The Difference Machine
Independent release, 2007
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/28/2007
Big Big Train made me listen to their album and all you got was this lousy review.
Which is cute as opening lines go, but perhaps a bit misleading. It’s in fact both a compliment to BBT and a commentary on the level of difficulty involved in writing about the complex and often-misunderstood musical genre that is progressive rock.
The compliment is my twisted way of expressing how capitivating I found The Difference Machine. It arrived on my desk unbidden and with the barest of biographical sketches enclosed, and proceeded to take over half a morning of my time. Typically I’ll throw a new arrival in and give it five or ten minutes before moving on, especially if the “to be reviewed” pile has gotten as big as it has just now. But The Difference Machine did not budge from my CD player until the closing notes of “Summer’s Lease” had played out an hour later, by which time I had read as much as I possibly could about both this project and this band.
Big Big Train is a group with a family tree as fluid as any in the genre, which is to say they’ve had a number of members and some have even come and gone and come back again. (Though admittedly, on that count no one is ever likely to match Rick Wakeman’s record with Yes.) This British quartet today consists of guitarist-keyboardist Gregory Spawton, bassist Andy Poole, lead vocalist Sean Filkins and drummer Steve Hughes.
The band -- avowed fans of early Genesis, King Crimson and Van Der Graaf Generator -– did not start out as a prog outfit but rather evolved into one over time, reaching full flower with 2004’s well-reviewed Gathering Speed. The attention received by the latter album also opened doors for the band in the larger prog community, leading to some wonderful guest shots on this disc by modern prog stalwarts like Nick D’Virgilio and Dave Meros of Spock’s Beard and Pete Trewavas of Marillion. The group’s distinctive sound carries echoes of Gabriel-era Genesis in its complexity and seriousness of purpose, but also picks up threads of Dark Side-era Pink Floyd in its dreamy jams and liberal use of sax, not to mention a smidgen of Death Cab For Cutie-esque shimmering melancholy.
The album itself consists of seven tracks, the first six alternating between brief instrumental overtures and extended prog epics of 12 to 14 minutes, with closer “Summer’s Lease” serving as a sort of summation/epilogue at a relatively moderate seven minutes.
The first epic “Perfect Cosmic Storm” features a rhythm section of D’Virgilio and Meros, with Filkins and D’Virgilio often paired on chorused lead vocals and Tony Wright’s tenor sax a welcome guest early and late. Contemplative in its opening stanzas, “Storm” employs the sort of shifting, accelerating rhythms its title implies, moving through multiple complex time signatures and sharp flourishes of guitar and keys that jump in and out as the song powers from movement to movement, building steadily to a strong climax around 12 minutes in.
The instrumental interludes between the epics are full of found sounds and background noise decorated with looming synthesizers and the occasional guitar riffs, mood pieces that are short enough to hold your interest without overstaying their welcome.
Epic number two “Pick Up If You’re There” has perhaps the most cohesive narrative of the tracks here, explicating the album’s theme of missed connections and individual alienation. That of course sounds like quite the downer, but the music here, as throughout the album, is both beautiful and full of energy -- thoughtful, but hardly depressing. D’Virgilio again guests, this time matched with Marillion’s Pete Trewavas on bass, who gets a thorough workout in the song’s aggressive middle sections. Wright also returns for another strong guest shot on sax, as does Becca King on viola.
Act III of the trio of epics, “Saltwater Falling On Uneven Ground,” has some truly gorgeous passages as the core four of Spawton, Poole, Filkins and Hughes alternate heavy with light, hard-edged electric riffs with precision acoustic picking, all in support of soaring vocals from Filkins. “Summer’s Lease” trails in with the main four plus Wright again producing some beautiful flourishes, and King’s viola accenting the steely intensity of the song’s (and album’s) coda.
Principally composed by Spawton and produced by