“This is what I came for, what I longed for. And it changes everything and nothing at all.” These lines from “Oak and Stone” are likely some of the last ever to be heard by David Longdon on a Big Big Train album. As immensely painful as it is to admit that, there is solace to be found in the fact that we have a rich discography to savor which features this remarkable human being and singer, not least of which is represented in “Welcome to the Planet”. There’s a certain inevitability that the words written here will offer less of an album review and more of a tribute to David, such is the despair that we all feel since hearing the news of his passing, and thus the desire to rejoice in every note that he shared with us.
As grace would have it, “Welcome to the Planet” is a magnificent album in its own right, requiring no artificial elevation given the circumstances. Released only a half year after its predecessor – the excellent “Common Ground” – the rollout for the album has involved presenting a new single each month over the past 5 months, meaning that more than half the album has already been made public (a nostalgic video of a 6th song, in tribute to David’s passing, was also released). As always, the music presentation is pristine thanks to Rob Aubrey and the extensive experience of all the musicians involved. While the quantity of new music is somewhat staggering, as fate would have it this provides a much-needed infusion of David’s vocals at such a poignant time. Fortunately, the sustained level of quality is also impressive. Indeed, if we take into consideration “Common Ground” as well as previous album “The Grand Tour”, this latter-day Big Big Train are unquestionably in their prime which is remarkable given how highly esteemed earlier albums like “English Electric” and “The Underfall Yard” are regarded from a decade ago.
“Made From Sunshine” is a glorious opener, in the tradition of other upbeat songs like “Alive” and “Make Some Noise”. Co-written by the two Davids – David Longdon and new guitarist Dave Foster – it welcomes a new baby’s life into the world and a new BBT album into our hearts. Even with drummer Nick D’Virgilio counting in the opening rhythm, the time signature of 11/8 would be daunting to most but somehow the groove rolls off this band with a natural, inviting lilt that uplifts the listener. This lovely piece even incorporates Big Big Train’s signature brass horn section, and introduces us to new violinist/singer Clare Lindley as the vocals are a duet with her and Longdon, representing the parents singing to the new life they are welcoming to the world.
Follow-up “The Connection Plan” keeps the energy up while increasing the intensity courtesy of Longdon’s husky voice riding overtop an impassioned violin phrase and driving bass line. Written by D’Virgilio, its chorus features his stacked vocals which contrasts with Longdon’s lead during the verses and bridges. More focused than the previous combination of D’Virgilio & Longdon’s vocals on “All The Love That We Can Give”, this is an exciting standout track that further exemplifies the talent that D’Virgilio brings to the band. Check out BBT’s website to listen to his impressive demo that was submitted to the band before they added their magic to it. Further on, the D’Virgilio-penned “Bats In The Belfry” continues to show off his skill at wielding the Train’s capacity for engaging instrumentals. In a rare move, the closing section puts the spotlight directly on his drum kit which is a welcome twist as he toys with the beat. As D’Virgilio recounted to me: “Greg suggested I write a – in his words – a tune where I go crazy on the drums. Like I don’t do that already on some BBT songs…HA! I had a short piece of music I wrote for a product demo. To be clear, I work at the music retailer Sweetwater and make videos for the drum gear we sell and sometimes I write some music for those videos. I always wanted to take the little piece I wrote and turn it into a whole song. Now I had the inspiration to do that. For the end part of the song I sort of went with what has been a ‘thing’ for a while now in the drum world. Taking a song and turning the beat around. There are some amazing players on the internet doing such a thing.” Along with “Pantheon” and “Apollo”, D’Virgilio has proven that BBT still have plenty of runway in front of them even if they (sob) need to be without a lead singer for a time.
Bassist and band co-founder Greg Spawton offers plenty of his elemental songwriting, which forms the foundation of what is considered BBT’s classic sound. “Lanterna” begins as a beautiful ballad with soothing harmonies, later picking up speed and culminating with “One day we take ships to the stars” as the violin line and ensuing guitar solo do take us to those celestial heights. Sharing a theme with previous Spawton epic “Atlantic Cable”, there had been a thought to combine the two songs but ultimately they remained separate, providing a thread to connect the two albums instead. “Proper Jack Froster”’s wintry nostalgic setting offers an ideal backdrop to feature many of the band’s top calling cards: the brass section, the ensemble vocals, Longdon’s lead, violin, a soaring guitar solo and Spawton’s fantastic bass work. The lyrics trace a bittersweet partly-autobiographical tale of the innocence of youth, charmingly illustrated in its accompanying video. Speaking of videos, Spawton’s “Capitoline Venus” was originally written as a love song for his wife but becomes transformed in its accompanying video which was made soon after Longdon’s death. A delicate piece, primarily featuring Longdon’s remarkable voice and Spawton’s 12-string arpeggiated guitar, it is a brief sweet treasure in the band’s catalog.
So, what of the other three tracks not released as singles? Guitarist/keyboardist Rikard Sjöblom serves up another fine instrumental, the moody “A Room With No Ceiling”. Like D’Virgilio alongside of him, Sjöblom’s talents in the instrumental domain offer engaging contrasts to the vocal strengths of the band. “Oak and Stone” is an enthralling ballad, stretching out with its piano, brush strokes on the drum kit (is Spawton on acoustic stand-up bass? If not, he should be), violin, and a lovely delivery from Longdon. When he sings the final chorus of “This is what I came for…” there are no supporting harmonies; it is just Longdon’s voice standing alone, claiming this glorious realization as his own. Spine tingling. This moment would have been a fitting way to close the album and perhaps if the order hadn’t already been set before the time of Longdon’s passing, an alternate track listing would have been suggested.
As it is, the title track closes the album, authored by new keyboardist Carly Bryant. Ushered in by the brass band and timpani, this piece is all over the map and a bit of a puzzler. Maybe this is the darker side of “Made From Sunshine”, a cautionary welcoming to the planet for a newborn. When the opening lyrics taunt “Try not to get abducted, try not to be afraid,” one can almost hear the resulting monolog from John Oliver, “Oh, right! If anyone tells me to try not being afraid after telling me to try not to get abducted, you can be #!?!# sure the one thing I’m going to be is VERY, VERY AFRAID!” As the piece progresses it goes from ambient noodling to treading in “Great Gig In The Sky” territory to tearing it up in a New Orleans-style romp, all interspersed with a creepy ensemble refrain of the title phrase. Perhaps some Passengers will love it and the band themselves must approve, having made it the closing title track of the album. But it instinctively comes off more as a B-side to a single, being unlike anything BBT have done before and out of step with the rest of the album. Closing with this piece is certainly a playful risk taken by the band but in retrospect one can wish Longdon’s final BBT album might have ended in a more classic manner.
As most are aware, there was a BBT before Longdon. Will there be after? Whatever course the band now chooses, it goes without saying that the past dozen years have been remarkable in the band’s evolution, providing some of the best contemporary progressive rock the world has heard. The tragedy is undeniable and yet, we are so pained at what we’ve lost precisely because we so loved what we had in David. His eloquence, his sensitivity, his kindness, his sheer talent…all of this makes his transition all the more painful to bear. More than most bands, BBT carries a sense of family which is palpable. Thus, even if we do not know the band members, Sarah Ewing or their supporting crew personally, we collectively feel as though we’ve lost one of our own and we mourn alongside those closest to him. We all share the utter shock and disbelief we felt upon first hearing the news. “Gutted” was the most-used word on social media to describe our response. It will likely take the coming year, and perhaps the one after that, to properly come to terms with this loss. May “Welcome To The Planet” serve its purpose in that process, may it bring as many tears of joy as it does tears of sadness as his voice washes over us one more time. We love you, David.
Released by: English Electric Records
Released on: January 28th, 2022
Genre: Progressive Rock
- Davin Longdon / vocals, flute
- Greg Spawton / bass
- Rikard Sjöblom / guitars
- Nick D’Virgilio / drums
“Welcome To The Planet” Track-listing:
A speedy followup to 2021’s impressive “Common Ground”, Big Big Train continue to display their love for creating artistic music with this welcomed collection. The album features members old and new, multiple songwriters, gorgeous ensemble vocals supporting David Longdon’s charismatic lead, top-tier musicianship and engaging lyrics to sit confidently alongside other classics in the band’s discography. Bearing the burden of an unfathomable loss, “Welcome to the Planet” will serve as a tribute, a therapeutic tool, and sheer musical delight as only BBT can deliver. Long live Big Big Train.