' refrain. The instrumental sections in the song are as good as anything Big Big Train - or indeed any band - has produced. After nine or so minutes, when the song could have finished, a wonderful piano section, briefly quoting the 'Where did all the time go?' melody ushers in the last stunning instrumental passage. All of life is seems crammed into these few seconds.

As the third consecutive entomological album closer, Telling the Bees is the one song it has taken an active effort for me to appreciate. At first I didn't especially like it (but it grew and grew and is indeed well placed). Musically, Brooklands would have been a perfect ending to the album for me and couldn't be bettered, so anything that followed would have to be a step down. Also, the David Longdon penned songs that have greater pop-sensibilities - such as this one, Leopards, The Lovers etc. - are less naturally to my taste, though they have fine melodies. However, Upton Heath and Uncle Jack worked perfectly on English Electric Part One, partly due to their placement and thematic impact and, just like Greg Spawton's Curator of Butterflies was, this song is raised from a simple, whimsical throwaway tune to something special by its arrangement, performance and thematic conclusion to the album. The huge build-up through the second half of the song transforms it. There is even a witty Rimsky-Korsakov quotation just before the end. The sense of time passing, of seasons, of generations and of life's experience and traditions being carried on is continued and summed up here, the circle is unbroken. Brooklands is about endings. Telling the Bees places endings back where they belong, as part of life.

saboliver | 5/5 |


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