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Big-Big Train - 2009 - "The Underfall Yard"

(60.38, ‘English Electric’)


******
                 
TRACK LIST:                   

1.  Evening Star 4:53
2.  Master James of St. George 6.19
3.  Victorian Brickwork 12.33
4.  Last Train 6.28
5.  Winchester Diver 7.31
6.  The Underfall Yard 22.45

LINEUP:

Andy Poole – bass; keyboards
Gregory Spawton – guitars, bass; keyboards
David Longdon – vocals; flute; mandolin; organ; percussion
With: 
Nick D'Virgilio – drums; vocals
&:
Jon Foyle – violoncello (1, 3, 4, 5, 6)
Dave Gregory – guitars, el, sitar; Mellotron (1, 2, 3, 4, 6)
Dave Desmond – trombone (1, 3, 6)
Nick Stones – French horn (1, 3, 6) 
Rich Evans – cornet (1, 3, 6) 
Jon Truscott – tuba (1, 3, 6)

Prolusion. Formed in 1990, BIG-BIG TRAIN are among the most highly regarded acts of the ‘new wave’ of British progressive rock. The band was put together by bassist/keyboardist Andy Poole and guitarist/keyboardist Greg Spawton when the latter moved to Bournemouth in the late Eighties. “The Underfall Yard” is their sixth studio album, released in December 2009, and the first to feature new singer David Longdon (who in the early Nineties auditioned for Genesis as a possible replacement for Phil Collins), as well as some high-profile guest musicians such as Dave Gregory (XTC), Francis Dunnery (formerly with It Bites) and Jem Godfrey (Frost*).

Analysis. Ever since its release, at the very end of 2009, “The Underfall Yard” has elicited contrasting reactions. While some have hailed it as an absolute masterpiece, on a par with the classics of the Seventies, others have dismissed the album as little more than an exercise in nostalgia, too firmly rooted in the past to be considered of real interest for anyone but the ‘retro’ brigade. As it often happens, however, the truth lies somewhere in the middle of these two rather extreme positions. While it is undeniable that “The Underfall Yard” is more likely to appeal to lovers of melodic, Genesis-inspired progressive rock than to the avant-garde crowd, it should not be forgotten that good music does not always have to be innovative at all costs. Following the example of bands such as Wobbler, Black Bonzo or The Tangent, Big Big Train are not afraid of wearing their ‘retro’ influences on their collective sleeves – on the contrary, they do it quite proudly. It is also true that, compared, for instance, to Wobbler’s ”Afterglow”, “The Underfall Yard” definitely sounds more modern – like Gabriel-era Genesis recorded with 21st-century equipment, the crystal clarity of the sound boosting the overall effect immensely. Richly orchestrated, with a horn section adding depth and enhancing the emotional content, it manages to be often dramatic yet never overblown, melodic without any trace of saccharine sweetness. It is also one of those rare albums that manage to be accessible without any concessions to blatant commercial appeal. Anyone interested in English culture will be intrigued by the album, which could loosely be termed a concept even if the six tracks are not actually connected. The album’s title refers to a historic boatyard located on an island in Bristol Harbour, built by famed engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel (who was also responsible for building the first major British railway line, the Great Western Railway). Just like Martin Orford’s “The Long Road” (which brought new Big Big Train vocalist David Longdon to the attention of the prog audience), the album is a celebration of the bygone days of an England that has all but disappeared. However, “The Underfall Yard” could easily be compared to another album centred on much the same concept – Genesis’ 1973 masterpiece, “Selling England by the Pound”. In fact, any reference to Genesis is anything but coincidental, since the seminal (and quintessentially) English band are by far the biggest influence to be detected when listening to the album. Now whittled down to a trio, Big Big Train have enlisted the services of Spock’s Beard drummer Nick D’Virgilio, whose experience and flair contribute even further to the already high level of quality of the music. However, what really makes “The Underfall Yard” such a success is the lushness of the instrumentation, as well as David Longdon’s stunning vocal performance. In my view, the frequent comparisons with Peter Gabriel or Phil Collins are very unfair to him, since he sounds only very marginally like either of them – his voice is smoother and richer, capable of delicacy as well as rugged passion. Longdon is also responsible for the often magnificent vocal arrangements. The six tracks are all connected by a deep feeling of melancholy and regret, which however never descends into mawkishness, thanks to the thoughtful lyrics and Longdon’s sensitive interpretation. Though I would not call it an uplifting listen, it is not gratuitously depressing either. The feeling immediately surfaces in instrumental opener Evening Star, a richly orchestral piece with mournful horns and keyboards, and touches of glockenspiel towards the end. Master James of Saint George (dedicated to the medieval architect who built the Welsh castles for King Edward I) makes the most of very short lyrics through stunning vocal harmonies and a gradual shift from acoustic to electric, punctuated by Nick D’Virgilio precise, military-like drumming. The 12-minute Victorian Brickwork (dedicated to Greg Spawton’s father) melds the pastoral beauty of Genesis with the more intricate, steel-sharp dynamics of Yes, with particularly inspired performances by Longdon and D’Virgilio and a beautiful, wistful cornet solo towards the end. Dave Gregory’s clean, expressive guitar work, effectively supported by the other instruments, is pushed to the fore in the distinctly Genesisian Last Train, while Winchester Diver (about a man who dived under the foundations of Winchester Cathedral to save it from collapsing) displays a melancholy, understated mood throughout, enhanced by beautiful guitar and flute, and Longdon’s passionate vocals. The album is then wrapped up by the title-track, a tour-de-force where all the instruments give their own best, working together to create a sense of growing tension that loosens up in the chorus-like interludes. Longdon’s performance is again stellar, though in my view the song – at almost 23 minutes – would not have been harmed by a shorter running time. With “The Underfall Yard”, Big Big Train have produced one of those rare albums that, while unashamedly retro, manages not to sound ‘regressive’ – in itself, no mean feat. Even as a newcomer to the band, and a self-confessed non-fan of Neo-Prog, I cannot help recognizing its status as one of the best prog releases of 2009. It is an effort that, at first, may not impress you with its full potential, but will almost certainly grow on you with repeated listens – as happened to me. A special mention for the excellent artwork by Jim Trainer, who worked in very close collaboration with the band members in order to produce the naively moving images in the CD booklet.

Conclusion. Even if it not the landmark album it has been hailed by some reviewers, “The Underfall Yard” is a high-quality effort, cohesively structured and impeccably performed by the three core members of Big Big Train and their guest musicians. Though it will especially appeal to lovers of the classic prog bands of the Seventies (namely Genesis) and those who prize melodic content, lush instrumental textures, and – last but not least – a great vocal performance, even those with more demanding tastes will find a lot to appreciate in this disc.

RB=Raffaella Berry: June 13, 2010
The Rating Room


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