Wassail (EP)

Big Big Train

English Electric Recordings, 2015

http://www.bigbigtrain.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/14/2015

British progressive rock collective Big Big Train has been exclusively a studio band for the past decade and a half, a period that has concurrently seen a reshuffling and expansion of the group’s lineup to include members from America (Nick D’Virgilio) and now also Sweden (Rikard Sjöblom). This weekend the band will gather at Kings Place in London for its first-ever (and long since sold-out) live gigs in its current incarnation.

Big Big Train (or BBT) noted this milestone in June with Wassail, a four-track EP previewing their new eight-person lineup and the accompanying evolution of their sound. Since 2009’s The Underfall Yard, which featured co-founders Greg Spawton (guitars and keys) and Andy Poole (bass and production) plus David Longdon (vocals and flute), Dave Gregory (guitars) and D’Virgilio (drums and background vocals), BBT has steadily expanded, picking up Danny Manners (keyboards), Rachel Hall (violin, viola, cello), and Sjöblom (guitars), with Spawton migrating to bass and Poole filling in where needed as a multi-instrumentalist.

The push to expand has been driven by the group’s desire to perform their complex compositions live; it simply can’t be done with five, as their recent studio albums have featured a variety of guests and multi-tracking of guitars and keys. The decision to make the new players permanent members rather than simply live sidepersons, though, has inevitably fostered a further evolution of BBT’s studio sound.

The title track feels like the chief impetus behind this release, a potent anthem that ties abundant British legend around apples and apple trees all the way back to the Garden of Eden, and then forward through centuries of apple-centric celebrations of life and the harvest. Featuring especially strong work from the Spawton-D’Virgilio rhythm section, Manners and Longdon, “Wassail” progresses smartly through emotive verses into an emphatic chorus. In between lie a number of superb classic-prog style jams that offer each of the players a moment to shine.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The latter reality seems to be the other chief rationale behind this release. The new eight-strong lineup inevitably pushes the band toward larger and more layered compositions that offer room for everyone to be heard. The resulting density of sound can grow thunderous at times; in this eight-player format, BBT is making genuinely orchestral prog, comprising as they do a veritable rock orchestra.

The other two new tracks, both composed by Spawton, form a minor suite around the secret geography and communities of old London, an appreciation for the hidden nooks and crannies of British history being central to the BBT ethos. “Lost Rivers Of London” resurrects in song the forgotten rivers that flow underneath the modern-day metropolis into the Thames. The plaintive core melody features some terrifically nimble fretwork from Gregory and Sjöblom, counter-pointed by Longdon’s trilling flute.

“Rivers” eventually eases to a quiet end, segueing right into “Mudlarks,” which opens focused on piano and organ, quickly picking up a complex guitar figure before Hall’s violin and Longdon’s flute enter, adding pathos. Manners (or is it Poole?) features on the refrain with a rather sing-songy synth figure, and you’re soon reminded yet again that D’Virgilio might be the finest prog drummer of his generation; he’s simply superb throughout, constantly both propelling the song forward and adding tasteful flourishes. As for Spawton, the group’s original guitarist/keyboardist now ranks among my favorite prog bassists, holding down the bottom end with tremendous dexterity and drive.

Between refrains of this mostly instrumental track there’s plenty of musical activity, with a variety of little segues and jams featuring this entire remarkably skilled assemblage of players, punctuated by Gregory and Sjöblom trading lyrical, winding solos through the fifth minute. As in much of the most memorable prog, there are multiple restatements of the same basic melody line with the various players adding their individual flair to the mix.

The fourth track here is a live-in-the-studio recording of The Underfall Yard’s “Master James of St. George” that serves as a preview of both a forthcoming CD/DVD package and the upcoming live shows. In its original studio form, “Master” is one of the group’s more slight tunes, but with an eight-strong rock orchestra behind it, it’s transformed into something approaching an anthem, with all manner of subtle additions adding power and impact to the basic melody.

A brief side note before we finish up; Big Big Train also sets the standard when it comes to presentation; this is one of the most beautifully packaged four-song EPs I’ve ever seen. It’s been given the same care and attention to detail as a full album, and the custom-commissioned artwork is both striking and appropriately wassail-themed.

So: top-notch packaging, strong new music showcasing the group’s new lineup, and a foretaste of the live shows they are about to unveil. Brief as it is, Wassail accomplishes what any really good EP should—it both impresses and leaves you wanting more. I can’t wait.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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