Saturday 31 December 2011

Recording English Electric

We're getting close to completing recording work on English Electric after three more very productive days at Aubitt studios in Southampton. We recorded drums for The Permanent Way, Judas Unrepentant and Worked Out and vocals for Judas Unrepentant, Worked Out and The East Prospect of Winchester From St Giles' Hill. We also had time to record drums for some tracks for Station Masters, including Make Some Noise and new versions of Fighter Command and Summer's Lease.

There are more photos from the studio on our Facebook group page.

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Best of 2011

I thought I'd do a quick round-up of the releases I've enjoyed during 2011.

The finest new album I've heard this year is Elbow's Build a Rocket Boys! It's a CD of subtle and beautifully-constructed anthems, best enjoyed, I'm sure, whilst drinking a glass of the accompanying beer. Runner-up to Build a Rocket Boys! was probably Last by The Unthanks.

I've not owned a Steve Wilson / Porcupine Tree CD before but finally caved in and bought Grace For Drowning. Initially, I found it a bit light on songs with perhaps too much 'noodling', but after several listens the songs began to reveal themselves. Now I think it's probably the best out-and-out prog album I've heard for many years.

In the last few weeks I've been listening to 50 Words For Snow by Kate Bush. I've not spent enough time with it to reach a conclusion, but I suspect that two of the songs (Snowflake and Misty) are as good as anything she has ever done. And speaking of established artists who can still surprise, the best song of the year was, by a long way, the new version of San Jacinto on Peter Gabriel's orchestral album, New Blood. The album as a whole is a curate's egg, but San Jacinto is simply breathtaking and features a jaw-dropping vocal performance. It includes several moments of astonishing beauty and I urge anyone who hasn't heard it to listen to it on a good system or on good headphones.

I've read a lot of books this year, but very few have stayed long in the memory. The best was probably Edgelands by Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley. However, judging from the presents under our tree, I will have a fair few books for Christmas so may find a gem amongst those (possibly Max Hastings' All Hell Let Loose or The Great Sea by David Abulafia , both of which have received high praise.)

I haven't seen many new films in 2011 and none of the ones I've seen were anything other than mildy entertaining (maybe I've just chosen badly, or maybe the cinema is too expensive these days.) However, there have been a number of brilliant tv series which suggests to me that some of the best film-making is now for the small screen.

Two of my favourite comedies have been the very clever and elegantly-written American show Bored To Death (which has sadly just been cancelled) and an English series called Rev which is about an inner-city vicar and his parishioners. Rev is both very funny and intensely moving. It seeks out and finds the good in all of the characters, no matter how unsympathetic they may appear.

And alongside the comedy, there has been great drama too. I'm a big fan of George RR Martin's Game of Thrones novels and was delighted that the HBO series was such a strong piece of work. Series 2 is eagerly anticipated in the Spawton household (my son plunged headlong into the books as soon as series 1 came to an end; it's good to see a teenage boy read thousands of pages of high-quality fiction with such evident pleasure.)

Another drama series which reached for the sky was The Walking Dead. On the surface, it's a well-made and sometimes very scary horror series. However, season 2 has also explored some deeply moral issues and the fascism which is beginning to emerge amongst some of the desperate characters is as frightening as the zombies.

The final two programmes I'd like to mention are both crime dramas. I'm not into crime as a genre, so these two took me by surprise. I really didn't think I'd spend 30 hours watching the Danish drama The Killing, for example, but I was quickly hooked. Better still, though, was the Italian series Romanzo Criminale which was tucked away on an Arts channel. Romanzo Criminale tells the true story of a gang of deeply unpleasant criminals who 'take' Rome in the 70's and 80's. It's complex, gripping stuff and the casting is brilliant with a bunch of actors showing extraordinary on-screen presence.

As I say, the characters in Romanzo Criminale are not at all sympathetic (even the Rev Adam Smallbone would struggle to find the good in these guys) but there is something magnetic about this unholy band of brothers (Libano, Freddo, Buffalo, Dandi et al), their nemesis Scialoja and the beautiful Patrizia).

That's it for my 'best of' list. We're back at work next week for the penultimate Aubitt Studio recording sessions for English Electric. If I get chance, I'll do some updates from the studio on our Facebook group page. In the meantime, I'd like to wish you all a Merry Christmas.


Saturday 26 November 2011

Far Skies EP on Spotify

The Kingmaker version of the Far Skies EP is now available for listening to on Spotify:

Far Skies Deep Time

Sunday 30 October 2011

In Aubitt

We've just spent two more days at Aubitt studios completing the vocals and flute for A Boy in Darkness, The First Rebreather, Keeper of Abbeys, Hedgerow and Summoned by Bells.

There is still plenty to do; more drums with Nick at Christmas, more vocals, strings, harp, guitar, organ etc. but we are well on schedule for mixing in March.

Here are a couple of pics from the session (more on our Facebook group page.)

Sunday 16 October 2011

Big Big Train brass band

Today, we are reunited with the BBT brass band which played a huge part in the sound of The Underfall Yard CD. We are recording performances for the forthcoming English Electric album. We'll post some updates from the studio on our Facebook page.

Tuesday 23 August 2011

English Electric vocal sessions

We're spending a couple of days at Aubitt studios recording vocal parts for English Electric. We're doing some live blogging on progress on our Facebook page.

Sunday 14 August 2011

A good weekend

It's a typical summer's day here in England, bit of sun; a few showers to dodge. After the horrors of the riots last weekend, many things, like the weather, seem to be getting back to normality. In the last few days we have spent too many hours glued to the news channels watching scenes of mayhem (and also of solidarity and dignity) unfold. Whilst the political and social commentators are still, understandably, doing their stuff in the Sunday papers, I've found that it's time to come up for air and do the things I like to do. So, this weekend, I've been writing lyrics for the new album and watching a bit of sport.

Both of my kids are keen badminton players and, as a family, we spend much of the winter at tournaments as they compete. For those who aren't in the know, badminton has a bit of a reputation as a relaxed and gentle game played by young and old alike. However, at the highest levels, it's a ferocious sport requiring astonishing levels of fitness and agility.

This weekend it's the finals of the badminton world championships which are being held in London. An English pair has reached the final of the mixed doubles and I'm looking forward to watching that later today. The most prestigious events, however, are the singles finals and today's mens' final, featuring the best singles players of all time (Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei) turned out to be perhaps the greatest badminton game ever seen. There was something primeval about the winning moment, as Lin Dan addressed the crowd looking like King Leonidas before the Spartans at Thermopylae, or Stuart Pearce after scoring that penalty.

Sport is great. And so is music.

Inbetween the badminton games, I've been finishing off the lyrics to The First Rebreather, one of the songs on the new album. The idea for The First Rebreather was given to me by Dave Gregory who, after listening to Winchester Diver from The Underfall Yard, remarked that it reminded him of another historic diving story; this time about Alexander Lambert who dived heroically into the flooded Severn Tunnel in 1880.

I'd not heard of the story before and, on the basis that you can never have too many progressive rock tunnel-diving songs, started reading up about Lambert. One particular online article caught my eye and gave me the title of the song. After that, it was a question of finding some angles that interested me so that it wasn't just a story about a diver and a tunnel.

As a young child I was fascinated by the tale of Beowulf descending into the mere to slay the beast and this added a mythical backdrop to Lambert's journey into the dark. Of course, I also had to include one or two references to the Divine Comedy, as I did in Winchester Diver.

So, for me, at least, it's been a good weekend; a set of lyrics completed and a great sporting contest witnessed.

Friday 8 July 2011

Kingmaker. New song. 13th July.

The covermount CD on the next issue of Classic Rock Presents Prog (issue 18, available from 13th July) features a new 10 minute song by Big Big Train. The song is called Kingmaker and is an exclusive release for Classsic Rock Presents Prog.

Kingmaker will not otherwise be released on CD in the UK or the United States, although it will at some stage be available for purchase as a download from iTunes, Amazon, Bandcamp etc.

Saturday 25 June 2011

What is so special about prog?

There was a thread on Progressive Ears the other day which piqued my interest. I suppose it was a variation on the 'what is prog?' threads, which are beyond tedious, but it got me thinking about what sets 'prog' apart from other genres.

The thread was initiated by 'Homburg' who stated:

I've been listening to a lot of classical and jazz lately. It would be easy for me to dismiss prog as relatively unsophisticated, yet I keep returning to it, whereas I return to other forms of rock increasingly rarely.

There have been a lot of rock bands (e.g. Talking Heads, U2, REM) who are just as intelligent as the smarter prog bands, so what is it that makes prog special for us?
Surprisingly, a lot of responses were dismissive of the premise of the thread:
Myself, I find nothing special about it. There are a few songs here and there that I can get into, but not many. Still trying to research and find some other tunes I can get interested in. Seems a losing scenario, though. (Gruno)
Prog hasn't been "special" for many, many years for me. The old stuff from the 70s is still special, but the whole "scene" (the 3rd Wave, internet, etc.) that started in the late 90s (for me) stopped being special 6-7 years ago. (Vic2002)
Absolutely Nothing! Only prog fans think it is special. Prog is no more or less special than any other genre. (Stoneage dinosaurs)
Responses of this nature made others wonder why the authors frequented a progressive rock forum.
Some of the other answers were lighthearted:
But seriously.....I've analyzed this situation thoroughly, and at great length, and have come to the conclusion that it is multiple-necked stringed instruments. That is what is so special about Prog. Especially if you've got a 12 string joined to a bass, that gets extra prog points. (WideOpenEars)
...while other respondents did attempt a serious answer:
The extended songs are the key. I cannot get enough satisfaction of a 3 minute song. I need development, breaks, changes in tempo/key...and it should still be rock music. (Soul Dreamer)
...and Homburg returned to add his own explanation:
I think it's the texture I find so pleasing: rock guitar alongside classical-style piano, melodies and complex rhythms, harshness and delicacy, flippancy and grandeur. Hard to emcompass in three-minute songs yes.
For me, Soul Dreamer's and Homburg's answers are about right. Bearing in mind that music from so many other genres is just as, or more, sophisticated or complex than prog and that technical proficiency isn't peculiar to progressive music, it clearly isn't special because it is 'superior' in any way.

I enjoy good songs and tunes but also like instrumental music, so prog has the right balance; more so than other genres. I also like music and words that connect on an emotional level and, again, the best prog ticks that box, when some other genres don't. And prog is also better than most genres at dynamic variation - from quiet moments to powerful grandiose sections within the same track.
I can, of course, get the tunes and the emotion from lots of music, but I'm often left wanting more if the instrumental sections and effective dynamic variations are lacking.

A good example of what I mean can be heard in the music of Elbow. On their most recent album, there is a beautiful song called Lippy Kids. Great lyrics and soundscape, lots of emotion.
But it fizzles out just when it should be gathering itself for a big dramatic conclusion and, when I listen to it, I end up thinking: 'why can't they let themselves go a bit more?'
Indeed, for want of a better word, I wonder if they'd reach even greater heights if they were just a bit more 'prog'?

Sunday 12 June 2011


We have a new Soundcloud page.

Just some songs from Far Skies Deep Time and The Underfall Yard on it at the moment, but we will make available some exclusives in future months.

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Hallowed be thy prog

Ignatius Insight, which is a Catholic website, has published an article on prog rock by Professor Bradley Birzer. Professor Birzer has a very interesting perspective on the genre and the article is a terrific read.

Further commentary on the article can be found on The American Culture website.

Monday 25 April 2011

Goodbye to the Age of Steam (2011 re-issue)

Completing the trio of BBT-related releases over the last few weeks is the re-issue of our first album, Goodbye to the Age of Steam, which is now on sale in the BBT shop (and will be available from Amazon UK and USA from May 3rd).

Goodbye to the Age of Steam was originally released on the GEP label in 1994 and has been unavailable for the last few years. It isn't representative of where we are now as a band and it wasn't something we intended to go back to, but Rob Aubrey had a window in his schedule last year and offered to re-mix it from the master tapes. The 1994 version of the album was recorded and mixed on a very tight budget and the opportunity to achieve the best possible sound quality with a complete re-mix was something we could not resist.

We have also added three bonus tracks to the album to ensure the 2011 version of Goodbye to the Age of Steam is a value-for-money release. Firstly, there is an extended version of Losing Your Way, featuring an instrumental section which was edited out of the album version; then a track called Far Distant Thing which we recorded for a radio session in 1993, and finally, an instrumental track called Expecting Dragons which reworks some of the album themes and motifs and which features the band's modern line-up.

Those of you who are familiar with the original release will also notice that we have used new artwork for the re-issue. The painting for the 1994 cover was sold at auction and we have no idea where it is. So we asked our artist, Jim Trainer, to paint some new images. Cracking job he made of it too (the re-issue features a 12-page booklet which includes a number of Jim's paintings.)

So, there it is. We've now completed our programme of re-issues and, from this point on, it is all about the future as we continue work on English Electric and start thinking about some gigs.

In the meantime, I hope you'll find something to enjoy on Goodbye to the Age of Steam. It's certainly not up there with The Underfall Yard or Far Skies Deep Time, but it's part of the Big Big Train story.


Thursday 14 April 2011

Sean Filkins - War and Peace and Other Short Stories

Sean Filkins, Big Big Train vocalist on the Gathering Speed and The Difference Machine albums has just released a solo album. I haven't heard the CD yet, but there is a track streaming on Sean's site (where it's also available for purchase for a tenner, which includes P&P.)

Friday 8 April 2011

David in Dusk magazine

David was interviewed by Mario Giammetti for the December issue of Dusk (the excellent and longstanding Italian Genesis magazine.)

Mario has now kindly made the interview available online and in English. It's a very interesting read and is well worth checking out. There is a link to it on David's blog.

Friday 1 April 2011

Tin Spirits

The first Tin Spirits' CD,Wired to Earth, is out now. It's a beautiful album of guitar-based prog which avoids the well-trodden road of Nu-Prog or Nu-Metal heaviness and, instead, establishes its own path. My understanding is that the album has been printed up as a limited edition to start off with so I strongly recommend popping over to the Tin Spirits' website and buying a copy while it's available (it costs just £6.95). Tin Spirits is:  Dave Gregory (guitars), Daniel Steinhardt (guitars and vocals), Doug Mussard (drums and vocals) and Mark Kilminster (vocals and bass).

Sunday 13 March 2011

Friday 4 March 2011

Video review of Far Skies

Liveprog has developed an innovative approach to CD reviews which, I think, works very well. Here is Marcel Haster's review of Far Skies:

Other reviews can be found on the Liveprog website.

Sunday 30 January 2011

In the Cage at Abbey Road

Many thanks to Mark Hornsby who allowed us to sit in on a session at Abbey Road last week. The session was memorable for a number of reasons; firstly, simply because it was at Abbey Road; secondly it involved recording a full 48-piece orchestra, which isn't something you get to see every day; thirdly, because the orchestra were recording versions of In the Cage and Kevin Gilbert's beautiful A Long Day's Life.

The recordings were for future re-issues of Nick D'Virgilio's Rewiring Genesis and Kevin Gilbert's The Shaming of the True.

Studio One is the largest recording space in Abbey Road and has been used for many film scores (including the Lord of the Rings). I assumed we'd spend most of the time in the control room (the picture above is from the control room of Studio One looking out into the recording room) but we were able to wander in and watch the orchestra in action (mobile phones turned off, of course, the mere thought of my phone ringing during the middle of a take was almost too much to bear.)

So, we were 'up close' as the players turned over the score for the first time and began warming up and practising the tricky bits.

Within a few minutes the orchestra tried a run-through of the first track, In the Cage, to sort out any teething problems. It was a spine-tingling moment when the 'pulse' at the start of the song began and the opening chords drifted in. The arrangement was absolutely beautiful; faithful to the original but using the full scope of the orchestra to enhance the composition.

Banks' keyboard solo was played, for the most part, by the 20 violinists (they took it in their stride; all of the musicians were from London's top orchestras). The last flurry of notes from the solo was played on brass instruments and this proved a particularly challenging section.

After a couple more complete run-throughs, In the Cage was pretty much in the can. There was time to focus on two or three of the more difficult sections and these were recorded in short takes just to ensure that everything was as it should be.

Next up was A Long Day's Life. Two separate versions were recorded and, again, the arrangements and performances were simply stunning.

During breaks in the session, we were able to pop into Studio Two (where most of The Beatles albums were done) and Studio Three (this was Pink Floyd's main recording studio.)

We were also pleased to find out that the Pro-Tools operator for Mark's session had recorded Sigur Ros' Ara Batur from the Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust album. This was a huge session involving the band plus the London Sinfionietta and the London Oratory Boys Choir.

Prior to recording Ara Batur, Sigur Ros had tuned up un-announced to have a look around the studios. I understand their response to seeing the various recording rooms was, like ours, one of awe.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm a bit of a history buff, and Abbey Road elicits the same feelings as any of the major historic buildings in England. We walk into the rooms and we look up and we wonder: 'what have these walls seen?'