In the past I’ve reviewed Big Big Train’s 2002 release Bard & their 2004 release Gathering Speed. In 2007 the band sent a copy of their latest release, The Difference Machine, and I decided to let another of my writers have a go at a review. Once I heard there was a new album, The Underfall Yard, coming from the band, I was sent a copy. To help me out, reference wise, I purchased The Difference Machine. (What an amazing album!) The core of the band has shrunk since 2007, leaving Greg Spawton & Andy Poole. Joining them are new vocalist David Longdon and returning guest, Nick DiVirgillio, on drums.
Before I continue I noticed as some reviewers feel the need to label the band neo or retro. I think the best way to describe Big Big Train, is that they are a modern version of classic sounding progressive rock.
Having David Longdon as a lead vocalist was a suggestion by Martin Orford. (Longdon sang on Orford's “final” release, The Old Road). While I haven’t heard The Old Road, I feel that David’s vocals are a natural fit for the Big Big Train sound. In addition to vocals, He also contributes mandolin, glockenspiel, dulcimer and organ. With David, makes three multi-instrumentalists in the line-up. It should be noted that David was on the list of candidates for the lead vocalist spot for Genesis’ 1997 album Calling All Stations. The album is full of guest musicians that help support the core of the band like Francis Dunnery (lead guitar solo on the title track), Jem Godfrey (keyboard solos), Jon Foyle (cello). The rest of the guitar solos are provided by Dave Gregory (ex-XTC).
The Underfall Yard returns the band to a more pastoral based sound. While previous release, The Difference Machine had a modern and experimental (for the band) sounding record. I read that Gregory Spawton believes The Underfall Yard, to be the best songs of the BBT catalog. I would agree without saying the previous albums are inferior. I also get the feeling that Greg & Andy probably would say that this album could be the definitive sound of the band.
The Underfall Yard is a concept album about pioneering engineers in England laying the train tracks and workers in the mines. There’s such a nostalgic feel in the lyrics, much like on Camel’s Harbour Of Tears
The album starts off with a cappella track, “Evening Star” , which reprises toward the end of the title track. “Master James Of St. George” instrumentally has a Yes vibe while vocals remind me of Gabriel-era Genesis. On “Victorian Brickwork”, David naturally sounds like Peter Gabriel, unlike others that come off sounding “strained“ or “forced“.
“Last Train” reminds me of the acoustic side of Genesis combined with the power of Yes in the rhythm section. Andy sounds uncannily like Chris Squire, and Nick DiVirgillio compliments with some great drumming which, (in my opinion) I feel it’s superior to his version of Spock’s Beard.
“Winchester Driver” starts out with a similar sound found on Genesis’ “Ripples”, then about halfway through, it morphs into something similar to H-era Marillion’s “Seasons End” album. It concludes with the epic title track which in the last minute, it reprises the a cappella part of “Evening Star”, which is a perfect way to end an album. The title track alone is worth the price of admission. Highly recommended!
Reviewed by Ron Fuchs on February 25th, 2010