When you look up into a clear night sky the more distant the star the farther back in time you are seeing it. This is a simple consequence of the finite speed of light but it has profound implications for astronomy. By studying far away galaxies we can look back almost to the dawn of time. In a telescope, “far skies” and “deep time” are synonymous.
When you listen to Far Skies Deep Time, a 43 minute long EP by Big Big Train, it takes you back to the dawn of the progressive music era. The EP was originally released in 2010 but the music on it harks back to nearly 40 sound years earlier. Big Big Train carries the plain vanilla ‘progressive rock’ tag on Wikipedia and no other band that I know sounds more like early Genesis – not even IQ, the band featured in my previous blog post.
Although their roots go back to the late ’80s, BBT, as they are known when a journalist wishes to add a little variety (or just gets lazy), is new to Crotchety Man. They released demo albums in 1992 and 1993, following them with eleven official studio albums, one live album and three EPs. The Crotchety research department has spent a lot of time listening to this material lately and the whole BBT catalogue has brought the old man considerable enjoyment.
It wasn’t easy to decide how to introduce my readers to Big Big Train. Taking their albums in chronological order, it seemed on first hearing that there was not much to choose between them. The Underfall Yard from 2009 had particularly good reviews and the needle on the Crotchety Music Meter did flicker slightly higher there than on the earlier offerings. But Far Skies Deep Time surpassed that high point, creeping up past the midnight zenith reaching for the diamond studded black velvet fabric of the heavens.
The three latest BBT albums, Folklore (2016), Grimspound (2017) and The Second Brightest Star (2017), are described as ‘companions’ to each other, presumably because the compositions were all written about the same time and have a similar feel. Mistress Curiosity prompted the Crotchety ears to sample them and they, too, are fine albums.
The two albums recorded between Far Skies and the Folklore ‘trilogy’ (English Electric Part One and English Electric Part 2) haven’t yet graced the ‘phones and speakers here but the astrological signs for them are very promising. Released in 2012 and 2013 they must have had a bearing on BBT taking the Breakthrough Act gong at the Progressive Music Awards in September 2013.
The time had come to delve a little deeper. The 2011 remastered and re-designed version of Far Skies was ordered from Burning Shed. The original 2010 release had five tracks, starting with Master of Time, a song written by the Genesis guitarist, Anthony Phillips. There was also an import and download version in which that first track was replaced by Kingmaker. The 2011 release retains Kingmaker and adds Master of Time at the end, making six tracks altogether, extending the length to 52 minutes and giving Crotchety Man the best of both worlds.
The package has some of the loveliest artwork ever to appear on the cover of a CD. It has an eight page booklet of liner notes stuck and stapled between the cardboard covers. Each track has a striking illustration by Jim Trainer (about whom Google has nothing to say) alongside the lyrics. The EP is worth the money just for this artwork.
Also in the booklet there is a little information about the band. For the Far Skies EP the personnel are: Greg Spawton (guitars, bass, keyboards), Andy Poole (bass, keyboards), David Longdon (vocals, flute, mandolin and several other instruments), Dave Gregory (guitars and E-bow) and Nick D’Virgilio (drums, percussion, backing vocals). Spawton and Poole founded Big Big Train in 1990; Spawton and Longdon are the primary composers. Nick D’Virgilio was the drummer in Genesis in 1997 and among the guest musicians is Martin Orford, founding member of IQ. The prog rock roots go deep.
Here’s a YouTube video of the first three songs from the original release of the Far Skies Deep Time EP.
The songs here are soft immersive prog rock, many parsecs from anything sharp and metallic. They fill space with keyboard sounds without lobbing artillery shells of distorted guitar chords in our direction. There is guitar work, too, but it is just one thoughtful component of compositions that balance keys, guitars, vocals, bass and percussion deftly, each instrument having a voice, none overpowering the others. There are a few sparkling embellishments, too, from flute, accordion, mandolin, vibraphone and seagulls.
This is intelligent album rock, something to be enjoyed while gazing up into the night sky, deep in meditation, and with no thought of time passing.