Tag Archives: Big Big Train

Best Albums of 2016 – Part Two

We’re into the top ten now, and this time I’ve managed to rank the albums in order rather that just list them alphabetically. So with no further ado…

10: Rebecca Downes – Believe

Bebecca Downes BelieveDeserved winner of Best Female Vocalist and Best Breakthrough Artist at the British Blues Awards, Rebecca Downes has a great voice, with range and power as well as emotional depth, equally at home with soulful ballads as belting out hard rockers. When combined with her talented backing band result is a hugely varied record, combining blues with hard rock, funk and soul.

9: Tilt – Hinterland

Tilt HinterlandThe band including Fish alumni Steve Vantis, Robin Boult and Dave Stewart deliver a hard-rocking album. The layered sound and powerful bass grooves recall Porcupine Tree and Steve Vantsis’ work with Fish.

But Paul Dourley is a very different sort of singer; his soulful vocals have the occasional hints of Peter Gabriel and Lou Gramm, and if anything it’s his performance that lifts this record from a good one to a great one.

8: Ihsahn – Arktis

ihsahn-arktisThe fiendishly inventive Norwegian black metallers reign in the avant-garde experimentalism of 2013′s Das Seelenbrechen in favour of an album of more straightforward metal songs. But “straightforward” is a relative thing for a band like Ihsahn; there’s a lot of varied creativity on display here, balancing face-melting guitars with occasional moments of atmospheric beauty,

7: Mantra Vega – The Illusion’s Reckoning

Mantra Vega The Illusions ReckoningThe collaboration between former Mostly Autumn singer Heather Findlay and Sound of Contact’s Dave Kerzner results in a record with a strong 70s vibe.

There are nods to Stevie Nicks era Fleetwood Mac and the rootsier side of Led Zeppelin, as well as the folky feel of Heather Findlay’s work with Odin Dragonfly and early Mostly Autumn. It’s an impressive work that’s as good as anything either of them have done.

6: Big Big Train – Folklore

Big Big Train - FolkloreBig Big Train continue to be better than anyone else at invoking the spirit of 1970s English pastoral progressive rock. Again the lyrics are steeped in English landscapes and socio-economic history.

The songs cover subjects from London’s lost rivers to World War 2 RAF pigeons, with music that sometimes evokes the mood of albums like Genesis’ “Trespass”, and at other times is closer to the electric folk-rock of bands like Steeleye Span.

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Nigel Gresley’s Birthday

To celebrate the 147th birthday of Sir Nigel Gresley, here’s Big Big Train performing the song East Coast Racer.

When asked where they stand on the great Gresley Duck argument, they responded that they’d made a careful assessment of the situation, then wrote a song about a pigeon.

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What is your album of the year so far?

We’ve approaching the mid-point of the year.

2016 has been a terrible year for deaths, but it’s also been a tremendous year for new music. The underground progressive rock scene has produced many great albums from bands as diverse as Mantra Vega, Knifeworld, Haken, Iamthemorning, Purson, Frost* and Big Big Train. The mainstream has come up with some impressive prog-friendly records too, with David Bowie, Suede and Radiohead amongst them. And that’s before we even start on what’s come out of the world of metal.

So, what’s you record of the year so far? What other records have impressed a lot?

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Big Big Train – Folklore

No Wicker Men, but an excellent title track of the new Big Big Train album,

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Big Big Train’s Folklore Pre-Order

Big Big Train announce the pre-order for their fortciming album “Folklore”, to be released on May 27th.

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2015 Records of the Year – Not only but also…

My self-imposed rules for album of the year restricts the list to full-length albums of new material. That means it excludes live albums, unplugged records with new versions of existing songs, or EPs. So to keep you all waiting a bit longer for my Album of the Year, some mentions of records that my rules disqualify, but are too good to be ignored altogether.

Panic Room – Essence

Panic Room EssenceThe Kickstarter-funded unplugged album reworks favourites from the band’s first three albums into radically different forms, resulting in a beautiful record than emphasises Anne-Marie Helder’s remarkable vocal talent. Though it crosses the streams with the acoustic side-project Luna Rossa to some extent it’s still got more of a Panic Room vibe. It’s not entirely acoustic, since new guitarist Dave Foster cuts loose on electric a few times. There are a couple of new songs too, the classic Anne-Marie Helder ballad “Rain & Tears & Burgundy”, and “Denial”, the first time Panic Room have ever recorded a blues number.

Mostly Autumn – Box of Tears

Mostly Autumn Box of TearsA live recording of last year’s “Dressed in Voices”, an album regarded by many as their career defining masterpiece. Unlike their other recent live albums this one’s a single disk of the Dressed in Voices set rather than the whole show (Do we really need yet another live version of “Evergreen” or “Heroes”? I don’t think so). But like those other live albums it does capture the power and intensity of the Mostly Autumn’s live performances, the big sound of the seven-piece band at full tilt.

The Fierce and The Dead – Magnet

TFATD - MagnetMatt Stevens’ four-piece instrumental noise merchants could be described as a sort of punk version of King Crimson. Their latest EP sees a move away from the garage-rock feel of their last record. “Spooky Action”. Magnet is darker and denser, with more of a focus on the post-rock and electronica side of their music. Like all of their records, it has feet in many camps, defies simple categorisation, and makes a rewarding listen for anyone who wants to get out of their musical comfort zones.

Mantra Vega – Island

A taster from the forthcoming album “The Illusion’s Reckoning”, three songs with a strong 70s classic rock vibe with echoes of Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin. The lead song in particular is lovely, with Heather Findlay playing to her strengths as a vocalist, and features a short but very effective guitar break from Dave Kilminster.

Zero She Flies – The River

Zero She Flies - The RiverThe band formerly know as Mermaid Kiss return with a new singer in the shape of Maria Milewska and a new name. The four-track suite “The River” was originally slated to be part of a full-length album, but has mow been spun off as a separate EP on its own. It’s largely acoustic, piano and acoustic guitar based songs with woodwind and strings for colour, plus some touches of electronica, and Maria Milewska proves to be excellent singer. Highlights are the woodwinds meet trip-hop instrumental “The Undertow” and the gorgeously atmospheric closing number “Rivergirl”, but the whole EP is excellent.

Big Big Train – Wassail

Big Big Train WassailThis intermediate release filling the gap before their next full-length album eschews ambitious multi-part epics in favour of more straightforward songwriting. But most of the things we’ve come to expect from Big Big Train are present; big soaring melodies and rich layered arrangements that evoke the spirit of 70s pastoral progressive rock with lyrics steeped in English landscapes and history. The largely instrumental keyboard-heavy “Mudlarks” ticks a lot of classic prog-rock boxes, but with the woodwinds, violins and 12-string guitars there’s also an element of 70s electric folk-rock. It’s all delightfully retro in its use of vintage guitars and keyboard sounds, but that’s always been a major part of their appeal.

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Big Big Train – Victorian Brickwork

Big Big Train performing the song Victorian Brickwork from one of the sold out shows at Kings Place, London in August.

Nobody else captures the spirit of 1970s progressive rock quite as well as Big Big Train, with music steeped in English landscapes and history. As the above recording shows, what had once been a purely studio-based project has become a stunning live band.

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Big Big Train – Wassail

A new song from Big Big Train, which is well worth a listen.

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What novels are crying out for a musical adaptation?

The Guardian Music Blog asks what novels are crying out for a musical adaptation? I jokingly suggested “Who Moved My Cheese” set to music by The Scorpions, but followed it up with a couple of more serious suggestions.

For starters, L.T.C Rolt’s “Railway Adventure“, which is cheating slightly, because it’s non-fiction. But the story of the birth of the British railway preservation movement when a group of enthusiasts took over the ramshackle Talyllyn Railway in 1950 is exactly the sort of thing that’s meat and drink for Big Big Train.

Second, Iain Banks’ “Espediair Street“. The ficticious band Frozen Gold have been described as being a cross between Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac, which suggests the ideal band would be none other than Mostly Autumn. Banks’ description of the wordless “Nifedge” always makes me think of the closing section of “Carpe Diem”. Whether it’s possible to do the Great Contraflow Smoke Curtain justice in Bilston Robin 2 remains to be seen.

Lastly, HP Lovecraft’s “At The Mountains of Madness“. While their Imaginos cycle immediately suggests Blue Öyster Cult, they’re better at high weirdness than out-and-out terror. It really needs Van der Graaf Generator at their most menacing, in the vein of something like “Plague of Lighthouse Keepers”.

What combinations of books and bands would you suggest?

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2013 Albums of the Year – Part One

It’s end-of-year list time again, when every music blogger is compelled to go back through the year’s record releases and try to pick out the best of them,

Let’s get the obvious disclaimers out of the way first. This is not intended to be a definitive list of the very best albums released in the year. For starters all preferences are personal and subjective. And secondly and more importantly, it’s restricted to those records I’ve actually had the chance to hear. There are no doubt a great many awesome releases I haven’t heard yet.

After many repeated listens I’ve managed to whittle the list down to 21 (Why 21? Why not?). The fact that it turned out to be very hard to restrict it to just 21 speaks volumes about how great a year it’s been. One or two big names ended up not making the cut.

So, without further ago, here’s the first half of my list,  Had I not abandoned trying to sort them all into meaningful order as an impossible task, they would be 21 down 11. As it is, they’re sorted alphabetically.

Big Big Train English Electric Part Two

English Electric Part 2The second half of English Electric follows in a similar vein to the first, with their very evocative and very English brand of pastoral progressive rock. The storytelling lyrical focus shifts to northern England and the twentieth century with tales of railwaymen, coal miners and shipbuilders, and it all sounds far more authentic than much 80s-style neo-prog.

Black Sabbath13

Black Sabbath 13Neither quite the masterpiece some hoped for nor the trainwreck some feared, the reunion of Ozzy Osborne, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler still delivers a very solid piece of work that proves they still have something to say after all these years. If this does prove to be their final album, it’s a worthy addition to their legacy.

The Computers Love Triangles, Hate Squares

The Computers Love Triangles Hate SquaresThe best no-nonsense old-fashioned rock and roll record I’ve heard all year, by a band who sound as as though they have one foot in 1958 and one in 2013, full of short and punchy tunes that hit you right between the eyes. The end result somehow ends up reminding me of some aspects of very early Blue Öyster Cult.

CosmografThe Man Left In Space

Cosmograf - The Man Left In SpaceAn evocative and atmospheric album from multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Robin Armstrong. Though there are guest appearances from Matt Stevens and Nick D’Virgilio amongst others, Robin plays most of the instrumentation from guitars to drums to keys. The haunting title track is a standout, perhaps one of the songs of the year, and there’s a lot to like across the rest of the album.

The Fierce and The DeadSpooky Action

Spooky ActionMatt Stevens and his band in full electric mode mixing progressive rock, post-punk, indie/alternative and metal resulting in the instrumental record of the year. Narrow genre definitions cannot contain this record; it’s the sort of thing that ought to have a huge crossover appeal way beyond the narrow confines of the Prog world.

King BathmatOvercoming the Monster

KingBathmat - Overcoming The MonsterA powerful combination of grungy guitar riffs with progressive rock textures and melodies, sounding like what you might get if you combined Black Sabbath with Spock’s Beard. The end result is a record with a very contemporary feel despite its use of organic 70s sounds, old-school progressive rock reinvented for the 21st Century.

MaschineRubidium

Maschine - RubidiumThe long-awaited début from Luke Machin’s band combines some stunning instrumental virtuosity with a very mature approach to composition. Their complex and ambitious songs are a seamless blend of metal, jazz and rock into, with great use of dynamics and an ear for a good melody. This is the sound of a band from whom we can probably expect great things over the coming years.

Mr So and SoTruth & Half Lies

Mr So and So - Truth and Half LiesThe fruit of a successful Pledge Music project, Mr So and So’s fourth album is by far their most impressive to date. It’s a hugely varied record with some strong songwriting that uses their distinctive dual male/female lead vocals to great effect, and the harder-edged guitar-driven sound strongly captures the power and energy of their live performances.

RiversideShrine of the New Generation Slaves

Riverside - Shrine of the New Generation SlavesRiverside have always been one of Poland’s finest bands, and with the combination of 70s Deep Purple style hard rock riffs and Porcupine Tree style atmospherics they have delivered what might be their best album to date. They may wear their influences on their sleeves to some extent, but they have more than enough creativity of there own to be any kind of pastiche.

Rob Cottingham Captain Blue

Rob Cottingham - Captain BlueA solo album from Touchstone’s keyboard player, aided and abetted by a strong supporting cast including Touchstone guitarist Adam Hodgson and former Mostly Autumn vocalist Heather Findlay. It’s a concept album with a Gerry Anderson flavour, with music reminiscent of Touchstone’s early days, plus the occasional excursion into disco-pop.

Thea GilmoreRegardless

Thea Gilmore – RegardlessAn album of Americana-tinged songs with stripped-down arrangements that emphasise the fragile beauty of the Thea Gilmore’s heartfelt vocals, enhanced this time by a string section to add some extra colour.

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