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Big Big Train - Folklore CD (album) cover


Big Big Train


Crossover Prog

4.02 | 628 ratings

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4 stars As a long-time fan of Big Big Train, I awaited news of their next album. Their release, along with Haken's, stood out as the highlights of the year. However, their Youtube "release" of the title track left me unimpressed, and the raves in the comments, made me just want to hear what they were hearing. I knew that continuing with the trend of adding traditional instruments, betokened by the addition of Rachael Hall, that their sound would get more *folk*, and I heard that. But I was quite put off by the continuation of catchy shout-chant-rock in the song *Folklore*.

I have to admit that *Wassail*, with its mixture of funk and fiddle, has done nothing but grow on me since my picking up the EP the day of its release. But, the preview of the title song, had me thinking it was more of the same (which shows a continuation from one of my least favorite BBT tunes: *Make Some Noise*). One was about the English tradition around spiced cider, and the other one about English tradition itself ("We pass it down."). Again, the expected folksier instrumentation was expected but simply served as backdrop, to the seeming accented rhythm-oriented chanty-ness.

But after a few listens to the album, even the title track has grown on me, much thanks to the aggressive keyboard attack at the segue to the chorus, and settling down to actually listen to the interplay of the instruments. It was a pleasant surprise that everything that follows, besides the aforementioned *Wassail*, thwarts that initial feeling of a band settling into a rut. Instead its nice to hear some callbacks to *Underfall Yard* in the brass arrangements like in the verses of *Along the Ridgeway* combining with *English Electric* accent on lush piano arrangement.

And the arrangements on *Folklore* are what keeps me listening. The electric 70s prog instruments and jazz-rock drumming mixing in with brass and string group arrangements, including the feature flute and violin solos and some frenetic piano runs (on *Brooklands*, I assume by Manners).

I have just to tell of one of my favorite moments of the album. My favorite track is the short *Solsbury Giant*. I love the dark-toned intro with the cello and strings, underlain by pulsating rock bass and drums, and then with a plaintive latter-day Hackett-ish squall from the guitar, a spritely ostinato from the (Banks-ish, with a Beardfish tinge) keyboard launches into a section that for me calls back to a section of Genesis' *Apocalypse in 9/8*, yet never reaches Banks' frenetic climax, because 1) it's not a simple pastiche, and 2) that's not where this piece is going. It's not apocalyptic, instead somehow conveying the tension of an estranged "lonely" "giant". It counters the tension by underlaying the "Solsbury Giant theme" begun in *Ridgeway* with strings. Until the "Solsbury Giant chorus" is reprised at the end of this piece, Nick D'Virgilio is really given the space to move the beat around here, as in the musical interludes in *London Plane* and *Brooklands*.

The collection ends with my least favorite track, *Telling the Bees*. It's pop--which why I listen to prog. But even on the first listen, I noticed some smooth slide-mordant breaks by Dick Gregory, which turns it into a bluesier pop. Okay, bluesy pop. Still not a favorite. Some accordion, some choral oohs and ahs, and Motown feel?--but directly contrasted as the violin becomes more prominent. So it's bluesy folk-Motown. I guess somehow reminiscent of Rod Stewart during his *Small Faces* days, because I think there might be a mandolin in the mix. Plus there's a bridge with a guitar solo reminiscent of Hackett slide solos and piano runs, and the key is modulated. Which leaves me feeling: is the worst I can say about this that it's pop matter when it's some pretty good pop? In addition, kind of a nice light outro, though.

So is a good bit of *London Plane* also pop; smooth, glossy pop--with some interesting instrumentation, culminating in an interlude that one critic described as a street fight between Steely Dan and Tull. (Tull wins.) A tasty outro solo by Gregory brings us home.

*Brooklands* also has it's share of pop feel, despite its being one of the best tracks on the collection, and features some nice synchopated drumming by D'Virgilio and some Squire-esque Rickenbacker bass (which I expect comes from the former multi-instrumentalist at the center: Spawton) on the verses.

And that touches on my final thought. Longdon has a great voice. My still favorite Big Big track is *Wide Open Sea* from *Far Skies, Deep Time*, in which his voice is an integral feature to the impact of that song. And so, I think what I've called "pop" above (apart from *Telling the Bees*, that is) might just be nothing more than space to feature Longdon's vocal characterizations. All of the music has an interesting fusion of instruments as well as harmonies and discords. Longdon sells the stories, just like he did with *Victorian Brickwork* and *Winchester Diver*, and the instrumental mixture of electric rock and folk and classical quartets and quintets--with a little jazz--wants to punctuate and illustrate and lend mood. It's all about mixing. As it was since they handed a prominent role to a guitarist who had much more skill than the tuneful-alt-pop he used to play, who with his diverse styles, can remind you of the non-rock elements Steve Howe used to lend to Yes.

Just like the title track, which grew on me, after several trips through, the album continues to grow on me. (I still think D'Virgilio's drums should be thicker in the mix.)

axeman | 4/5 |


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