This is the first of our Spirit of Cecilia Radio Progcasts, episode one–featuring music by Big Big Train, The Flower Kings, Galahad, IZZ, The Bardic Depths, Kevin McCormick, NAO, No-man, Wobbler, and The Tangent. All songs used by kind permission of the artists/labels.
And, with the fiery and enthusiastic commentary of Dave Bandana, Brad Birzer, and Tad Wert.
Among our topics: how much we miss David Longdon (RIP); if the Flower Kings are diverse in their musical offerings; if disco can be prog; just what the number 42 is about; if The Tangent simply rocks; what kinds of instruments Wobbler uses; how McCormick, NAO, and No-man owe something to Mark Hollis of Talk Talk; and just how much we love prog.
As much as I am happy to see 2021 fade away in my rear-view mirror, it was an exceptionally good year for music. Wait, let me qualify that – 2021 was an exceptionally good year for some genres of music. In broader cultural terms, music streaming services continued their ascendance as the preferred choice of consumers. Spotify, Apple, and Amazon are steadily erasing the idea of the “album” as a listening experience. People can now create their own playlists, mixing artists and genres to suit their personal preferences. In some ways, the compact disc was its own worst enemy. Instead of an album taking 35 to 45 minutes of a listener’s time, artists began adding more and more subpar songs to their releases so as to fill out the 75-minute capacity of the CD. While the extra available time is a perfect fit for progressive rock, classical music, and jazz, it definitely doesn’t work for pop music.
Speaking of which, pop music itself has degenerated into a homogeneous olio of auto-tuned, computer-composed dreck that is as lasting as cotton candy. There are no longer any artists that attract a broad audience that spans ages, cultures, and tastes. Taylor Swift might come close, but her sales (if that concept has any meaning these days) are a fraction of what a 1970s Fleetwood Mac or Elton John achieved. Radio is a spent force, and most teenaged music consumers get their tunes via TikTok and other social media. The days when one could turn on the radio and hear The Beatles, a Motown masterpiece, a Burt Bacharach ballad, some Lee Morgan hard bop, and The Who on the same station are long gone.
However, in 2021 progressive rock continued to champion the album as the preferred musical package. With that in mind, here are my favorite albums of last year. It was such a bountiful crop that I can’t limit myself to a Top Ten; it was hard for me to whittle the list down to fifteen!
15. Arc of Life
This is a side project of Yes-men Billy Sherwood, Jon Davison, and Jay Schellen, who are joined by prog-genius Dave Kerzner and Jimi Haun. While Yes’s album, The Quest, got all the attention, I found myself enjoying this one more. It’s poppier and tighter, with terrific production. Also, the optimistic and uplifting lyrics lightened the dreary early months of 2021.
14.Gary Numan – Intruder
From the light of Arc of Life to the darkness of Gary Numan. His previous two albums, Splinter and Savage were tremendous efforts, and Intruder continues in their synth-heavy style. There’s not a lot of hope in Gary’s outlook on life, but you can’t deny his compositional gifts. Every song satisfies on a gut level.
13. Kevin Keller – Shimmer
One of my favorite contemporary composers, Keller solicited suggestions from his fans and incorporated them into this collection of songs. At times minimalist, other times unabashedly romantic, Keller’s music in Shimmer is always a treat. This is one that will never grow stale.
12. Transatlantic – The Absolute Universe
An unprecedented release from this prog supergroup, and one of their best ever. It came in three versions: the single-CD Breath of Life, The two-CD Forevermore, and the Blu-Ray Ultimate Version. All three are different albums with unique character. If pressed, I prefer the Ultimate Version, but I have really enjoyed immersing myself in each one.
11. Ulrich Schnauss and Jonas Munk – Eight Fragments of an Illusion
I’m such a big fan of Schnauss (Tangerine Dream, Engineers) that I will buy anything he puts out. This is his third collaboration with guitarist Jonas Munk, and, and it is excellent instrumental electronica. Highly recommended for fans of Tangerine Dream, Brian Eno, and American Dollar.
10. Evership – The Uncrowned King
Nashville proggers Evership continue to impress with their third effort. This is a concept album based on an allegory by Harold Bell Wright. This is great prog in the style of classic Kansas or Queen.
9. Leprous – Aphelion
With a name like Leprous, you might think this is extremely dark, growly metal. However, vocalist Einar Solberg possesses some of the most impressive pipes in music. This is a set of songs that are uplifting and thrilling. Leprous is on the verge of breaking into a huge phenomenon.
8. Richard Barbieri – Under a Spell
Barbieri’s previous album, Planets + Persona, was my favorite album of 2017. Under a Spell continues his unique musical creations – part jazz, part samples, part rock, all great. Spooky and comforting at the same time, if that makes sense.
7. NMB – Innocence and Danger
The Neal Morse Band is now a full-fledged collaborative group, and this 2-CD set is their best yet. No concept, just terrific songs. The 31+ minutes long Beyond the Years is one of their greatest epics. The only fly in the ointment is Bill Hubauer’s annoying nasal vocals, but they aren’t distracting enough to ruin the listening experience.
6. Big Big Train – Common Ground
A wonderful collection of songs that cement BBT’s status as the most creative group making music today. The loss of David Longden was one of the most tragic events of 2021.
5. Glass Hammer – Into the Breach
Glass Hammer reinvent themselves once again, this time as ferocious prog rockers. New lead vocalist Hannah Pryor is the perfect person to carry these powerful songs. Messrs. Schendel and Babb never cease to amaze with their endless musical ingenuity.
4. Styx – Crash of the Crown
I never thought I would be raving about a new album from veteran rockers Styx, but this is the real deal. Tommy Shaw has never sounded better, and there isn’t a single piece of filler in this album. Fifteen songs clocking in at 43 minutes, this an impeccably crafted set that was the biggest surprise of 2021.
3. Downes Braide Association – Halcyon Hymns
The fourth album from DBA is their best yet. Chris Braide is a terrific singer, and this is a great set of melodic gems. Each song evokes a pastoral paradise, providing relief from an anxiety-laden 2021. For most of the year, when I couldn’t decide what to listen to, Halcyon Hymns was my go-to album that never failed to satisfy.
2. Lifesigns – Altitude
What a tremendous album, full of gorgeous twists and turns. The title track and Last One Home are two of the finest songs of the year. I listened to this one more than any other, excepting….
1. Frost* – Day and Age
The title track is my favorite song of the year, featuring a killer hook from Jem Godfrey and ferocious guitar and vocals by John Mitchell. A perfectly sequenced album, with musical themes resurfacing throughout, Day and Age is a towering achievement for Frost*. The production is unbelievably crisp and reveals new details with each listen. Hands down, the best album in a year of truly outstanding ones.
I hope my list piqued your interest in some artists you may not have heard before. Here is a Spotify playlist that samples some of the delights contained in these wonderful albums.
Big Big Train are extremely saddened to announce the death of David Longdon this afternoon in hospital in Nottingham, UK at the age of 56 following an accident in the early hours of Friday morning. He is survived by his two daughters Amelia and Eloise, his mother Vera and his partner Sarah Ewing.
Sarah Ewing comments: “David and I were best friends, partners and soul mates and I am utterly devastated by his loss. He was a beautiful person and I feel so lucky to have known and loved him.”
Greg Spawton comments: “We are absolutely stunned to lose David. It is unspeakably cruel that a quirk of fate in the early hours of yesterday morning has deprived him and his loved ones of a happy future together and all of the opportunities, both personal and musical, that awaited him next year and beyond.”
David joined Big Big Train in 2009, immediately making a significant impact with that year’s The Underfall Yard album. He proceeded to record a further eight studio albums with the band, including the forthcoming Welcome To The Planet, as well as fronting the band for a series of highly acclaimed concerts from 2015 onwards. In addition last year he released an album with the late Judy Dyble under the name Dyble Longdon. On the day before his accident he had been in the studio working on a new solo album.
“David made a huge impact on my life both musically and personally,” Spawton continues. “I loved him like a brother and already feel his loss very deeply. He was a true creative visionary with extraordinary depth of talent. But above all he was a first rate and very kind man. His family, friends, BBT bandmates and crew will miss him terribly.”
The band’s Welcome To The Planet album remains scheduled for release on 28th January 2022. A further statement regarding the band’s 2022 concerts and other activities will follow in due course.
The band and their management request privacy for David’s family and friends at this extremely difficult time.
Hot on the heels of BBT’s magnificent Common Ground album comes this announcement of another new album! In the case of Big Big Train, you really can’t have too much of a good thing, so this is welcome news:
Big Big Train – announce new album ‘Welcome to the Planet’
New single “Made From Sunshine” out now
Six months after the release of the critically acclaimed album ‘COMMON GROUND‘, Big Big Train are pleased to announce a new album ‘WELCOME TO THE PLANET’, due out on January 28th, 2022 on their own label, English Electric Recordings.
Big Big Train founder Gregory Spawton explains the short time between albums: “The experience of the pandemic has shown us that we need to make the best use of our time on Earth. With that in mind and with new band members on board giving us a fresh head of steam, we decided on a speedy return to the studio to write and record Welcome To The Planet.”
As with ‘COMMON GROUND’, ‘WELCOME TO THE PLANET’ sees Big Big Train retain their progressive roots but also take influence from all spheres of music. The album’s opener ‘Made From Sunshine’, co-written by guitarist Dave Foster and singer David Longdon, has guitar lines redolent of Johnny Marr and vocal harmonies reminiscent of the Finn Brothers/Crowded House, with violinist Clare Lindley sharing lead vocals with Longdon.
Elsewhere on the album, keyboard player Carly Bryant gets her first Big Big Train writing credit and lead vocal on the captivating title track. The two recent singles ‘The Connection Plan’ and ‘Lanterna’ are included along with a winter themed song ‘Proper Jack Froster’, a bittersweet tale of childhood. The album is completed by the delicate acoustic ‘Capitoline Venus’, the beautiful ‘Oak And Stone’ and a pair of dazzling instrumentals, ‘A Room With No Ceiling’ and ‘Bats In The Belfry’, written by guitarist/keyboardist Rikard Sjöblom and drummer Nick D’Virgilio respectively.
You can listen to “Made From Sunshine” here:
Here is the track listing:
BIG BIG TRAIN ‘WELCOME TO THE PLANET’
Part One Made From Sunshine The Connection Plan Lanterna Capitoline Venus A Room With No Ceiling
Part Two Proper Jack Froster Bats In The Belfry Oak And Stone Welcome To The Planet
For their March 2022 UK tour, which will be their most extensive to date and which will culminate with a show at the prestigious London Palladium, David Longdon (lead vocals, flute), Nick D’Virgilio (drums, vocals), Rikard Sjöblom (guitars, keyboards, vocals), Greg Spawton (bass), Carly Bryant (keyboards, guitars, vocals), Dave Foster (guitars) and Clare Lindley (violin, vocals) will be joined by a five piece brass ensemble. In addition to two further UK shows in September, the band expects to announce North American and continental European tour dates shortly.
Big Big Train release new instrumental single ‘Apollo’ Track taken from forthcoming album Common Ground due out July 30th
“Apollo” is the second track to be taken from Big Big Train’s forthcoming album ‘Common Ground’ due out on July 30th, 2021 on English Electric Recordings. The new album, recorded during the worldwide pandemic, sees the band continue their tradition of dramatic narratives but also tackles issues much closer to home, such as the Covid lockdowns, the separation of loved ones, the passage of time, deaths of people close to the band and the hope that springs from a new love. “Apollo” is a seven-minute plus instrumental written by Big Big Train drummer Nick D’Virgilio and will be an undoubted highlight when the band tour in 2022. “When the time came to start coming up with ideas for the next BBT album, I felt very strongly that we should include a quintessential instrumental track. I wanted to write the band’s version of Genesis’s Los Endos and to make a track that really showed off the talent of all the amazing musicians in this band. I knew that the team could totally play anything I threw at them, and boy, did they prove me right! I thought about the unique instrumentation of BBT. We have so many wonderful ‘voices’ to play with and I wanted every one of them in this song. In the big end bit, I can totally envisage the crowd with their hands in the air going back n forth, all of the lights and haze on the stage, the band just absolutely slamming, the crowd singing along with the melody the BBT brass ensemble is playing, until we reach a glorious end.” Watch the video for “Apollo” here: https://youtu.be/88HHhbD1vFE
‘Common Ground’ sees the band taking in wider musical and lyrical inspiration from artists such as Elbow, Pete Townshend, Tears For Fears, Elton John and XTC, as well as acknowledging their more progressive roots. As ever, Big Big Train will take listeners on a journey, be it waiting for the UK 5pm pandemic press conferences (’The Strangest Times’) to the library of Alexandria (‘Black With Ink’) to the bottom of the ocean (‘Atlantic Cable’).
For the ‘Common Ground’ tour, which will be their most extensive to date and which will culminate in the UK with a show at the prestigious London Palladium, Greg Spawton (bass), David Longdon (lead vocals, flute), Nick D’Virgilio (drums, vocals) and Rikard Sjöblom (guitars, keyboards, vocals) will be joined by Carly Bryant (keyboards, guitars, vocals), who contributes vocals to ‘Common Ground’, Dave Foster (guitars), who plays on two tracks on the new album, Clare Lindley (violin, vocals) and by a five piece brass ensemble. The band expect to announce North American tour dates shortly.
BIG BIG TRAIN UK TOUR 2022
TUE, MARCH 15TH – YORK, BARBICAN WED, MARCH 16TH – CAMBRIDGE, CORN EXCHANGE FRI, MARCH 18TH – BIRMINGHAM, SYMPHONY HALL SAT, MARCH 19TH – BATH, FORUM MON, MARCH 21ST – GLASGOW, ROYAL CONCERT HALL TUE, MARCH 22ND – MANCHESTER, BRIDGEWATER HALL WED, MARCH 23RD – LONDON, PALLADIUM
Big Big Train was initially founded in 1990 and went through several line-up changes, but in 2009 the band decided on a fresh start, and the core of the current version of the band was born. Since then, they have gone on to win four Progressive Music Awards, played sold out shows and seen their last album, 2019’s ‘Grand Tour’, reach #1 in the Official UK rock charts and break into the top 40 in the Official UK album charts. The band toured the UK for the first time in 2019, culminating in a sold out show at London’s Hackney Empire, subsequently released as the critically acclaimed Blu-ray ‘Empire’, and 2022 will see the band performing their largest UK tour to date along with their first ever dates in North America.
My earliest memory is standing on my tiptoes putting Let it Be by The Beatles on my parent’s stereo. I must have been only four or five years old, and I don’t know why my parents let their pre-schooler touch their records. I wouldn’t have.
“I dig a pygmy, by Charles Hawtry on the deaf-aids. Phase one, in which Doris gets her oats.” Then the acoustic guitar, the bass drum, John and Paul singing in unison, and I’m in my happy place – laying on the floor listening to music. Looking up at the ceiling and lost in my imagination. Not much has changed in 45 years.
Besides The Beatles, my parent’s record collection consisted of 1970s staples such as Linda Rondstadt, Neil Diamond (laugh if you’d like), Emmy Lou Harris, Glen Campbell, Loretta Lynn, Bob Dylan, Charlie Parker, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Wes Montgomery, Herbie Mann, and The Moody Blues. I listened to all of those albums except Every Good Boy Deserves Favor by The Moody Blues. The cover freaked me out and planted the seeds of suspicion about Progressive Music (Prog).
Probably as a teenager I tried to listen to it. I imagine that I picked up the needle at “Desolation, creation.” It still sounds stupid, but if I would have stayed with it and listened to “The Story in Your Eyes,” things may have been different.
However, I wasn’t aware of Prog as a thing or deliberately avoiding it until I encountered the anti-Prog bible, The Worst Rock n’ Roll Records of All Time: A Fan’s Guide to the Stuff You Love to Hate by Jimmy Guterman and Owen O’Donnell in a used bookstore sometime in my early 20s. That book was everything a young music snob like me could want, take downs of stupid lyrics and bloated Prog bands on every page. I learned that you could always be cool by ripping on Prog.
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The first album in this batch of DropBox offerings is a wondrous work of art from a group called Loma. They are on the Sub Pop label, of all places, and with Don’t Shy Away they have come up with a subdued, spacious masterpiece. Emily Cross (vocals), Dan Duszynski , and Jonathan Meiburg have collaborated to create music that reminds me of the best of Talk Talk and Laurie Anderson. This is music that takes its time to develop, yet grabs the listener’s attention from the first note. Brian Eno is a fan, and he lends his talent to “Homing”. Cross’s breathy vocals are gently enchanting, while a chugging sax provides counterpoint. On “Jenny”, crickets chirp in the background as muffled drums beat and a guitar is slowly strummed. It’s so inviting – as if they asked the listener to join them in an intimate jam session on their back porch. This album came out of left field, and I can’t stop listening to it. If you are a fan of Kate Bush, Talk Talk, Brian Eno, or Over The Rhine, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.
While St. Cecilia is the patron saint of this site, Big Big Train could be considered the patron group. It was mutual love of their music that brought many of Spirit of Cecilia’s contributors together, and we eagerly anticipate every new release of theirs. The latest from BBT is a recording of their November 2019 show at the Hackney Empire. It’s a very good performance, featuring songs from English Electric, Folklore, Grimspound, and The Grand Tour. For long-time fans, it’s also a bittersweet affair, since it includes the final performances of Dave Gregory, Rachel Hall, and Danny Manners. If you haven’t heard anything by BBT but were curious, this BluRay/CD package is a perfect introduction. David Longdon’s voice is in excellent form, and the band plays even the most challenging passages to perfection. Nick D’Virgilio’s drumming is exceptionally fine. The primarily acoustic “The Florentine” is a highlight with its lilting vocal harmonies and Hall’s ecstatic violin solo.
Back on this side of the big pond, Glass Hammer have released a download-only collection of favorite tracks from their early years. They have rerecorded them, and it is a lot of fun to hear these 20+ year old tracks given new life. I especially enjoy the ones from 1998’s On To Evermore, an album that is one of my favorites of GH, but which slipped under the radar for a lot of prog fans.
Finally, an album from Tom Doncourt and Mattias Olsson, Cathedral. The dark artwork matches the music perfectly, which was composed and recorded before Doncourt’s death in March of 2019. It includes Gregorian chant-like vocals, lots of mellotron and synths, as well as some hard rocking guitars in places. The highlight is the 12:34 long “Poppies In A Field”. Doncourt and Olsson obviously put a lot of thought into the arrangements of these songs, and I am impressed with how they are able to create a unique atmosphere. It is a fitting tribute to Doncourt, and if you are looking for an album to play on a rainy, gloomy Sunday afternoon, then Cathedral will fill the bill.
Okay, that’s the latest from the Spirit of Cecilia DropBox. A true masterpiece from Loma, some fan service from two old favorites, and an intriguingly dark work from Doncourt and Olsson. My next post will be my favorite albums of 2020. We have had a bumper crop of great music this year, so it might be a long one! Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with Loma’s video for “Fix My Gaze”:
Being a fundamentally HUGE (yes, it’s that large!) fan of Big Big Train, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Nick D’Virgilio’s solo album, Invisible. I proudly own his first album, Karma, his first EP, Pieces, every Spock’s Beard album, and Rewiring Genesis. To be sure, I presumed I would like Invisible, as I consider NDV our greatest living drummer, armed not only with rhythm (Holy Moses–that drum kit!) but with vocal prowess as well. And, from what I can tell from social media, he seems like a truly good and genuine person.
All of this adds up to high expectations for Invisible.
Well, it is even better than I expected. And, I expected a lot.
If you asked me to sum it up in a few words or even analyze it track by track, I couldn’t do it. This is a whole work of art—something to be digested in one sitting. Relentlessly captivating, it mixes progressive rock with classical with (ok, I was surprised by this one) with 1960’s style R&B with some mid-1970’s Styx with some punk-tinted Rush with broadway musicals with electronica with funk with straightforward rock and pop. Frankly, Invisible has it all. In this sense, it fits Andy Tillison’s definition of progressive—basically, “whatever I damn well want to throw in, I throw in” (my words, not Andy’s).
What most captures my imagination with the album, though, is NDV’s lyrics—so utterly earnest and so uplifting. In every song, NDV calls us to be our best. That NDV loves life is a certainty as certain that the sun will rise tomorrow, and his joy comes through every song.
If you’re looking for a new BBT or Spock’s Beard album, this isn’t it. And, that’s perfectly fine. Frankly, it doesn’t even really seem like a simple evolution from NDV’s previous solo efforts.
Invisible is . . . beyond all of this in ways that are very difficult to put into words.
But, if you’re looking for something gorgeous, something meaningful, something real, something inspiring. . . look no further. If anything, NDV has proven that real life is quite the opposite of being invisible. Rather, NDV calls us to be our best, to be tangible, and, frankly, to be the incarnate souls we’re meant to be.
Nothing Big Big Train does is unimportant in the world of music or in the larger world of art. As such, its most recent release, Summer’s Lease, is an important cultural marker, a signal act of beauty in a terribly—at least at the moment—ugly world. It’s as though Spawton, Longdon, and Co. are stating: hold on just a bit longer. . . we’ll all make it.
The album begins with the enchanting and pastoral instrumental, “Expecting Snow,” followed by a majestic—and reworked—version of “Kingmaker,” one of the oldest songs in the BBT canon, but a song that never tires and never grows old or out of style. The song is approaching, quickly, its thirtieth anniversary. Again, though, it only gets more interesting with age.
From here, BBT jumps forward two years, to 1995, and offers us a glorious reworking of the very first track to appear on CD, “Wind Distorted Pioneers.” Danny’s delicate-turned-jazz piano work and Rachel’s lush strings (as opposed to heavy guitar) make this a track to behold and celebrate. Truly, this track is a thing of wonder.
The band then gives us an in-studio live version of Swan Hunter’s rather sensuous and pondering “Summer’s Lease” and a subtly reworked version of track two of The Underfall Yard, “Master James of St. George.”
To conclude disk one, BBT offers a slightly shorter version of “London Song.” What was once barely over 34 minutes is now, with a bit of pruning and reworking, just barely under 34 minutes. Each version though—whether the original download or this CD version—is simply outstanding, a manifest demonstration of BBT’s compositional skills and dedication to excellence.
Disk two is, for the most part, much more straight forward with few surprises: “Victorian Brickwork”; “Judas Unrepentant”; “East Coast Racer”; “Curator of Butterflies”; “Swan Hunter”; “Transit of Venus Across the Sun”; Nick’s latest song; and “Brave Captain”.
On disk two, the only real surprise is the just-mentioned Nick D’Virgilio’s latest song, the undeniably mesmerizing “Don’t Forget the Telescope,” a track of seemingly endless possibilities, a tangle of love intertwined in a spirit of exploration. The song feels live, and it feels as though we’re listening to it an Irish baptism or wake (you know, the kind wake that celebrates life) being held on the south side of Chicago in the 1920s. Glorious.
Finally, I must write something about the packaging. BBT understands well that its fan base likes tangible things, and this package does not disappoint. Each of the two CDs come in nice cloth sleeves, the booklet is long (though, in Japanese!), and Sarah Ewing’s artwork is. . . well, just perfect and fantastic. Indeed, this is now my favorite BBT album cover. I would love to own a print of it.
No matter how bleak the world looks at the moment, Big Big Train wields the light, encouraging us to keep going, no matter the cost and no matter the doubt.