Big Big Train – The Likes Of Us (Album Review)

Review of the new Big Big Train album ‘The Likes Of Us’

by Geoff Bailie

If you’ve delved into Grant Moon’s excellent biography of Big Big Train, you already know that the band’s journey reads like a compelling drama! From years of scrambling for direction and recognition to fluctuations in band membership, breakthroughs, exposure, and moments of tragedy and loss, it’s been quite the ride. “The Likes Of Us” marks the beginning of a significant new chapter, with former PFM member Alberto Bravin taking the lead as singer, musician, and contributing writer, alongside Oskar Holldorff (Dim Gray), both making their album debuts in the band. So, what’s in store?

A stark opening with 12-string guitar (a recurring motif throughout the album!) and Alberto’s magnificent voice gently guides us into the album. The BBT Brass trumpets the arrival of the opener, “The Light Left In The Day,” which smoothly acquaints us with all the individual musical elements of BBT. Settling into this safe space, we’re then thrust into a maelstrom of an instrumental that twists, turns, and leaves you dizzy! With trebly bass picking and a Moog melody, we’re firmly in the world of prog! This high-energy track passes through several varied sections: a violin riff, a crazy squelchy guitar solo, and much more. BBT is back—and they mean business!

Unless you’re saving yourself for the full album experience, you’ll have already heard “Oblivion,” the NDV / David Foster track that served as the lead single. What struck me by the time this track finished was how absolutely organic it sounds. If you follow the band, you’ll know that most of their recent albums have been assembled with musicians working remotely (which, I must say, was in no way detrimental!). However, this BBT album was recorded together, with Greg and Alberto revealing in a recent podcast that much of what you hear within the backing tracks was played live, together in a room. It’s the careful and clever arrangements in each song that allow that connectedness and synergy to shine through. I haven’t heard the 5.1 or Atmos versions, but even my review download feels like I’m in the room with the band. Those arranging skills mean the pulled-back mid-section of the song lands well with the listener before the main riff brings the song to a close! It’s a fantastic sound—BBT, yes, but fresh and renewed straight out of the blocks!

The two openers have warmed us up for the almost 18-minute epic, “Beneath The Masts.” Where “Oblivion” was urgent, this track is mellow—those 12-string guitars are back, and it’s easy to get entangled (yes, pun intended) in their gentle patterns. This track offers a fantastic opportunity to savor the magnificent vocals of Alberto Bravin. In the world of BBT fandom, David Longdon will never be forgotten, but the new hues and shades that Bravin brings to the band carve a fresh niche. And while I’m on the subject of vocals, a shout-out for the harmonies on this album: with Nick D’Virgilio, Rikard Sjöblom, Clare Lindley, and Oskar Holldorff, already “lead singers” in their other bands, the sonic power of their combined voices is amazing.

The song itself is a fantastic Spawton tale of a return to the area close to where he grew up, whose skyline was dominated by two large radio masts (hence the title). The melancholy of coming to see his stepfather, who is seriously ill, is melded with the nostalgia of his return and the memories it invokes. Line this one up against BBT epics of the past, and there’s a very notable difference—as a movie poster once said: “This time, it’s personal!” The lyrics delve deep into the emotions swirling around in the writer’s mind, combining locations and situations. What it has in common is that the music and words strike a massive emotional chord with the listener, and the themes are universal: a sense of returning home; seeing your past, including what remains the same and what has changed; a feeling of the passing of time and the drawing in of mortality—universal themes that will strike a chord! One for the live show, please!

“Skates On” is a shorter song, a natural follow-on from the previous track. If you’re not familiar with the vernacular “get your skates on,” it means “hurry up.” This straightforward song has a carpe diem theme, and it’s a nice interlude between the album’s longest tracks.

If you’re a fan, you’ll have heard a slightly edited version of the next track, “Miramare.” I’ve already mentioned the vocals, and this song is full of melodic highlights. Starting softly, some scraping violin leads to some amazing playing by Claire Lindley in a racing mid-section. As the track drops back and Alberto sings, it strikes me how rich an instrument his voice is, both in its range and in how it can sound completely different, even in different sections of the same song. A short guitar solo leads to a final section that I feel evokes the castle in Trieste that’s the subject of the song—another classic BBT story song!

Perhaps the most “accessible” song on the album is “Love Is The Light.” Again, the theme of the song is a very personal one, encouraging taking each day for what it’s worth and focusing on the important things in life. Alberto’s falsetto is a very distinctive melodic hook in the song, and the guitar work, brass section, bass pedals, and NDV’s tasteful drumming are really excellent. I’m already dreaming of joining the Passengers’ choir to sing the ending of this one! “Bookmarks” sees the return of the 12-string guitar on another Spawton/Bravin co-write, showing what a great new writing combination the band now has. There are some nice melodic and lyrical cross-references in this song that you’ll pick up with a few listens.

“Last Eleven” you might have heard before, but it completely fits with the tone and sound of this album. With a funkier edge to the rhythm section than elsewhere, NDV’s vocals add some extra weight to the opening and verses. Lyrically, I’ve always enjoyed this song (probably because I can associate with some similar childhood experiences, especially when it came to sport!). The songwriting magic here is that it takes the theme of those overlooked and in the shadows and turns it into a triumphant hymn to survival and strength! It’s the best ending the album could have!

After playing this album while writing my review, my music library switched to the last studio album, “Welcome to the Planet,” immediately after. It’s an album I love, but listening to them back-to-back made me realise how much of a shift in style and sound “The Likes Of Us” represents. That’s not meant to downplay “WTTP,” but rather to highlight how the new lineup has consolidated the band’s past, course-correcting the train in a slightly different direction. With an album like this, the weight of the InsideOut label behind it, and a renewed impetus for touring, big big things surely lie ahead?

In ‘The Likes Of Us,’ Big Big Train have crafted a musical experience that’s as raw as it is refined. A testament to resilience and creative evolution, this album demands your attention and will reward your listening investment.

Released on March 1st, 2024 on InsideOutMusic

1. Light Left In The Day 06:10
2. Oblivion 05:27
3. Beneath The Masts 17:26
4. Skates On 04:28
5. Miramare 10:17
6. Love Is The Light 06:11
7. Bookmarks 06:23
8. Last Eleven 07:55

Alberto Bravin / lead vocals, guitar, keyboards
Nick D’Virgilio / drums, percussion, vocals, 12-string acoustic guitar, vocals
Rikard Sjöblom / guitars, keyboards, vocals
Greg Spawton / bass guitar, bass pedals, 12-string acoustic guitar, Mellotron
Dave Foster / guitars
Oskar Holldorff / keyboards, vocals
Clare Lindley / violin, vocals

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