Monday, February 13, 2017

Big Big Train

Big Big Train
By Pete Clemons - another article written for but unpublished by the Coventry Telegraph.

The mid to late 1960s brought with it a genre of music that stretched, challenged and pushed, the then, existing music boundaries. Somehow, it became known as progressive rock and, amongst other things, it opened up a whole new world of musical invention and exploration.

Quite how, when and where progressive rock began is subject to much conjecture and debate. And this debate has been particularly prevalent since the dawn of the internet.

You could point to the time in July 1966 when Melody Maker proclaimed during a review of Pet Sounds when they posed the question ‘is this the most progressive album ever?’

You could even argue that it evolved when The Beatles began spending more time in the recording studio. And there are those who point to bands like The Moody Blues, Family and The Nice as the starting point.

And then there is a theory that all the previously mentioned strands came together as a kind of big bang effect that gave birth to King Crimson and their debut album ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’.

One thing that is for sure is that the term ‘progressive’ was frequently applied to music that was left of centre from the mid-1960s. It is also fair to mention that, back then, many differing bands were lumped into the progressive rock genre.

So big a beast progressive rock, or whatever you want to call it, became that, a few years’ later, bands such as Pink Floyd, Genesis and Yes had taken the genre to a whole different level.

40 odd years on and with the benefit of hindsight, scholars of today, have I think tried to re-define the boundaries of what was, and what was not, progressive rock. But the above was how I saw it all through these eyes and heard it all through these ears.

The mid to late 1970s saw punk rock all but kill the genre off. But it never quite put the final stake through its heart and the very late 1970s and early 1980s saw the genre make a resurgence of sorts.

Having lapped up as much progressive rock as I could during the 1970s I was curious by this new wave of bands. I can still clearly see myself at the General Wolfe and Busters Nightclub attending gigs by Twelfth Night, IQ and Marillion. Sadly they were only memorable to me for the reasons around how totally unimpressed it all left me.

Maybe I was still hung over from the punk rock era which had just passed us by but to me this music, which clearly tried to hanker onto the past, had little or no bearing to those glorious days that had gone before. The reason being that, for me, it simply didn’t bring us anything that was new. Not to these ears at least.

For me, rather than reinvent and build it-self, this new incarnation of progressive rock made what I consider to be the fatal error of trying to somehow attach itself by creating some kind of a derivative.

Worse still and the truncated word ‘Prog’ began to enter the psyche. I had certainly never heard the term before. Maybe it had come across from the U.S. who knows. But with the clue being in the name ‘Progressive’, for me, it failed to.

As time went on, and for a variety of reasons, prog/progressive became a term of folly. So maligned did the genre become that by the 1990s bands that played ambitious rock music began to distance themselves away from this more modern take of progressive rock. Preferring instead to refer to the genre of music they were trying to perform as anything other than progressive.

However, prog lumbered on and, decades later, it appears to be in vogue once more. And one band that has hung their hat on the ‘prog’ label and, appears to be more than happy to be associated with it all, is called Big Big Train.

Big Big Train’s musical influences are from the past. And that cannot be denied. That said they are very very good at what they do. Their playing and their vocal harmonies are, at times, simply breath taking.

The band has been around for a quarter of a century and it has not been a straightforward and easy ride for them. But their fortunes have grown noticeably since 2009.

Big Big Train do not write music that is an exploration of life and death or parts of our world being transported to other galaxies or even adaptations of trips to the centre of the world. No, the subject matter is much more grounded than that. But the music is just as grand and majestic.

Instead the band create albums are made of mini period dramas from a bygone age. Stories passed from generation to generation. The songs are history lessons or field studies set out on vinyl or polycarbonate plastic depending on your mode of listening.

BBT are also adept at rediscovering old English words and create a song around them. And for their fans a new language develops.

And I must admit that after initially being indifferent with them at first I am finding myself more and more drawn to them to the point where I am actually enjoying their more recent output without actually being totally blown away by it all.

To their credit Big Big Train does have modern sensibilities. Away from their recorded output they appear to be very prudent in all they do. They do not tour the country, as tradition would see other bands. They tend, instead, to take over plush London venues for a weekend. They have threatened to tour nationally but that remains to be seen. To be fair though, over time, BBT have grown into an 8 piece, and with not all of the band members being resident in the UK, precise logistical planning would be required.

They are not frightened to make hay out of past recordings either. Rather than simply reissue albums due to a growing demand they will repackage them and throw in bonus tracks as the lure.

But at the end of it all it’s all down to the listener as to how much they want to be involved. The important thing is that Big Big Train is very enjoyable to listen to.

And it has taken me up to the hearing Big Big Train’s latest release, ‘Folklore’ to convince me that maybe now the shackles associated with being tagged as ‘prog’ have finally been removed. The genre does seem to be hip once more.

The band is currently working on a new album titled ‘Grimspound’, due for release later in 2017, and I freely admit to looking forward to hearing it.

Big Big Train website

Syd Arthur

Syd Arthur

by Pete Clemons (another recent article earmarked for the Coventry Telegraph but unpublished by them)
syd Arthur

Not a Coventry band but one of Pete Clemon's many articles for the Coventry paper.

Having had a long day at work I felt lethargic. I knew that one of my favourite bands of the moment ‘Syd Arthur’ were playing in Birmingham but it was difficult to get myself going again on this dark and damp November evening.

But drag myself out of the house I did and off and set off for Mama Roux’s. This was a new venue to me situated in the network of narrow roads set within the Digbeth area and where the railway line network looms large overhead. The layout inside Mama Roux’s was particularly impressive.

By way of introduction Syd Arthur were named after a character of a book but the spelling was amended slightly so that it became a sort of nod towards Syd Barrett and Arthur Lee. They are also based in the Kent area of the UK where, historically, many a fine band has been produced.

Having said all that I wouldn’t even begin to compare Syd Arthur with any of those previously mentioned luminaries. This band is unique in that they have created and ploughed their own musical furrow.

Syd Arthur is made up of Liam Magill - guitar and vocals, Joel Magill – bass, Josh Magill – drums and Raven Bush – violin, keyboards and guitar. Previous drummer, Fred Rother who was present at my two previous Syd experiences, has sadly had to leave the band due to health issues relating to the ear.

A change of drummer, to most bands, would have been a big deal. But the beating heart of the Syd’s appearing to have adapted well. And, after all, the new drummer Josh is the brother to the bass player Joel.

The gig itself was a showcase for the bands wonderful new album ‘Apricity’ – the yearning for April – which was appropriate given how I felt earlier in the evening. They performed tracks such as ‘No Peace’, ‘Coal Mine’, ‘Portal’ and of course the album’s title track.

The Syd’s also find the time to delve back in time to their back catalogue by way of ‘Hometown Blues’, ‘Ode to the Summer’, ‘Autograph’ and many others.

Previous albums have seen Syd Arthur being completely self-produced. At their record labels suggestion ‘Apricity’ is the first album where the band have worked with a nominated producer.

It was a strange new experience for them. The whole thing was totally alien. But they were totally open to it and it seems to have paid off as Apricity has been a total success.

On almost every song the Syd’s get the opportunity to cut loose and display their dexterity of instrumentation. The rhythms being played are almost jazz like at times. Very free form, but all within a rock music framework.

On record the Syd’s sound composed and structured. No such thing in a live environment as they cut loose. One of the things I enjoy most about this band is that they do not perform their songs verbatim. There is certainly room for expression and improvisation. And that does indeed bring a smile to the face.

You get very little chat from the stage, the band preferring instead, to let their music do the talking for them. Liam Magill certainly comes across as a pleasant but modest front man. I did notice that Raven Bush flits constantly between guitar and keyboard occasionally appearing from beneath his huge mop of hair sporting a broad smile. And it was the kind of knowing smile that you only produce when you are on top of your game. Clearly the band was really enjoying things.

Like a breath of fresh air, Syd Arthur write elaborate tunes in a very unique style when viewed against what the mass market has to offer today. And from initially feeling lethargic at the beginning of the evening my spirits had certainly been lifted by the end of it.

By the end of it all I was so glad I made the effort to get to this gig.

The Syd’s music is incredibly refreshing. They band are tight, the sound they create is soulful and it is very swayable. Simply, they put in an absolutely tremendous shift this particular evening and I felt all the better for it.

Pete Clemons