Big Big Train - The Likes Of Us

Artist: Big Big Train

Album Title: The Likes Of Us

Label: Inside Out Music

Date of Release: 1 March 2024

Bands suffer line-up changes all the time. It’s a fact of life, and can be the result of many things, from artist differences to personal fallings out, and everything in between. Sometimes, however, it is borne out of tragedy. In November 2021, Big Big Train lost their lead vocalist David Longdon who sadly passed away following a freak accident. It shocked the band and its steadily increasing but ever loyal fanbase to the core, leaving many of us to wonder whether that might be the end of Big Big Train.

David wasn’t with the band from the beginning, only joining in 2009. But over the course of nine albums, the last of which being released after his death (‘Welcome To The Planet’ – 2022) his voice became synonymous with the Bournemouth-based English progressive rock band. And, as someone who only discovered the band in 2012 with ‘English Electric Part One’, his impact on me cannot be understated. Despite a love of generally heavier music, I fell in love with Big Big Train, Longdon’s voice, and the stories he could weave within the compositions.

But this hasn’t been the only change to the line-up over recent times as, one by one, the members with whom I formed a musical attachment left the band for one reason or another. Guitarist Dave Gregory, violinist Rachel Hall, and keyboardist Danny Manners have all alighted the train over the past few years, meaning that the only remaining founding member is bassist Greg Spawton. He lines up on ‘The Likes Of Us’ with drummer Nick D’Virgilio, guitarist/keyboardist Rikard Sjöblom, guitarist Dave Foster, violinist Clare Lindley, keyboardist Oskar Holldorff, and lead vocalist Alberto Bravin.

With full, 100% honesty, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to listen to anything new by Big Big Train again, so I deliberately didn’t go searching for an advance promo in case I failed to produce a review. I did wonder whether it might be best to lay the name to rest and for this new incarnation of the band to start afresh with a brand-new identity. After all, I respect the musicians involved and cannot begin to question or fault their talents as musicians, performers, and songwriters. So, there wouldn’t have been a problem in getting something new off the ground. But like it or not, Big Big Train has remained and ‘The Likes Of Us’ is the first studio album with this new ensemble.

When finally, I succumbed to my curiosity, I spent the first entire spin through thinking ‘it’s not Big Big Train’. On the second spin, I still thought ‘it’s not Big Big Train’ as well as ‘nope, I don’t like this at all’. Admittedly, I was stuck in a traffic jam on the motorway on a dark Friday night as I listened to it twice through, so I may not have been in the best of moods. Nevertheless, my prejudices were working overtime and I felt quite bitter about the whole thing. Once I got home and my mood improved a little, I could concede quietly to myself that ‘The Likes Of Us’ did offer a few interesting moments here and there. It was enough to get me listening again, and now here we are, at the sharp end of my review. Therefore, surely, I can’t still hate it, can I?

No, I can’t. Quite the opposite, actually, as it transpires.

Big Big Train - The Likes Of Us
Photo credit: Massimo Goina

As if to signal very clearly that there is a new vocalist in town, and to almost remove that elephant from the room immediately, the very first thing you hear on the opening track, ‘Light Left In The Day’ is voice of Alberto Bravin. But then, almost as deliberately, you hear a short blast of brass to make another important point: that this is still Big Big Train, and for all the changes, some things will remain the same. We all know my distrust of brass, but where Big Big Train are concerned, it’s like a welcoming blanket of English familiarity. From there, the remainder of the composition is largely an instrumental affair, where each musician within the collective is allowed the space to flex their individual muscles and make an early mark. The result is an up-tempo and energetic piece of progressive rock, complete with wailing lead guitar solos, bold synths, playful bass, and accomplished, expressive drumming. As it develops, it has the feel of a song that’s not quite as quintessentially English as previous material, a theme that plays out throughout the album as it transpires. This isn’t in any way a bad thing, but perhaps an inevitability given the clientele now involved and the ever-increasing sources of songwriting prowess within the band.

The opening track then segues almost seamlessly into ‘Oblivion’, another up-beat composition that properly introduces the talents of violinist Clare Lindley within quite a raucous intro segment. The verses are quieter affairs, featuring Bravin’s undeniable talents as well as utilising the multiple vocal talents within the band as choral-style support. This has always been a feature of Big Big Train, but it’s definitely upped to a degree on ‘The Likes Of Us’. The chorus is a catchy affair, working well against moments of more pronounced calm within the second half of the song, where something more sombre and wistful is explored.

The centrepiece of the album is undoubtedly the 17-minute ‘Beneath The Masts’ and, when I first heard it, I felt that it just meandered across its bloated length, going nowhere fast. Well, I was wrong. I still think that there is a slight argument to suggest that it could be edited just a little more but once the song gets to you, it’s hard to pinpoint where it could be trimmed. It’s more of a ‘classic’ Big Big Train song in that it goes into great detail to tell its story and, whilst doing so, it covers an incredible amount of ground. From quiet minimalism to all-out prog rock excess, it also features arguably the heaviest segment the band have ever penned. In the middle of the composition, things descend into a full-on progfest, full of jarring, clashing synth sounds, crazy wailing guitars, and even some metal-like drumming, the sonic interpretation of a sea squall if you will. Out of the storm, though, comes beauty and serenity, culminating in a final two-minute melodic crescendo that’s worth the wait, such is its beauty and majesty.

Other favourites along the way are ‘Miramare’, and ‘Love Is The Light’. The former is a delightfully multi-faceted ten-minute joy ride of arresting vocals, strong almost anthemic melody, and possibly the best lead guitar solo on a Big Big Train album to round it all off. The latter was a bit of a damp squib for me when I first watched the video but has since grown into a song that I utterly adore. It never ceases to amaze me how opinions can so drastically change, but that’s the case here. The positive messages within the lyrics are uplifting, whilst the whole thing becomes more poignant and memorable with every passing listen. The opening vocals alongside the rich piano notes are captivating, whilst I really enjoy the way that the song builds gently, with layer upon layer of sound introduced, from acoustic guitars to the brass ensemble, and Clare Lindley’s violin. And who doesn’t love a Mainden-esque ‘Woah, woah’ to sing along to? I defy you not to raise your voice along with the choral vocal parts in unison when they arrive in earnest towards the latter stages of the song.

The more I envelop myself in the music, the more I realise that there isn’t a bad song in the bunch. But then, that’s always been a strength of Big Big Train ever since I’ve been along for the ride. I’m a little less keen on ‘Skates On’ and ‘Bookmarks’ simply because the chosen direction and melodic interplay doesn’t speak to me as strongly as elsewhere on the record, but they are still well-written compositions sure to find favour with many others who might have a different opinion to my own. Shocking, I know.

As I said at the start of the review, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to hear anything new from Big Big Train again. But immense credit must go to the whole band, but Alberto Bravin in particular for the way that he has stepped into the enormous shoes of David Longdon, but in his own style, allowing the band to continue afresh whilst also offering respectful nods to the past. It turns out I was clearly very grumpy when I first listened to ‘The Likes Of Us’ because out of my ill-placed distaste, a love has once again formed for one of my all-time favourite progressive rock bands. On the basis of this latest release, the future for Big Big Train looks as bright and exciting as it ever was. And I’m delighted, I really am.

The Score of Much Metal: 93%



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