BIG BIG TRAIN – Welcome to the Planet (2022)
Coming just only six months after the band’s critically acclaimed top 40 release ‘Common Ground’, English progsters BIG BIG TRAIN are releasing their new album ”Welcome to the Planet”. The short time between albums is explained by two reasons: the experience of the pandemic has given the band the chance for creativity, and there’s new members into the line up bringing a lot of fresh ideas.
Featuring writing contributions from several of its members – old and new – ”Welcome To The Planet” sees Big Big Train retain its progressive roots but also creatively branch out and embrace influences from multiple other genres.
Now there’s a much more song format approach, accessible vocal harmonies, and a rock&pop joyfulness into the mix.
“This is what I came for, what I longed for. And it changes everything and nothing at all.” These lines from “Oak and Stone” are likely some of the last ever to be heard by David Longdon – who recently passed away – on a Big Big Train album. As immensely painful as it is to admit that, there is solace to be found in the fact that we have a rich discography to savor which features this remarkable human being and singer, not least of which is represented in “Welcome to the Planet”.
As grace would have it, “Welcome to the Planet” is a magnificent album in its own right, requiring no artificial elevation given the circumstances. As always, the music presentation is pristine thanks to Rob Aubrey and the extensive experience of all the musicians involved.
While the quantity of new music is somewhat staggering, as fate would have it this provides a much-needed infusion of David’s vocals at such a poignant time. Fortunately, the sustained level of quality is also impressive.
Indeed, if we take into consideration “Common Ground” as well as previous album “The Grand Tour”, this latter-day Big Big Train are unquestionably in their prime which is remarkable given how highly esteemed earlier albums like “English Electric” and “The Underfall Yard” are regarded from a decade ago.
“Made From Sunshine” is a glorious opener, in the tradition of other upbeat songs like “Alive” and “Make Some Noise”. Co-written by the two Davids – David Longdon and new guitarist Dave Foster – it welcomes a new baby’s life into the world and a new BBT album into our hearts. Even with drummer Nick D’Virgilio counting in the opening rhythm, the time signature of 11/8 would be daunting to most but somehow the groove rolls off this band with a natural, inviting lilt that uplifts the listener.
This lovely piece even incorporates Big Big Train’s signature brass horn section, and introduces us to new violinist/singer Clare Lindley as the vocals are a duet with her and Longdon, representing the parents singing to the new life they are welcoming to the world.
Follow-up “The Connection Plan” keeps the energy up while increasing the intensity courtesy of Longdon’s husky voice riding overtop an impassioned violin phrase and driving bass line. Written by D’Virgilio, its chorus features his stacked vocals which contrasts with Longdon’s lead during the verses and bridges. More focused than the previous combination of D’Virgilio & Longdon’s vocals on “All The Love That We Can Give”, this is an exciting standout track that further exemplifies the talent that D’Virgilio brings to the band.
Further on, the D’Virgilio-penned “Bats In The Belfry” continues to show off his skill at wielding the Train’s capacity for engaging instrumentals. In a rare move, the closing section puts the spotlight directly on his drum kit which is a welcome twist as he toys with the beat. Along with “Pantheon” and “Apollo”, D’Virgilio has proven that BBT still have plenty of runway in front of them even if they (sob) need to be without a lead singer for a time.
Bassist and band co-founder Greg Spawton offers plenty of his elemental songwriting, which forms the foundation of what is considered BBT’s classic sound.
“Lanterna” begins as a beautiful ballad with soothing harmonies, later picking up speed and culminating with “One day we take ships to the stars” as the violin line and ensuing guitar solo do take us to those celestial heights. Sharing a theme with previous Spawton epic “Atlantic Cable”, there had been a thought to combine the two songs but ultimately they remained separate, providing a thread to connect the two albums instead.
“Proper Jack Froster”’s wintry nostalgic setting offers an ideal backdrop to feature many of the band’s top calling cards: the brass section, the ensemble vocals, Longdon’s lead, violin, a soaring guitar solo and Spawton’s fantastic bass work. The lyrics trace a bittersweet partly-autobiographical tale of the innocence of youth.
Spawton’s “Capitoline Venus” was originally written as a love song for his wife but becomes transformed in its accompanying video which was made soon after Longdon’s death. A delicate piece, primarily featuring Longdon’s remarkable voice and Spawton’s 12-string arpeggiated guitar, it is a brief sweet treasure in the band’s catalog.
Guitarist / keyboardist Rikard Sjöblom serves up a fine instrumental, the moody “A Room With No Ceiling”. Like D’Virgilio alongside of him, Sjöblom’s talents in the instrumental domain offer engaging contrasts to the vocal strengths of the band. “Oak and Stone” is an enthralling ballad, stretching out with its piano, brush strokes on the drum kit (is Spawton on acoustic stand-up bass? If not, he should be), violin, and a lovely delivery from Longdon. When he sings the final chorus of “This is what I came for…” there are no supporting harmonies; it is just Longdon’s voice standing alone, claiming this glorious realization as his own. Spine tingling.
This moment would have been a fitting way to close the album and perhaps if the order hadn’t already been set before the time of Longdon’s passing, an alternate track listing would have been suggested.
As it is, the title track closes the album, authored by new keyboardist Carly Bryant. Ushered in by the brass band and timpani, this piece is all over the map and a bit of a puzzler. Maybe this is the darker side of “Made From Sunshine”, a cautionary welcoming to the planet for a newborn. As the piece progresses it goes from ambient noodling to treading in “Great Gig In The Sky” territory to tearing it up in a New Orleans-style romp, all interspersed with a creepy ensemble refrain of the title phrase.
As most are aware, there was a Big Big Train before Longdon. Will there be after? Whatever course the band now chooses, it goes without saying that the past dozen years have been remarkable in the band’s evolution, providing some of the best contemporary progressive rock the world has heard.
Add ”Welcome to the Planet” to that list, a captivating Big Big Train new album from a band who never repeat themselves.
01 – Made from Sunshine
02 – The Connection Plan
03 – Lanterna
04 – Capitoline Venus
05 – A Room with No Ceiling
06 – Proper Jack Froster
07 – Bats in the Belfry
08 – Oak and Stone
09 – Welcome to the Planet
Davin Longdon – vocals, flute
Greg Spawton – bass
Rikard Sjöblom – guitars
Nick D’Virgilio – drums