Gathering Speed

Big Big Train

Independent release, 2004

http://www.bigbigtrain.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/15/2013

Great works like the recent run by modern progressive rock troupe Big Big Train don’t generally arrive out of the clear blue sky. They are the result of years of struggle and evolution and, more often than not, a proving ground or two, stepping-stones to greatness. For Big Big Train, a key stepping stone and proving ground came with 2004’s Gathering Speed.

The group had faced all sorts of challenges navigating its first dozen years, working through difficult situations with their original label, losing and gaining singers and keyboard players and drummers, searching for the right combination to move the band forward. All the while, they were also steadily polishing their songwriting and production chops.

Gathering Speed was BBT’s fourth album, and second as an independent act. The album previous to this one, Bard, is one I’ve never heard, inasmuch as BBT co-founders Greg Spawton and Andy Poole have seen fit to delete it from the group’s catalog, purposely allowing it to go out of print. That decision speaks volumes about where the band stood just prior to Gathering Speed; they had to see this album as a fairly critical juncture.

The lineup here—founding members Spawton (guitars, keyboards, backing vocals) and Poole (bass), recent returnees Steve Hughes (drums) and Ian Cooper (keys), and Sean Filkins on lead vocals—lasted just this one album, but in many ways laid the groundwork for what was to come. The album moved the band firmly in a progressive/post-rock direction musically, and generated many positive reviews. The accompanying attention from the band’s peers on the modern prog scene then led to guest shots on 2007’s The Difference Machine from Pete Trewavas (Marillion), Dave Meros (Spock’s Beard) and Nick D’Virgilio (Spock’s Beard), with D’Virgilio subsequently joining the band.

Gathering Speed is a concept album built around the story of a fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain during World War II. I can’t say that the lyrics on this release have ever particularly captured me, but as is the case with many enjoyable prog albums, that didn’t hinder my enjoyment of it. What matters is that the musical ideas and arrangements are interesting, and a number of memorable moments are created.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Opening with the sound of a plane taking off, “High Tide, Last Stand” drops right into a sort of guitar-drum-keyboard fanfare, bright and upbeat, that soon morphs into a more somber, purposeful jam. Spawton’s guitars are heavy and intricate and have a lot of personality, and the keys are sparse but effective. BBT’s affection for classic prog comes through particularly clearly in the sharp, intricate guitar/keyboard interplay between 3:00 and 3:30 that has a definite Steve Howe-Rick Wakeman feel to it.

Spawton’s second solo on the subsequent “Fighter Command”—a mostly mid-tempo piece full of rich 12-string work that would make Steve Hackett smile—is equally interesting in the textures he explores. Harmonica and flute both make appearances here, the former presaging the band’s later use of horns, the latter looking ahead to the arrival of current vocalist/flautist David Longdon. (Another indicator of things to come can be detected in the way the melody seems to test the limits of Filkins’ vocal range.) Laura Murch’s pleasant background vocals feature in the ninth minute here, offering warm texturing to the track’s denouement.

“The Road Much Further On” continues the pastoral, symphonic, Canterbury scene feel, with very nice acoustic guitar and some gentle organ and synth work. After a steady build, around 7:00 in it transitions into a big electric solo with drums crashing and choral effects looming behind, giving the whole thing a sort of David-Gilmour-versus-the-Moody-Blues feel.

The instrumental “Sky Flying On Fire” starts off in slumbering, pastoral mode, in contrast to its title, then picks up dramatically around three minutes in, tempo quickening, guitar and organ work intensifying. As solid as this bit is, it’s hard not to speculate on how it might have turned out with current lead guitarist Dave Gregory and keys-man Danny Manners on board.

“Pell Mell” opens firmly in Pink Floyd territory with atmospheric sound effects followed by an explosive entrance to the song proper. The rhythm section gets a workout on this one, and there’s some particularly nimble and pungent bass work by Poole, whose role in the band in later days has evolved into that of producer/multi-instrumentalist.

The penultimate “Powder Monkey” opens with a gentle acoustic and choral bit with a classic prog feel. Soft/hard, quiet/loud dynamics take the forefront later on, and we finish up back in Floyd territory with the clock striking the hour. The closing title track is among the strongest here, a 7:24, mostly instrumental mini-suite with some very engaging passages, particularly Spawton’s lyrical guitar work between 2:00 and 3:45, and again from 6:15 to 6:40.

Gathering Speed offers all the hallmarks of a really solid prog album—imaginative arrangements with strong performances, a mix of longer suites and shorter tracks, and an expansive palette of styles and instrumentation. While it doesn’t scale the musical and creative heights of latter-day Big Big Train, Gathering Speed inexorably points the way, a key milestone in the band’s growth and evolution.

Rating: B+

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