I was not thrilled to be reviewing this album so close to such tragedy. Big Big Train recently lost its voice, David Longdon, in a heartbreaking accident. The band chose to go forward with the release of their already-completed new album Welcome to the Planet. Even more painful, this album might be one of the best of their career. It releases on January 28th, though you can hear most of it online already.
Most of you probably know my history with BBT to some extent. I’ve been a fan for about a decade now, and yet my tastes had started to drift. For their last few releases, I was probably more critical than I should have been. I have to admit that David’s passing has caused me to step back and think about writing negative reviews at all. How do I have any right? I almost feel guilty for reviewing some past BBT albums negatively, and now David is gone. Was it really worth it?
I admired David immensely. I’ve always loved his voice and his quirk. He seemed rather noble with his pastoral tendencies and nostalgic tone. He was eager to discuss the lyrics on each of the albums when I wrote about the English Electric records years ago, and he was gracious in the way he accepted criticism. The “prog” world lost a truly amiable soul in David.
And so I was afraid to approach this release. I did like BBT’s 2021 album Common Ground, better than the previous few, that is. Yet, the idea of possibly not liking Welcome to the Planet almost caused me to skip it. After taking the plunge, however, I was quick to see that this new album represents the BBT I always hoped they could become.
Let me explain that. I do love BBT’s blend of pastoral, folksy ideas with prog rock. They’ve always sounded golden, so to speak. But after a while, it felt like they had gotten into a rut: producing albums that sounded the same. This is my opinion only. What I had always wanted was for BBT to bring some zest or some fresh air back into their sound. Common Ground was a good step towards that, but Welcome to the Planet is the fully realized version.
With this new record, the lineup includes: David Longdon on vocals; Gregory Spawton on bass; Rikard Sjöblom on guitars, keyboards, and vocals; Nick D’Virgilio on drums and vocals; Carly Bryant on keyboards and vocals; Dave Foster on guitars; and Clare Lindley on violin and vocals. Yes, the prog rock remains, but the band is much more sparing with their pastoral and folk sounds. There is a streamlined sense of freshness and modernity that I haven’t heard from them. You will hear more in the way of bluesy and even theatrical songs, tracks that I wouldn’t have ever expected from them. Between the stilting piano, groovy rhythms, and brilliant vocal performances, this record ends up feeling like a true event.
The album makes this known pretty quickly. “Made from Sunshine” opens the record with a gushing, crisp ballad that simply puts joy into my heart. Right after that, though, “The Connection Plan” provides an absolutely stunning, seriously addictive offering. Between the gorgeous, dynamic violin backdrop and the fast-paced verses, the song produces a riveting steam all its own, complete with what I would call some Spock’s Beard accents. This is the BBT that I wanted to hear.
And it doesn’t stop there. “Lanterna” comes next with a huge sound and great energy. “Capitoline Venus” interludes with grace and space. “A Room with No Ceiling” delights us with a dynamic and inventive instrumental. “Proper Jack Foster” gives us an absolutely spellbinding second half with all the gusto and power I could want.
And then the last three tracks arrive. These, besides, “The Connection Plan”, are probably the best on the album. “Bats in the Belfry” is a quirky, spunky, and even weird instrumental with great performances and creative character. I love how it plays with various instruments and solos, and how it jumps around untamed and even a bit dark at times. “Oak and Stone” is a glorious and peaceful piece, sinking deeply into David’s vocals for what feels like the last time. It revels in gorgeous atmospheric keys and hushed ambience, and it soothes my soul.
The title track, though—well, the title track is something unexpected and also something somehow innately BBT to my ears. This regal, theatrical track feels so luxurious and so melodic on one hand, while also feeling ever so slightly macabre and maybe even Bohemian in its style. There are hints of cinematic and musical theater throughout, and the interplay between David and Carly is truly something meant to be, though we are graced with Carly’s voice primarily for this track. The song may feel like pure atmosphere and introspection at times, but it soon rises with a jangling piano rhythm that just feels right, even though it is quite different. This song defines everything the band has been and also what they have become. And it makes me quite proud.
Big Big Train will never be the same after David’s passing. While he wasn’t the original vocalist, I do feel like he was the best, and I think his voice helped create the soul of the BBT we know. Welcome to the Planet is an amazing combination of new ideas with hints of the old, and the entire band performs it with artistic grace and sheer elation. This is the album I’ve wanted since English Electric, Part 1, and it makes me sad that it arrived when it did. Still, this record represents a fantastic legacy for David and for the entire band.
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