February 7, 2024

Despite its fragility and more introspective shades, The Likes of Us ticks all the boxes…

Here beginneth a new chapter in the ongoing saga of Big Big Train. The band’s 15th album The Likes of Us is to be unveiled on 1 March, and is the official full-length debut of new frontman Alberto Bravin, who takes on the unenviable challenge of stepping into the shoes of the dearly-departed David Longdon. Simply replacing such a unique and charismatic musician as Longdon would be impossible, as Bravin is surely aware. So what does he do in a situation where he will be facing scrutiny from Big Big Train devotees, many still stinging from such a tragic and immeasurable loss? He just does what he does best: employs his own powerful voice without copying anyone else’s style or falling victim to frontman clichés. The best tribute he could pay Longdon is to forego any attempt to mimic him (not to mention that he is already an established singer in his own right).

Listening to The Likes of Us, it’s quickly apparent that Bravin – a one time frontman for PFM – was a strong choice to join the BBT ranks. Not only as a singer and instrumentalist, but as a songwriter too (putting pen to paper on several tracks here) and even jumping behind the desk as a co-mixer of the album! The band – already an international outfit with members spread across no less than five countries – also took the unusual step of gathering in Italy (Bravin’s home turf) to make The Likes of Us the old-fashioned way, with everyone in the same room creating music together. This step outside the familiar pays off; the band shaking off any recent staleness that might have crept in, and the new songs radiating a fresh sheen.

The relatively new members mesh well with the longer-serving ones, and the shakeup within the ranks serves the music well. Album opener Light Left in the Day begins on gentle note, with acoustic guitar and Bravin’s heartfelt vocal soon joined by warm, familiar brass, and beautiful piano & violin melodies from Oskar Holldorff and Claire Lindley. The piece quickly energizes and the band fire on all cylinders: Nick D’Virgilio’s outstanding drumming laying the foundation for guitarists Rikard Sjöblom and Dave Foster to dazzle and Greg Spawton to lock in on his Rickenbacker bass (phew! Is that a killer lineup or what?) The track lands – to my ears – as their finest album opener since Grimspound‘s Brave Captain. Its twinkling piano closing abruptly explodes into Oblivion, the album’s energetic leadoff single which many will already be familiar with. Here’s a piece that showcases what a perfect fit Bravin really is, while the whole band dial it up a notch, playing and singing with a real fire. In a fair world, this would be a hit song.

The 17 minute centrepiece Beneath the Masts will be what many fans have been anxious to hear, and it’s unlikely many of them will be disappointed. Opening with mellotron and wistful acoustic guitar & piano, Bravin recounts a sad tale inspired by Spawton’s return to his old stomping grounds in the West Midlands (to visit a dying relative), and his recollection of the massive radio towers which still exist there today. A prime moment arrives with the track’s midway point: a 180-degree shift to a jazzy passage that unfolds into a full-on prog spectacle, complete with tradeoff solos, rapid-fire riffs, and a climactic, soaring melody before ending on an uplifting note. This will undoubtedly be a favourite for many fans who will also be clamouring for it to be a part of the band’s live set. And it probably should be… I feel confident in proclaiming this a new BBT classic!

Miramare is the other epic-length piece on the album, and will nab its own share of the spotlight, perhaps landing more in the BBT storytelling tradition than some of the personal themes found elsewhere on this record. Miramare castle is indeed quite the ‘jewel upon the shore’ as noted in the song’s lyrics – I did a virtual ‘tour’ on Google Maps while listening to the song and each complemented the other nicely. The song begins fairly low-key and takes its time growing in stature. Sjöblom – an immeasurable talent in or out of his band Beardfish – gets in a few distinctive lead vocal lines before the track shifts gears with some spine-tingling guitar and mellotron, and D’Virgilio lays down some thunderous drum parts with Lindley dazzling on the violin. The final movement is heavily accented by gripping guitar and passionate vocals. Yep, this one is a huge winner and possibly my favourite.

Between these loftier pieces, the album is dotted with more standard and concise tracks that provide balance and flow. The growing ‘all epics all the time’ approach from modern prog bands can often prove dense and exhausting listens, so pieces such as these are welcome. The breezy Skates On blends the band’s numerous strong singing voices with a simple Carpe Diem-type lyric, while the pretty ballad Love is the Light stretches out to allow a pair of violin and guitar solos, and the mostly gentle Bookmarks mines the ‘childhood friends’ lyrical territory we can all relate to (and which the lovely cover artwork from Sarah Louise Ewing seems to embody) :

One day we rode out
Side by side
For the last time
Nobody there
Knew we’d not
Ride together again

I’ve mentioned wistfulness already, but it’s a quality that does weave itself around much of this album. It doesn’t strike me as being too much in any one direction, but I suspect a small contingent of people might find it so. But the band are climbing out of a somber period, and presumably now was simply not the time for mucking about and endless joyous romps. Closing track Last Eleven brings the energy level back up to close out the proceedings, with some Trick of the Tail-era Genesis vibes mixed in. It comes as no surprise that the drumming is top-notch (I’d put D’Virgilio up against anybody when it comes to groove, feel, and power), and those bass pedals sound pretty spectacular too (especially turned up loud!) I detect a touch of the band’s much earlier period to it – think English Boy Wonders era – and lyrically it should resonate with anyone who was ever picked last in the school sports teams or felt like an outsider in general. But where this track really succeeds for me is in making me want to spin the whole shebang again. And why not? This is a massively important album for the band and a crucial moment in their history, and they’ve nailed it when and where it counts.

Where The Likes of Us eventually settles on the BBT spectrum will require the passage of time and the familiarity of multiple listens – and naturally that won’t be the same spot for everyone. But in these very early stages, I can say that it stands a chance of being considered among their best… depending on how many one is allowed to include in their ‘Best’ category, of course. Though not left unscarred, the band have weathered their great sorrow and channeled that experience into their collective art, emerging on the other side with an album rich with the hallmarks of their history and catalogue. Their tireless fan base remains eager to support them regardless, but what’s worth pointing out is that BBT have earned that support, and I expect this album will be met with wide-open arms and overall acclaim. Despite its fragility and more introspective shades, The Likes of Us ticks all the boxes: existing fans should love it, newcomers will be drawn in by it, the band can stand proudly behind it, and the spirit of David Longdon is indelibly woven throughout, as though blessing the album’s most emotional moments with smiles and nods of approval. We can all find comfort in the knowledge that he is never to be forgotten, his essence helping to guide this Big Big Train as it chugs away on its continuing travels.

‘The Likes Of Us’ will be released on several different formats, including for the first time as Dolby Atmos and 5.1 mix by The Pineapple Thief’s Bruce Soord, while the stereo mixes were undertaken by the band’s regular engineer Rob Aubrey and Alberto Bravin. The Dolby Atmos mix will come as part of the Limited CD & Blu-ray Mediabook edition that also contains the album as 5.1 Surround Sound & 24-bit high-resolution stereo. The album will also be available as a Gatefold 180g 2LP (available in black, sky blue, olive green and orange formats), Standard CD Jewelcase and Digital Album. The stunning artwork was created by the band’s longstanding collaborator Sarah Louise Ewing, with layouts by Steve Vantsis.