The Underfall Yard (2009, 60.38) ****/T½Evening Star
Master James of St. George
The Underfall Yard
Well, Big Big Train have been threatening to get into this site's main reviews for a long time and have finally done so with 2009's The Underfall Yard. Reason? The presence of no less a personage than Dave Gregory (ex-XTC) and his trusty M400, albeit on just one track. The band have been improving steadily over the years since their early neo-prog-by-numbers approach, their last effort, 2007's sample-only The Difference Machine, garnering four stars over in samples (below). The Underfall Yard opens with a Beach Boys-esque harmony vocal section, before shifting into the same kind of inventive, reasonably individual symphonic prog they played on its predecessor, drumming throughout again provided by Spock's Beard's Nick d'Virgilio.
Instrumentally, the band continue to stand out from the pack with their use of a brass section (think: orchestra, not soul revue) on three of the album's six tracks, with occasional cello, too. Most of the album's 'Mellotron' work (there's some on most tracks) is sampled, but Gregory adds strings, choir and possible flutes to the twelve-minute Victorian Brickwork, sounding a little bit more 'real' than the M-Tron employed elsewhere.
Big Big Train formed as a fairly typical neo-prog outfit in 1990, releasing their first full album (after a clutch of demos), Goodbye to the Age of Steam, in '94, following it three years later with English Boy Wonders, although various lineup problems delayed the more mature Bard until 2002. It starts promisingly enough with The Last English King and the fourteen-minute Broken English, but descends rapidly into boredom, the balladic neo-proggy likes of This Is Where We Came In and Love Is Her Thing doing it no favours; given the album's length, cutting some of the weaker material would've improved it no end. You get the feeling that, as with most singer-songwriter albums, the lyrics actually take precedence over the music, which really doesn't work in a progressive setting; I don't think it's an accident that this is the only one of the band's albums no longer available. On the samplotron front, we get pretty obvious string choir and flute samples on most tracks, the string part that opens For Winter being one of the most obvious sample giveaways.
2004's Gathering Speed is a concept effort involving a World War II pilot, although you'll have to listen to the lyrics pretty closely to tell. Musically, it's a distinct improvement on its predecessor, more dynamic all round, although the distant stench of neo-prog still hangs around in the background. Unfortunately, the same caveat applies as before: the lyrics are clearly regarded as the most important thing about the album, so the music suffers, with too many lengthy, laid-back sections. Fine, if you're following the story, but if not... Samplotron all over the place, with string, choir and flutes parts on pretty much every track, all pretty obviously sampled.
2007's The Difference Machine is quite startling in its scope, being an excellent modern prog album, like a less dour and more inventive Pineapple Thief, say. Long, slow pieces that develop over ten minutes or more are this album's stock in trade, with the occasional almost pop moment to catch you off guard and more unusual instrumentation (viola and sax) than you might expect. It's actually quite difficult to describe this music; symphonic yet modern, without slipping into the neo-prog clichés of some bands I could name but shan't. Famous guest spots from members of Marillion and Spock's Beard may help to sell this album, but are musically unnecessary; I'd forgotten they were on there and didn't realise until I looked at the credits afterwards, but if they help to get this music to a wider audience... The Mellotron sounds (the now ubiquitous M-Tron) are used very nicely; enhancing without swamping, although a high choir note at one point lets you know they're fakes. Next time, chaps, you can use mine, OK?
Although marketed as an EP, 2010's Far Skies Deep Time, intended as a companion piece to The Underfall Yard, is easily vinyl LP-length. Unfortunately, at least to these ears, much of its material is unable to sustain the quality to be heard on that album, featuring far too many neo-esque vocal melodies and chord progressions, the exceptions being their cover of Anthony Phillips' Master Of Time (inexplicably replaced on the reissue by an inferior band composition, Kingmaker) and the excellent, seventeen-minute The Wide Open Sea, presumably the full version of the brief snippet to be found on The Difference Machine. Plenty of samplotron, with subtle strings and flutes on opener Master Of Time, strings on Fat Billy Shouts Mine and strings and choir on Brambling and The Wide Open Sea, not to mention massed string chords on Kingmaker, should you have that version.
2012's English Electric (Part One) is an uneven album, probably typified by opener The First Rebreather, which shifts uneasily between neo-ish prog and late '70s Genesis, themselves a clear influence on the '80s neo- scene from which Big Big Train emerged some twenty years earlier. Points of interest on the record include the plucked banjo on Uncle Jack and the unusually jerky Judas Unrepentant, although there's too much material along the lines of A Boy In Darkness, although even that improves towards the end. Samplotron strings and/or choirs on the majority of the tracks, but it feels a little superfluous, as if used out of a sense of duty than because they genuinely love it. Or not?
Sadly, the Following year's English Electric (Part Two) is even more uneven, at its best on fifteen-minute opener East Coast Racer and its worst on Swan Hunter, Leopards (clunky lyrics, chaps) and terribly MOR-ish closer Curator Of Butterflies. Once again, sparingly-used samplotron, but it's hardly a defining feature of the album. The same year's Make Some Noise forty-five-minute 'EP' is better all round, starting well with the energetic title track, while the other three new pieces, Seen Better Days, Edgelands and The Lovers are all worth hearing. Samplotron? Strings and choirs on Seen Better Days, although I think that's it for the otherwise unavailable material. Speaking of which... Just to thoroughly confuse the issue, both volumes of English Electric are also available, alongside the new tracks from the EP, resequenced, as English Electric: Full Power. One for completists, I suppose.
The Difference Machine's a very pleasant surprise, although I'd have trouble recommending the two earlier albums, particularly Bard. Like their contemporaries Galahad, Big Big Train have now moved on from their copyist past into new and more interesting areas. Long may they carry on doing so.
See: David Longdon | XTC