Saturday, 26 December 2009

Independent Album of the Year...The Underfall Yard

Jason Warburg, editor of The Daily Vault (one of the oldest and most well-established review sites on the web) has just announced that The Underfall Yard is his independent album of the year.

Jason's eloquent review of The Underfall Yard is here .

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Re-issue news

Stocks have been running low of the Gathering Speed and The Difference Machine CD's and rather than re-order a fresh supply of the existing jewel-case CD's, we've decided to give them a makeover.

Gathering Speed will shortly be re-issued as a digipack with an 8 page poster booklet featuring previously unseen artwork and including, for the first time, the lyrics. The album has also been remastered by Rob Aubrey. The Difference Machine will be re-issued in January as a digipack, again with previously unreleased artwork.

The Difference Machine re-issue will also feature an additional track called Hope You Made It*. This song was part of the concept for the album and was recorded during The Difference Machine sessions. However, its inclusion took the album to around the 60 minute mark and we were looking for a tighter track-listing so decided to leave it off the original album.

Finally, we were looking to re-issue a re-mastered version of our first album, Goodbye to the Age of Steam, as an iTunes-only release in 2010. However, Rob Aubrey has kindly agreed to completely re-mix the original album from the master tapes so the re-issue will be of the highest possible quality. I'm not sure yet whether we'll do a limited pressing of Age of Steam or just go with the download-only version; we'll have a think about that in the next few weeks.

Anyway, the smell of mulled-wine is luring us to the kitchen, so we would just like to take this opportunity to wish all of the readers of this blog a very Merry Christmas and to thank you for your support.

Andy, David and Greg 

* If anyone has the original version of the album and is keen to have the unreleased track without having to buy the CD again, please e-mail us at bigbigtrain@hotmail.co.uk and, when the album is re-issued, we will send you a link to a free downloadable version of the song in CD quality.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

USA Progressive Music Poll

We've been nominated for the top prog album of the year on USA Progressive Music, so if anyone wants to vote for us (or, indeed, any of the other albums on the list) please check the shortlist out. I doubt we'll get very far because the album has been released so late in the year and therefore will have had less reach than the others, but it would be good to pick up a few votes.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

The Underfall Yard Podcast

I am very pleased to announce that David 'Wilf' Elliott's latest radio show in The European Perspective series is devoted entirely to Big Big Train and The Underfall Yard.

The European Perspective is an unmissable progressive rock show which is broadcast every week on The Dividing Line website. The show can be streamed or downloaded from The Dividing Line (the last four episodes are hosted on the site so The Underfall Yard episode will be online there for the next month.)

However, David Elliott has also kindly made available a permanent link to the show here.

The podcast is in four parts:
  • A section on our influences featuring a track from 10 of the albums which have most influenced BBT
  • An interview with me and Andy about the history of the band featuring some of our older tunes
  • An interview with David about his background in music, including his solo career, his time in the Genesis machine, working with Martin Orford and joining Big Big Train. Some songs from David's solo album Wild River and from The Old Road are featured during the interview.
  • A playthrough of the entire Underfall Yard album with commentary from me and Andy
Here are the specific details about the show from the Dividing Line website:

Duration: 282:48 minutes  - Filetype: mp3 - Bitrate: 160 KBPS - Frequency: 44100 HZ

'This week the European Perspective is given over entirely to a celebration of this uniquely English band. Starting with a look at some of the music from the albums that the band themselves say "made Big Big Train", we then talk to Greg and Andy about the evolution and future for Big Big Train, and then to David Longdon, their new vocalist. Finally The Underfall Yard gets an airing, in its entirety, with a commentary from Messrs. Spawton and Poole.

◦Genesis - Dancing with The Moonlit Knight from Selling England By The Pound, 1973

◦Prefab Sprout - Jordan: The Comeback from Jordan: The Comeback, 1998

◦Premiata Forneria Marconi - Appena Un Po' from Per Un Amico, 1972

◦XTC - The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead from Nonsuch, 1992

◦Mew - Am I Wry? No from Frengers, 2003

◦Sigur Ros - Hoppipolla from Takk..., 2005

◦Anthony Phillips - The Geese And The Ghost fromThe Geese And The Ghost, 1977

◦Van Der Graaf Generator - Scorched Earth from Godbluff, 1975

◦Elbow - The Bones Of You from The Seldom Seen Kid, 2008

◦Steve Hackett - Jacuzzi from Defector, 1980

Interview with Greg Spawton and Andy Poole of Big Big Train, featuring the following:

◦Wind Distorted Pioneers from Goodbye To The Age Of Steam, 1994

◦The Shipping Forecast from English Boy Wonders (Remastered), 2008 (originally released 1997)

◦For Winter from Bard, 2002

◦High Tide, Last Stand from Gathering Speed, 2004

◦Summer's Lease from The Difference Machine, 2007

Interview with David Longdon of Big Big Train, featuring the following:

◦David Longdon - About Time from Wild River, 2004

◦Martin Orford - Ray Of Hope from The Old Road, 2008

◦David Longdon - In Essence from Wild River, 2004

◦David Longdon - Wild River from Wild River, 2004

◦Martin Orford - Endgame from The Old Road, 2008

◦David Longdon - This House from Wild River, 2004

◦David Longdon - On To The Headland from Wild River, 2004

The Underfall Yard, with commentary from Greg Spawton and Andy Poole:

◦Hope This Finds You (from The Difference Machine)

◦Evening Star

◦Master James of St. George

◦Victorian Brickwork

◦Last Train

◦Winchester Diver

◦The Underfall Yard'

Friday, 11 December 2009

All pre-orders are on their way

All pre-orders made up to 10th December are now on their way and, provided there are no postage problems, should arrive on or before release date. We will continue to post new orders within two days of purchase.

Generally speaking, long distance air-mail pre-orders were shipped first, then EEC and then finally UK (sent by first class post.) Orders requesting signed copies also went in the last batch today.

If you have any concerns about your order please e-mail us on bigbigtrain@hotmail.co.uk and we'll sort any issues out.

Permission for bottom lip to tremble, sir

The Band of the Coldstream Guards' new album, Heroes, featuring two of the intrepid Big Big Train brass players and heartily recommended by me in an earlier post, has now entered the upper reaches of the charts.

This article in the Daily Telegraph explores the attraction of the album to men of a certain age. Colour Sergeant David Desmond, who was responsible for the beautiful brass arrangements on The Underfall Yard, manages to find the perfect Black Adder quote for the article.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

New interview online

There are quite a few interviews and articles due to be published about Big Big Train in the next few weeks (plus an in-depth podcast on the band - more news on this later.)

One of the first of the interviews is online now on the Caerllysi music site (Caerllysi are specialist dealers in progressive music.)

Monday, 7 December 2009

Just one week to go

The Underfall Yard will be released on 15th December. That means there is just one week to go to buy the album at the introductory price of just £8 (which includes worldwide shipping.) Pre-orders will ship to arrive on or just before the release date.

From the 15th December, the price will increase, although we'll try to keep the rise as low as we can as we know that money is tight at the moment.

Our secure online shop can be found at our homepage here. The first track on The Underfall Yard, Evening Star, can currently be heard on the music player on the homepage (replacing Winchester Diver) and the full free download of the 23 minute title track also remains available there for a limited time.

Friday, 4 December 2009

The Band of the Coldstream Guards


Two of the brass players from The Underfall Yard, Dave Desmond (trombone) and Nick Stones (french horn) are members of the Band of the Coldstream Guards* and feature on a new album called Heroes.  My copy has just arrived and it's already one of my favourite albums of the year, with the right mix of rousing tunes (eg Ron Goodwin's glorious 633 Squadron and Eric Coates' Dambusters) and adagio-style pieces (eg Nimrod, I Vow to Thee My Country).
Highly recommended.

* Our other brass players are: Jon Truscott - tuba (Central Band of the Royal Air Force) and Rich Evans - cornet (the Army Air Corps Band).

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Classic Rock Track of the Day is...The Underfall Yard




Just to set the seal on what has been a Very Good Day for BBT, the title track of our new album has been chosen as track of the day on the Classic Rock website. 

Classic Rock Presents Prog

Last Train, one of the songs from The Underfall Yard is featured on the covermount CD of the new issue of Classic Rock Presents Prog which is out today.

Many thanks to Jim Green who also gave us a mention on the Classic Prog letters' page.

David was interviewed on Total Rock radio at lunchtime today and they also played Last Train and Master James. If I can find a listen again feature, I'll post a link.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Big Big Train on Total Rock Radio


Classic Rock Presents Prog Editor Jerry Ewing and writer Philip Wilding will be hosting a three hour prog show on Total Rock Radio tomorrow (Wednesday 25th November) from 12 noon.

David will be interviewed on the show at around 12.25.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Saw Mew

Saw Mew the other day. Decided it was time for Eleanor, my 15 year-old daughter, to experience the beer-stained environment of a student-union gig for the first time, so we headed off to the Bristol concert.

I've often wondered what it would be like to have seen Genesis in '71 or '72, as they delivered their extraordinary shows to committed audiences that were small enough to ensure you could get close to the action, and yet also big enough to feel that you were part of something that had genuine significance.

I think I understand what it would have been like now.

As for Ellie, she turned to me at the end and said that it was, quite simply, the best night of her life.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Jem is back

It seems that our good friend Jem Godfrey has returned to blogging. Jem's blog was a major influence on the development of this one. It's great to have him back.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Big Big Train on The Rogues' Gallery

A number of songs from the new album will be played on Frans Keylard's The Rogues' Gallery  show on The Dividing Line. The show will be broadcast at 3am GMT this Friday. It's then made available as a downloadable podcast in good quality audio. I think Frans will also be playing the new Transatlantic album on the same show.

Update: The Podcast is online now.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

The Train now arriving...













The Underfall Yard will be released on 15th December. From today until the release date, the album can be pre-ordered here for an introductory price of just £8, which includes worldwide shipping. It will not be available from any other source before the 15th December. Pre-orders will be shipped so that the CD arrives on, or slightly before, the release date.

The Underfall Yard is the first Big Big Train album to feature our new singer David Longdon. Across the 60 minutes of the album there are also powerful performances from Nick D’Virgilio, Francis Dunnery, Jem Godfrey and Dave Gregory.

We have made all 23 minutes of the title track available for free download in high quality audio here.*  Even if you don't want to buy any Big Big Train music at the moment, please download the track and listen to what we think is a significant contribution to progressive music.

If you are new to Big Big Train, you can read about us here. If you want to buy a CD but are not sure which one(s) to splash out on, a beginner's guide to our CD's is here. Our shop, where you can buy CD's securely, is here. On the shop page, there is a music player where another song from The Underfall yard can be heard.

The Underfall Yard is a collection of songs which tell stories, some old and some new. The listener will travel through the tunnels made by the great Victorian engineers in England’s chalkhills, will hear the mournful laments of coastal villages lost to the sea on storm-filled nights, will meet the grand architect of castles, and hear the tale of the man who saved a great cathedral from collapse by diving under its flooded foundations.

We hope you enjoy our new music.

Greg Spawton

* Update - I've had a number of e-mails asking who plays what on the download track. The credits (and lyrics) can be found on the site, but I'll put them on here as well for ease of reference:

The Underfall Yard by Big Big Train

Performed by:

Nick D'Virgilio Drums

Dave Desmond Trombone

Francis Dunnery Guitar solo, guitar

Rich Evans Cornet

Jon Foyle Cello

Jem Godfrey Synthesizer solos

Dave Gregory Guitar solos, guitars, electric sitar

David Longdon Vocals, flute, glockenspiel

Andy Poole Bass, keyboards

Greg Spawton Guitars, keyboards, bass

Nick Stones French horn

Jon Truscott Tuba

To answer some of the specific questions I've had, Francis Dunnery's main parts are at 4.37 to 6.25, Jem Godfrey's at 6.26 to 7.20 and 19.18 to 20.10, and Dave Gregory's at 13.10 to 14.45 and 21.10 to 22.15. Dave Gregory also plays electric sitar in a number of places in the song.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Sheriff of Wimborne















At the risk of turning this blog into Hello magazine, I am going to mention that I just bumped into Keith Allen in Wimborne. Only two nights ago, me and the kids watched him get blown up in the last episode of Robin Hood.

I remember him being a very edgy character in the Comic Strip series, but he seemed like a nice bloke.

I can't help thinking, though, that my girlfriend would have much rather we'd bumped into Guy of Wimborne (Richard Armitage - also photographed above) rather than the Sheriff.

Spitfire overhead



A couple of weeks ago we had a short display from the Vulcan; yesterday we had a Spitfire appear low overhead. I frantically summoned my 13 year old son who is going through an Airfix phase at the moment (that morning he'd bought himself a P51D Mustang to build) and we had the pleasure of a few moments together looking up at the sky, hands shading our eyes, whilst the Spitfire threw us a few of its shapes, did a quick victory roll and then headed off to the east (to the Goodwood Revival I assume?)

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Mixing

Just a quick update from the studio, where we are now well into the mixing stage.

Rob has completed initial mixes of Master James, Winchester Diver and Last Train. This evening we aim to finish the first mix of The Underfall Yard. We've got tomorrow off to do some listening to the initial mixes and then we have three more days next week for mixing Victorian Brickwork and Evening Star (plus any snagging.)

The Underfall Yard has proven to be quite a beast to tame - we're using 142 tracks, which is 100 more than the meaning of life.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

An autumn of epic tracks

No sooner do Porcupine Tree announce a 55 minute epic on their new album (reviewed here by King Crimson biographer Sid Smith), then Transatlantic go longer with the announcement of a 77 minute track on their forthcoming release.

Our own little contribution to an autumn of epic songs comes in at just over 22 minutes.

However, despite the relatively piffling length of our tune and the undoubted pedigree of our fellow prog bands, I'm confident that our song will make some waves.

There is not long to wait now before it gets a hearing. Whilst The Underfall Yard CD is due on 15th December, all 22 minutes of the title track will be available as a free download from 30th September as a taster for the album.

More news soon.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Vulcan overhead



You may have noticed from my endless twittering yesterday that I was on the beach enjoying the Bournemouth Air Festival. I am pleased to say that the Vulcan made just as deep an impression on my 13 year-old son as it did on me when I was a child back in the 70's. It's the combination of thunderous noise, the extraordinary beauty of the design and the vast size that does the trick.

Today, I've been sitting in my back garden and I can hear that the Vulcan is back. It's about 3 miles away, above the seafront but is still filling the sky with thunder.

In the early 1990's, they used to have an airshow at Hurn airport, just up the road from me, and I remember a visit from the Vulcan back then. It did some aerobatics a few hundred feet above my house. Every window shook in its frame.

Almost as loud today and yesterday was the Typhoon. What a class act that is. It appeared seemingly out of nowhere, rearing up above the pier. After a ten minute display, it made an awesome exit - vertically upwards at speed, where it disappeared into a bank of cloud.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Dave Gregory with Big Big Train


Dave Gregory: not lazy at all (photo from Guitargonauts)

I am pleased to announce another very special guest joining Big Big Train on The Underfall Yard. Dave Gregory is the guitarist and keyboard player for one of my favourite bands, the glorious XTC. His astounding discography includes appearances with Peter Gabriel and Porcupine Tree.

Dave's guitar, sitar and mellotron playing has become a major feature of The Underfall Yard and I can't wait for you to hear the performances that he's turned in for Big Big Train. They are, quite frankly, brilliant.

If we do decide to return to live performance in the next couple of years, I very much hope that Dave will be joining us.

More news on The Underfall Yard soon.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Jem Godfrey and Francis Dunnery with Big Big Train

Jem Godfrey has these kind words to say on the Frost* forum:

'Happy to say, I've just contributed a couple of keyboard solos to the excellent sounding new album by Big Big Train. The track is called The Underfall Yard which is also the title track and is nipping at the toes of 23+ minutes long. I got a chance to really cut loose in a way I don't think I've done before, I used pretty much every controller available on the V-Synth using a sound I programmed especially and I'm really pleased with the end results. It's not often I get to have a good old thrash in 11/8! The track also features a rather immense solo from that Cumbrian scamp Francis Dunnery, so although we never met, we do end up sharing a song together which is rather nice.

BBT's new singer is a bit of a revelation too and the whole thing is shaping up to be, IMO, their best work to date. I can't wait to hear the whole thing. BBT have a wonderful Englishness about them and they do things very much their own way which I deeply admire. They're prog's best kept secret and now I can count myself as a contributor to their history. I'm dead proud of that.'

Having had the opportunity to hear Jem's and Francis' performances at close hand, I am pleased to report that they are, indeed, immense and add a huge amount to The Underfall Yard.

More news on another very special guest at the weekend

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Rough mix of The Underfall Yard

Before we go into Aubitt for mixing, we like to put a rough mix of the album together as a final check.

I've just had a listen to Andy's mix and it's proven to be illuminating. It's all sounding rather splendid (although I would say that, wouldn't I) but it shows we have a few parts to replace or improve including some cello, some dodgy guitar playing that's been there since the original demo and one or two other bits and bobs.

The most interesting thing for me is that the track order, which has been set in stone for some time, has turned out to be wrong. The album starts with an instrumental track and I always intended this would be followed by Victorian Brickwork, one of the two epic songs on the CD. However, Victorian Brickwork has a gentle start and it just feels like the album drags a bit before it gets going. So I'm moving Master James of St. George up the order to track number two.

Hopefully, that will sort the pacing out.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Haken

There are some great new releases coming in the next few months - new Mew album, new Prefab Sprout , the first live Genesis box set and, of course, our own little album.

Another CD I'm really looking forward to is the first release by Haken. This is a band I've only just become aware of; they had a track on the sampler CD on Classic Prog 2 which sounded slightly otherwordly, like something PFM might have recorded in their heyday. So, I sought out their only currently available release, a demo featuring 6 songs from 2007 and 2008.

It's a very strong debut. The quality is limited slightly by what I imagine was a restricted recording budget, but like all great demo's, it shows a band reaching for something that they don't quite have the resources to achieve.

When they get there, and most surely they will, Haken will be a force to be reckoned with.

Dream Theater are Haken's self-confessed heroes, but their music shows a wide-ranging set of influences. They are heavy at times, but very comfortable in the quieter sections (many heavy bands seem, to me, to play quiet bits just to make the heavy bits sound louder.) Haken do both piano and forte very well.

They also are capable of writing uncommon, haunting, melody lines and I love the structure of their songs - they are good at getting back, in interesting ways, to choruses or themes, even if they've been on a lengthy instrumental excursion.

Haken is a band to watch out for.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

The view from the garden gate

Just back from a holiday on the North Yorkshire Moors.

Me being into history, we stayed at an English Heritage cottage at Rievaulx Abbey. This is a place which is both difficult to spell correctly, and stunningly beautiful.

This is a general view:



And this was the view from the garden gate of the cottage:



One of the best things was that we had the run of the site after it closed to visitors each day, which gave us the chance to enjoy sunset walks and, later on, ghostly torchlit wanderings.

Rievaulx is an utterly fabulous place. Speaking to the staff and keepers there, they were all transfixed by it. It is spellbinding.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Close of play

'tis done.

We now have a bit of time for editing, sound effects etc before mixing in September.

Now onto the 'b' sides

The album recording is completed.

We are going to spend the rest of the day on two non-album tracks, Fat Billy Shouts Mine and a cover of Master of Time, an Anthony Phillips track which was intended to be on The Geese and the Ghost but only ever got as far as a demo. It's a cracking little song.

Morning Star

Early start today. Finished off Master James and now recording the flute solo on Evening Star.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

We laid some bricks today...



Victorian ones.

Now we are onto castle building with Master James of St. George.

Then we're having curry and beer.

Warning, this album may blow your girlfriend's tits off

Or so says Andy.

We're moving onto Victorian Brickwork now, one of two longer pieces on the album

We're hoping to cause some spontaneous tit detonation with this one.

Here we go...

The final recording session for The Underfall Yard is underway. We're starting today with Evening Star, a short instrumental which is intended to set the scene for the rest of the album. All sounding splendid so far.

More later.

Monday, 6 July 2009

New Sigur Ros



The new Jonsi and Alex album (Sigur Ros solo project) is being previewed here

Mojo has this to say:

"A yearning, almost devotional quality... file alongside Talk Talk's Spirit Of Eden and Henryk Gorecki's Third Symphony."

The shop is broken

Apologies, our online BBT shop appears to be unable to take orders at the moment.

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible and there is, of course, our very competitively-priced Amazon shop in the meantime.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Cool as Folk



Driving into Wimborne for our Saturday morning bacon sandwich, we stumbled, by accident, upon the town's annual folk festival, held under a glorious sunlit sky.

If anyone doubted that folk is overcoming the negative coverage it gets as the music of choice of middle-aged, sandal-wearing bearded-types*, then Wimborne, this weekend, would have convinced them that times have changed: folk is now cool.

What we found in this small Dorset market town was a thriving sub-culture which revelled in its eccentricity. Men, women and children wandered around wearing morris and mummer outfits which went way beyond quirky. Alternative types could be seen enjoying the music and dance alongside the gentryfolk of Dorset.

We also found an abundance of musical ability and an overwhelming sense of joy. In short, it was a brilliant experience.



* The morris dancer is often perceived as the pejorative folk archetype. But even here, things have changed. Many of the younger morris dancers have an almost goth-like image. It seems that they have passed over to the dark side.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Vocals, photos, and curry



Last week we spent some time at Aubitt Studios recording vocal, flute and mandolin parts for The Underfall Yard. This was the first time that David has recorded with Big Big Train and I am pleased to report that we had two brilliant days. The sessions were incredibly productive and we had an absolute blast.

We started with Winchester Diver before tackling the rather formidable 23 minutes of the album's title track (a song which Rob thinks will be his biggest ever mixing project.) We finished the sessions with The End of the Line. That leaves just two more songs to do to complete recording on the album (we also have two additional non-album tracks to finish off.)

Martin Orford joined us for a celebratory curry at the close of recording on day one. Martin had spent the day on the footplate of an engine on the Mid-Hants preserved railway line and seems to have no regrets at all about leaving the music business (although I did catch him reading the IQ article in Prog magazine, and we are hoping to lure him out of retirement for a solo or two in the future.)

As well as the recording sessions, we also took part in the first photo shoot of the new BBT line-up (more pics on our Flickr page.)

Finally, I had the pleasure of meeting Simon and Paul from Tinyfish who are working with Rob on the mix of their first DVD. From what I saw and heard, the DVD is going to be a cracker.

Some video footage of The Underfall Yard vocal sessions will be online soon.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Picked up a good book



One of the things I find most frustrating is that I'm not particularly well-read. I went through a phase in my 20's when I started to read some of the classics and some more challenging modern fiction. I even bought Ulysses, but put it away until I was ready for it.

Truth is, I don't think I'll ever be ready for it. I got fed up one day when reading some impenetrable passage of magical realism by an author whose name I cannot remember and picked up Julian Rathbone's The Last English King instead. This was different, this was...fun. And interesting. And very moving.

After Rathbone, I got into Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden, Steven Pressfield and then went back to David Gemmell (I read Gemmell's fantasy novels when I was a teenager and loved them; my 13 year-old son has subsequently worked his way through my ageing collection of Gemmell paperbacks with great energy and passion.)

From historical fiction, I moved on to factual historical books (again, something I read a lot of when I was a teenager)and also discovered a love for books about engineering and popular science. And that, broadly, is where my tastes lie now. In fact, my current reading list covers rather typical 40-year-old-male territory. By the side of my bed, should you choose to look there, you will find books on Alexander the Great, Anglo-Saxon England, Victorian Engineering, D-Day and disused railway lines. Oh, and also an autobiography by Bill Bruford.

In fact, probably the only constant in my reading habits over the last quarter of a century has been books on rock music. And I think Bruford has just written one of the best of them.

Bruford's book is not yer typical kind of book about rock. If you're after a straightforward canter through Bruford's musical life, then this isn't the place to start. Instead, it's a portrayal of the world-view of an unusually thoughtful musician coming to the end of his career. Sure, there are some interesting anecdotes in there about Yes and Crimson and Genesis, but this book is valuable because of its insight, because it makes you think.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Is this the best prog album ever made?



Selling England has been voted the best ever prog album by readers of Classic Rock Presents Prog.

I voted in the poll, which has just been published in the second issue of Prog, and put Selling England at number one. However, I haven't listened to it properly for a while so, as the light faded, I drifted off into the garden for a listen on my iPod to give it a critical appraisal.

I could go on and on about the extraordinary ensemble playing, sophisticated writing and arrangements, the beautiful pastoral feel and the several key moments on the album that almost define prog at its best.

But I won't. I'll just say that, yes, it is the best prog album ever made.

Infamy, infamy...


The Progressive Rock Hall of Infamy site is an interesting new blog.

Whatever your opinions on the content of the blog, it's certainly written in a combative style.

Here is an excerpt from PRHOI. It's an attack on Yes which sidesteps the obvious targets and takes a swipe at Relayer, Going For the One and Tormato (best not to read any further if you like everything Yes have done):

'Over the years, thinking more and more about the time lost to Rick Wakeman’s keyboard peregrinations and Anderson’s sheep-being-slaughtered vocal excesses, I came to despise Yes, blaming them for ruining Prog and making an already bleak and sorrowful world an even darker place with the truly wretched excess of their output. There have been many things said about Yes, and if I wanted to, I could keep the PRHOI in business for the next five years just publishing reviews of Yes albums proper, various side-projects and the myriad groups they somehow inspired to make similarly indulgent and pointless music. I’m going to pass on that option, as I’m forbiddingly depressed enough already to ever survive writing my thoughts on Tales from Topographic Oceans or Wakeman’s own Journey to the Center of the Earth madness. Instead, I’m going to deal with three of the albums that Yes released over a roughly 40 month span in the mid to late 70’s, albums that signaled a band in decline and yet simultaneously at the height of their powers. For as they died, like a great god or king, they resolved to take everyone down with them, and the results of this infernal pact with the Lords of Suck were Relayer, Going for the One, and Tormato – the last perhaps the worst and most ridiculous title ever bestowed on any album, crap or classic, Prog or mainstream. Look at that goddamn album cover, look at it – and tell me your liberal heart still yearns to abolish capital punishment for a crime against aesthetics so vile and miserable. Shark Sandwich was made up, but these motherfuckers were coming from the heart.'


'The incomprehensible – and in my view inexcusable – long-term popularity of Yes is largely due to a phenomenon I have observed in other culturally-challenged sub groupings of society – prison Nazis, collectors of Thomas Kinkade paintings, people with a lot of Pottery Barn flatware in their kitchens. The problem is one of mistaking all similar product with being of similar quality; i.e., if I like King Crimson, it is only natural that I would have a yen for Yes. If I drink beer, then Budweiser or Kokanee will be fine if Pilsner is too expensive. If mushrooms make for a good trip, perhaps I’ll try huffing nail polish remover. The point is, none of these quasi-syllogisms ring true, and are in fact dangerous misjudgments that help define the culture whore as opposed to the truly cultured.'

I happen to think that Going For the One is one of the greatest of all prog albums, but I have some sympathy for the PRHOI position on Relayer (excluding the lovely 'Soon' section, of course)...

'Relayer was in the spirit of earlier Yes efforts, meaning that the record starts with a 21:55 second “song” that is about as focused as a drunk’s urine stream and hops from notion to notion (none of the elements could be properly called “ideas”) like a third-grader who forgot to take his Ritalin. Sadly, as Steve Howe’s guitar work is often dynamic – there is even what appears to be a little nod to Jimmy Page’s brilliantly messy solo from “Heartbreaker” on “Sound Chaser” – the music is controlled by the interruptions of Alan White’s overly noisy drums and the unusually aggressive vocal stylings of Anderson. Indeed, what identifies Relayer the most to me is its sheer noisiness – new member Patrick Moraz, having replaced the grandiose stylings of Rick Wakeman on keyboards, is given little chance to do other than offer fills to violent bursts of cacophony and the ever-present threat of Anderson’s bleating; allowed to calm these tracks down a little, Moraz might have proved valuable. As it is, he’s lost in a mix overrun mad with ego'

Tormato, however, gets the full broadside:

'Finally, the triumvirate collapses utterly on Tormato, an album so worthless that I almost feel bad for the kind of band that would produce such drek. Not a lot can be said about the banality of this waste, so why not just consider the song titles and tell me that you have any desire to actually listen to the fucking thing: “Don’t Kill the Whale”, “Arriving UFO” and “On the Silent Wings of Freedom” – the last very probably the worst song on any of the three disastrous albums in question'

It's worth reading the whole post at the Hall where a number of other bands and sub-genres are targeted in similar fashion.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Where there's prog there's brass



The first of a number of videos on the making of our new album, The Underfall Yard, can be found here. This short film is about the recording of the brass session for the album and, if you have a fast enough internet connection, is best watched in high definition.

One beautiful summer's day, a couple of years back, I was in Bath, near the Parade Gardens, when I heard the stirring sound of an English brass band. I can't remember what they were playing, but it was a slow piece, and this extraordinary, melancholy music filled the gardens where children played and old men slept in deck chairs. At that moment, I realised that Big Big Train needed a brass band.

We commissioned Dave Desmond to to write some arrangements for a brass quartet and recorded a session with Dave (trombone), Nick Stones (french horn), Rich Evans (cornet)and Jon Truscott (tuba) a couple of weeks ago. It was a very enjoyable session which captured the sound that I had heard on that summer's day in Bath.

The video contains music from three tracks on the album, Evening Star, The Underfall Yard (which builds on themes established in Evening Star), and Victorian Brickwork.

Next month, there will be a second video featuring the first vocal sessions.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

The brass is done



Our session with the brass quartet the other night was a huge success. I'll be posting some footage of the session on our new YouTube channel in the next few days.

In the meantime, here is a pic of Jon Truscott, one of our brass players, in action (incidentally the deeper notes of a tuba make Moog Taurus Bass pedals sound, frankly, a bit wet.)

Successful parenting

At certain times parents will reflect on how good or bad a job they have made of bringing up their children.

My daughter has just named her cat after the foremost Icelandic post-rock band*. This makes me feel that I am not doing too badly at the moment.





*His full name is Sigur Hoppipolla Ros. Not a name I'm looking forward to having called out at the vets.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

New album: progress report

There is a point reached in the making of an album when the creative process almost becomes of secondary importance to project management. We’ve reached that point now. This is the most complex album we’ve worked on, with a number of different threads that we need to draw together. The convergence point is getting ever closer as the album is due to be released later this year, and it is time to get organised (our main organisational tool being a notebook called ‘The Underfall Yard Bible’ which is rapidly filling up with aide-mémoires .)

A lot of work is happening at the moment. I’ve just finished off the lyrics for the album and David is developing the vocal and flute parts in his studio, preparing for recording at Rob’s place in the next few weeks. Andy and myself are going back over the album demos (which are evolving into the finished tracks) and re-recording bass, guitar and keyboard parts as necessary (some parts will make it all the way from the demo onto the album if they fit the bill.)

Meanwhile, a number of CDR’s of work-in-progress have been (or will shortly be) despatched to various guest artists so that they can prepare their contributions.

Early next month, we have a session booked at Rob’s to record the brass parts with the chaps from Kate Rusby's band (the elegiac sound of an English brass band is what we’re trying to capture) and then we need to crack on and get the session for the string quartet booked up.

In view of Big Big Train's new line-up, we'll also be launching a new YouTube channel in the next few weeks. We'll use the new channel to document progress with the album recording.

So, it’s all beginning to happen, the pages of the 'Bible' are filling up and it looks like we'll be spending another summer indoors, topping up our studio tan.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Spotify

A new web-based music service called Spotify has been getting a lot of press coverage recently.

Thanks to our good friends at CDBaby who handle our digital distribution, Big Big Train will shortly be available on Spotify, so I thought I'd check it out to see what it offered.

After a quick software download and a few minutes of testing, I am able to report that Spotify is completely brilliant. And utterly addictive.

As I'm writing this, my Spotify connection is temporarily unavailable and the lack of streamed music from the site is making my experience of working on this computer much less pleasurable. Sure, I could put a CD on, or fire up iTunes, but I want the diversity offered by Spotify and I want it now.

So, what is it? (as Cat once said in Red Dwarf.) Well, as Cat went on to say in the same sketch, it's a sort of magic door. The door leads into an endless music library where you can instantly play (almost) anything that's ever been released. Songs are streamed on request to your computer. Audio quality is good. You can pause, rewind and fast-forward. You can create playlists and save your favourite songs. You can find links to other similar artists. However, you never own the music as it isn't downloaded or saved, only streamed.

Spotify are hoping, in the future, to make available all of the music which has ever been released. At the moment, they are a long way short of this (there are some major gaps - eg Pink Floyd), but vast numbers of songs are being added every day and they are not just focusing on the major artists.

I tested the depth of music on offer by looking for music by one of my favourite bands, Mew. As far as I could see, everything they've ever released is on there, including some obscure 'b' sides I'd never heard before. I then went prog-surfing and found music by the big boys (Genesis) down to more esoteric bands like Gentle Giant. They even had every PFM song.

I went looking for more modern prog. There is nothing yet by Frost or Spock's Beard, but The Tangent are there, as is The Old Road CD by the internet's arch-enemy, Martin Orford (but, strangely, no IQ.) I then checked out some of the heavier bands I like - Oceansize and Mastodon, Draconian and The Mars Volta, all present and correct.

I also looked for some new music. The brand new Bell X-1 album got great reviews in the papers at the weekend. That was there, although the new Doves album isn't yet available.

I haven't even started to get my head around what Spotify will mean for the music industry and for independent bands like BBT. It certainly gives a lot more opportunity to legally sample the range of music on offer by bands. However, whether that will translate into sales is harder to assess. Some people may find that Spotify offers all the music and convenience they need. Others will use it to sample new music and better inform their purchases. So, from the industry perspective, I'm not too sure about Spotify.

Speaking as a fan and consumer of music, however, I'm all for it. I've already heard some music I'm going to go on and buy and other stuff that I've always wanted to hear but would never fork out for.

Do check it out.

Friday, 6 March 2009

We should get behind this...

The inestimable Classic Rock has announced that it will be publishing a quarterly journal of prog rock called, rather catchily, 'Prog'.

I'm not sure if Classic Rock are just taking a punt at a new launch to see how it goes, or if this is based on strong sales of the one or two prog special issues they've published in recent years (and therefore a genuine sign of rising fortunes for progressive rock) but, either way, prog fans should get behind this magazine.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Introducing David Longdon

Photograph by Kevin McGary

I would like to welcome David Longdon as Big Big Train's new vocalist.

David Longdon is a progressive rock singer, songwriter and multi instrumentalist who was born in the city of Nottingham UK in 1965.

He formed several bands but it was his time with The Gifthorse that led to bigger things. David signed to Rondor Music and recorded for Epic records. They supported Kirsty MacColl, Blur and The Pogues amongst others.

David is also a long term member of the Louis Philippe band, appearing on Jackie Girl (1996), Azure (1998), A Kiss in the Funhouse (1999), My Favourite Part of You (2003) and The Wonder of it All (2004) culminating in the release of the Louis Philippe Live (2007) CD taken from their two concerts at The Bush Hall, Sheppard’s Bush along with The High Llamas. Musicians also performing on these albums include Daniel Manners (Cathal Coughlan), Dave Gregory (XTC, Dukes of Stratosphere) Sean O’Hagen (High Llamas, Microdisney), Cathal Coughlan (Microdisney, Fatima Mansions)

It was in the final days of The Gifthorse that David was invited to audition as a potential replacement for Phil Collins as lead singer in Genesis. He survived the auditioning process and worked with Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford and producer Nick Davis from May to November 1996 on recordings that would become the Calling All Stations album. They were also working with Stiltskin vocalist Ray Wilson at the same time. Eventually they decided which one out of the two would get the job.

David’s first solo CD Wild River (2004) featured many musicians collectively known as The Magic Club. The CD contains guitar playing and Mellotron work of XTC’s Dave Gregory.

In 2008 Martin Orford (formerly of IQ) invited David to sing on his swan song album The Old Road. David sings lead vocals on Ray of Hope and Endgame.

David brings a superb singing voice to Big Big Train as well as considerable experience and expertise. We can't wait to start working with him on The Underfall Yard and on future releases.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Goodbye to Steve and Sean

We are now well into the recording sessions for the next album, The Underfall Yard and it's time that I mentioned some changes to the band's line-up for the forthcoming release.

With the exception of Bard, Steve Hughes has drummed on all of our albums so far. However, Steve is busy with other projects at the moment and we have decided to continue and develop our work with Nick D'Virgilio for The Underfall Yard and future releases.

Steve joined BBT when he was still at school and, in the early days, he bunked off many lessons to attend rehearsals . His fluid fusion-style playing was a significant feature of our developing music. We remain good friends with Steve and his playing will feature on the re-recorded versions of Downhilling and Kingmaker, two songs from our early demos which will be released at a later date.

Sean Filkins joined BBT as our vocalist for the Gathering Speed release and went on to feature on The Difference Machine. Sean provided some beautiful vocal performances at a time when I was developing a different style of writing for BBT (a more, if you will, 'progressive' sound) and I would like to thank him for his contribution to Big Big Train.

With The Underfall Yard, we are moving into a new era for BBT and we have decided to strengthen the band's line-up by recruiting a new singer who, we think, will help to further develop our sound.

I'll announce his name and provide some biographical details in the next few days.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

The trouble with Prog

I've been writing a very promising song in the last couple of weeks. After a fair bit of work, the song had reached a point, about 4 minutes in, when it was a either a complete tune, or needed a twist or change to take it into a different direction so that the first 4 minutes became part of a longer piece.

Anyway, I got drawn into trying to write something a bit more substantial and I had found a possible way forward, a nice little change into a fast-paced bit in 5/4. Then, I got stuck. So, I let it stew for a bit and, last night, picked up my guitar, en passant, and played the chords for the 5/4 bit for a few minutes. Still nothing, then...something; I found a sweet chord, then another and another and started improvising some vocals and, even with my limited voice, I thought it was sounding pretty damn awesome. I ran to get my little Micro Track, pressed the red 'record' button and captured it (phew...I find it's important to get something down almost immediately as that is when the raw writing is still happening – a few minutes later on, after I've run through a new bit a few times, it will become sanitised; smoother and cleaner, but with the kinks straightened out. And there can be some interesting things lost from those uncertain early moments, when the chords and the melody are not quite settled.)

So, as I was getting to the end of my first recorded run-through of the new bit, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. I reached the last chord in the sequence and was about to turn the recording function off to keep it tidy. Instead, I carried on improvising, and the guitar and voice found a common purpose and took the tune off soaring to new heights. Every new chord I played seemed to be the right one and the melody found a perfect course. I had written about three minutes of music in about three minutes. And I was recording while it happened! I love it when it’s like this.

After this improvisational burst, I spent a few minutes tidying the new sections up and then backed it up on the computer. Then, I made myself an espresso (have you tried the Nespresso machines? -they’re fab) sat back, and started to worry.

Thing is, this new bit is, I think, really strong. And so is the first four minutes of the song which I’d written previously. Both sections deserve to be heard. The question is; should they be together, as they were written, in a single seven or eight minute piece, with a great beginning and end? Or would they each get more attention if they were two separate shorter songs?

Prog fans (and I am, of course, a prog fan) often tend to gravitate towards the more epic material. We eulogise about Awaken or Firth of Fifth, not Wondrous Stories or I Know What I Like. Is it because those longer pieces are actually better, or simply more to our taste? Are we confusing the substantial (as in size, or, in this case length) with something substantive?

At the moment, I'm thinking of sticking with this new song as a single eight minute track. But I might try it both ways, just to be sure I'm not being a creature of habit.