Tuesday 23 December 2008

Albums of the Year 2008

In no particular order, here are my faves of 2008:

The Cure
Robert Smith's miserabilists are back with a beautiful album; the right balance of intense, brooding epics and jangly pop. The Cure have been a big influence on Big Big Train, especially on English Boy Wonders.

Oceansize, Frames
I know this one was originally released in 2007, but the special edition was released in May 2008, so I'm not cheating in including it this year. And besides, it took me a long time to fully appreciate the album, which is a huge thing; complex, involving, beautiful music with superb melodies and a mighty sound. The special edition features a filmed performance of the album.

Sigur Ros, With a Buzz in Our Ears...
Not my favourite of their albums (too bouncy for my taste) but enough moments of glacial majesty to make it one of the best of the year. Their DVD, also released this year, has been acclaimed by MOJO as the best DVD of 2008. It is a film of astonishing beauty and a great introduction to Sigur Ros.

The Raconteurs
Consolers of the Lonely
Jack White's side-project takes centre-stage. Wonderful mix of traditional and alternative rock with awesome guitar playing from White. Great album title, great cover, great CD.

Elbow, The Seldom Seen Kid
The fourth brilliant album from the melancholy Northerners. Contains the best musical moment of 2008 in the Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver, as the chords shift underneath the 'send up a prayer in my name' line.

Opeth, Watershed
Never thought I'd get into a band with death-metal vocals but Opeth are a group to be treasured, with genuine crossover appeal and heroic drumming. Another band in a similar genre which is worth a mention is one of my daughter's favourites - Draconian, from Sweden. On their album Turning Season Within, they make death-metal vocals sound very moving, and they write great songs. And while I'm talking about the heavier side of things, I can't wait to hear the new Mastodon album, due next year. Another frenzied metal band with a great drummer (who is heavily influenced by Phil Collins), Mastodon are going prog in 2009.

Frost*, Experiments in Mass Appeal
Frost* experiment with the prog format on EIMA, packing a lot of twists and changes into shorter tunes. It's a cracking album, with punchy songs interspersed with melancholy piano-led interludes. The standout track for me is Secret Song which closes the album in stunning fashion.

Genesis - Selling England By the Pound and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.
These re-issues were the most eagerly-awaited releases of the year for me (in fact, of the last five years - it's been a long wait since the remix of The Lamb was first announced.) The box set as a whole is an important release with superb extras including lengthy interviews and the legendary Jackson Tapes. But the main draw is the 5.1 remixes of the classic Genesis albums showing the evolution of the definitive prog band. In truth, some of the songs on Trespass, Nursery Cryme and Foxtrot are now sounding a little like period pieces, but when they fully hit their stride on Selling England and The Lamb, they were a band of unbelievable creativity and power. These two albums contain material of jaw-dropping quality and they sound as contemporary today as they did in the 70's. We were lucky enough to spend an evening with Nick Davis recently and he kindly spent a few hours answering my incessant questions about his work with Genesis and XTC. Nick's favourite Genesis album from his days as a fan was Selling England and to get the chance to open up this box of jewels and polish them until they gleam...wow, what a thing to have done. Nick starts work on remixing the live recordings in January.

Finally, whilst I'm on Genesis, I should also mention this year's splendid re-issues of Anthony Phillips' The Geese and the Ghost and Wise After the Event. These are essential purchases for Genesis fans and they include comprehensive sleeve notes and bonus tracks. We've worked up a cover version of one of the demos (a previously unreleased song called Master of Time) which we'll be releasing as a free download in 2009.

I'm sure I've forgotten a few other releases that I've enjoyed in 2008, but these are the ones that spring to mind. Have a great Christmas and a Happy New Year.


Saturday 8 November 2008

Prog Will Find a Way

Just back from seeing Sigur Ros. They are an exceptionally brilliant but seemingly esoteric kind of band and, as they started the show with the lengthy and funereally-paced Svefn-g-englar, I did take a moment to look around and wonder how they had packed out such a large venue.

After a few minutes, however, it became clear that if you strip the music of some of its stylistic eccentricities, much of it would sit very comfortably in a Pink Floyd show. Indeed, the longer it went on, the more it felt like a prog gig.

And that's the great thing. While bands playing classic-style prog may be struggling to find a big audience, prog pops up in so many other places these days, from death metal bands like Opeth and Mastodon and heavy indie bands such as The Mars Volta and Oceansize, through to art-rock groups like Mew and Radiohead, and the post-rock of Sigur Ros.

Indeed, the very positive press reaction to the Gabriel-years Genesis box set, and the recent 'coming-out' of a number of celebrity Genesis fans suggests that even classic prog is no longer the music that dare not speak its name. Whatever it takes, prog, it seems, will find a way.

Friday 10 October 2008

Summer's End Festival, Lydney

Lydney is an old-fashioned place. When I arrived on Sunday morning for the last day of the festival, I thought I'd walk up to the high street for a quick Costa, but I quickly realised it wasn't that sort of town. So, I drove up to Norchard, where there is a lovingly preserved branch-line station, and had a nice cup of tea whilst sat in an old train carriage.

Back in the town, the festival was based at the village hall, which worked well as a venue. Like the town, the hall had a slightly run-down, 1950's feel about it, but the organisation seemed generally good and the festival was very informal and friendly.

I enjoyed Abel Ganz and thought Thieves Kitchen were very interesting; they make life hard for themselves with continual changes and twists in their music, so sometimes it's hard to keep up with where each tune is headed, but I really like them.

Frost* put on an extraordinarily impressive show; they are a dynamic and powerful band and it suddenly felt like rural Gloucestershire had been invaded by some hot-shot rock stars. But Frost* don't take themselves too seriously; the top-notch musicianship and complicated music is leavened by a Pythonesque sense of humour, and the band seemed to have a great time.

I tried to find somewhere for a meal in the break before The Tangent, but ended up in a pub with a pint of John Smith's and a bag of pork scratchings, which seemed to fit the generally sepia-toned feel of the day.

Thankfully for the slightly progged-out, thinking-about-work-the-next-morning audience, The Tangent came on very promptly and, with Rob Aubrey in charge of mixing (as he was with Frost* and Thieves Kitchen) sounded very strong, despite the number of musicians competing for musical space. Again, there was plenty of spontaneous humour which the crowd enjoyed.
I didn't stay for the whole set but was impressed with what I heard.

I had a nice quick dash home to Bournemouth via the Old Severn Bridge - just a couple of hours on empty roads.

All in all, an excellent festival in an interesting, off-the-beaten-track location. It was good to see some old friends and to hear the diversity on the prog scene. Aside from a few young female Frosties, the audience was predominantly male and middle-aged which makes me wonder, as I always do, about how prog bands can reach a younger audience (difficult unless the band is coming from a heavy rock background such as Opeth, Oceansize, The Mars Volta.)

There was also a worrying tendency for many of the middle-aged men in the audience to wear three-quarter-length trousers. I don't think that's a good idea at all.

Next gig: Sigur Ros in November.

Thursday 9 October 2008

English Boy Wonders on sale now

Pre-orders for the English Boy Wonders re-release are now being taken on our website.

The pre-order price is £8 GBP which includes worldwide shipping. All CD's will arrive on or before the release date. From the 1st December the price will be £10 GBP.

English Boy Wonders is being released as a digipack with a 12 page booklet featuring new artwork from Jim Trainer. The CD is almost 80 minutes long and contains a bonus track which was recorded at the time of the original sessions but has been previously unavailable. The bonus track features new keyboard work from Martin Orford.

English Boy Wonders was previously released in a semi-complete state on the GEP label in 1997 and has been unavailable for many years. For the 2008 re-release, we have returned to the original master tapes and have re-recorded much of the album. Additional sections of music have also been recorded to complete the album as it was originally intended. The album has been entirely remixed and remastered by Rob Aubrey (IQ, Spock's Beard, Transatlantic, Pendragon etc.)

We have set up a mini website to provide more information on English Boy Wonders. On the website, you can listen to (or download and keep) three full length songs from the album in high quality audio, read an interview with me about English Boy Wonders and watch a slide show whilst listening to another song from the album.

We know that money is tight at the moment and, even if you don't want to buy, please visit englishboywonders.com and have a listen to the freely available songs.

Other Big Big Train news: We are currently working on a new album for release in 2009. This will be called The Underfall Yard. In 2010, we will be releasing When Everything Was Made of Wood, a retrospective of previously unreleased songs and re-recordings of some of the best songs from our early demos.

Thursday 11 September 2008

High IQ

One of the perks of being in a band is the occasional preview of other bands' music before it gets released. Last night, we got to hear four songs from the forthcoming IQ album.

I've been a fan of IQ since the release of the Seven Stories Into Eight demo tape (my copy had its own hand-made cover, with pieces of felt stuck on brown card) and saw the band at their first Marquee performance (a support slot to Twelfth Night). Andy's interest in IQ goes back even further; he used to roadie for the proto-IQ band, The Lens. So a chance for us to hear some of the new album was very interesting.

I don't want to say too much as it's not my place to do so, but I would just make two observations:
  • to my ears, Mike and company have produced an album which harks back to the roots of the IQ sound. It's not that it's backward-looking, there are plenty of new ingredients in the formula, but it reminded me more of their earlier music than recent releases.
  • it sounded absolutely brilliant. The songs were very strong, packed full of those all-important spine-tingling moments.

On the basis of the four tracks I heard, this could be IQ's best album so far.

Sunday 31 August 2008

Release date for English Boy Wonders

The release date for English Boy Wonders is 1st December. It'll be a digipack with a 12 page booklet.

We'll be taking pre-orders from the 1st October until the 30th November for a discounted price. CD's will be sent to arrive by the release date.

The video is a promotional slide show for the album, featuring the new version of Reaching For John Dowland. You can watch it here, or, if you scroll down a bit and click on the link to Big Big Train at YouTube on the right of this page and then select the 'watch in high quality' option, you'll get better quality audio.

Saturday 23 August 2008

Download of Albion Perfide from English Boy Wonders

The final free download from the re-mixed English Boy Wonders is now on line on our home page. The download is the first mix of Albion Perfide and it's available in high quality audio. The English Boy Wonders sessions are now finished and the album will be available very soon.

The short video shows us working on the Albion mix.

Saturday 16 August 2008

We Mix

Curt Smith - Late Late Show

Featuring NDV on backing vocals and, er, wooden crate.

I think this is a very good song. Some negative comments on YouTube about Curt's voice but I think it's a very heartfelt performance.

Wednesday 30 July 2008

Boxgrove Man

The first mix of Boxgrove Man which will be featured on the remade English Boy Wonders is now freely available for download in high-quality audio on the main BBT site (follow the link to monthly download.)

Boxgrove Man has been extensively reworked, including a reinstated instrumental section which was lost from the original version.

Monday 21 July 2008

Classic Rock

We have a track on the cover disc of the new issue of Classic Rock.
It's a very interesting compilation, although I'm not sure I'd describe many of the bands featured on it as prog (at least not based on the songs on the disc.) At times it sounds more like an AOR compilation.
The Pineapple Thief song is very good. Wish I'd written it.

Friday 4 July 2008

More Age of Steam videos

For anyone interested in seeing more of us recording the Age of Steam album back in 1993, the final four films have been uploaded onto our YouTube channel.

Films 3a and 3b contain some snippets of live footage, a rare thing for Big Big Train.


Monday 30 June 2008

Free audio download of first mix of The Shipping Forecast

The video in the post below this one shows us working on the new mix of The Shipping Forecast for the EBW re-release. The first audio mix of the song is now available for free audio download at:

(click on 'monthly download' when you get to the page.)

It can also be listened to (or downloaded) at our MySpace page.

The download will be replaced by the final mix of the song when it's finished and it may be slightly edited to tighten it up, so get this version while you can.

Mixing The Shipping Forecast

Saturday 7 June 2008

The Making of Goodbye to the Age of Steam (part 1a)

We've been putting together a short video blog on the re-making of English Boy Wonders which we'll upload as soon as possible. In the meantime, Andy found some old camcorder footage from 1993 of the recording of our first album, Goodbye to the Age of Steam which we'll be uploading onto the blog over the next few weeks.

Here is part one (divided into two short films, part 1a posted above and 1b below) which shows the early stages of the Age of Steam recording sessions ( guide backing tracks and drums.)

Looking at the footage, we come over as a bunch of complete tits but, in our defence, we were young then, and acting as young men do. The worrying thing is, looking at the film I've just recorded of the mixing sessions for the English Boy Wonders re-release, we're still acting the same now.

So, older yes, and fatter certainly, but not necessarily wiser.

The Making of Goodbye to the Age of Steam (part 1b)

Tuesday 29 April 2008

April download online now

April's download (the second in our ongoing series of permanent downloads) is Fighter Command from the Gathering Speed album. It's available at www.bigbigtrain.com now. It's gone online a little bit late in the month because, basically, I forgot.

May's download will be online soon and, in June, we'll have something from the re-worked, re-mixed and re-mastered English Boy Wonders. Also coming soon, a video diary of the (re) making of EBW.

Sunday 6 April 2008

Wondering about adding the definite article

As you know, we've been spending the last few weeks rummaging around in our old toy cupboard and having a play with the master tapes of the English Boy Wonders album.

It's been a happy time for us, dusting off the old material. I don't play many guitar solos these days but used to play quite a few back then. I've chosen to re-record some of them and add a couple more, inspired by a recent purchase of an Epiphone Les Paul (Epiphone make tremendous guitars these days, at a fraction of the price of the American versions.)

Anyway, it'll soon be time for us to set aside our childish things and release the revised English Boy Wonders. After that we'll need to get back to the new album which is looming up as a rather formidable challenge. We want to sustain the progress we've made since Gathering Speed by making further improvements and refinements to our sound.

We're also wondering about improving our band name.

When I were a young lad, my toy cupboard contained the splendid No 1 Big Big Train set. It had red track and a blue locomotive. Andy has pointed out that my set also possessed the definite article - it was 'The Big Big Train' rather than 'Big Big Train.'

I quite like this and we're wondering whether we should release our next album under the band name of The Big Big Train. This would be a sort of reverse Pink Floyd situation as they started off as The Pink Floyd. After Pink Floyd removed the definite article, they went on to become wildly successful and famous and had real groupies and everything. Maybe the same would happen to us, but in reverse? Which means we'd be even less successful and famous and have even fewer groupies than the ones we haven't got now.

Wednesday 2 April 2008

Embarrassing onstage moments

There's a nice thread on the Musician's Corner page on the Genesis Forum about embarrassing onstage moments. This one made me laugh: (courtesy of iamreal):

'I was playing a gig in Holland many years ago. As a sort of show-thing at the end of the last number I would sometimes get up from the drumkit and throw the sticks at it for the last beat. (well it was the seventies.) Anyway, this time I lost my balance and fell against the back of the stage. There happened to be a fire door which opened as I fell against it and the next moment I was OUTSIDE! How I didn't break my neck I don't know. It was about a four foot drop so I couldnt get back in so I went around to the front entrance. There, they wouldn't let me in. Kept saying "band finished, closed". In the end the other band members came looking for me and I got back in!'

Friday 28 March 2008

Download of the month - March 2008

As promised, we've started our free audio download service on the http://www.bigbigtrain.com/ site.

All songs we upload will be the full-length versions in high quality audio. We'll add a song every month and they'll stay on the site, which means that over the years we will eventually make available the full catalogue of BBT material for free download.

We're not becoming a charitable concern with this approach, we're simply trying an experiment to expand the number of listeners we have. As every listener is a potential buyer, we think it's worth exploring. We know that we cannot control illegal downloading and our CD's are pretty easy to find if somebody wants to grab them online.

The download service allows us to get some additional publicity on a monthly basis and will expand the number of people who visit our site. We can control the quality of the audio and can encourage people to support the band by visiting our CD shop where we sell CD's as cheaply as we possibly can.

We'll also be uploading some new songs prior to album releases and some rarities from our back catalogue, so it should be of interest to existing listeners as well as the curious.

Anyway, that's the theory.

The first track is Pick Up If You're There, from last year's Difference Machine CD. It's a good example of the current BBT sound, featuring Tony Wright on Van Der Graaf Generator*-influenced saxaphone, Becca King on viola, Pete Trewavas on bass and Nick D'Virgilio on drums.

Next month will be Fighter Command from the Gathering Speed CD and in May or June we'll upload a song from the forthcoming re-mixed, re-mastered and partly re-constructed English Boy Wonders album.


*the new VDGG album is worth checking out, despite the lack of Jaxon sax.

Tuesday 18 March 2008

Thirsty Apes

We recorded another five songs with Nick D'Virgilio yesterday; mostly short tunes from along the way which, for one reason or another, never made it onto an album (Rob: 'These are fucking dregs. When are you going to write some proper stuff?') but also one longer piece which is a possible contender for English Electric.

The short songs may, indeed, be leftovers. But, like cold turkey on Boxing day, they are quite tasty and will be making an appearance on our retrospective CD which is coming out after the English Boy Wonders re-release and the new album.

Rob and Nick have been working on the new Spock's Beard live DVD and we had a listen to a few of the surround mixes after the session. It's gonna be a great release; I couldn't get 'On a Perfect Day' out of my head and sang it all the way to the curry house (I think Nick really appreciated hearing my vocal performance over and over. He mentioned that he'd never realised some of the notes I was singing even existed; don't be surprised if some of the subtleties of my rendition influence the SB live performances in the summer.)

After a few beers, Nick told us an unusual and alarming story about Giraffes. Which prompted Steve Thorne to suggest we check out this YouTube video (warning: may offend; do not click on the link if you are squeamish or have young children looking over your shoulder.)

Tuesday 5 February 2008

English boys wondering how to play our old songs

Our Russian distributers MALS have asked if they can re-release our CD from 1997, English Boy Wonders. EBW was deleted by our then record label GEP a few years ago and we've been looking at options for making this music available again, so this is a very timely opportunity.

Rather than simply re-release the album as it was, we thought we'd go back to the existing tapes and brush them up a bit. EBW was a difficult release for BBT as it was recorded during a period when we were not sure about our future with GEP and, indeed, what direction we wanted to take with our music. We could only afford short periods of time in the studio back then before we had to stop and save some more cash to progress the recordings (and, in fact, we blew most of our budget doing a grand-piano session in a hideously expensive studio.) Money problems led to the album being recorded over a protracted timeframe and, what, with all the uncertainty over the future of the band, EBW never quite hung together as I intended it to.

Furthermore, the reviewers in 1997 didn't get the album at all; the combination of influences on EBW from the pastoral English pop of XTC, via the doom and gloom of The Cure to the dynamics and complexity of Genesis and King Crimson didn't impress. So, it sank without trace taking with it, into the undertow, our recording contract with GEP.

Now, more than ten years on, we think we can make EBW the album it should have been. We're currently going through the process of doing some extra work on each of the songs before we do a complete re-mix. Just transferring the keyboard parts onto the much better sounding samples of organ and Mellotron which we use now has made a huge difference, but we're doing a fair bit of additional recording as well.
In addition to the recording work, which is now well underway, our artist Jim Trainer has been working on some additional paintings for the album cover (a slide show of his paintings can be seen on our MySpace page).
Technically, the redux version of EBW has been an interesting experience. The album was originally recorded on three TEAC digital 8-track tape machines (the ones stacked up behind me in thie picture above from 1996). These were Rob's replacement for his 2 inch tape machine on which we recorded our first album.

Rob was getting rid of the machines a couple of years ago and he and Andy backed up the original multi-track session onto Pro-Tools. We had no idea whether there had been any deterioration in the tapes before we transferred them, but in fact they were in pristine condition. (when we did a similar exercise with the 2 inch tapes for Goodbye to the Age of Steam, the tapes had to be baked to restore them.)

Whilst the tapes didn't let us down, there were a couple of problems with some old midi files that had been saved on an ancient version of Cubase which ran from two floppy discs (which Andy had lost.) Dave Meros (thanks Dave) managed to retrieve the files for us and e-mailed them back over.

I'll finish with another couple of photos from the days of English Boy Wonders. Here we are rehearsing for the album sessions:

And here are Tony and Andy recording the piano ('every fuck-up costs an extra £200, but no pressure, Tony.')

Tuesday 8 January 2008

Reviews: the good and the bad(ly written)

Had a couple of high profile reviews in English magazines in the last week or two: a nice one by Geoff Barton in Classic Rock (7/10, 'finely crafted and acutely involving') and a rubbish one in Power Play (5/10, 'progressive rock lite'). To make matters worse, the BBT review in Power Play was on the same page as a review of one of my daughter's favourite bands, Nightwish. Nightwish are a Finnish emo band. They sound like Abba, with heavy metal guitars. And they got 10/10. This amused my daughter (Ellie) no end.

I know it's sensible not to get annoyed by bad reviews, but having a couple of years' work dismissed in a hundred words of badly written prose is a tad irritating. And, really, I'm not just being bitter; the reviewer can't write. Consider this sentence, for example:

'If your (sic) a Big Big Train fan, then I guess your (sic) probably used their sound (sic) and will get a huge amount out of this release.'

Call yourself a journalist? Journalism lite, that's what I call it.

ps - on the same page as our Classic Rock review, one of Ellie's other favourite bands, Bullet For My Valentine* had their new album reviewed. They got 5/10. Ha ha!

* Bullet For My Valentine are a Welsh emo band. They sound like Tom Jones, with heavy metal guitars.

Wednesday 2 January 2008

Frost, Hyperventilate, unplugged

Do check out this cracking version of Frost's Hyperventilate, played in unplugged-style by Jem Godfrey and Declan Burke.

Jem's keyboard playing is spectacularly good and the arrangement really shows off the quality of the composition.