Welcome To The Planet

Big Big Train

English Electric, 2022

http://www.bigbigtrain.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/31/2022

It’s impossible to review this album independent of its context, so hang in there a moment.

In early 2020, British progressive rock collective Big Big Train was poised for the biggest year of its twisting, turning, steadily accelerating career. They were coming off the resounding success of their 2019 album Grand Tour and follow-on live release Empire, with another UK tour planned, along with some European dates and the band’s first-ever shows across the pond in the United States. Then the pandemic struck, and everything was cancelled. And then, as the spring and summer wore on, not one, not two, but three of the band’s seven members elected to step away.

Reduced to a core quartet of founding member Greg Spawton (bass, bass pedals), David Longdon (lead vocals and many instruments), Nick D’Virgilio (drums, vocals), and Rikard Sjoblom (guitars, keys, vocals), Big Big Train regrouped and soldiered on, writing and recording as conditions allowed, preparing to re-emerge when the time was right. Over the ensuing months they rebuilt their lineup with the additions of Carly Bryant (keys, vocals), Dave Foster (guitars), and Claire Lindley (violin), and the July 2021 release of Common Ground appeared to usher in a vibrant new era for the band, with the well-received album reaching #31 in the UK album charts.

A series of single releases in fall 2021 led up to the announcement of a second album culled from the Common Ground sessions, an increasingly frequent outcome across BBT’s last dozen years of prolific songwriting and recording. (Leftovers from The Underfall Yard sessions were collected as Far Skies, Deep Time; English Electric came ready made in two parts; and the Folklore sessions also begat Grimspound, which in turn begat The Second Brightest Star.) Promotion for Welcome To The Planet’s January 28, 2022 release was just beginning to ramp up when disaster struck. On November 19, David Longdon was injured in an accident at home and died the next day, leaving behind his loving partner Sarah Louise Ewing, daughters Amelia and Eloise, and a mourning crowd of bandmates, friends, and fans.

Welcome To The Planet arrives in the long shadow of that grief, as among the final recorded works of a gifted performer and songwriter who was by all accounts also an exceptionally kind and gracious man. Even the album’s title feels weighted with unplanned meaning now, a set of welcoming songs arriving just after Longdon’s untimely departure. The good news, such as it is, is this: Welcome To The Planet is an album filled with warmth, emotion, and creative flair, and a deeply fitting sendoff for one of its central figures.

Opener “Made From Sunshine” is every bit as warm as its title implies, a sunny, rocking tune that’s like a bowl of joy, co-written by Foster and Longdon. Rollicking along on a bed of multitracked acoustic guitars and chiming keys, with Bryant’s harmony vocal adding texture and dimension to Longdon’s lead, it soars even higher every time the BBT Brass Band, a five-horn ensemble led by Dave Desmond, comes in.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Next up, D'Virgilio’s “Connection Plan” is characteristically knotty and percussive, full of shifting rhythms and vocal back and forth between Longdon and NDV, punctuated by a searing electric guitar solo from Sjoblom. The most surprising part for a group of veteran proggers like BBT is that neither of this opening pair extends past 4:05 in length. In fact, there are no epics this time around, though four of the nine cuts track between six and seven and a half minutes.

The first of these more expansive numbers is the bright, anthemic “Lanterna,” a stirring historical tale that harks back to English Electric days, and features especially strong work on bass and keys from composer Greg Spawton, whose playing shines throughout this album. If anything, this one feels like it’s over too soon—though that feeling dissipates instantly with the opening chords of “Capitoline Venus,” a heartfelt song of devotion sung and played with stunning beauty by composer Spawton on 12-string acoustic guitar and Longdon on Mellotron, piano and vocals. Part One—the album is divided in two like a vinyl LP—closes with the Sjoblom-penned instrumental “A Room With No Ceiling,” a jazzy five-minute romp with at-times giddy interplay between keys, bass, drums, and… accordion (no, seriously; it’s a blast).

Part Two opens up with the steady drive of “Proper Jack Froster,” a Spawton childhood memory framed in bouncy Brit-rock, featuring jangly guitars and lush harmony vocals, with violin and keys adding drama. Mid-song they drift into a dreamy snowscape featuring the brass band and Bryant singing the bridge before Sjoblom interjects with pinpoint electric guitar that ushers in a ringing solo underscored with rippling piano and thunderous bass pedals. It’s hard not to go dewy-eyed after the brass band returns and Longdon offers this closing promise: “One last run, then home.”

From there we dive headlong into a second instrumental, this time from the irrepressible D’Virgilio. “Bats In The Belfry” is a controlled-chaos kick, a polyrhythmic three-ring circus with drums, bass, horn section and keys all caroming and rebounding off one another. By contrast, “Oak And Stone”—the longest track here at 7:12—has a stately feel that at times reminds of earlier BBT pastoral numbers like “Upton Heath” and “Meadowland.” With Sjoblom’s rather jazz-inflected piano leading the way, they add violin and brass to create a billowing effect behind Longdon’s passionate lead vocal, before closing with an evocative piano-and-vocals fugue.

The album’s closing title track is both a musical outlier and emblematic of all that Big Big Train has become over the past decade and a half. Mere months after being invited to join a band with a 30-year history behind it, Carly Bryant writes and sings lead on “Welcome To The Planet,” a powerful, personal piece with a rather Moody Blues-play-Broadway theatrical flavor. Opening with the brass band in full flower, it falls back to Bryant and Longdon dueting both vocally and on piano and flute. Once Bryant takes over lead vocals, the band moves through a dreamy, rather Floydian middle section with extended synthesizer play and wordless vocalizing before accelerating into something akin to a New Orleans jazz / gospel fantasia, before circling back to the beginning again.

In the end “Welcome To The Planet”—both the track and the album—reflect the BBT ethos not just musically, but personally, a warm and welcoming vibe that respects and finds space for each individual’s unique perspective. From D’Virgilio’s enthusiastic count-in at the start to Bryant’s final sigh at the end, Welcome To The Planet is a miraculously strong release from a band that nearly threw in the towel just a year and a half ago, bristling with creative energy and rich with enchanting melodies. Bittersweet though this moment may be for those left behind, Welcome To The Planet serves as a fitting and often gorgeous farewell to the late David Longdon.

Rating: B+

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