Any record-album (or double-CD, or whatever the kids nowadays call double-albums) that ends with a song called “Curator of Butterflies” has got to be heard, at least once. The progressive rock band Big Big Train with English Electric, parts one and two, gives you just that chance.
Progressive rock has to scratch a few itches for me. First: it has to rock. Second: it can’t be that great on the first listen, but it has to be good enough to warrant a second listen. Third, England has to be the foil for the exploration into human existence. Fourth, it can’t be too perfect.
Starting with the fourth point last: I find that certain, and many, prog rock bands make everything perfect, to the point of becoming sanitized. All the scales are perfect, all the instruments are perfect, all the modulations are perfect, and, well, it’s just boring. These certain bands (remaining unnamed so that I don’t invoke wrath upon myself for harming sacred cows) tend to equivocate “progressive” rock to “advanced music theory with rock instruments and a handful of ambient noises like Pink Floyd did,” making themselves super-duper musically proficient, but not very interesting.
Big Big Train avoids that with English Electric, instead offering some meaty chunks of chord progressions, thematic development, and interesting voicings and melodies tucked into real rock-rhythms. Especially in Part One, the drummer was set free to hammer on the skins without trying to amaze and dazzle us with “proficiency.” The guitars and bass have hair on them, and the vocals wail.
Secondly, the “prog” comes through quite well. How? Well, the musical proficiency is still there: odd time signatures, creative modulations, theme development, rising and falling tempos, interplay of light and dark moods; it’s all there. That means that it won’t satisfy the part of the brain that wants easy 4/4 pop hooks and a chorus, nor the part that wants the crushing power chords and blistering vocals, but it does make that part of the brain which sleeps most of the time to awaken, saying, “Hey, play that again. What was that about the fifth circle of Hell? How did they do that gigantic chord thing at the end of ‘A Boy in Darkness’?”
Finally, it’s called English Electric. We wander the hedgerows of the rural English landscape with Uncle Jack, trying to understand the present by exploring the past. Beginning with “In a place where the riverbanks draw near, men work,” and ending with “With just one step she’ll be free,” we’re talking about all the things I love to talk about and think about.
Count me a big fan.