I didn't even realize this was Big Big Train's fourth album; I did know they've been a part of the UK's ailing neo-prog scene for a while, so I wasn't sure if I'd be listening to Gathering Speed or Slowing Down. ('Scuse me!) Big Big Train (BBT, as I'll refer to them) is a sextet (quintet, really) of two vocalists, then a guitarist, keyboardist, bassist, and drummer. Apparently, the only holdovers are bassist Andy Poole and guitarist Gregory Spawton — singer Sean Filkins has replaced Martin Read; and drummer Steve Hughes and keyboardist Ian Cooper are back, "succeeding" their own replacements, respectively, in Pete Hibbit & Tony Müller.
Gathering Speed doesn't sound amateurish, not one bit. This is a professionally played, recorded, polished effort, a concept album (the band's first) about, well, let's let Gregory Spawton relate it in his own words, from the band's web site:
"The album is about the death of a fighter pilot in 1940, or at least that is the setting for the lyrics. What we've tried to do is to explore the emotional and psychological impact of death on an individual and on his family. Some of the songs are about the pilot facing his end and his fears, others about his wife, children and family facing the loss of their loved one. It's a very bleak subject and not always easy listening."
Some heavy subject matter, eh? Don't look for lyrics in the booklet to read along with; not a bad way to save some money when printing booklets, I agree, but you'll have to scroll down the band's lyrics page on the BBT web site to get the words to the songs. A very minor annoyance for some, none at all for others. Fighter plane sound-bites make their way around various spots, and the Mellotron's real — I know this matters to quite a few people! Well, a chronic (and usually legitimate) gripe regarding neo-prog outfits is the lack of strong vocals, or strong vocal melodies, or both. Or the vocals sound far too Collins-ish or Gabriel-ish. Or all of the above. And, well, perhaps a little of all of the above does apply to this album. Sean Filkins does have an alright set o' pipes, for what it's worth. Spawton lays down some solid string work, and Laura Murch's voice is used for texture in certain segments, to good effect.
"Sky Flying On Fire" is an instrumental, and for my time, it's the best piece: some nice synth soloing & 'Tronstuff, bolder bass & percussive action, and a nice, manic guitar "solo." This track is followed by "Pell Mell" (also the name of a more obscure, defunct band), which also turned out to be the most interesting song with vox — those speedy bass runs by Poole are slick. Bottom line: BBT fans won't be disappointed, and most neo-phytes will find a lot to like. All of the usual neo-gods are invoked: Collins-era Genesis, Camel, Steve Hackett, Pink Floyd, etcetera.
1. High Tide, Last Stand
2. Fighter Command
3. The Road Much Further On
4. Sky Flying On Fire
5. Pell Mell
6. Powder Monkey
7. Gathering Speed
Total time: 55:43