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By Pete Clemons - another article written for but unpublished by the Coventry Telegraph.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

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