Released May 27th on the band’s own English Electric label, ‘Folklore’ is Big Big Train’s much anticipated follow up to 2013’s impressive ‘English Electric (Full Power)’. Can they do it again? First impressions by Tim Darbyshire
Big Big Train are purveyors of modern progressive soul music, making classic pastoral-style English progressive rock with each track telling a story – fitting for an album called ‘Folklore’. According to vocalist David Longdon, ‘Folklore’ completes the ‘Albion trilogy’ of releases, the others being ‘The Underfall Yard’ (2009) and ‘English Electric (Full Power)’ (2013)
Big Big Train is made up 8 musicians; founder members bassist Greg Spawton and guitarist/keyboardist Andy Poole, vocalist David Longdon, drummer Nick D’Virgilio (Spock’s Beard), guitarist Dave Gregory (XTC, Tin Spirits), keyboard/double bass player Danny Manners, violinist Rachel Hall (Stackridge) and guitarist/keyboardist Rikard Sjöblom (Beardfish). A brass quintet comprising Dave Desmond – trombone, Ben Godfrey – trumpet and cornet, Nick Stones – French horn, John Storey – euphonium and Jon Truscott – tuba and a string trio (Lucy Curnow – violin, Keith Hobday – viola, and Evie Anderson – cello) further augment the impressive sound palette.
Ideally I would prefer to review this album in 6 months’ time, once it has had the chance to ingrain itself into my psyche. Big Big Train are an acquired taste – a band that demands repeated listens. For instance, I didn’t fall for ‘English Electric’ instantly, but now regard it as essential. ‘Folklore’, after 5 or 6 proper listens is already growing. Initially it didn’t appear to hit the consistent peaks, but each listen is revealing more to me. Either way, it’s already my favourite album of 2016.
The title track kicks off proceedings with a folky celtic-flavoured scene setting fanfare. (See video below). Things quieten down for the start of ‘London Plane’ (with plenty of flute and Hammond) and the gentle ‘Along The Ridgeway’ with beautiful acoustic and brass passages, leads into ‘Salisbury Giant’, a short piece led by Rachel Hall’s violin and David Longdon’s plaintive repetitive vocal. Equally evocative is ‘The Transit of Venus Across the Sun’, again with more colliery style brass, which contains a first for Big Big Train – a trancey chanted chorus sung in Latin.
‘Wassail’ brings us back into familiar territory, having been issued on the 2015 EP of the same name. ‘Wassail’ is probably the most upbeat song on the album and refers to the English pagan ritual of praying in order to ward off evil spirits and bless the apple trees so that they would yield a bountiful crop.
Only Big Big Train could get away with a 7 part track about a pigeon (‘Winkie’) saving the lives of the crew of a downed World War II plane. Told in just over 8 minutes, ‘Winkie’ seems rushed, even though it’s an interesting story. ‘Brooklands’ – about the now disused racetrack in Southern England clocks in at just over 12 minutes and showcases the the whole range of the band’s sound. The album’s closer ‘Telling The Bees’ is currently the stand-out track for me (along with ‘The Transit of Venus Across the Sun’) – possibly because it’s the simplest and most direct. It recounts the tradition of bee-keepers telling their bees what’s happening in their lives, and one case in particular where on the bee-keeper’s death, the bees left the hives and went to his funeral.
There are many standout performances contained in the 70 minutes of ‘Folklore’, with vocalist David Longdon – who was the other candidate when Genesis chose Ray Wilson to replace Phil Collins – shining throughout. Rikard Sjoblom provides fluid guitar lines to compliment Dave Gregory’s jazzier input, and Greg Spawton’s deep bass pedals really add warmth to a beautifully recorded album.
These are busy days for the band, with ‘Folklore’ closely following the release of the live in the studio blu-ray ‘Stone And Steel’. An EP of ‘Folklore’ leftovers (possibly to be titled ‘Skylon’) is in the works, and a re-recording of their early albums is planned for next year with the release of a 3 cd set ‘The Station Masters’.
Having successfully transitioned into a live band with a series of sold out dates in London in 2015, Big Big Train are planning more live dates in 2017.
Along The Ridgeway
The Transit Of Venus Across The Sun
Telling The Bees
The double vinyl version also includes ‘Mudlarks’ and ‘Lost Rivers Of London’ which were both previously available on the ‘Wassail’ cd EP.
A high resolution audio version of the album is available from the band’s Bandcamp site.
For more detailed information, read David Longdon’s Folklore blogs where he describes the background stories to ‘Telling The Bees’, ‘Folklore’, ‘Winkie’, and ‘Wassail’. Similarly, Greg Spawton’s blog details the stories behind the other tracks on ‘Folklore’.
The ‘Folklore’ sleeve liner notes have been made available as a downloadable PDF file here.