Big Big Train: Chaos Flees Before Beauty
by Bradley J. Birzer
There’s a wonderful cacophony for up to 30 minutes prior to the performance as the members of the audience arrive–also with no preplanned, specific schedule. Some come early, some come late. Some rush in, some meander and converse.
No arrival, tuning, or preparation is ever exactly the same. Ever. Over hundreds of years, no arrival or preparation for the performance can or ever has been repeated. It’s in its genius to be unique. And, yet, when the conductor appears and receives his or her due applause, all things that were spontaneous come to order.
Chaos flees before beauty.
For those of us who have been following the progression and evolution of Big Big Train’s work, this image is apt. For two years now, I’ve considered “The Underfall Yard” to be THE definitive work of the rock world of the past two decades. It stands in line with the best of early Yes and late Talk Talk. Indeed, I’m fully convinced that someone writing a piece similar to this in twenty years or so, will look back on this period as not only the highest part of BBT’s career but as a highlight of progressive rock and certainly of non-classical music.
From “Gathering Speed” through “The Difference Machine” through “The Underfall Yard” through “Far Skies Deep Time,” chaos flees before beauty.
But, as I listen to the promo version of “English Electric Part I” over and over again, I am struck with this crucial realization. Nothing could ever top “Fragile,” but “Close to the Edge” did. Nothing could ever best “The Colour of Spring,” but “Spirit of Eden” did. Nothing could surpass the excellence and beauty of “The Underfall Yard,” but “English Electric” has.
No chaos reigns here. Nor does whirl. But, Heimdahl keeps watch and the world seems just a little more glorious for 59 minutes.
EEP1 is a thing of absolute and intense beauty, truth, and goodness. It comes as close to reaching the Platonic ideal of the forms as any album can. It’s intense, hurried, lingering, pastoral, necessary, longing, bouncy, pleading, satisfying, answering, punctuated, loud, quiet, meaningful, and, over and above all, harmonious.*
Common themes abound throughout–especially the mistakes of men, the genius of the inventor and observer, and the hidden (only because we’ve lost sight) and discoverable mysteries of creation. BBT’s music transcends our day-to-day lives in ways that surpass words. Well, at least they surpass my ability to express all of my thoughts in mere words.
The listener will find himself in the fight of his life in “The First Rebreather.” He will want to drink in the wisdom of “Uncle Jack.” He will want to stand with King Alfred in “Winchester.” He will despise the deceptive with “Judas Unrepentant.” She will be called to nostalgia as the temporal dissolves connecting the past, the present, and the future in “Summoned by the Bells” and “Upton Heath.” The listener will long for the heroism of an absent mother in “A Boy in Darkness.” Finally, the listener will find herself immersed in the very mystery of the cycles of nature in “Hedgerow.”
While an autumnal melancholy permeates all of BBT’s music, “English Electric Part I” possesses a much greater vernal quality than does all of the band’s brilliant works leading up to it. There’s a joy and an emotion in EEP1 that takes not only BBT but also the listener into a new direction.
This English spring is not superficial, as many springs are. Indeed, what BBT has planted here can’t be undone, as it’s rooted in all things that will never die, it’s rooted in eternity itself, and the spheres of Plato’s mythos rejoice and spin.
While I want to be immersed in the music I love (or, I wouldn’t love it), I’ve never quite felt the immersion experience as deeply as I have with “The First Rebreather,” with “A Boy in Darkness,” and with “Hedgerow.” Each of these songs calls forth a powerful and essentially uncontrollable emotional reaction. And, to be blunt, the entire album does this is a way I’ve not experienced since I first heard all of “Spirit of Eden” back in the fall of 1988.
“English Electric” is “The Underfall Yard” but beyond. It is deeper, and it is wider. Here, everything works in perfect justice. Greg Spawton, David Longdon, Andy Poole, Dave Gregory, and Nick D’Virgilio are, for all intents and purposes, JUSTICE classically-defined. As the ancients well understood, justice is “giving each man his due.”
As I think about what must have gone into the making of EEP1, I’m reminded of one of my favorite passages from C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves. In his chapter on friendship, he wrote:
Lambs says somewhere that if, of three friends (A, B, and C), A should die, then B loses not only A but ‘A’s part in C,’ while C loses not only A but ‘A’s part in B.’ In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Caroline joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him ‘to myself’ now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald. Hence true Friendship is the least jealous of loves.
When Lewis wrote this, Charles Williams had already passed away, and his once best friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien (Ronald) had long since disintegrated.
I quote this not to be melancholy but to be inspired.
When Greg and Andy brought in Dave, David, and Nick, they did not merely add, they integrated in the way only true friendship and justice can allow. That is, while Greg brings something special out of Dave G., David L. brings something special out of Greg. Something that only each of them can bring out of another.
BBT is a symbol of all that is good in true friendship. BBT doesn’t just “work,” it thrives and creates and explores and progresses and loves and challenges.
And, how blessed are we to be able to witness and share in such a thing?
Thus, the spontaneous finds order, and chaos flees before beauty.
Thank you, Greg, David, Andy, Dave, and Nick.
*And, just to tempt the future listener a bit: the last 3:13 minutes of the album constitute the single finest conclusion I’ve ever heard to an album. And, yes, I’m including The Beatles and Talk Talk. “Satisfying” doesn’t even capture how good this conclusion is.
**Finally, a huge thanks to my BBT/FB/Twitter friends: Richard, Thad, Lisa, Tobbe, Chris, Frank, Matt, Captain Red Beard, Alison, Nick, Nicolas, and, of course, John D.