Big Big Train - English Boy Wonders

Year of Release: 1998
Label: Giant Electric Pea
Catalog Number: GEPCD 1007
Format: CD
Total Time: 69:39:00

Big Big Train are a five piece outfit from Bournemouth, England. They burst onto the prog scene with their 1991 cassette From The River To The Sea which was later released on CD. Their second album The Infant Hercules, which was also on cassette was released in early 1992. After a frustrating two years, they produced the critically acclaimed Goodbye To The Age Of Steam which was released on GEP in 1994. It was a long wait for the fourth album too, as personnel changes and other commitments took their toll. Eventually however, sporting a new line-up, English Boy Wonders was unveiled in January 1998.

Big Big Train's current line-up is Gregory Spawton on lead guitars, keyboards and vocals, Andy Poole on bass guitar, keyboards and backing vocals, Martin Read on lead and backing vocals, Tony Miller who makes his debut with the band on piano and keyboards and Steve Hughes on drums and percussion. Ken Bundy added backing vocals and arrangements, while Martin Orford has been drafted in to add some flute.

"Big Empty Skies" is a powerful opener for the album. Tough no-nonsense guitars and drums together with some good lyrics: "Driving over the wastelands, coming over the rise where the light fades on broken trees under big empty skies." As with many of the songs on this album, it segues straight into one of my favourites on the album "Brushed Aside". This is a more mellow song where the strength is derived from the harmonies of voice and instruments ? and the way Martin sings the lyrics: "across the grass outside the house, they'd sell their brothers for a place in commanding heights." "A Giddy Thing" changes to the tempo of the album again ? bearing in mind there had not yet been a break in the music - with a busy cluttered track where guitars, keyboards and drums burst out from all directions. When the lyrics come in though, the whole tempo changes, with Martin's voice supported by piano for the most.

"28 Years" sees IQ's Martin Orford adding some flute, something you don't see him playing too often these days. This is very laid-back stuff, almost Everything But The Girl in lyrical make-up. It segues into the more poppy "Pretty Mom" which drips lush harmony vocals and guitars. The lyrics: "Bet she tastes of orange Fruit Pastels bet she wants for the stars in the sky." This segues into the more powerful "Out Of It" with rich heavy guitars amidst Martin's more mellow lyrical sections. Compares to the previous two tracks this is pretty much as heavy as BBT gets. "Cloudless And Starry And Still" is based around Gregory's acoustic guitars with the shared vocals, which I assume are Gregory and Martin adding clever and subtle harmonies.

"Albion Perfide" is one of the strongest tracks on the album. It has lots of what I am coming to see as BBT's subtle laid-back guitars and mellow vocals. The chorus has more great harmonies, and there is a superb piano section in the middle that seems to flow on and on forever. The song then picks up again, and launches into a rockier section before the final yearning lyrics: "Looking for a little truth, finding there's a lot of pain." This comes a close second place to "Brushed Aside" as track of the album. "Right To The End Of The World Tra-La" has an almost Sixties feel to the lyrics ? I could almost imagine the Monkees (in their more sensible moods) singing this. A strange track that only lasts two minutes.

"The Shipping Forecast" must win a prize for most incongruous track title so far. It has an incomprehensible lyric, although I feel I may just be missing the point. The line which jumps out though: "I have been there spinning with the payload, 'It's a bomb dear ? elbows off the table,' One by one cloudless and starry, age of reason, sheer weight of numbers" gives a hint that maybe it's about a long summer during the last war. Whatever, the whole thing works very well for me? the ambience the lyrics create is very rural, very pastoral ? yearning for easier time gone past ? bombs or no bombs!

"Mr Boxgroveman" has equally obscure lyrics. The song moves from mood to mood ? sometimes loud and raucous, at others just a single voice with a thin keyboard support. "Reaching For John Dowland" is another mellow track with dreamy lyrics and yet a strange unexplainable threatening feel to the lyrics. The album finishes with "Fell Asleep" ? more acoustic guitars over which Martin's vocals browse. This is a strange unrequited love song with neither party aware what is going on. A rather low-key end of the album, I felt.

This album took at lot of listenings to for the songs to take form. With two or three songs regularly segueing into each other, you tended to get lost somewhere around the fourth track. The music has more mellowness and subtlety than most of its fellow prog bands - to my mind this is just a little too laid-back to be termed progressive rock. It lacks the ambience of, say, someone like Anthony Phillips, and almost ends up falling somewhere between Aztec Camera and Everything But The Girl. That is not to say that music is not good, rather it often fails to grab the listener, and has a tendency to drift over you rather than impress itself on you. Likewise the lyrics, although very cleverly composed, and song with feeling and emotion, fail to deliver any killing blows. It is quite a beautiful album though which I feel will appeal to the fans of more "lite-prog" bands such as Barclay James Harvest.

[Original published at the now defunct Alternative View website ?ed

Big Empty Skies (4:21) / Brushed Aside (5:37) / A Giddy Thing (5:16) / 28 Years (2:24) / Pretty Mom (3:26) / Out Of It (5:57) / Cloudless And Starry And Still (3:33) / Albion Perfide (10:23) / Right To The End Of The World Tra-La (1:56) / The Shipping Forecast (10:46) / Mr Boxgroveman (6:12) / Reaching For John Dowland (8:13) / Fell Asleep (3:35)

Gregory Spawton - lead guitars, keyboards and vocals
Andy Poole - bass guitar, keyboards and backing vocals
Martin Read - lead and backing vocals
Tony Miller - piano and keyboards
Steve Hughes - drums and percussion
Ken Bundy - backing vocals and arrangements
Martin Orford - flute

From The River To The Sea (demos on self-released CD) (1992)
The Infant Hercules (demo cass) (1993)
Goodbye To The Age Of Steam (1994)
English Boy Wonders (1997)
Bard (2002)
Gathering Speed (2004/2009)
The Difference Machine (2007/2010)
English Boy Wonders (remade/remastered) (2008)
The Underfall Yard (2009/2011)
Goodbye To The Age Of Steam (remastered/expanded) (2011)
English Electric, Part One (2012)
English Electric, Part Two (2013)
Folklore (2016)
Grimspond (2017)
The Second Brightest Star (2017)

Genre: Progressive Rock

Origin UK

Added: March 3rd 2001
Reviewer: Frank Blades

Artist website:
Hits: 951
Language: english


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