All aboard! Toot Toot! The Big Big Train is in the station and ready to take on all passengers to embark on a great musical adventure. The album cover tells you right from the beginning, this will be a memorable trip. These railroad tracks go right up the side of a formidable -looking mountain called the music industry. The first part of a two-part work, this album represents the seventh studio album since their beginnings in 1990.
Let's assume for a moment that you really don't know anything about Big Big Train, but you have crossed paths with them in some way, maybe a video on You Tube, maybe a friend introduced you, maybe you've seen the name and have become curious. In other words: what's all the buzz about, and who is this band that is racking up more high ratings than there are pigeons in any big city? The first thing to know is: they are on the upswing of their careers. They have yet to go backwards. With each album they bring more confident playing, more memorable music. Without a doubt, this is one of the premier groups in modern progressive rock, and anyone “in the know” knows for sure that big big things are happening in a big big way for this Big Big Train. I am reminded of a favourite childhood story, “The Little Engine That Could”, and its beloved catch phrase “I think I can, I think I can”. Can they?
In many ways Big Big Train embodies the very finest of modern British neo-prog. They draw equally from a steady diet of Genesis circa Wind And Wuthering and Marillion circa Script For A Jester's Tear, adding in bits and pieces from nearly every style and genre imaginable along the way. They clearly have inspired more recent groups like Blackfield and Unitopia. The only areas missing are dark, heavy, and avant-garde progressive rock. That being said, if you're after prog metal, it's not here, if you like risk-taking music, so sorry. Thankfully, in no way does Big Big Train fall into the seemingly never-ending pit of Dream Theater clones. If there are risks being taken, they are more subtle. Perhaps the most obvious risk for them is simply doing what they do, putting a touch of progressiveness into their almost AOR stylings. A sprinkle here, and a dash there, but not too much.... that would ruin the dish.
The opening track is so very catchy, the guitar riff grabs you right away and does not let go. By the time the vocals come in, you're completely in the album. To my ears it is the vocal work that is the most impressive aspect of this album, the harmonies are simply wonderful, I like the phrasing, and I like the musicality. And musicality is a constant theme for everyone in the group, every member of Big Big Train, and all the guests, are top-rate players. The mix, arrangements, and general polish is shiny and perfect on every track. BBT included a nice booklet containing all the usual amenities, lyrics, credits, thanks, and quality artwork.
It appears that Big Big Train have established a solid line-up. They survived several personnel changes over the years, however, English Electric is the second album featuring the line-up of: Andy Poole (bass / keyboards), Greg Spawton (guitars / keyboards / bass), David Longdon (vocals / flute / glockenspiel), and Nick D'Virgilio (drums) and the comfort level of working together shows. For the observant, YES, that is Nick of Spock's Beard fame. I was very pleased to note a total absence of influence from Spock's Beard here. They have again allowed many guest performers to grace the album, including master keyboardist Andy Tillison from The Tangent.
For fans of happy-sounding non-confrontational prog, this is an essential album. It simply doesn't get better. For anyone looking to add some diversity to an otherwise eclectic collection, this is an essential album. For a blueprint of how to do everything right, here it is. If ever there was a prog band deserving of regular radio play, many videos, and all the mainstream trimmings of music superstardom, it is Big Big Train. Unfortunately for us all isn't likely to happen, and for one completely unfair reason, they are a progressive band, which tends to make their challenges even greater. And they are not simply another progressive band, they are at the top of their game, among the elite in a genre dominated by elite musicians. Needless to say, competition to gain access to what support is offered up for a progressive band by the mainstream music industry is fierce. If I try really hard I can still hear “I think I can.... I think I can”.
To be honest, I have listened many times to this album so I could be completely objective in my review, and it is closer to AOR than what I normally listen to. I like a little “wildness” in my prog diet, something savage, something untamed. This album has none of that, but it is so very well done that it pulls even me right in anyway. It compels me to sit and listen, carefully, and attentively. That is the hallmark of a brilliant work. A few steps further, or even just one experimental moment and I'd have given it the full five stars. As it is I give it a very strong four, and I openly admit it is more a personal critique than a criticism of the work or its quality. I remain nonetheless... a proud owner of English Electric Part One.
****+ Thomas Rhymer
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