“Pastoral” is a term that is heard often whenever the discussion shifts to Big Big Train, and it is an apt descriptor for the contemplative and serene music this group creates. Truth be told, there is no other current band more adept at making the listener feel like they are walking through the English countryside with a cup of tea in hand than Big Big Train, and while this adherence to theme, time, and place is one of their greatest strengths, it is also the largest obstacle the listener will face when trying to break into their music.
“Folklore”, the 9th album by the international English historians, sees some overall changes to the band’s sound, while still staying firmly rooted in the widescreen, narrative-driven compositions that have become the cornerstone of the Longdon era. The post-English Electric coalescence of a stable lineup, and even their subsequent live performances, is palpable. The songs have a certain looseness to them, and it feels like a band that is really playing off of each other and less like a studio collective of musicians this time around.
The sound of the album is driven by Longdon’s flute, vintage Hammond, and violin. While many draw the comparison to early Genesis, whose DNA is as omnipresent in Big Big Train’s sound as anything, there is also a certain degree of “Heavy Horses”era Jethro Tull in this disc’s folk-y melodies and phrases. It is a sound that I absolutely love, and it works to great effect here. Tracks like “Folklore” and “Wassail” stomp forward, the authority of the lyrics really being sold by the authenticity of the music. Surely somewhere Ian Anderson is giving a deserved 21 flute salute.
While each track is great in its own right, I simply cannot say enough about the second half of the album. “Folklore” plays as a kind of cinematic exploration of English tradition, from ritual to stories and legends. To that end, the tracks “Winkie” and “Brooklands” really shine as examples of Big Big Train at their best. These songs really feel like the music was scored to the story the band was trying to tell, and the emotional peaks and valleys are expertly conveyed by Longdon’s golden vocal performance and the band’s brilliant use of dynamics. The music twists and turns to convey things like the roaring engine of a racecar or a life or death last flight by a messenger bird. When it all comes together, its nothing short of magical, and I got this feeling at several points throughout my time with the record. (The “Lucky man” section of “Brooklands” is astonishing, and one of my favorite prog moments of 2016 so far. Prog goosebumps were had).
Big Big Train is an act that loves telling stories, and that fact is apparent from listening to their last 4 releases. I have to say that I really enjoy this focus, and the quaint nature of the topics and subjects they observe. It is a nice break from some of the more outlandish concepts that progressive music has birthed. While I am not English, and have not yet been to Great Britain, hearing the band ruminate on the rich legacy of tradition makes me imagine a different time and place, and I think that is a sign of great music. It is nuanced, emotive, and personal, and the passion and dedication to the subject matter is reflected in the music. At their best, Big Big Train are capable of musical storytelling at its finest, and much of “Folklore” does just that.
So, if one can look past the rigid focus on the obscure, and doesn’t mind a progressive rock record that prides itself on texture and dynamics over the aforementioned “rocking”, you will find something very special in “Folklore”. A great companion for long walks amongst the hedgerows or a drive through the country, whichever you’d prefer. The trip will be worth it. (Note: The standard edition CD contains 9 tracks and this was the version reviewed. The special edition vinyl release merges the remaining tracks from the Wassail E.P. into the overall track listing. The extended track-list extends the experience, but doesn’t necessarily change my overall thoughts on the record, and the change isn’t as dramatic as the “Full Power” version of “English Electric”.)
3.Along The Ridgeway
5.The Transit of Venus Across The Sun
9.Telling The Bees