by Geoff Bailie
There really aren’t any rules or right or wrong things to do… but losing a key band member, especially in the tragic circumstances that we lost David Longdon, presents a lot of questions and a range of potential answers. For Big Big Train, it’s clear that it was the band’s intention, reflecting David’s stated desire, to carry on – and that’s what they did: regrouping, finding a new singer/writer/frontman, dealing with some additional line up changes, playing some shows, and setting on a course towards a new album in 2024. So the news of the release of Ingenious Devices initially left me a bit puzzled … was this a backwards step… dare I say, even a retreat to more comfortable ground? Well having listened to this almost 60 minutes of music, like me, you’ll realize it’s neither, and indeed it’s a magnificent addition to the catalog.
It consists of 5 tracks and I’m going to start at the end. The album closes with a foreshadowing of the future – a version of “Atlantic Cable” recorded in Aylesbury in September 2022. This was a show I attended (you can read my review here – Concert Review: Big Big Train – Waterside Theatre) and at that time I was aware that this was a song that David never got to sing live. I remember reflecting how new singer Alberto Bravin managed to both stay faithful to the spirit of the writer/original singer, while bringing his own voice and personality to the song. It’s great to have a track from this show available to illustrate to anyone not able to see that short tour that the band’s future is in safe hands.
The rest of the album focuses on three familiar BBT tracks that the band have taken the opportunity to further enhance. “East Coast Racer” started the English Electric Part Two album and is presented here in a completely new studio version, played by the 2019 line up of the band. Add to that a 17 piece string section recorded in Abbey Road and you have the ultimate version of this track. The music leaps from the speakers with a new richness, vibrancy and presence that demands it is listened to! The BBT Brass is always a treat to hear, but combined with the orchestra it’s symphonic in a way not previously imagined. By the time we reach the signature “she flies”, my breath has been taken away – wow! And there’s still the closing section to come, complete with a Dave Gregory guitar solo that is a masterpiece of performance. Any fears that this is a “filler” release are utterly dismissed… and I guarantee by the time you reach the end of this track, you will want to return to the start and play it again! But don’t … just yet … because…
“The Book of Ingenious Devices” is an orchestral bridge that joins “East Coast Racer” to “Brooklands,” linking these two tracks like a monstrous prog rock epic! From trains to motor vehicles, the theme of man-made ingenuity and technology continues, as do Gregory’s guitar and the orchestra’s dynamism. With fresh drums, bass and bass pedals, this version takes “Brooklands” to a level that I’d suggest the original version never quite achieved – it stands shoulder to shoulder with ECR and holds its own. In particular the middle section, that follows Longdon’s magnificent ending to the “I was a lucky man” refrain, is a brilliant piece of arrangement – cinematic and bursting with energy, it taps into aspects of the song that were previously slightly reserved by comparison. The closing section has the lushness of the orchestra taking a supporting role to David’s vocals, each complimenting the other.
“Voyager” joins directly, taking things off the earth and into space! This track, of the three remakes, is probably the least different from the original, but nevertheless the extra instrumentation and a few new parts mean it feels like a fresh listen alongside the other epics.
I started with the last track and I’ll end with it too. For those of you with tickets for the forthcoming BBT shows on either side of the Atlantic (Cable!), the closing live track will demonstrate that the Train continues to roll, with new band members on board, but still producing that incredible sound. You can’t fail to be impressed by Dave Foster, Claire Lindley and Oskar Holldorff, as this track demonstrates. And the fantastic Alberto Bravin with, perhaps, the toughest shoes to fill, leads the massed vocals of the BBT Choir in the beautiful closing breakdown of the track.
So please don’t mistake this album as a compilations or filler – the reinventions here are truly first class, and the live band “trailer” will leave you inspired to keep listening!
1.East Coast Racer (2023)
2.The Book of Ingenious Devices
5.Atlantic Cable (live)
Alberto Bravin / lead vocals (5)
David Longdon / lead & backing vocals (1,3,4), flute, acoustic guitar, mandolin, percussion
Dave Gregory / electric & 12-string guitars
Andy Poole / acoustic guitar, mandolin, keyboards, backing vocals
Rikard Sjöblom / keyboards, guitars, accordion, backing vocals
Danny Manners / keyboards, double bass
Rachel Hall / violin, viola, cello, backing vocals, string arrangements
Greg Spawton / bass, bass pedals, acoustic guitar, backing vocals
Nick D’Virgilio / drums, percussion, backing vocals
Ingenious Devices is available here: