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Big Big Train

Crossover Prog

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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.

Report this review (#1572616)
Posted Monday, May 30, 2016 | Review Permalink
3 stars English independent prog band Big Big Train follow up the pastoral delight that was English Electric with Folklore, and although EE was a hard act to follow, the strength of the songwriting has delivered a mostly successful album. There appears to be an interesting dichotomy in the songwriting department with the Train. Singer David Longdon seems to pen the more overtly nostalgic and "poppy" numbers, while founder member and bass guitarist Greg Spawton writes the meatier, proggier numbers.

This is obviously a personal opinion, and while a review attempts to be objective, there are obvious limits in that respect, there's only so much technical detail a reader can take, so yes, here's my subjective take...

The folkier numbers sometimes sound a little contrived, or forced, and no matter how many times I sit through Wassail, I will always wince at it, with its knees-up Bellowhead-playing-prog-with-a-prop-forward-on-drums cheeriness and its rugby crowd singalong chorus. This is one of Longdon's, and as I said before I much prefer the more eclectic and "rockier" approach taken by Spawton. The wonderful London Plane being a prime example. The hi-res download contains two bonus tracks, but as I have only the standard version I do not know who wrote the captivating Mudlarks, but I guess it was Spawton, and in my opinion (that again), the standard album would be better served with that track in place of the folk-poptastic Wassail, a classic single in the old-fashioned sense if ever there was one. Another Spawton track, The Transit of Venus Across The Sun shows his sophisticated writing to the max with some great vocal work, and an arrangement that really draws you in. It has to be said the better songs on Folklore are his.

Leaving Wassail aside (please!), the one other thing that holds me back from giving all five stars, is the melancholic nostalgia that is heaped on like treacle, harking for a "better" world that probably never existed. I realise this is by now Big Big Train's raison-d'etre, but how about writing about something up to date for a change? Only a British band could make a career out of looking at the past through rose-tinted spectacles, it's one of our worst traits, longing for "the good old days". At least Transit... shows they can write about things other than our not always glorious heritage. More of that please!

Report this review (#1573781)
Posted Thursday, June 2, 2016 | Review Permalink
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.)

Report this review (#1573938)
Posted Thursday, June 2, 2016 | Review Permalink
3 stars Review #24 I discovered Big Big Train with the release of the album The Underfall Yard in 2009. My first impression was that they were good, but they were reminding me of the after-Gabriel era of Genesis, that's why I didn't pay so much attention. Next, the albums English Electric Parts 1 & 2 were released, which were really good ones. That was the point where I started paying attention to their music, and realized that it takes some time in order to fully "digest" and appreciate their music. And now, almost 3 years after English Electric Pt.2, Big Big Train returned with their brand new album named Folklore.

I have the album in my hands for just a few days, so consider this as a first impression, rather than a review. Folklore, includes all the ingredients that characterize Big Big Train's sound. The beautiful long compositions, the sad melodies, the "mellow" and melancholic overall coating, etc. I read in some reviews that in this album the band tried to blend Rock or - Progressive Rock if you like - with traditional English Folk. I'm sorry, but I don't see that, with only very few exceptions. I consider myself as a "fan" of English Folk and Folk Rock music, and I was kind of looking forward to listen to this album for that reason. But the Folk elements are very few, in my opinion of course, and they pass unnoticed on most occasions.

The opening song is kind of a disappointing one, if you exclude the very impressive but small symphonic intro, and I don't understand why the band chose this song as their first You Tube "release". Further than the opening song, the album gives a "massive" feeling, with very few ups and downs, but to my ears is obvious the absence of a very "strong" moment, like 'Swan Hunter' or 'Hedgerow' or even 'Judas Unrepentant' for example.

The compositions are in the usual high standards of Big Big Train, with the pleasant surprise being the variety of instruments that has been used. The line-up members are no less than 8, plus 8 more session musicians playing a really big variety of instruments, which there is no reason to mention here.

As for my favorite songs, so far are: London Plane, Wassail and The Transit of Venus Across the Sun. I feel the need to listen to Folklore a few more times in order to have a more thorough opinion, but so far these are my thoughts more or less. As for my rating, I don't think I would give more than 3 stars.

Report this review (#1577190)
Posted Friday, June 10, 2016 | Review Permalink
5 stars "Folklore" is a lovely album, a breath of fresh air in a polluted world, and a joyful rebound after the "Wassail" ep, which I found pretty lackluster. The opening track is okay, far from being among the album's best, but has a great, lively instrumental passage that gives the song a nice energetic boost, and makes it worthy of leading off the album. But it's the next several tracks where the real heart of "Folklore" lies. "London Plane", "Along The Ridgeway", "Salisbury Giant" and "The Transit of Venus Across The Sun" are all fantastic, poignant and melancholy songs that are easy for me to relate to emotionally, with "Along The Ridgeway" perhaps my favorite. David Longdon's voice has never sounded better, and in fact sounds absolutely fantastic throughout. The layers of varying instruments are a pleasure as well, perfectly placed and perfectly produced. "Brooklands" is of course another great one, energetic and melancholy at the same time. The only track I don't relate to is "Winkie", which just doesn't connect for me, but that may change given time. Perhaps no song on this album matches an earlier track like "Kingmaker", but the overall impression is that this may be their finest album to date, at least in my opinion.
Report this review (#1578792)
Posted Wednesday, June 15, 2016 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
5 stars 'Great album' is a Big Big Refrain for Big Big Train, as their latest album "Folklore" is another stellar achievement in their career, pretty much 6 in a row since "Gathering Speed", back in 2004. Now firmly established with a solid core of devoted musicians, this amazing band has reached pretty much the prog throne, left vacant by the dormant Porcupine Tree and with little challengers looming on the horizon. Their exemplary sound and vision has enthralled a wide cross section of the progressive community, recognizing those precious elements that make prog so, well,? progressive! Everything is first class, from the artwork, the production, the clear arrangements, the magnificent melodies, the lyrics and mostly, the creative delivery that is effortlessly jaw-dropping. David Longdon is speedily becoming a world class vocalist while shedding his 'Gabriel meets Collins' clone label which was once quite apparent but now has morphed into his own style altogether. Greg Spawton is a clever composer and slick guitarist, especially when regularly flanked by the mythical Dave Gregory of XTC fame. The bass duties are ably handled by co-leader Andy Poole whose imprint on their style is indelible. Nick D'Virgilio needs no introduction, he is simply one of the top 5 rock drummers on the planet with a career path that rivals the very best of his craft. The recent addition of Rikard Sjoblom of Beardfish adds even more keyboard splendor, dueling with Dave Manners on all matter of ivories. Solid crew!

The seven and a half minute title track sets the tone from the get go, a forceful romp that showcases Longdon's incredible mastery over his lungs, tempestuous organ and tortuous guitar solos, all expertly held together by the Poole-D'Virgilio tandem, with occasional synthesizer blasts, some deft flute trills and Rachel Hall's violin. The crew wastes little time delving into an epic ride on "London Plane", a slick trip down memory lane as Longdon masterfully displays his Gabriel-esque rasp, a swirling adventure that takes its 10 minute timeline perfectly, evoking a variety of soft yet passionate emotions , very English. The pastoral feel is augmented by the bucolic interface of exquisite acoustic guitar and slippery violin, furthered by some aggressive electric guitar phrasings that underline what a huge axeman Dave Gregory is. Soaring vocals exude strong British tendencies verging on nostalgic but these musicians have always had a very historical perspective on their craft, and rightly so. They are not interested in re- inventing the prog wheel, just perfecting it! I always tire of supposed music experts who constantly rail at prog not being innovative enough! Really? As compared to what? Pop? Metal? Progressive rock has polished itself into a well- defined art form, which is why it has survived torrents of petty ridicule and indignant scorn from the ignorant and profiteering masses (which continues today on the net).

The pensive and innocent "Along the Ridgeway" seeks to perpetuate this unruffled solemnity, a glorious melody shaped by some startling backing vocals, providing lead singer Longdon with the spotlight to decorate the melody with his powerful and heartfelt voice, aided by some sparkling piano, violin and organ additions. Its companion piece "Salisbury Giant" serves to elevate the mood further, raising it to a loftier plane, the violin carving the delicate purity of a melancholic past. The contrast between puerile and mature is simply breathtaking.

Staring at the stars is surely a habit for the curious and wandering artistic mind and "The Transit between Venus across the Moon" addresses the vastness of our universe whether external or internal, and the symphonics really shine through majestically, including strings and woodwinds to add a sense of endless discovery. David Longdon's raspy lilt does wonders here, delivering the urgent and despairing lyrics with apparent control and stellar dedication. A whirlwind guitar solo spirals lovingly amid the dense orchestrations, like some shining comet gliding intensely through the glittering space of time and matter.

The sprightly "Wassail" is strongly reminiscent of more modern British prog-folk, as I could not help drawing slight comparisons to old Traffic circa 'John Barleycorn must Die', both in the rampant organ churning up a storm, as well as Longdon doing a lil Stevie Winwood vocal and the overall energy in the endearing contrasts between pastoral serenity and bluesy wail. 'The apple of my eye', indeed! This is quite an energetic tune, almost beckoning an impromptu sing along in the pub reaction. The slick fiddle section furthers the bucolic feel.

The rather stunning surprise track here is without a doubt the rollicking "Winkie", an evolution of the previous piece, highly cinematographic, as if some soundtrack composition with amazing singing, both lead and backing and including some effect-laden radio voices to add to the score. D'Virgilio thumps enchantingly, driving the mood with aplomb, thus giving the lead voice the perfect platform to bellow strong and proudly. Plenty of shifts and turns, swerves and reversals to keep the most ambitious listener content, the kaleidoscope of sounds presented are brilliantly portrayed and evoked with heartfelt zeal.

The longest piece is the nearly 13 minute extravaganza "Brooklands" and aims at the poignancy heartstrings, muscled by a sensational bass and drum foundation, as well as a series of speedboat soloists that slither over the brooding waves with apparent comfort, powered by musical engines of eternal drive. The sizzling guitar breaks are phenomenal, the flute interventions perfect, D'Virgilio pounding masterfully like some race car driver gone berserk, while Longdon cries wonderfully into his microphone, all contributing to anointing this epic with the highest praise, perfect BBT's highest evolution yet. 'Lucky man', indeed!

This impressive set list finally rests upon the laurels of a gentle breeze, bees fluttering in the sunshine, an unpretentious ballad that seeks no progressive challenge, nothing more than a melodic au revoir that is both comfortable and content. Longdon does sound a lot like Uncle Phil here, but the delicacy of the slithering countrified guitar solo (is that you Mr.Gregory?), the relaxed piano and strings , as well of the gentle choir background exude tears of happiness flowing down some cheek. Unpretentious and beautiful.

In all honesty, both "English Electric" chapters left me only slightly satisfied, perhaps needing more of a revisit that I had initially thought , this gorgeous album on the other hand seems overtly more concise, attractive and seductive. Maturity, vision and team work has paid off handsomely, with a truly distinctive set-list of brilliant songs, with determination and principled vision.

5 urban myths

Report this review (#1584864)
Posted Monday, July 4, 2016 | Review Permalink
3 stars As the title suggests, on Folklore Big Big Train take a more folk-oriented spin on their nostalgia-themed Genesis- inspired prog. The folk influences peak, to my ear at least, on Wassail, a bid to go into full-on folk territory at points which doesn't quite work. Overall, the album seems to me to adopt the more gentle, sedentary approach of the second English Electric album and take it further, to a point where I can't really follow it; it doesn't help that I can sit through a whole listen of the album and then discover to my surprise that it's finished without successfully making a single lasting impression on me. It isn't boring, as such - it's quite pleasant from beginning to end - but it regularly threatens to become boring.
Report this review (#1587103)
Posted Wednesday, July 13, 2016 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars While carrying forward some of the bombast of the previous four releases, I find my self greatly appreciative of the more laid back songs on this album. Dave Longdon's vocal approach to the delivery of these lyrics is also, in my opinion, an improvement over some of the previous releases. There is no disputing that he has a wonderful, powerful, and exciting voice but, as I've said in the past, I find quite a disconnect in the way he chooses to sing/deliver the lyrical content with the meaning/message of the lyrics: Exactly how or why does one choose to get so emotional--and loud--when singing about these characters and scenes from English history? I love the presence of violin on almost every song (kudos, Andy, Greg and RACHEL HALL!), as well as that of strings and horns on many of the songs. Really nice fit with your music. Maestro Nick D'Virgilio is flawless as always and Dave Gregory lays down several of my favorite tracks I've ever heard from him. And of course, a big shout out to founders Andy Poole and Greg Spawton: your perseverance and passion has truly paid off! BBT is a force!

1. "Folklore" (7:30) the sounds of folk instruments gives the album's opening some promise but then the orotund vocal and anthemic background chorale I don't know why these songs and lyrics always have to sound so overpowering--as if they're trying to create rock anthems. (8/10)

2. "London Plane" (10:10) What?! After what I just wrote here they go and turn in a 180 degree turnaround. Tender, delicate, gentle slow pacing, tasteful (as opposed to pretentious) solos make this song a very welcome experience. Do I detect a Richie HAVENS quality to Dave's voice? Awesome! The revved up middle section for instrumental show is okay--unnecessary but notably restrained. Then the finale is sheer prog heaven--with one of my all-time favorite Dave LONGDON vocal sections in the ninth and tenth minutes. (9/10)

3. "Along the Ridgeway" (6:06) opens quite beautifully, piano and horns interplaying over bass and drums. Dave's vocal starts out a little less bombastic than usual, almost delicately--as do the conjoining background vocals. The second section with its staccato beat is just as engaging, though brief, giving way to a new layer of a weave of strings and picked electric guitar over which Dave and background vocals continue their singing. This is a great song--far more understated and less showy than their other stuff. At the 3:00 mark a nice instrumental section with GENESIS-like time signature ensues in which a Roger McGUINN (THE BYRDS)-like electric 12-string guitar solo, electric violin, and organ take turns soloing. At 3:48 the full soundscape continues in support of Dave's vocal return. Then at 4:15 things quite down in the background into a kind of jazzy soundscape before the full strings and horn sections join in briefly. My favorite song on the album. I could see this one being doubled in length. (9/10)

4. "Salisbury Giant" (3:36) is an odd little duck in that it opens with a feeling as if it is meant to be an instrumental interlude as full band with organ, slide guitar, and strings plod their way through an interesting GENESIS/BEATLES conglomeration. The song kind of twists and turns, never truly establish its identity, until Dave Longdon's vocals enter for the final 90 seconds. (8/10)

5. "The Transit of Venus Across the Sun" (7:18) opens with Christmas in the park sounding horn ensemble (which is then joined by violin and more horns) in a Pachelbel-Yule-ish weave. Then, at the 1:35, cymbol crescendo closes the door on the classical instruments and introduces 12-string guitars, piano, bass and drums in order to support Dave Longdon while he sings us along a RICHIE HAVENS-like celestial journey. The third section of the song that begins at the 4:11 mark notes the introduction of a chorus of what sounds like Latin chanting. This shifts into English at 4:45 as the accompanying instrumental support builds. Then, just as quickly, everything fades at 5:20 to leave us with finger-picked 12-string guitar and tuned percussion before everyone rejoins for Dave's final vocal and an symphony-supported electric guitar solo from Dave Gregory. Nice song. A top three for me. (9/10)

6. "Wassail" (6:47) takes a kind of bombastic approach to medieval troubadour song. THE STRAWBS were able to do this in the 70s. For my ears and mind this one is just a little too over the top--especially the chorus and the lead vocal overall. The instrumental foundation is awesome, it just gets too powerful in the chorus sections. (8/10)

7. "Winkie" (8:26) I think this one is intended to tell a war hero story in a kind of KATE BUSH-JETHRO TULL way. This one takes me back to 2004's World War II-oriented Gathering Speed. Good song with nice bass play throughout. (8/10)

8. "Brooklands" (12:38) opens in what feels and sounds like a very typical (formulaic) BBT way. Nice pace with batterie master Nick D'Virgilo's typically syncopated drumming, Dave Longdon's typcially impassioned vocals, and Dave Gregory's distinctive guitar sound. Again, not being a lyrically-oriented music listener, I wonder how much of the music is lost on me because I take no joy or meaning from the words; vocals are merely another instrumental melody line added into the music. There are some nice sections to this song--like the "lucky man" section of the sixth minute and the ensuing GENESIS-like instrumental section (which is pretty amazing--especially Nick's work). But overall, once again, full engagement and full impact are lost on me. (8/10)

9. "Telling the Bees" (6:03) offers a nice shift in sound for first 40 seconds--a kind of early ERIC CLAPTON or STEVE WINWOOD sound and style. Plus, it's a love song. And a good one at that! Great pedal steel guitar solo! My final top three song from the album. (9/10)

Not a masterpiece but a solid four star album: Excellent addition to any prog rock music collection.

Report this review (#1591143)
Posted Sunday, July 24, 2016 | Review Permalink
4 stars My second Big Big Train acquisition after "English Electric" and an album I felt somewhat essential to my collection. Not only had I been entertaining the idea of purchasing another BBT album but the artwork impressed me so, and furthermore, for the first time since becoming a member on PA, I was actually interested in purchasing new releases of the year.

After a few listens to the whole album plus additional listens to selected tracks, my lingering impression is that this band have a knack for musical perfection. First, they know their place as a progressive rock/folk band; the music embraces both the electric and rockin' side when called for but also keeps a firm handle on the folk side with its accoutrement of acoustic instruments such as acoustic guitar, violin, viola, cello, flute, mandolin, and even accordion. Dave Longdon, who initially left me with the impression that he sounded a lot like Genesis-era Peter Gabriel when I first heard "English Electric", has now proven to me he has his own distinct voice.

As can be expected from this band, the nine songs offered here are carefully crafted with lyrics poetically depicting English imagery, history, and folklore and sung with expression and feeling. The instruments contribute with an impeccable sense for timing and mood. The drums come in with a shuffle or jazzy intro, or roll and rock the skins. The piano lays down beautiful blossoming paths while the organ throws out meaty notes. The band can play for speed and complexity, subtlety and grace, tension and atmosphere. Just listen to that foreboding intro to "Salisbury Giant" or see the pigeons take flight with the flutes in "Winkie". Swing your pint glass of apple cider to "Wassail" and smile to the endearing lyrics and melody of "Telling the Bees".

Yes, this is an album that has been crafted to perfection. And yet there is one nagging thought I have about it: there are few parts that really make my ears prick up and have me asking, "What track is this? This is fantastic!" I really like "Winkie" for the story and how the music and lyrics help create the image of the story. "Salisbury Giant" has a great intro. "London Plane" and "Brooklands" have pretty cool instrumental sections. There's something in each track really. However, there aren't any songs that hit me with that extra jolt that has me cuing up the culprit song for replay day after day.

That final thought aside, the modern prog fan can't really go wrong with Big Big Train and this album really shows what they are made of. An easy four stars with an eye on 4.5.

Report this review (#1612107)
Posted Saturday, September 17, 2016 | Review Permalink
Tarcisio Moura
5 stars Subtle, not bombastic. that´s why I think a lot of people simply don´t get Big Big Train. Their music is rich, complex and full of layers that are hard to perceive at first listening. Or second. So I can understand why so many other reviewers seem to fail to see the point: like 70´s Genesis, Big Big Train is a band that takes you in a gentle way, with a music that seems to be simpler that it really is, even banal if you don´t pay close attention. But if you do, you´ll find pure gold. I had this new CD for several months and I deliberately delay a review because I wanted to be sure if my first impression was right. It sounded like a masterpiece when i got the album. After dozens of spins I can assure now with much more confidence: it IS a masterpiece. I had my doubts if this band could deliver such an outstanding work after already producing such brilliant albums like The Underfall yard and English Electric parts I and II. But they did it. And|I´m very happy the chance to review such fine piece of art.

I already had their EP Wassail, that showed the band at their peak, promising a full CD that could actually match its precedents. In fact, after the band recruited singer/multi instrumentalist David Longdon it seems they found, finally, the right chemistry that so many prog acts seem to look for all their lives: the right balance between the old and new, the simple and complex, originality and familiarity. Most important, they know how to write fine melodies. On this new CD the inclusion fo violinist Rachel Hall as a permanent member gave the band a more folk-ish element (hence the title) that adds very well to their overall sound. The songwriting is strong as ever, showing the enormous maturity those guys got since their early times: all the tracks are great, with no weak tracks to be found anywhere. The combination of excellent songs with exquisite arrangements plus emotional and spotless performances make Folklore one of the best albums of music in general I´ve heard this year.

I won´t bother to cite every quality of this CD or even comment on every track. Suffice to say this is really a work of art, where every note counts. Music so well crafted, played and produced that is hard to believe someone is doing such labor of love nowadays. It may take a few spins to really get into Folklore, but you´ll be very well rewarded if you do.

If you like symphonic progressive music in the vein of the great bands of the 70´sat their peak, like Genesis, but with originality too and a modern twist, this one´s for you!

Rating: 5 stars. A truly prog masterpiece.

Report this review (#1618358)
Posted Tuesday, October 4, 2016 | Review Permalink
4 stars Folklore is the ninth studio album released by BBT, and was an instant top five album for me in 2016. It develops the themes inherent in English Electric, particularly the second part, and sees, for me, the band developing very nicely into the natural successor to one of our finest, and best loved, pastoral progressive rock acts of the classic era.

What, another Genesis tribute allegation, you ask? No, not a bit of it. This band, not particularly in terms of approach, but most definitely in terms of their use of English lore and joyous storytelling of our heritage are, to me, the modern day Jethro Tull. Think of that band's wonderful folk rock period between Songs from the Wood and Broadsword...., transport it into the 21st century, and here we go. London Plane, with its tale of a boat squadron on course to Runnymede, could quite easily fit in on any one of those Tull masters. The chorus of this soars.

The album explodes into sound with the title track. Pure folk prog, with Longden's flute and Rachel Hall's exceptional violin playing right to the fore. The latter, to me, is a very welcome addition to this band. Her playing on this and the live set released on Stone and Steel are exceptional, and her backing to Longden's feeling lead vocals complement each other very well.

The band now boast eight members, living in disparate areas of not just the UK, but literally the world, with Rikard Sjoblom adding important textures on guitars and keyboards, and the drummer from America who I regard as being the finest modern exponent of the trade, Nick D'Virgilio. His work shines on this, and both also contribute backing vocals, making the band sound throughout as a vocal and instrumental symphony.

Along The Ridgeway uses both Hall's violin and the welcome return of the brass section to great effect. It segues effortlessly into Salisbury Giant, a huge figure which one adorned pageants in medieval Wiltshire, now housed in a museum there. These are gentle pieces, with intelligent use of orchestration creating a solemn, thoughtful, mood. Longden sings it beautifully. I fell in love with his voice on the wonderful Martin Orford swan song, The Old Road, and he is, to me, a world class vocalist.

Brass and violin also introduce us to the exceptional The Transit Of Venus Across The Sun. The lyrics, vocals, and music take me back many years to when I was a young man fascinated by the vastness of the visible night sky, and wondering just what it would be like to fly there, a la James T Kirk. You are taken to this place on the "so many words left unsaid" sequence, before Dave Gregory produces a scintillating guitar solo leading the entire outfit in a symphonic burst of pure noise. Quite lovely.

Wassail has attracted some criticism. It is beyond me why. When I first heard it on the EP release of the same name in 2015, I knew we were in for a real old treat with the forthcoming album. Whilst the accompanying video, costumes and all, might seem a tad corny, this is prog folk at its most powerful, with swirling keyboards and thunderous riffs, led by Spawton on bass and D'Virgilio on drums moving things along at a fair old pace. The story itself is of pagans travelling between houses and orchards wassailing, boozing to hearty effect on Wassail, a rather strong mulled cider.

There is one track on the album that I still struggle to "get", and that is Winkie. The story behind the song is straightforward enough, that of a World War Two flying hero. It is played well enough, with the drums especially moving things along swiftly, and Longden evokes true emotion in The North Sea passage when radio contact with the plane is lost. However, it is, to me, slightly too breathless and wordy at times to truly impress. Great in parts, but not as a whole.

The epic length track on the album, clocking in at 12.40 minutes, is Brooklands. This venue, of course, was the world's first motor racing circuit, and the track evokes all of the romance and thrill which that venue brought to the pioneers who raced there, the smells of the engines, and the crowds who followed the sometimes dangerous exploits of the participants. I love the thoughtful guitar lead, whilst D'Virgilio excels on a tuneful drum pattern, with Spawton producing a deep, growling, bass line. A great story and tribute to a time long passed away, this is intellectual prog folk at its peak. The section leading to the denouement has the entire band, keys, flute, violin, rhythm, guitar stretching themselves to the limit, before we come down to earth gently with a delicate vocal.

All which precedes, though, leads up to the biggest thrill, the final track, the sumptuous and beautiful Telling The Bees. I didn't think that the band could better Hedgerow, to me a highlight of prog rock in all the time I have listened to this great genre. This one does it, in spades. It plays to every strength this great band have. It aches with emotion, and has, at its heart, the memories of a loved father, honoured in old custom by telling the bees of a life and love. "The joy is in the telling", and the telling is a wonderful noise. This song evokes memories of loved ones no longer with me, and I sing it at the top of my voice, but with love and fond memories, not sadness, the way such fond memories are meant to be. This is a gloriously uplifting track, and yet another reminder of why this band are so special. Listen and let the emotion wash over you.

This is yet another fine release by a band who I hope will continue to carry the torch of quality English progressive rock for many years to come. Four stars, and simply excellent.

Report this review (#1723759)
Posted Friday, May 19, 2017 | Review Permalink
3 stars Decent Music, but BBT Formula.

Big Big Train (BBT) albums, and this album of theirs in particular, often come across very strongly on first listen, because the execution, playing and singing are so strong, but that feeling tapers off with multiple listens due to what I can only call the "mushiness" of some of the songs, in which a certain kind of sameness or lack of definition among the tunes make them less memorable. This album evokes this response in me more than other BBT albums. Perhaps related to this, I also find BBT have become a bit formulaic over time. While The Underfall Yard largely set the formula (although much of the formula actually started in previous BBT albums too), it did so in a novel musical way, and with not too much syrup. The lyrics and singing on that album don't try overly hard, and there is enough musical diversity to prevent one from getting stuck in the same emotional frame of mind (which the first volume of the original version of English Electric also accomplished very well, despite sticking to the same theme of decaying English ways of life). But each subsequent BBT album up to this one has leaned a bit more on the formula, and on steeping the tunes in much of this melancholic emotion. I find the second (original) volume of English Electric, and this album (Folklore) to be prime examples of this. While it is true that Folklore conjures up a bit more of the old pagan English folk, notably in the excellent title track, and in "Wassail", the rest of the tracks sound not dissimilar to those found on English Electric vol.II and Far Skies Deep Time, and many of them, to my mind (after multiple listens) are often not quite as good. Indeed, the album is on the whole slower, and while I have no problem with slow music, I don't find Folklore maintains interest as well as many other BBT albums. Some of the slower pieces are simply not as musical, and there seems to be less diversity (in tempo, style, etc). The best tracks are the opener/title track ("Folklore"), the closer ("Telling the Bees"), and the two that border them ("London Plane" and "Brooklands"), while "Wassail" is also very notable for sounding sufficiently different. Don't get me wrong, the musicianship and most of the music here is high quality, better than a lot of other albums on PA, including a number of classic ones. As other reviewers have noted, their sound has matured, and the music can be quite subtle. I particularly enjoy listening to Nick D'Virgilio's drumming. But this album drags more than other recent BBT albums, and other than the two folk-inspired tunes I find it a tad formulaic, long, and undifferentiated. I give this 7.6 out of 10 on my 10-point scale, which translates to (high) 3 PA stars.

Report this review (#1743160)
Posted Thursday, July 13, 2017 | Review Permalink
The Crow
3 stars This is the first I hear of Big Big Train, and therefore also my first review of this band!

When I first listened this album some weeks ago I was blown away. Maybe because this good band was unknown to me till recently and it was one hell of a surprise. But after a few listens this euphoria dismissed a little, although I still think this album is pretty good. The splendid production is also remarkable, despite the loud D'Virgilio drums.

But let's talk about the songs!

The album starts with Folklore, a very appropriate title for a track which mixes wisely symphonic prog, neo-prog and folk elements. The chorus is not so good, but the rest of the song is pure enjoyment with its two splendid guitar solos, being the last answered by another catchy keyboard solo. With this first track I was aware that this band is plenty consolidated and good assembled. Every instrument has its moments and they sound is coherent and cohesive. Very good!

London Plane is a flute-introduced slow piece with beautiful lyrics about this city and an outstanding instrumental section with a lot of jazz influences, perfect for the keyboardist to show off... OK, and D'Virgilio. Along the Ridgeway is also a bit slow. I think the album needed a bit power at this point, but this track doesn't deliver. It has nevertheless fine choirs in the Spock's Beard style and another great instrumental section witch strings and another good keyboard solo.

Salisbury Giant continues the end of the previous song, and Transit of Venus Across the Sun comes with an instrumental introduction of strings and wind instruments. Beautiful and with another great solo, Genesis-reminding guitar melodies but again too slow and a bit boring. This is the verification that this album lacks rhythm, or better structure. I think the songs are good, but they are not in the right order or maybe they are too long. I don't know... But sometimes I find Folklore just dull.

Luckily Wassail comes to rescue the ship with its good vocal melodies, lyrics with roots in the nature and landscapes, powerful drums and a keyboard towards the end which reminds me to Deep Purple! And Winkie follows this pleasant path with a funny text, great bass and good rhythm. The section which starts at 3'38'' is pure magic! My favorite song of the album.

And then comes Brooklands which is not a bad song, but at this point of the album it contributes not so much to its quality apart of giving minutes to the final duration. No surprises here. Nevertheless, its central section is pretty good with more jazzy instrumentation and very good drumming. The drums are maybe a bit loud, but it's impossible to deny the quality of D'Virgilio as a drummer.

Ok, Telling the Bees... This will be short: I can't understand how this band closed this good album with such a lousy and cheesy song. Completely forgettable.

Conclusion: Folklore is a stimulating mixture of symphonic prog with jazz influences, folk tunes, neo-prog and a bit of hard rock from a consolidated band which also delivers a very good sound and production. But it fails to offer a cohesive experience because a pair of dull tracks (Salibury Giant, Transit of Venus Across the Sun, Brooklands), and fairly bad one (Telling the Bees) and an bad tune order in my opinion.

Nevertheless, its good songs (Winkie, Wassail, Folklore, London Plane...) make this album a strong recommendation for modern prog lovers with lots of classic influences, despite not being excellent.

Best songs: Folklore, London Plane, Wassail, Winkie.

My rating: ***

Report this review (#1767823)
Posted Monday, July 31, 2017 | Review Permalink
5 stars [I originally wrote the following review back in 2017:]

This is it, with this album Big Big Train truly establish themselves as prog gods, I mean, after THE UNDERFALL YARD and the live triumph of STONE AND STEEL there couldn't really be any doubt, but FOLKLORE makes it plain that the band reach heights few can aspire to. In my opinion FOLKLORE is even stronger than its immediate successor, GRIMSPOUND, mainly because it rocks harder. To my surprise, some reviewers have complained the album features tunes which are easy on the ear - a form of reasoning I really don't understand! Just think about it: 'Firth of Fifth', 'Mother Goose' and 'Karn Evil 9' all sound supremely catchy (at least in part) and they're from albums many of us recognise as masterpieces... Besides, anyone who listens without prejudice will notice David Longdon's vocals now sound more confident and mature than ever. Furthermore, the album as a whole clearly benefits from the prominent violin playing of Rachel Hall. Finally, while FOLKLORE boasts fewer soaring guitar solos than THE UNDERFALL YARD, I was delighted by the large number of imaginative keyboard solos. All in all, I simply have to agree with those Prog Archives colleagues who have stated that FOLKLORE shows BBT at the top of their game.

All of which makes me wonder: how is it possible BBT aren't even mentioned in ROCK PROGRESSIF, Aymeric Leroy's authoritative French study of the genre (2014) or in THE SHOW THAT NEVER ENDS by David Weigl (2017), an informal chronicle which caused quite a stir in the U.S. media? Both Weigl and Leroy are sympathetic towards progressive rock and devote entire chapters to the "rebirth" of the genre after its 1980s nadir. Does BBT music (in all its Englishness) have difficulty travelling across the pond? Surely everyone must notice that (especially since 2009) BBT have mastered the classic 1970s British prog sound AND are taking it in exciting new directions?

In the past, bands such as Yes were habitually accused of sounding "over-technical". I finally realised how wrong this was when I heard Rick Wakeman say that for him Yes's music was all about emotion - and that emotion lay mainly in Jon Anderson's voice. Well, folks, even apart from the virtuosity BBT so abundantly display, I can think of no other current prog band that conveys subtle feelings in a more sophisticated manner. Long may BBT thrive!

Report this review (#2488502)
Posted Tuesday, December 29, 2020 | Review Permalink

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