Quite a fair bit of steam's been raised about Big Big Train's latest release, The Underfall Yard. They're not a band, however, that's fared too well on SoT in the past and, unfortunately, that trend is set to continue.
In fairness, there is a large tranche of progressive rock fans – mainly those who hanker back to Peter Gabriel-era Genesis - who will welcome this very English soundscape, adorned as it is, occasionally, by a brass band and a "pastoral" cello.
The mix of instruments in the arrangements is not common, if not new, and there is a certain appeal to the soundscape, but it ultimately falls short overall because of a lack of sufficient melodic or rhythmic interest. Comparing the music on The Underfall Yard with Gabriel-era Genesis, it falls short, frankly. And in case you think that it is me who is being unfair making these comparisons, then you should read this from the band's own promotional material: "The Underfall Yard can be compared with the best albums of the period by Genesis, PFM, King Crimson and Yes." Well it can be compared – but it is definitely NOT in the same league as Selling England by the Pound, Close to the Edge or In the Court of the Crimson King, to name but three! It is short of melody, it is short of interesting rhythm and it is short of invention! It is ploughing ground that has been ploughed many times before. Comparing it now with another contemporary, similar and, again, very English band – in soundscape terms, certainly, if not always in personnel - The Tangent; it again falls short on all three counts.
Having rambled on mostly about what it isn't, what, then is it?
Well, it's a good album of neo-prog, in a folk-influenced, pastoral style. It's loosely conceptual, in that its lyrics are telling tales, mainly of "the olden days", the days when brass bands were popular all over England (they still are!). The band's incorporation of trombone, french horn, cornet and tuba – all played by guest musicians – adds some tender textures that complement their primarily melancholic melodic development on three of these compositions ("Evening Star", "Victorian Brickwork" and "The Underfall Yard"). Another pleasant texture is provided by another guest, Jon Foyle, who plays cello on all of the compositions apart from "Master James of St.George", which has the most conventional rock instrumentation of the album.
Talking of guest musicians, they are a big feature of this album. The band itself is a trio: David Longdon (vocals, flute, mandolin, etc), Andy Poole (bass, keyboards) and Greg Spawton (guitars, keyboards, bass). The list of guest musicians is large, even after considering the instruments we've already discussed: Nick D'Virgilio plays drums (he seems to be EVERYWHERE these days, the man must have limitless energy!) and we also have appearances by Dave Gregory (guitar, mellotron), Francis Dunnery (guitar) and Jem Godfrey (synthesizer).
Longdon's flute is very pretty during the opening section of "Evening Star", after its "a capella" opening; the brass instruments then becomes a significant force in this composition. The acoustic guitar and whistling on "Master James of St.George" 's short coda are very effective and Longdon's vocal performance on the composition is, as elsewhere, excellent. The vocal harmonies part way through "The Underfall Yard" are gorgeous but the band fail to build on that high, the composition petering out into progressive no-man's land. Elsewhere, much of the music is pleasant, but what I found lacking from an album point-of-view were "climactic moments"; no build-up to a crushing melody; or a sudden riff or rhythm to-die-for. Without these, the sonic textures are insufficient to propel the album into the premier league, and the overall feel for me was understated.
Conclusion: good, but you will find better, similar bands.
1) Evening Star (4:53)
2) Master James of St. George (6:19)
3) Victorian Brickwork (12:33)
4) Last Train (6:28)
5) Winchester Diver (7:31)
6) The Underfall Yard (22:54)