Wassail is a solid EP, foreshadowing Big Big Train’s forthcoming material. This is just another bite-sized portion of the band’s stylistic craft, enough to keep fellow “passengers” whistling for a while longer as we wait for the Train to once again depart the station.
Artist: Big Big Train
Label: English Electric Recordings, distributed by Burning Shed
Time: 4 tracks / 26:00 minutes
Big Big Train has proudly been an independent progressive rock band almost since the band’s founding in 1990. Their impressive catalogue of 8 studio albums and 5 EPs, spanning 25+ years of music-making, is a testament to the band’s tenacity, despite personnel changes and a frustrating stint with a record label. BBT’s now-stable lineup includes founding members Andy Poole (keyboards, mandolins, backing vocals) and Greg Spawton (bass guitars & pedals), joined by David Longdon (lead & backing vocals, flute, mandolin, percussion), Dave Gregory (guitars), Nick D'Virgilio (drums, backing vocals), Danny Manners (keyboards, backing vocals), Rachel Hall (violin, viola, cello, backing vocals), and Rikard Sjöblom (guitars, backing vocals). Though they were already part of the touring band prior to Wassail, Rachel and Rikard commemorate their first official inclusion into BBT with this EP.
Released June 1st, Wassail will serve as yet another placeholder between 2013’s English Electric: Full Power (a re-release combo edition of the band’s two-part LP) and a forthcoming album. On the band’s blog, Greg Spawton announced that the band had “written around [two hours’ worth] of new songs (many of which are now at least partially recorded),” and indicated that BBT aimed to “complete these songs for album releases in 2016 and 2017.” That was in September of last year, following the release of the Make Some Noise EP, which featured the bonus tracks from English Electric: Full Power and some alternate recordings/mixes of previously released tracks. Wassail’s liner notes also include the somewhat ambiguous teaser that “Big Big Train will return with Folklore.” Presumably, this next album to be released will feature more compositions about England’s bygone eras.
In that regard, something that I’ve always appreciated about BBT’s music is the very English nature of their material – a flair not so much patriotic as commemorative and retrospective. Wassail’s liner notes shed illumination on the EP’s thematic elements: “Wassailing” is a medieval ritual in the West of England, during which the people would “wake the cider apple trees and scare away evil spirits by banging pots and pans and firing a shotgun overhead, thereby protecting the harvest later in the year.” This was, of course, invigorated by drinking and singing.
Wassail’s title track has already been nominated in the “anthem” category of the 2015 Progressive Music Awards and conveys its thematic content appropriately through its musical tonality and instrumentation: parallel motion across instruments and voices, often in fourths or fifths, with mandolin (reminiscent of a lute), violin, and strong vocal harmony. The “old world” flavor of this folklore-inspired tune creates an air of wonder and mystery while its guitar hooks and strong vocals make it an instantly memorable composition.
“Lost Rivers of London” comes from the pen of Greg Spawton. More liner notes reveal the song’s thematic inspiration, in particular the fact that there are ancient tributaries of the Thames buried beneath the streets and buildings of England’s capital – springs that can supposedly still be heard “if you listen very hard” and refuse to be contained forever. This is a simple guitar ballad with layers of strings, sweeping half-time sections, and a warbling synth solo. “Mudlarks,” Wassail’s third and most ambitious track, is primarily a synth-and-organ-fronted instrumental with shifting meters, also composed by Spawton. Strong bass presence and flute interjections are bolstered by keys and an extended guitar solo. The track’s brief vocal inserts refer back to “Lost Rivers,” pointing to the connection between the mudlarks and the Thames.
For me, one of the biggest highlights of the Wassail EP was its final track. This recording of “Master James of St. George” comes from the band’s live session at Real World Studios (the entirety of these recordings is slotted to be released, perhaps as early as the end of 2015). “James” is a rich, emotive tune from The Underfall Yard, my favorite BBT release. Enhanced by additional vocals and strings, this live take has all the trappings that remind me yet again why BBT are such a phenomenal band: tight chops, instrumental prowess, impeccable vocals, and deeply nuanced orchestration.
Wassail is a solid EP, even though it barely tops 25 minutes in duration. Individually, each of these fours songs prominently features the band’s newest members at their respective instruments and demonstrates once again the musicianship of a remarkable group of artists. Collectively, these tracks foreshadow the band’s forthcoming material. Wassail is simply another helping (albeit a lean one) of BBT’s stylistic craft: sweeping, melodic tunes, structured to emphasize vocals and storytelling, but not at the expense of the music. There’s enough on this latest EP to keep fellow “passengers” whistling for a while longer as we wait for the Train to once again depart the station.