For the better part of a decade, English troupe Big Big Train has been one of the premier modern progressive rock acts. Don’t get me wrong: the band has been producing top-notch records for the past twenty-five years, but it wasn’t until their sixth studio LP, 2009’s The Underfall Yard (which featured several new members, such as singer David Longdon, ex-Spock’s Beard drummer Nick D’Virgilio, and ex-XTC guitarist Dave Gregory), that the group really became a household name amongst genre fans. After all, the album marked a sonic evolution in every way, resulting in a charming yet challenging synthesis of [mostly] jovial, majestic compositions, tight musicianship, and glorious songwriting that truly matched the best output of ‘70s pioneers like Jethro Tull, Camel, Renaissance, and Yes.
Miraculously, the now-octet (including the aforementioned trio, founders Greg Spawton and Andy Poole, Danny Manners, Rachel Hall, and even Beardfish frontman Rikard Sjöblom) has maintained the same staggering level of quality and ambition across several subsequent releases, and with their newest effort, Folklore, they may have outdone themselves once again. Packing more robust and endearingly idiomatic storytelling and arrangements, the full-length is as catchy and extravagant as it Is complex and personal, capturing everything that makes Big Big Train so extraordinary, unique, and consistent. Like its immediate predecessors, Folklore is a masterful collection that exemplifies how great the genre can be.
Big Big Train is known for telling captivating tales about English history and people, and as its name suggests, the title track (which opens the sequence) acts as a sort of statement of purpose here. Following an initial flourish of sorrowful strings and regal horns, a welcoming Celtic rock outburst introduces Longdon, who sounds as warm and powerful as ever, further cementing his place among the top vocalists in the field. The harmonies and music are typically dense and joyful but also a bit forlorn, like a wonderfully tense celebration, and both the verses—“We pass it on down to the young to the old / We feel it deep down in the soul”—and the choruses—“Oh, down we go / Into folklore”—are impeccably infectious. Things become especially ominous near the end, as Longdon issues a somber and mysterious decree that evokes Gabriel’s colorful narrations in early Genesis. Together, these features yield a commanding starting point for Folklore and one of the best tracks in the band’s recent catalog.
“London Plane” is more straightforward and traditional, with bittersweet lyricism, gentle timbres, and soaring melodies. Interestingly, Longdon’s tone is noticeably deeper here, which is a bit startling at first. Aside from the midsection freakout (during which frantic percussion clashes with the panicked surges of several instruments), it’s a very peaceful and lush listening experience, as is “Along the Ridgeway,” whose angelic harmonies, tasteful tones, and enticing rhythms make it stirring and soothing. In a brilliant bit of conceptual continuity, its closing passage acts as a segue into the next track, “Salisbury Giant,” a delightfully flamboyant and multifaceted venture whose instrumental majority stylishly moves around its main hook (“Here comes the Salisbury Giant / Here comes a lonely man / A crown of people lead him by the hand”).
Some of the record’s most poetic arpeggios make up “The Transit of Venus Across the Sun,” another dramatic tale brought to life by a magnificent compound of affective piano and guitar interactions, alluring rhythms, orchestral layers, and poignant chants. It provides a wisely delicate and distraught contrast to “Wassail,” which is every bit as richly anthemic and awesome as it was on last year’s eponymous EP (seriously, just try not to sing-along with it). It ranks as one of the top tracks here, too, which is truly saying something.
Broken into seven units (though still clocking in at only 8½ minutes), “Winkie” begins heavily, with some madcap changes and colorful embellishments that no doubt bear the mark of Sjöblom. It’s quite unpredictable and playful, but also clearly serious in its subtext (especially during its latter half), and the ways in which certain parts are interwoven throughout its duration are immaculate. In a way, it’s the most epic and striving piece on Folklore.
The penultimate “Brooklands” is actually the record’s lengthiest entry, yet it’s likely one of its more direct and accessible as well. The song is bookended by tasteful arrangements around Longdon’s regretful sentiments—“I was a lucky man, a lucky man / I did the things I can, the things I can’t explain”—and the responses around his declarations are very touching. Expectedly, the instrumental jam halfway through just as substantive (in a different way, of course), with more breathtaking interplay between every instrument (especially guitar and strings). Serving as a kind of calming epilogue, “Telling the Bees” is a whimsical and subtle conclusion bursting with glorious singing and uplifting timbres. It’s an exuberant finale that captures Big Big Train in its most life-affirming and fun element.
Folklore finds Big Big Train continuing to reign as one of the best progressive rock bands around. Few, if any, of their peers manage such a pristine and lavish blend of songwriting, performance, and composition, and their meticulous attention to detail ensures that each moment is both inviting and intricate. It doesn’t necessarily surpass The Underfall Yard or English Electric: Full Power, but it does equal them, and that alone makes it remarkable. Without a doubt, Folklore is another pinnacle achievement not only for Big Big Train, but for the entire musical landscape in which it resides.