Album Reviews

Issue 2024-012

Duo Review

Big Big Train — The Likes Of Us

Big Big Train - The Likes Of Us
Light Left In The Day (6:10), Oblivion (5:27), Beneath The Masts (17:26), Skates On (4:28), Miramare (10:17), Love Is The Light (6:11), Bookmarks (6:23), Last Eleven (7:55)
Patrick McAfee

This highly anticipated release is Big Big Train's first original studio album since the passing of lead singer, David Longdon in 2021. The band's subsequent decision to continue and the addition of new lead vocalist, Alberto Bravin, were met with universal fan support. That faith is rewarded by The Likes Of Us. As an introduction to a new era, the album isn't so much a rebirth as it is a glorious validation of the band's fortitude and continued stature.

The opening track, Light Left In The Day, is mostly instrumental and provides a familiar and comforting return to the world of BBT. Like the album as a whole, it embraces the band's pastoral past, while cementing their commitment to evolving. There is a harder edge and accessibility to the material that doesn't sacrifice adventurousness. Even the wonderful Beneath The Masts, is a textbook example of creating a long form epic that doesn't meander. Oblivion, Skates On, Miramere and Bookmarks, all showcase a potent ability to meld infectious melodies with flawless vocal harmonies.

The songwriting throughout is superb. In what has become a band tradition, the lyrics often focus on storytelling and nostalgic memory. An air of melancholy exists, but ultimately the album feels upbeat and hopeful. The emotional Love Is The Light, is a sublime example. Interestingly, the compelling closing track, Last Eleven, was written during Longdon's lifetime. It was not worked on by the band at the time, but in what feels transitional, the song became the first recorded with Bravin's vocals.

Originally hired solely as a singer, Bravin's role in the band's creative processes quickly expanded. In addition to his input as an instrumentalist, he had a compositional hand in five of the album's eight tracks. Though his voice is dissimilar to Longdon's, it is a natural fit for the BBT sound. Ultimately, Bravin's hire was a master stroke, as confirmed by his outstanding work here.

The entire band provides exceptional performances. Credit to founding member, Gregory Spawton, who through many personnel changes over the years, has impressively kept the vision and high quality of the band intact.

In a sense, there was nothing and everything to prove with this release. To that point, they have delivered on the expected level of quality, while also creating excitement for what's to come. The Likes Of Us is an exquisite return for Big Big Train and a testament to triumph through adversity.

Theo Verstrael

Appreciating a really good album normally takes quite some time. I guess we all recognize that experience. Therefore, I was really surprised to become immediately captivated by Big Big Train's 2012 album English Electric I, an unworldly good album full of melodic, moody and charming prog tunes, making me a big fan. Somehow they managed to maintain that very high level on the next couple of albums until I gradually started to lose some interest in their music. To my ears, their recent studio albums Common Ground and especially Welcome To The Planet cannot stand in the shadows of the pair of EE albums. For the latter one, the untimely passing of singer David Longdon was of course a more than legitimate excuse. I really liked the reworkings of some of their epics on Ingenious Devices though.

From the information sent with the digital files of the new album, it becomes clear that the devastating loss of Longdon was not the end of the band. Spawton and Longdon had talked about the future of the band in case something would happen to them; ending the band proved no option. So in the hard times after Longdons demise, co-founder Spawton set out to recruit a new vocalist. Former member of Italian progrock band Premiata Forneria Marconi Alberto Bravin had already caught his eye because of his great voice and live performance. Spawton therefore asked Bravin to become the new BBT singer. That choice turned out far better than any side had anticipated for Bravin also blended well into the band as a composer, instrumentalist and friend, just as Longdon had been.

Apart from the recruitment of Bravin, the Big Big Train line-up changed further since the WTTP-album, with Carly Bryant leaving and Norwegian musician Oskar Holldorf (keyboards, vocals) appearing, extending the number of nationalities within the band to five. Nick D'Virgilio (drums, acoustic guitar, vocals, US), Dave Forster (guitars, UK), Claire Lindley (violin, vocals, UK), Rikard Sjöblom (guitars, keyboards, vocals, Sweden) and Gregory Spawton (bass, acoustic guitar, mellotron, vocals, UK) stayed on.

Because of the recent dramatic events, the band decided this time to come together in order to record the new album live as much as possible instead of exchanging ideas and files over the internet. They choose Bravins home region in Italy to congregate which understandably turned out quite emotional as this was the first album without Longdon. But at the same time the recording there proved very fruitful with The Likes Of Us, eight new songs encompassing the many sides of the band, as the result. The album is co-produced by Bravin and their long-time producer Rob Aubrey. The beautiful album cover shows a bright spring drawing of running children having a lot of fun. The rest of the artwork was not sent with the files, unfortunately.

The start of the album is absolutely phenomenal. A beautiful soft intro with just acoustic guitar and Bravin singing, a brave, proud and fully justified introduction of the new singer, is followed by soft keys, a mellow brass piece, melancholic violin, electric guitar and then the full band comes in to speed things. Then we're only two minutes into Light Left In The Day! What follows is nothing less than a formidable instrumental overture full of hooks, rhythm changes, varied themes, short solo spots, dynamic bass and drums and an overall feeling of optimism and joy. It is by far the best opening track of any BBT album so far and may well develop into a classic tune as it shows clearly what a great band this is.

But then things suddenly change for the worse. To my ears, that is, of course. Next track Oblivion is the absolute low point of the album, probably even of many years of BBT music. Yes, it is dynamic, it is played and sung well, but it lacks about everything that made the opening track so good. It is foremost a poppy track with rather dull verses and a very predictable chorus repeating the song title over and over again. The mellow middle section with harmony singing, fine bass playing and a threatening key theme is nice but too little to save the track, especially since the following bridge is a very simple sort of metal guitar riffing. BBT recorded these kind of poppy tracks before (Make Some Noise, for instance) and they seem to like these kind of pop songs but by doing so they deny their musical quality. So my high spirit caused by the grandiose opening song was completely gone to make way for a sort of mischief.

Luckily that vanished quickly with the first subtle tones of Beneath The Masts. The violin and piano play a soft heavenly melody leading towards the vocals that are just accompanied by the piano. At three-and-a-half minute, the keys and violin quietly emerge after which the acoustic guitar takes over, speeding the song up and developing yet another musical theme. About halfway BBT starts to really rock with a very fine guitar solo over some dynamic bass, drum and piano playing supported by fierce keys. The interplay between D'Virgilio on drums and Spawton on bass is simply fantastic and lifts this song highly up. It all ends in a somewhat quieter keys theme after which the song becomes quiet again with just vocals, soft keys and acoustic guitar. The addition of the brass section towards the end supporting the guitar-dominated coda is just fantastic before it all ends with soft flute and some chords. Beautifully done, it makes this an epic that can easily match their other epics such as East Coast Racer and A Mead Hall In Winter.

Somehow, the songs that follow took me more effort to connect to. They are great pieces of music with fine harmonies (Skates On, Miramare), good vocals, nice interplay between all instruments and the occasional great solo. Yet they all lack a characteristic spark, hook or bridge that would have made them stand out. It has nothing to do with Bravins singing (which is very good throughout the full album), it is simply that they are all good songs but just not that great. Solid songs, not great.

Maybe the significant change in lyrical content has played a role in here. In the English Electric albums and for instance Grimspound, the pastoral English country life was one of the main lyrical themes evoking supportive music. On this album the lyrics are much more personal. For instance, a story about Spawtons visit to the region where he spent his youth in to visit his father-in-law suffering from poor health (Beneath The Masts). Such a personal insight is rather new for BBT and probably proved more difficult to be expressed in the music.

Love In The Light is a beautiful slow ballad with just piano and violin in the beginning accompanying Bravins vocals, later on augmented with a fine brass section and then the full band. Bravin uses his falsetto very nicely here showing his high capabilities as a singer. An extensive guitar solo with some violin and brass leads towards the loud vocalised end section of the song. Definitely a song that will grow in time.

Bookmarks is a rather "small" slow song. Bravins waltz-like vocal melody are accompanied by acoustic guitar, keys and piano in a way that hints towards Genesis' Afterglow. Halfway the full band comes in but in a restrained way, giving ample room to Lindley's melancholic violin. The coda is for the violin and the acoustic guitar.

In closer Last Eleven the mellotron together with the violin and electric guitar is very present. D'Virgilio's drums and Spawtons bass lay a very solid yet constantly changing base under the strong vocal melody. The dynamics in this song is very reminiscent of present day Spocks Beard or Pattern Seeking Animals. It's powerful prog rock with excellent vocals, several hooks and different tempos. Nice to listen to but for a BBT song it sounds rather uncharacteristic.

In spite of what many may have feared, new singer Bravin is an excellent replacement of Longdon. His good voice may have some similarities with Longdons voice, he actually made me think strongly of Robbie Williams (meant as a compliment!). The band sounds very tight, the change in lyrical content works out well and the more prominent role of both the violin and the brass section add another great level into the already very varied music of BBT. But although this is an album of solid good music (except Oblivion), the song cycle didn't succeed in keeping my full attention towards the end. After the first epic the songs still sound very fine but lack a characteristic BBT earmark. Maybe that will come with more spins after which the ordeal can be given if this really is a great album.

Apparently I'm an exception in disliking Oblivion as it was chosen as the first single of the album. Personally I sincerely hope that the band will refrain from this poppy music style in the future as their main talents clearly lay in the more complex melodies and structures. The main conclusion is however that this album shows that the band still has a bright future after some mournful years. Just listen to the opening overture and the high potential of this BBT line-up is more than obvious.

Steve Hackett — The Circus And The Nightwhale

Steve Hackett - The Circus And The Nightwhale
Geoff Feakes

From 1971 to 1977, Steve Hackett was a pivotal member of Genesis with his trademark harmonious guitar synonymous with their classic period. With the possible exception of his predecessor Anthony Phillips, his solo output has been by far the most prolific of any ex-member of the band. For a detailed analysis of his recordings, check out my book, On Track... Steve Hackett. He has almost 30 studio albums and over 20 live albums to his credit and shows no signs of slowing down just yet. Steve will be hitting the road once again in March 2024, touring right through to November.

The Circus And The Nightwhale is a semi-autobiographical concept that begins in 1950s war-scarred London. It traces the journey of the central character Travla ("traveller", geddit?) who eventually finds divine fulfilment. Steve is backed by his now familiar band including Roger King (keyboards), Rob Townsend (saxophone), Jonas Reingold (bass), Craig Blundell (drums), Nad Sylvan (vocals), Amanda Lehmann (vocals), and sibling John Hackett (flute).

The album gets off to a rousing start with People Of The Smoke. "The Smoke" is British slang for London because of the smog that often shrouded the city in the pre-1960s. Steve was born in London in 1950 (as was your reviewer four years later). Sampled sound effects including an accelerating steam engine give way to Roger King's strident keyboard orchestrations. Nick D'Virgilio guests on drums and Steve's singing is multitracked, contrasting with the wailing guitar pyrotechnics during the instrumental section.

These Passing Clouds is the first of several short, mostly instrumental interludes that link the main songs. Taking You Down channels the pomp with a stomp machismo of Led Zeppelin with jagged guitar fills and Blundell's measured, pounding drums. Nad Sylvan's treated vocals sound positively ethereal and Rob Townsend's sax blows a storm at the halfway mark.

Found And Lost is a moment of serenity before Enter The Ring sweeps into view on a cushion of lilting harmonised vocals that evoke The Toast on the 1980 Defector album. Piano and acoustic guitar add to the melodious ambiance while John's lively flute solo is uncharacteristically reminiscent of Ian Anderson. Steve's guitar has that spiky edginess he seems to favour these days, rounding off the album's most proggy offering yet.

Steve once again assumes lead vocals for Get Me Out and demonstrates his (often unrecognised) talents as a blues guitarist. His soloing is formidable, and he's also a mean harmonica player. The album's longest song, Ghost Moon And Living Love transports the listener back to early Genesis and the golden age of prog rock. Amanda Lehmann's wordless vocals are heavenly and in contrast to the previous song, Steve's soloing is joyously melodic, underpinned by chiming 12-string guitar.

With the tar (a long-necked string instrument) playing of Malik Mansurov leading the way, Circo Inferno takes the listener on a tour of the Far East, a region visited by Steve on previous musical travels. The drum pattern is pure John Bonham circa Kashmir while Townsend's sax runs rampant and rocks the casbah. Breakout is fueled by inventive drumming (this time courtesy of Hugo Degenhardt) while the ambient All At Sea sets the scene for the drama of Into The Nightwhale. King excels here with atmospheric keyboard washes, complemented by Steve's weeping guitar lines. Steve also plays bass here as he does on several of the album's tracks.

The penultimate Wherever You Are is a tuneful, mid-tempo song, enlivened by thunderous drumming, organ and angular guitar volleys. The album concludes on a tranquil note with White Dove, a classical guitar, five-note meditation, not unlike the pastoral conclusion to Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield.

The Circus And The Nightwhale is another fine album from Steve in his ever expanding catalogue. It encompasses the full range of his compositional and instrumental palette, containing many of the traits and hallmarks of his previous work. It's almost a compendium of his previous albums, condensed into a relatively lean and enjoyable 45 minutes. Numerous musicians that made their mark in the early 1970s are still performing while others have retired or passed away. Very few however are still recording albums as good as this.

Duo Review

Unicorn — You Are

Unicorn - You Are
You Are (4:46), Fear (2:22), Original Sin (3:00), 12 Days (3:12), Honestly (4:10), In Hell You Are (5:25), I Wonder (3:24), Unreality (4:02), Star (3:39), Bird (5:22)
Thomas Otten

When engaging in and listening to the music on Unicorn's release You Are, there is no getting around to also deal with the personal story of Tonje Ettesvoll. The music on this album is to be understood and valued in the context of her biography. Her background, the music and the lyrics are closely interwoven, build on and have influenced each other. As a victim of sexual abuse in her childhood and a survivor of the resulting trauma - she speaks openly and unvarnishedly about this in her podcasts called Spirals -, she reports that she found a source of strength, comfort, solace, and a loyal friend in music from an early age. Later, music also helped her to overcome these inter-generational traumas and to make her energy and experiences available to other victims through education. As she herself writes: "Feeling lonely, happy, in love, heartbroken, majestic, lost... there has always been a song to accompany me." The strength and the support for revelation and self-acceptance that she was given through music is emphatically expressed and implemented on this album and thus passed on to its listeners.

Tonje Ettesvoll hails from Norway, but also lives in California. She launched the band (or shall I call it the project) Unicorn back in 1998, the way I understood it within the framework of her working through her experiences mentioned above. As part of that, Unicorn released their first (and so far only) album Behold & Beheld in 2003. For reasons beyond my knowledge (info on the web is not overabundant, unfortunately), You Are only came out more than 20 years thereafter, with Tonje doing various things in the meantime, i.e. driving for Uber and concentrating on other projects such as making her story public. On this album, the "core-members" of the band consist of Tonje, who is responsible for the music, and the lyrics, assumes the vocals, and plays keyboards, saxophones and clarinet, as well as André Storeng (keyboards). They are joined by Dan Johnsen (guitars), Kristian Edvardsen (bass), and Marco Minnemann (drums), well-known for his activities amongst others with Steven Wilson, The Aristocrats, The Mute Gods, and The Sea Within. Several guest musicians such as Sidsel Walstad (harp), and others on violin, cello, accordion, additional guitars and backing vocals contribute to the musical versatility on You Are.

The music on this release again is a striking example of how broadly the term progressive rock can be interpreted. It blends elements of rock (You Are, Birds), singing/songwriting (12 Days), folk/country (In Hell You Are), ska (Original Sin), up-tempo pop, and some dreamy (Honestly), and jazzy vibes. 10 songs for a total running time of less than 40 minutes do not give much room for excessive instrumental elaboration. Hence, the songs sound dense, and compact, with every note being where it should be, and no redundancies. And - this album has one of the fastest kicking-in of vocals I have heard for a long while - barely half a second (one beat on the snare) into the album. Depending on the mood of the respective track, Tonje's voice displays power and strength, whilst also sounding extremely fragile, gloomy (Fear), timid, and tender (Unreality, Star). In a nutshell - the music is just beautiful: delicate, serious, touching - such as the lyrics -, but nonetheless encouraging, uplifting, and bright. It is full of emotions, and feelings, catchy arrangements, and melodies. Production as well as mixing are excellent, fully doing justice to all its variety and its subtle details. Music and lyrics form a coherent and harmonious whole.

The variety and the blend of styles provides for Unicorn's music to sound original and not easy to pigeonhole. Living & Alive by Beatrix Players, another outstanding album I had the pleasure to review, in my ears comes closest to Unicorn's music. But I also found out some similarities with the work of peers such as Iamthemorning, Nine Skies, Anathema, Bruce Soord, Ciccada, and even Sade.

I very much like this album. Both for its music and its lyrics, and especially for the message that the combination of both conveys. The way I feel and interpret this message, an exclamation mark can/should be placed after the title of this album "You Are", so that it could be understood as an appeal, to be completed with characteristics at the discretion of each person who feels concerned. Existing? Valuable? Strong? Loved? Yourself? Self-determined? To be continued...

"This project was a labor of love, inspired by a 'go big or go home' attitude that somehow also led me back home. Who says you can't do both?" I am not able to answer Tonje's question. But I got the feeling that she "goes big", presumably in her life, but certainly with this album, which impressed me a lot. It is an album you can brood over, but you can also simply enjoy it, an album about the healing and enduring power of music. Highly recommended to lovers, both from the prog rock community and outside, of sophisticated, emotional, challenging, melodious, fragile, and accessible music. Apparently, Tonje already is working on her third album. Good to know!

Greg Cummins

Unicorn is yet another band that I had not heard of before but took a chance as they were happy to send me a CD for review. While I appreciate the gesture, I would imagine the band might be a little disappointed with the graphics quality of the cover. While the actual outside cover and slip cover are generally OK it is the inside fold-able lyric sheet that made me look twice. The inner contents are almost unreadable as the text colour (pinkish grey), does not contrast very well with the background colour and lacks a serious degree of clarity as a result. I am very supportive of bands supplying additional promo material to help us reviewers make the best from what we are supplied but in all honesty I was not able to squint hard enough to determine the songs' lyrics without straining my eyes. So I didn't.

The album, You Are was composed and produced by Tonje Ettesvoll in both Norway and California and features a number of musicians who I confess to not having heard of before (without some additional research) although it is great to see the magic drum dynamics of Marco Minnemann who has contributed three tracks.

Musically, the songs fall within the progressive pop / power pop genre although to quote the band's promo material, the album is a collection of robust and melodic tunes, a musical melting pot featuring elements of uptempo pop, rock, prog, a dash of folk/country, a skank of ska, and a sprinkle of dreamy/jazzy vibes. That sounds pretty well right on the money there.

All songs are written, arranged and produced by Tonje Ettesvoll and are a reflection of her struggles through life after a number of personal traumas she faced when younger. While I won't elaborate on the actual issues at heart, out of respect to Tonje, I would suggest listening to the heartfelt lyrics to delve a little deeper. They really are quite moving.

Featuring instruments such as keyboards, guitar, bass, drums, grand piano, harp, cello, violins, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, clarinet and Hammond B3 organ, the band serve up a nice collection of accessible, melodic and quite catchy songs that should appeal to fans who enjoy their music a little less frenetic or discordant. It's a playful album full of short, sharp and emotive songs that impart the messages that Tonje has concocted but without the complexity of musical gymnastics some fans might prefer. This was an album my wife commented on as being nice and easy to listen to. She also said that about bands such as Iona, Karnataka, Clannad and Mostly Autumn so if you don't object to there being no Celtic influences on this album, you might find enough to enjoy with the contents of the band's second album. Not a bad effort at all.

Album Reviews