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Big Big Train - English Electric (Part One) CD (album) cover


Big Big Train


Crossover Prog

4.22 | 1126 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
4 stars I have waited a long time, with many, many listens, before reviewing this, the latest release by Big Big Train, which, if the reviews and ratings on this site are to be believed, is one of the finest prog rock releases of all time. Indeed, only one reviewer has given it anything less than five star masterpiece rating.

I gave that to the exceptional The Underfall Yard, but quite a bit of that was for deeply personal reasons. I was really looking forward to this, and was delighted when it plopped through the door last month.

Let me say straight away that this album contains some of the finest progressive rock I have heard this, or, indeed, in many a year. At its best, which is on most of it, it has the feel of much of what drew me to the genre in the first place, that wonderful English pastoral sound. The Genesis comparisons are, perhaps, rather obvious, but, to these ears and mind, it is more in the fact that a track such as Uncle Jack is so marvellously quirky and, well, English in the Genesis or Python sense.

The utter highlight of the album, and a very strong contender for track of this decade thus far, is Judas Unrepentant. In fact, as I will explain later in this review, it was only at this stage of the album that I really sat up and took notice on first listen. The harmonies, staggeringly strong vocals by David Longdon (who is surely becoming one of our finest), the fusion of classic and modern progressive soundscapes, particularly on keyboards, make this ridiculously enjoyable and strong. Everything flows easily into each separate movement, and that flute solo.....well, Gabriel has his natural successor in Longdon. The use of strings and woodwind is also exceptional. A symphonic masterpiece, no more, no less.

Of course, much of this here is a paeon to a fast disappearing English countryside, much as Selling England was to a disappearing society. The gorgeous Upton Heath is a smooth, very beautiful, example, and, if you close your eyes and use your imagination, you can see yourself walking on the Dorset heathland. It is a brave band, indeed, who make so much use of traditional orchestra instruments, and, again, this lot do it with such aplomb in a gentle, folk prog, setting. I also admire deeply here, and elsewhere, the choral vocals.

Another trick this lot manage so well is the sudden change of mood. So, we go from a beautiful walk to something altogether more sinister and menacing on A Boy In Darkness. Doom laden in its low key sounds, you jump when the chorus simply explodes with a sinister symphonic energy. This all supports some of the most intelligent lyrics you can imagine, because the subject matter is a report into conditions in a 19th century colliery, and the exploitation and deaths of young boys "sent down the pit". This is social commentary translated into musical darkness at its best, and, again, it reaffirms the band's position to me as the natural successors to Genesis in this era. To call them some kind of neo-prog tribute is both lazy and, actually, plain wrong. They are much more than that.

And, from this, we are taken to the delightful, cheery, bouncy, almost pop psychedelic joy that is the album's closer, Hedgerow. Of course, the subject matter is easily deduced, but the effect on the aural senses is one of sheer joy, almost an orgasm for the ears and mind. The singing is quite incredible, and the pace of the band never falls below that of relentless foot tapping, especially the guitars, and the strings are used to great effect again. The reprise of the vocal harmonies at the denouement has you almost weeping with the sheer joy of life and all around us.

So, with such praise, why do I rate this album as an excellent one, out of step with those colleagues who rate it a masterpiece? It is simply because, as joyful as the tracks I have written about above are, I actually find this to be too inconsistent to merit the full five stars. Take the opener, The First Rebreather, as a good example. There are bursts of that Longdon voice (which I first fell in love with on Martin Orford's great The Old Road), there is some stunning guitar work, especially, but I find this strangely inconsistent as a track, or, I don't know, maybe trying to be a little bit too clever, because the shifts in time signatures I find to be confusing and, frankly, unnecessary. When it is good, it is very good (and the bass playing is especially good), but it is not only confusing, I also find, after some thirty odd listens now, it to be rather dull in parts, and find myself losing my attention in places. You never have that on a masterpiece.

I also feel the same way about Winchester From Giles Hill. It starts off beautifully with deep flute, some lilting vocal harmonies and a jazzy feel on rhythm, but, I don't know, I find it very difficult to keep going throughout the track. The main vocal section sounds strained, and parts of it are, well, dull again. The strained comment also applies to parts of the otherwise sublime Summoned by Bells, which does feature some lovely brass in fusion with haunting guitar at the close.

I hope I have put across here adequately the fact that this is an excellent work, with a great deal to commend itself to fans of progressive rock. 90% of it is simply to die for. This lineup will, I earnestly hope, continue to bring us joy for many years to come. I especially welcome the participation of Dave Gregory, probably the finest musician to come out of the New Wave era. I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending it to those who are thinking about buying it. It is excellent. It just ain't a masterpiece. Bet you the next one is, though!

lazland | 4/5 |


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