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BIG BIG TRAIN

Crossover Prog • United Kingdom


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Big Big Train biography
BIG BIG TRAIN have released five albums including the critically acclaimed "The Difference Machine"(2007) and "The Underfall Yard"(2009).

BIG BIG TRAIN was formed in 1990 by Andy POOLE and Greg SPAWTON. They were joined by Ian COOPER (keyboards), Steve HUGHES (drums) and Canadian vocalist Martin READ. Initial influences on the band's music included Steve HACKETT, Anthony PHILLIPS, IT BITES and PREFAB SPROUT. A demo cassette tape of the band's first songs, recorded on 8-track, was released in October 1991 and was followed by live performances. The demo tape "From the River to the Sea" was re-recorded and released as a self-financed demo CD in May 1992, following which BBT played some higher profile gigs in England.

In January 1993, a second demo tape, "The Infant Hercules" was released and the band then spent the next six months writing the music for its first proper album, "Goodbye to the Age of Steam". This was recorded in a hectic two week period in July 1993. Soon afterwards, BBT signed to the progressive rock label GEP, where they found themselves as label mates of IQ.

"Goodbye to the Age of Steam" was a big leap forward for the band, both in terms of songwriting and recording quality. The response to the album was very positive, culminating in a licensing deal in Japan where the CD was re-released in 1995, with a bonus track.

In the meantime, Ian COOPER had left the band (for family rather than musical reasons) and live performances were put on hold while a replacement was sought and a new album was written.

Recording of BBT's second album commenced in July of 1995 (with Greg filling in on keyboards) and continued, sporadically, until completion 18 months later. During the sessions, a new keyboard player, Tony MÜLLER was recruited. Some of the songs from the new album were debuted at the band's only show from this period at the Astoria, London. "English Boy Wonders" was finally released in autumn 1997, although in an incomplete state as the band had run out of money to finish the album. "English Boy Wonders" combined progressive rock (GENESIS, VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR) with indie-pop influences (XTC, THE CURE.)

Steve HUGHES left BIG BIG TRAIN in September 1998 and went on to join THE ENID. He was replaced by Pete HIBBIT. They were subsequently dropped by their record label, GEP. After a few more live performances, the band's momentum seemed all but spent.

Greg and Andy began work on some new songs with...
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FolkloreFolklore
Import
Imports 2016
Audio CD$10.75
$50.99 (used)
Stone & Steel [Blu-ray]Stone & Steel [Blu-ray]
Import
Imports 2016
Blu-ray$21.99
$29.37 (used)
Difference MachineDifference Machine
Import · Remastered
Ais 2011
Audio CD$11.10
$11.09 (used)
English Electric: Full PowerEnglish Electric: Full Power
CD Baby 2013
Audio CD$23.03
$40.45 (used)
Underfall YardUnderfall Yard
Import
Ais 2009
Audio CD$10.13
$10.12 (used)
Make Some Noise EpMake Some Noise Ep
Single · Import
Imports 2013
Audio CD$7.34
$7.32 (used)
Goodbye to the Age of SteamGoodbye to the Age of Steam
Import
Ais 2011
Audio CD$11.01
$11.05 (used)
English Electric Part 2English Electric Part 2
Import
Ais 2013
Audio CD$8.80
$12.90 (used)
English Boy WondersEnglish Boy Wonders
Import
Ais 2011
Audio CD$19.79
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BIG BIG TRAIN discography


Ordered by release date | Showing ratings (top albums) | Help Progarchives.com to complete the discography and add albums

BIG BIG TRAIN top albums (CD, LP, MC, SACD, DVD-A, Digital Media Download)

3.43 | 137 ratings
Goodbye To The Age Of Steam
1994
3.31 | 138 ratings
English Boy Wonders
1997
3.22 | 114 ratings
Bard
2002
3.67 | 190 ratings
Gathering Speed
2004
3.63 | 251 ratings
The Difference Machine
2007
4.17 | 617 ratings
The Underfall Yard
2009
4.20 | 864 ratings
English Electric (Part One)
2012
4.13 | 677 ratings
English Electric (Part Two)
2013
4.14 | 221 ratings
Folklore
2016

BIG BIG TRAIN Live Albums (CD, LP, MC, SACD, DVD-A, Digital Media Download)

4.45 | 42 ratings
From Stone And Steel
2016

BIG BIG TRAIN Videos (DVD, Blu-ray, VHS etc)

4.44 | 17 ratings
Stone & Steel
2016

BIG BIG TRAIN Boxset & Compilations (CD, LP, MC, SACD, DVD-A, Digital Media Download)

4.24 | 41 ratings
English Boy Wonders (2008)
2008
4.89 | 137 ratings
English Electric: Full Power
2013

BIG BIG TRAIN Official Singles, EPs, Fan Club & Promo (CD, EP/LP, MC, Digital Media Download)

2.42 | 30 ratings
From The River to the Sea
1992
3.20 | 18 ratings
The Infant Hercules
1993
4.03 | 166 ratings
Far Skies Deep Time
2010
4.24 | 58 ratings
Make Some Noise
2013
3.68 | 66 ratings
Wassail
2015

BIG BIG TRAIN Reviews


Showing last 10 reviews only
 Folklore by BIG BIG TRAIN album cover Studio Album, 2016
4.14 | 221 ratings

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Folklore
Big Big Train Crossover Prog

Review by Warthur
Prog Reviewer

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.
 Folklore by BIG BIG TRAIN album cover Studio Album, 2016
4.14 | 221 ratings

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Folklore
Big Big Train Crossover Prog

Review by tszirmay
Special Collaborator Crossover Team

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

 Folklore by BIG BIG TRAIN album cover Studio Album, 2016
4.14 | 221 ratings

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Folklore
Big Big Train Crossover Prog

Review by snelling

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.
 Folklore by BIG BIG TRAIN album cover Studio Album, 2016
4.14 | 221 ratings

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Folklore
Big Big Train Crossover Prog

Review by The Jester

3 stars 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 in 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 favourite 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 out of 5 stars.
 From Stone And Steel by BIG BIG TRAIN album cover Live, 2016
4.45 | 42 ratings

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From Stone And Steel
Big Big Train Crossover Prog

Review by javajeff

5 stars It is hard to find a better collection of songs on any album by any band. This could easily be called a greatest hits if the tracks were the same ones from the original albums, but these are different recordings with slight variances that make this collection that much more interesting. While the sound quality is excellent, there is a grittier, rawer, and punchier delivery of these songs that make me want to turn them way up. I really think this album is shear brilliance, and every progressive rock fan should have this in their collection. It is a must buy for fans of the band, and the songs are timeless works of art.
 Folklore by BIG BIG TRAIN album cover Studio Album, 2016
4.14 | 221 ratings

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Folklore
Big Big Train Crossover Prog

Review by javajeff

5 stars It comes as no surprise to me that Big Big Train releases another high quality album since I have been a fan for years. I think they have an incredible artistic sense when composing and creating new music, and they are not swayed by others. They always seem to produce something that fits perfectly into their catalog of albums. Folklore is not revolutionary, but perhaps evolutionary. They have a found a groove writing very mature songs, and there are times on Folklore where the stories and lyrics really brought me in along with David Longdon's stellar vocals. Of course there is excellent musicianship making this an absolutely superb release. It is a must own album for music lovers. The standout tracks, if I had to pick some, would be London Plane, Brooklands, and Telling the Bees. There are no bad tracks on this album, and it will be enjoyed for years.
 From Stone And Steel by BIG BIG TRAIN album cover Live, 2016
4.45 | 42 ratings

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From Stone And Steel
Big Big Train Crossover Prog

Review by Tarcisio Moura
Prog Reviewer

4 stars I was anxious to see how Big big Train would perform in the live ambient, so I got this CD when I heard it was a live recording. Well, not so much so. I mean, yes, it's a live recording, but not in front of an audience. Stone and Steel was a kind of live in the studio recording (preparing themselves for the "real" live gigs they produced in London a little later). So I got a little frustrated because I was expecting to hear them in front of a big crowd, just like live albums should be. However, my disappointment was short lived: playing together in one place, all at the same time, with a few new arrangements to add up to their live presentation, the music here is quite stunning.

It is not only interesting to hear those terrific musicians playing those intricate and complex tunes with seemly such ease, but also with an energy and passion that surpass the studio recording. The music delivered on Stone And Steel is so organic and energetic it really shines through the CD in a special manner, although no radical changes were made from the originals. In fact if there is one thing I did not like very much from these recording is the fact that could have played more old songs, specially the ones recorded before singer David Longdon joined the group. However, if you consider that they were rehearsing for a live show how could they not play mostly stuff from their masterpieces The Underfall Yard and English Electric? To satisfy the curiosity of the ones like me, they did play a couple of tunes from their early days: Wind Distorted Pioneers, the opener for their first official album, Goodbye to the Age Of Steam (1994) gets an acoustic piano & violin arrangement, while Kingmaker from BBT's EP The Infant Hercules (1993) is played in its full 10 minutes of duration. Their inclusion is a nice touch and work very well among their latter day stuff.

After repeated spins I was more than satisfied by this album. Big big Train live is as accomplished live as they are in the studio. Perhaps even more so, Well, with such talented musicians backing up the core members of the band, and not forgetting their remarkable material they produced recently, you always expect at least competent playing. But actually you get much more than that. Big Big Train has proved they are now one of the greatest prog bands ever. 4,5 stars.

 Folklore by BIG BIG TRAIN album cover Studio Album, 2016
4.14 | 221 ratings

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Folklore
Big Big Train Crossover Prog

Review by axeman

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.)

 Folklore by BIG BIG TRAIN album cover Studio Album, 2016
4.14 | 221 ratings

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Folklore
Big Big Train Crossover Prog

Review by Starless

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!

 Folklore by BIG BIG TRAIN album cover Studio Album, 2016
4.14 | 221 ratings

BUY
Folklore
Big Big Train Crossover Prog

Review by saboliver

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.

Thanks to ProgLucky for the artist addition. and to dean for the last updates

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