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Big Big Train - Goodbye to the Age of Steam CD (album) cover

GOODBYE TO THE AGE OF STEAM

Big Big Train

 

Crossover Prog

3.48 | 196 ratings

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Warthur
Prog Reviewer
5 stars It's doubly appropriate that, after producing two demo albums, Big Big Train should have released their full-fledged debut through Giant Electric Pea. Though it swiftly expanded into releasing music by other groups as well, GEP was founded as and remains the forever-home of IQ, and not only was BBT co-founder Andy Poole a roadie for IQ (and their predecessor band, The Lens) back in the early 1980s, but the musical style here is closer to neo-prog than the more ornate, lush symphonic prog style that Big Big Train would adopt later in their career. (Martin Orford even makes a guest appearance, helping out with the arrangements and contributing some backing vocals.)

Still, their sound here is far from being a glib rehash of Marillion, IQ, or any of the other neo-prog big names: early in their career, Big Big Train have already latched onto a wistful, melancholic aesthetic which is distinctly theirs, along with showing a knack for ornate vocal harmonies which add a lovely texture to things.

Thematically, the title of the album immediately calls to mind Big Big Train's long-running tendency to give nods to Britain's industrial past. I'm actually making a point of gradually revisiting the Big Big Train discography from the beginning at the moment, because whilst initially I bounced off their style somewhat, I think that's because I was mistaking their sometimes-nostalgic tones for an endorsement of a reactionary past.

Lately I've started to think I may have been mistaken - a lot of the historical lynchpins they've celebrated over the years have been directed to the overlooked working class history of Britain, not the typical flag-waving of narrow-minded jingoists, and furthermore they're not just nodding to the past for the sake of wallowing in yesteryear but tying in these themes they are fond of with particular emotional and philosophical considerations. This album is a great example of this: though title and cover art suggest mourning a vanished landscape, lyrically they weave these ideas in with a sense of vanished relationships, personal interactions gone to pot with the passage of time.

As one would expect for a band which, at this time in its history, was taking a more neo-prog oriented approach, Big Big Train draw on then-current music in more popular strains as well as the prog past, and in some passages here and there you can almost imagine hearing this sort of music on the radio in the mid-1990s - had they sustained that for an entire song. The band's prog instincts are not to be too easily suppressed, however, and any particular song will end up combining wickedly catchy moments with delightful prog workouts.

There's also a light touch of folk influences here and there, which is a nice way to make the package seem softer and less inaccessible without necessarily pandering to fashion. Adding a pinch of folk to neo-prog is something which seems to pay dividends - though Fish's experiment with it on Internal Exile had slightly mixed results, Mostly Autumn have been able to make an entire career out of it.

What this most reminds me of, in fact, is echolyn's Suffocating the Bloom - which preceded this release by a bit, but shortly enough that I am inclined to think of this as parallel evolution rather than conscious influence. There's the same attention to harmony, the same combination of modern (for the early 1990s) instrumentation with decidedly unfashionable ornateness.

Though I was curious about this debut album, I wasn't expecting to be as blown away by it as I am, and I'm looking forward to continuing my gradual trip through the Big Big Train discography - I expect I'll have a much better appreciation of releases like The Underfall Yard or English Electric now I've got the context offered by picking up their story from the beginning. Goodbye to the Age of Steam might be rather different from the band's current musical approach, but I think it is a beautifully-executed musical statement in its own right and doesn't deserve to be overlooked.

Warthur | 5/5 |

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