I have been hoping for the breakout album from Big Big Train ever since hearing the then newly released English Boy Wonders ten years ago. This very talented band always seemed to be bubbling just under the surface of prog emergence, there was a potential to hit it big. With the help of a few guest players, I feel they mostly succeed with The Difference Machine. The direction they’ve taken their sound was unexpected and original however, and far from where I felt they were situated on past recordings. This is melancholy, dissonant, spacey music and I love it.
It took some time with this CD. Don’t give up right away as it rewards you again and again with repeated listenings. Only then do you start to take notice of how lovely Becca King’s viola work is and appreciate the vocal harmonies that always sound just a little “out there.” Not that they are poor in any manner, just dissonant. If I could find any band close to this new Big Big Train sound it would be latter-day Talk Talk or maybe Radiohead or Porcupine Tree. Even then, I feel those are a far reach for sure.
I am not always certain about the way Sean Filkins’ voice is treated in some areas. I could have done without the overprocessed experimentations on some tracks sounding like heard through a walkie-talkie. Sean has a great voice and an ear for the imaginative choice, particularly in the harmonies. I say let his voice stay natural sounding.
12-15 minute songs primarily written by guitarist/keyboardist Gregory Lawson are interspersed with much shorter pieces during the seven tracks included on the CD. The last is the shortest vocal song on the CD clocking in at seven and a half minutes. “Summer’s Lease” is perhaps the closest to the direction I felt that BBT was going to ultimately head, more in the classic prog style instead of this new modern direction displayed on other cuts.
The duration of the longer songs is important as much happens throughout their length. “Perfect Cosmic Storm” starts with Dave Meros’ bass and a deliberate clanging guitar searching for a beat that never really comes and instead leads to a wash of prog-ness. “Pick Up If You’re There” takes an instrumental break about nine minutes in that made me think of Tears For Fears’ “Badman.” The sax work by Tony Wright and the Chris Squire-like playing by Pete Trewavas here is very strong. Constant tempo and mood changes (ably assisted by drummer Nick D’Virgilio) are evident throughout all of this as well as “Saltwater Falling on Uneven Ground.” This song ventures into rock fusion jazz territory at times, allowing drummer Steve Hughes his chance to shine as well.
I don’t know what I expected from Big Big Train on The Difference Train, a kind of Genesis/Rush amalgamation with simple melodic keys, Hackett on guitar and Squire on bass maybe? Well this is hardly like that! This is jarring, remarkable and unique. These songs will hold your interest far after the initial luster has worn away. Colour me impressed.
Reviewed by Terry Jackson on April 15th, 2008