Big Big Train - Folklore as reviewed on The Phantom TollboothFolklore has energy, melody, nuance, and character, and it’s certainly a candidate for best album of 2016.

Artist: Big Big Train
Label: independent (English Electric Recordings)
Time: 9 tracks / 69:00 minutes

Absolutes are dangerous territory, especially in the context of subjective album reviews, but here I go using them anyway…

I always get excited when I get to listen to or write about Big Big Train.  If you’re reading this, chances are you already have an ear to BBT’s proverbial rails and understand why that is, but if you’re a newcomer to this band, it’s worth pointing out that this band is as consistent as they come – consistent in character, creativity, and quality.  They have identity, something that has both stemmed from and also transcended the band’s lineup.  Musicians circulated around Greg Spawton (bass guitars & pedals), Andy Poole (keyboards, mandolins, backing vocals), and Nick D’Virgilio (drums, backing vocals) prior to Dave Longdon’s (lead & backing vocals, flute, mandolin, percussion) induction as the band’s lead singer in 2009, but the stable roster has gradually doubled since then to include Dave Gregory (guitars), Danny Manners (keyboards, backing vocals), Rachel Hall (violin, viola, cello, backing vocals), and Rikard Sjöblom (guitars, backing vocals) over the last few years.  The band’s unique chemistry has been in a state of continual evolution really since its inception, which is an important element for the longevity of any musical collaboration, and yet BBT have still maintained that core sense of identity.  It’s not simply instrumentation or unique voices: it’s their approach to composition, their sense of dynamic ebb and flow, their thematic content, and the focus of their songwriting.  It’s what has garnered them such respect within the progressive rock community and precipitated such a loyal fanbase.

2009‘s critically acclaimed The Underfall Yard is considered almost universally to be BBT’s watershed release, and – therefore – the standard by which their subsequent material must inevitably be measured.  And I’d go on the record to say that Folklore is undeniably of the same caliber – another arrow from the seemingly bottomless quiver of BBT creativity.  If it’s not quite on the same level, then it’s only a notch or two removed, because this album has the selfsame intensity, focused direction, and stunning overall performance that altogether made The Underfall Yard such an iconic masterpiece.  Released 27 May, Folklore is the 9th studio release by the DIY figurehead band for progressive rock, which has now existed as an independent act since 1998’s “English Boy Wonders,” releasing under their own label (English Electric Recordings) rather than attach themselves to the industry.  Melodic, magnificent, and memorable, Folklore is another collection of well-written compositions, all infused with BBT’s prototypical “old world” flavor.  Each myth- or folklore-inspired tune adds to the album’s collective air of wonder and mystery, while guitar hooks, majestic instrumentation, and stunning vocal work make each tune an instantly recognizable piece of writing.

In a recent interview with Street Art United States, Greg Spawton described the album as a “curated collection of songs [as opposed to] a concept album,” before discussing the nature of the material as a commentary on the telling of tales and the conception of folklore.  This is both a fascinating anthropological study – that is, man’s development of myth as opposed to myths themselves – as well as an important distinction to be made: most people, reading a word like “folklore,” immediately presume ancient stories of magic and fate.  However, as Folklore is keen to disambiguate, a number of its songs deal with events of far more recent history than ancient lore, which points to the fact that legend is born not just over centuries or because they contain supernatural elements, but simply as heroic stories are captured and retold.  Maybe magic and fate are still involved in each of these, but they possess a different kind of mystical quality: stories of human spirit, invention, and triumph.  Music is, of course, the perfect artistic medium to recount ancient legends, hearkening back to epic poetry of bygone eras, and BBT are the perfect band to take us on the journey: their music is principally balladic in structure, and their discography has always been rife with mythological themes, their lyrics fascinated in particular with elements of English history (see especially 2015’s EP, Wassail, which served as the prelude for Folklore). 

The album opens with its title track, an eight-minute monster of a composition that appropriately sets the stage for the rest of the LP’s thematic content.  “Let us begin where it all began,” Longdon invites, invoking traditions of oral storytelling that stretch across cultures and epochs: “We pass it on, we hand it down-o.”  The central hook that holds this tune to a unified, musically coherent idea also provides the opportunity for some beautiful melodic crisscross, especially toward the end of the song, where Hall’s fiddle and Manners’ synth begin the sequence of solos traded across all represented instruments.

The lush, epic-length “London Plane” – a track with direct echoes of material from both The Underfall Yard and the Wassail EP – moves from mysterious ballad to more up-tempo rock, before sinking back into gentle ambience, reflecting the personality of the river it characterizes.  “Along the Ridgeway” lilts with a vague countryside flavor, flowing into its own postlude, “Salisbury Giant,” which employs lots of organ and is structured around instrumental breaks and a repeated refrain rather than a traditional verse/chorus/bridge skeleton.

Gentle horns and strings open “The Transit of Venus Across the Sun” for an extended orchestral introduction.  This tune meanders between 7/8 and 4/4, structured on Sjöblom and Gregory’s cyclical, harmonic guitar plucking.  Passage through the repeated chorus modulates through major and minor tonality.  “Wassail” – the transplanted title track from 2015’s EP of the same title – is also reincarnated here.  This is the piece about English apple harvest tradition that spring-boarded the Folklore ideal.  It’s little wonder it won “best anthem” of the 2015 Progressive Music Awards.

After “Wassail’s” old-world account, the 8:00+ minute “Winkie” takes on a more recent story of a WWII search-and-rescue operation, moving through 7 parts to recount the tale of a homing pigeon whose straight and true flight to HQ saved the lives of her downed bomber crew.  This is probably my favorite overall tune on the album, although it’s really difficult to single out just one, and even harder to choose anything over “The Transit of Venus Across the Sun.”  I especially appreciate the scope of the writing here, the story its thoughtfully crafted lyrics portray, the impeccable vocal harmony, and the majestic instrumentation.

“Brooklands” is the longest tune on the album, surpassing even “London Plane,” and contains long instrumental stretches.  Written in honor of the Napier-Railton race car, which shattered world speed records at Brooklands in the 1930’s, this epic-length track appropriately races through some double-timed segments with aggressive guitar lead and crashing accents in 5/4, before culminating in the gentle reflections of the “lucky man” who survived his own feats of daring.  Folklore’s final track, “Telling the Bees,” has such a warm pastoral feel, with organic instrumentation – 12-string acoustic guitar, accordion, and fiddle overlaying organ, Rhodes, and bluesy guitar lead – and an overall sensation of live performance.  Sweet, youthful, and innocent, this culminating song seems to punctuate the album with a statement about life, death, love, and freedom: the quintessential elements of myth that are so beautifully fragile, so idolized and feared, and yet so central to all of our own, “normal” lives.

In case I didn’t make it clear earlier, I think this album is fantastic.  It hasn’t replaced The Underfall Yard as my favorite overall Big Big Train release (I sincerely doubt that will ever happen, not because the band won’t write more wonderful material in the future, but because I love that album so much), but it’s still of the same quality.  Folklore is more focused and self-contained than the English Electric double LP, more explorative than its Wassail EP groundwork, and more confident than the band’s pre-Longdon-era releases.  It has energy, melody, nuance, and character, and it’s certainly a candidate for best album of 2016.  In many ways, what makes Folklore great is the fact that it is autobiographical – BBT writing their own story: telling their tales, singing their songs, all while they have breath left in their lungs.

Justin Carlton