Far Skies Deep Time (EP)
English Electric Recordings, 2010
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 12/03/2010
Let’s get this part out of the way first: Big Big Train is simply the best British prog outfit working today.
In case you’re wondering, their nation of origin is relevant to the above sentence not because I think there’s a better prog band working today that’s from another country, but rather because Big Big Train (BBT) are so distinctly British in the character and execution of their music, and because they are so steeped in the British prog tradition of principal forebears Genesis, Gentle Giant and Yes. Their songwriting approach mines that rich vein repeatedly, melding historical themes with unusual characters and supporting that literary feel with a melding of virtuoso rock instrumentation with symphonic themes and structures. The effect taken all together is to make their songs feel old and new, classical and timeless all at once.
The Far Skies Deep Time EP, despite its 41-minute running time, is not intended as a full-length release, but rather a sort of stopgap between the band’s superb 2009 album The Underfall Yard and their planned 2011 release English Electric. There are tracks here that were originally intended for Underfall, plus some unusual odds and ends, and even the group’s first-ever cover. As on The Underfall Yard, the core band is David Longdon (vocals), Andy Poole (bass/production) and Greg Spawton (guitar/keyboards), with Nick D’Virgilio (Spock’s Beard) on drums and David Gregory (XTC) on guitar throughout.
“Master Of Time” kicks things off in fine style, a fleshed-out and fully-realized rendering of a song from early Genesis guitarist Anthony Phillips that surfaced as a demo on last year’s expanded CD reissue of his 1977 solo disc The Geese And The Ghost. BBT’s full-band version delivers melody and drama in spades, and features superb guitar and keyboard work from Gregory and Spawton. In particular, the synth/guitar interplay in the fifth minute is stupendously wonderful and everything I love about prog, full of energy and imagination. The arrangement is extremely creative overall, with Longdon contributing banjo and flute to this densely-packed eight-minute nugget.
Ironically enough, “Fat Billy Shouts Mine” feels even more like a classic Genesis tune than “Master,” the tale of a football goalie who dies on the beach and his journey into the afterlife. It’s just so distinctively British-prog in its mixture of unusual characters, unusual time signatures, and absolutely flawless playing, e.g. the way the accordion (yes, accordion) flows into the snyth solo from special guest Martin Orford (IQ) at 2:45, and the impossibly nimble make-Steve-Howe-weep guitar solo from Gregory at 5:00.
Up third, “British Racing Green” is a total departure, a break-up love ballad that finds Longdon crooning over a subdued nightclub jazz arrangement that adds sleigh bells and ambient synths on the chorus. You really don’t expect a band like BBT to veer into Harry Connick Jr. territory, but there it is. And the thing about “Green” is that while it’s easily the most uncharacteristic and unexpected number on the EP, it’s also the one whose chorus melody continues to haunt me weeks later.
With “Brambling,” the music returns to more familiar BBT territory, with Longdon’s flute soaring above a sharp, wonky guitar line. In terms of the lyrics, though, it’s surprisingly enough another breakup song, this time about a young man’s first breakup and how the pain from that breakup provides the fuel he needs to grow. A familiar moment in any man’s life, rendered well, and augmented by several of the sort of hyperactive, swirling, atmospheric instrumental sections that BBT pulls off so extraordinarily well.
The disc closes with “The Wide Open Sea,” a 17-minute epic full of rich prog dynamics and absolutely stunning performances from the entire group. BBT has a way of wringing every moment drama from sprawling tunes like this, never moreso than with Longdon on board. His voice is simply perfect for this band, big and keening one moment, subtle and melodious the next; when he cries out over the song’s superb Byrds-battle-the-Moody-Blues-to-a-draw climax around 16:00, it’s chills all over. This “toss-off” would be the highlight of any album it was placed on.
Every time a package arrives in the mail from Bournemouth I get excited, while at the same time reminding myself that “it couldn’t possibly be as good as the last one”—and I keep being wrong about that. While not a cohesive musical statement on the order of The Underfall Yard or The Difference Machine, Far Skies Deep Time nonetheless offers 41 minutes of terrific songwriting, superb musicianship and compelling performances. As a bridge to next year’s announced full-length English Electric, it serves not just well, but spectacularly.
With Longdon, Poole and Spawton now fully integrated as the core unit of this band, and D’Virgilio and Gregory seemingly also fully committed, Big Big Train appears poised to ascend to its rightful place as one of the premier prog bands of the day.