I remember 20 years ago when I first bought a ticket on the Big Big Train, by purchasing “Gathering Speed”, a fantastic discovery that I had most positively reviewed a year later. The album garnered praise for its historical revisit of that seminal moment when the Battle of Britain raged above the island’s skies, as bombs rained down from the Luftwaffe and Spitfires raced to save the day. I look back at that review and realize that the title certainly applied to my future loyalty, as I have purchased every studio album since, numbering 12 with this new 2024 arrival. “The Likes of Us” is the first full album featuring Alberto Bravin, who has come to take over from the tragically departed David Longdon as lead vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, and he has fit in seamlessly. There have also been some major personnel adjustments as well, notably Dave Gregory, Andy Poole, Danny Manners, and Rachel Hall have moved on. They have handed over their seats to celebrated guitarist Dave Foster, Oskar Holldorf on keyboards and Clare Lindley on violin. Renaissance means essentially rebirth and that is exactly the one word that defines this release.
From the first seconds of the plaintively crystalline “Light Left in the Day”, a warm balm of serenity greets the listener, a calm after the storm symphonic gem, with a well-crafted and glorious melody, first initiated by voice, then an elegant piano elevates the theme to bloom into quite the ride, the original conductor still at the helm, as Greg Spawton’s undulating bass powers the rhythmic locomotive, just as the synthesizers flirt expertly with the brass crew. The effortless segue into the stormy “Oblivion” showcases the immaculate ability to transition into a rockier piece, powered by a pummelling rhythm section, dual electric guitar weavings, and a passionate vocal delivery that expresses the sense of obvious pain that can overpower human life, as we all must face ultimately numerous struggles, irrespective of our standing on this blue earth.
And here comes the big big one, (you will excuse the easy wordplay), as the colossal “Beneath the Masks” stretches its rails for nearly 18 minutes of chugging splendour, in presenting an entire journey, lush with abundant poetry and charming musical diversity. Nothing is rushed, samey or unnecessary, each word and each sound like a breathing lung, obeying a resilient heart that keeps pumping its oxygen throughout the body and the soul. Dotted throughout with superb sonic adjustments, the vocal delivery seems utterly genuine and committed. Halfway through, the arrangement picks up a fair amount of steam, as hot coals of fiery keyboard and sizzling guitars are tossed into the musical furnace. Intensity, perhaps even delirium is slain by the manifestation of the mighty mellotron, as the celestial station appears in the skies above, where panacea in ambient lament soothes the senses in impending revelation. A voice and an acoustic guitar awaits in magical awareness, finalizing in a sublime emotionally engrossing finale that crowns this majestic epic.
Respite comes in the form of the pastoral “Skates On”, showing off the characteristic British folk tendencies that has an immediacy and a glow that is unique in the musical world, a simple elegance that could make everyone sing along in the pub, warm beer in hand. Some acoustic guitar, violin, and a voice full of hope. Lovely is the word.
Another foremost moment is to be found in another epic piece, the 10 minute + of the cinematic “Miramare”, a look out to the Mediterranean Sea that conjures a slew of adventurous images, Bravin expertly expressing the beauty of a titanic melody crying out for meaningful words. As is often the case with this storied band of devoted team players, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and no single spotlight needs to shine on one particular performer. They all excel at fusing their evident talent to each other as well as the demands of the composition. This is not just playing or jamming, but an incredible thought process, a steadfast cohesion that explains why any progfan chooses to loyally follow this super group of dedicated musicians.
There is nothing corny about “Love is the Light”, a crushingly gorgeous ballad that has a poignancy that veers on tears, not of pain but of pure joy. Bravin delivers a world class performance that oddly enough, reminds me of one of my all-time favourite tracks Anathema’s “Dreaming Light” and Vince Cavanaugh’s extraordinary vocal. The violin, the guitar and the backing harmony choir combined to put me on my knees in sheer submission. Some may find it a bit cheesy but please let me gently remind everyone that France alone can boast of having over 1200 varieties. It is here as a variation piece that has nothing to do with commercialism or radio friendliness, just a song about passion and hope. “Bookmarks” follows a breezy path, sophisticated in its nostalgic simplicity, the violin still streaking along with a classical piano, elevated by some clever string arrangements. This is perhaps the most orchestrated track here, without any need for thunder or lightning.
The finale serves perhaps to illustrate the immense tragedy of losing a close friend and collaborator, as the lyrics clearly evoke those raw feelings. Hence, on one hand, we have sombre clouds of mellotron slashed by a courageous bass guitar line and on the other hand, facing an optimistic violin, a vocal full of resilient positivity and lyrics that seek to defy the darkness and forge ahead with determined courage and devotion to their craft. Musicians should be pretty adept at taking adversity by the horns and inspired enough to express their suffering as well as surmounting it. “Last Eleven” and this album in its entirety certainly puts a massive exclamation point early on in 2024, offering hope in a gloom-ridden world, proving once again as it has so many times done before, that music can be and often is a healing form of medicine with zero prescriptions, no side effects, and no danger of overdose. The RAF saved the day then, BBT does it today. Renaissance indeed.
5 fearless memories