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An Ode to Progressive Rock

There are few joys in this insane world greater than the pleasure of really artful music, whatever the genre, whatever the market. And of all of the rock bands in the world, the best might very well be England’s Big Big Train (BBT). [1] Well known in the U.K. and Europe, they remain relatively unknown in North America, to our shame. To my mind, the only band that rivals BBT is Tennessee’s Glass Hammer.

As a band and a project, BBT has been around since the early 1990s. Like most living things, it has aged considerably (though quite gracefully) over the past two decades. Guided by its brilliant founding members Greg Spawton and Andy Poole, BBT is now made up of eight full-time members, including one from Sweden and one from the U.S.

Its most famous member is Dave Gregory, formerly the lead guitarist for XTC. Like every member of the band, Gregory is an extraordinary musician pursuing a high art. He is also, I’m happy to note, a true gentleman and, like everyone in the band, a perfectionist. From the beginning of its existence, BBT has honed its complex song structures, riveting melodies, and gorgeous historical, poetic, and mythic lyrics. Almost all of the band’s songs celebrate excellence, innovation, and struggle. Typical themes include World War I and II ace fighters, beekeepers, medieval saints, architects, and survivors of trauma. Lyrically, the band is levels above almost anything being written in popular culture today, and, in the rock-pop world, certainly well beyond Elvis, Madonna, and Lady Gaga.

BBT resides in a sub-genre of rock music known popularly as progressive rock, art rock, or more affectionately “prog.” Prog began as an attempt in the mid-1960s to present rock music as an art form rather than an emotional reaction. American lovers of prog generally date its advent to “Pet Sounds” by the Beach Boys, while the British usually turn to “Sgt. Pepper’s” as the beginning. One of the most important rules about prog is that there are generally no rules. Traditionally, progressive rock incorporates odd, African-American jazz-like tempos and time-signatures with classical European tonal and compositional structures.

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For a time, between about 1970 and 1976, progressive rock—led by such bands as ELP, Genesis, and Yes—sold millions of records. But the genre faded in the late 1970s, outcompeted by the less complicated (many would say less talented) punk rock movement. Where progressive rock succeeded during this period, it was usually by incorporating elements of hard rock and metal, such as Canada’s Rush, becoming a part of the experimental New Wave and post-New Wave scene, such as Peter Gabriel did, or, lasting just a bit longer, by embracing Cold War existentialism, as did Pink Floyd.

By 1980, though, all but the most diehard fans of straightforward prog—if such a thing could exist or ever did exist—considered the genre to be pretentious, overly complicated, and bloated. Even books that attempt to cover the genre sympathetically, such as Ed Macan’s Rocking the Classics and Dave Weigel’s The Show That Never Ends, are written in the past tense. When most commentators speak of prog, they do so in mocking tones, remembering Yes’s Rick Wakeman wearing gaudy wizard cloaks.

Beginning in the early 1990s, however, a whole new group of progressive rock artists emerged, especially as the internet began to decentralize the music market and connect various parts of the globe, one to another. Between 1994 and 2000, progressive rock once again gained a substantial following in Europe, the Middle East, India, and the Americas.

This movement, known as “third-wave prog,” has yet to subside. In America, Neal Morse, Glass Hammer, and Dream Theater dominate. In the U.K., Steven Wilson, BBT, and Marillion hold prominent positions. (To be sure, the heart of the third-wave resides in England, centered around editor and kingmaker Jerry Ewing and his geekish and stylish Prog magazine.)

For TAC readers, it’s worth noting that a whole host of serious American conservative and libertarian writers—ranging from Steve Hayward to Tom Woods to S.T. Karnick to Jason Sorens to Steve Horwitz to Sarah Skwire to Aeon Skoble to Carl Olson to Bruce Frohnen—share a deep and abiding affection for prog.

Additionally, progressive music has typically embraced intelligent topics, offering cultural and political criticisms that take anywhere from six to (*gasp*) 78 minutes. The average prog song is three to four times the length of the average pop song. Many prog songs remain strictly instrumental in their opening five to six minutes, with the vocalist finally entering long after the average pop song would have ended. And as in jazz, progressive musicians often play extended passages or solos for impressive amounts of time, emphasizing complexity as well as spontaneity.

This brings us back to that English wonder of wonders, BBT. Though Spawton and company had limited success in their first decade, it was not until 2009 that the band’s current form began to take shape. That year, Spawton recruited and introduced three key elements to their future success: the extraordinary American drummer Nick D’Virgilio (younger brother of Mike D’Virgilio of theamericanculture.org); the minstrel English vocalist, flautist, and composer David Longdon; and guitarist gentleman Dave Gregory. The album that BBT released that year, The Underfall Yard, is every bit as good and meaningful as Brubeck’s Time Out, Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends, Davis’s Kind of Blue, and U2’s War. While any listener would expect the traditional rock instruments of guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards to be present, few would expect the incorporation of a full English brass band, woodwinds, and strings. The themes of The Underfall Yard revolve around the mysteries of Venus, abandoned industrial areas as archeological wonders, entrepreneurial visionaries, Dante-esque architects, and electrical storms off the coast of England.

Big Big Train in concert. (Credit: Simon Hogg)

None of this ever screams—or even whispers—pretense. Through the extraordinary talents of BBT, it all comes across as a perfect and necessary whole, as though the members of the band have found something that had always existed in the created order but had yet to be seen since the fall of Eden. Once seen (or heard), it can never be unseen, nor should it be. By the time the listener reaches the end of The Underfall Yard, he cares immensely about that which has been lost and should never have been forgotten:

These are old places stood in the way,

Grass grown hills and stone.

Parting the land

With the mark of man,

The permanent way.

Using available light,

He could still see far.

Far have we traveled from the pop ejaculations of “hey, baby, baby.” Spawton and Longdon reach into the realms of Chesterton, Eliot, and Betjeman.

Indeed, Spawton’s lyrics, as quoted above, might have been written, at least in their intent if not in their wording, by the greatest of 18th-century thinkers, Edmund Burke. We see the past because of the sacrifice of our ancestors. We see the present as a means to honor, through piety, those who struggled for us, whether they knew us or not. And we see the future, however dimly, only by the available light of tradition, reason, and nature. Could this not be Burke’s mysterious incorporation of the human race: the dead, the living, and the yet to be born comprising one profound community, transcending the limitations of time and place?

Since 2009, BBT has grown vigorously, adding a full-time keyboardist, Danny Manners, another lead guitarist, Rikard Sjöblom, and a violinist, Rachel Hall. And since the release of The Underfall Yard, they’ve just kept getting better and better with one masterpiece after another: Far Skies Deep Time in 2010, English Electric Full Power in 2013, and Folklore in 2016, in addition to an EP and two live albums.

I believe 2017, however, has truly been the year of BBT. This year alone, the band has released two full albums [2], Grimspound and The Second Brightest Star, a free 34-minute song “London Song,” and on December 1 a Christmas EP.

There exists not a single false step in any of this. And, despite a mass of releases, quantity has never overwhelmed quality. BBT brims with ideas, especially as Spawton and Longdon play off each other, forming a sort of prog Lennon/McCartney for the 21st century. This is a band at the top of its game, bursting with joy over expressing itself and its art.

Let me note just two additional things.

First, as noted above, there’s a Stoic perfectionist streak in most progressive rock, but none more so than in BBT. When the band releases something, Spawton makes sure every single aspect of it is right, from the music to the lyrics to the packaging.

Second, and equally important, the band members do not see themselves as aloof geniuses, tapping into the esoteric music of the spheres. For BBT, the art is real, but so is the audience. They excel at creating and leavening community, not only among themselves, but for and among the rest of us as well.

As a part of the northern tradition of the Beowulf poet, King Alfred, the eddas, and the sagas, the band sings on one of their 2017 albums:

Here, with book in hand

Follow the hedgerow

To the meadowland

Here with science and art

And beauty and music

And friendship and love

You will find us

The best of what we are

Poets and painters

And writers and dreamers

If you thought rock was an artless and juvenile spewing of emotion, think again.

Pick up any album by BBT and be dazzled, not just by the artistry of the music, but by the invitation to be a part of the art and to become immersed fully into something that is unapologetically true, good, and beautiful.

Cynics need not apply.

Bradley J. Birzer is the president of the American Ideas Institute, which publishes TAC. He holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.

27 Comments (Open | Close)

27 Comments To "An Ode to Progressive Rock"

#1 Comment By Adam Loumeau On December 19, 2017 @ 12:02 am

Prog is my favorite musical genre! Loved this article! May I suggest you check out the greatest band of all-time, namely Opeth? Their last three albums are particularly mind blowing!

Also, Riverside (from Poland) is a tremendously talented band as well. But no one tops Opeth. Check them out!

#2 Comment By Chris C. On December 19, 2017 @ 2:43 am

Ah, how lacking my catalog would be without the likes of Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, Tool and Gordian Knot. Mortuus est autem pop; vivat prog.

#3 Comment By Thom Fish On December 19, 2017 @ 7:29 am

As a long-term British follower of BBT I am delighted to head this accurate and appreciative article. Find the BBT fans on Facebook and join us there.

#4 Comment By FJR On December 19, 2017 @ 7:34 am

Imagine my surprise when one of my new go-to websites publishes an article on one of my favorite bands. I knew there was a reason TAC was special. Perhaps prog is the common ground we can all agree. In addition to conservative and libertarian writers being fans, David Weigel of the WaPo just wrote an entire book on the subject – The Show That Never Ends. Thanks for spreading the word on BBT. Hopefully this will inspire them to make a trip to the US.

#5 Comment By Mike Dahlke On December 19, 2017 @ 7:45 am

Thank you for a great overview of BBT. I have been a fan since “The Difference Machine”, and preach the gospel of the band far and wide. I keep hoping to see them live here in the US some day soon. As a 61 year old fan of prog since the heady days of Yes, ELP, and King Crimson, I am absolutely giddy at the number of prog bands working and recording today. It feels like a golden age for the genre.

#6 Comment By Slev On December 19, 2017 @ 9:15 am

Do you mean Lenin and McCarthy?

#7 Comment By Sam Hunt On December 19, 2017 @ 10:51 am

Very pleased to see an article in TAC on prog. Would also like to see some of the other writers listed offer their thoughts on this genre. How about a regular guest column on prog? Especially thankful for Mr Birzer’s willingness to share his knowledge about a band I’ve heard a lot about but have barely heard a note on either American or internet based radio. Prog Magazine is definitely the go to source for this genre. Keep an eye out for the Mike Barnes book on prog coming out in March 2018.

#8 Comment By Richard Morgan On December 19, 2017 @ 11:23 am

I too am a devoted fan of BBT, and had the joy of seeing them play live in September in London. They are every bit as wonderful as Bradley describes! I hope his article will help spread the joy of their music to many more listeners.

#9 Comment By david On December 19, 2017 @ 11:40 am

Prog has its virtues, but can you dance to it? The answer is no

#10 Comment By Bradley J. Birzer On December 19, 2017 @ 11:40 am

Adam, I’ve never gotten into Opeth, but I will give them a try again. I definitely love Riberside. Thom, thank you! Yes, I’ve been a Passenger for a decade now on Facebook. I’m not as active as I used to be. FJR, thank you! So glad that TAC indulges my quirks. Mike, glad to know a fellow Progvangelist. Steve, yes, totally my mistake. Should be fixed soon. Thank you. Sam, can you have Mike Barnes contact me? We’ll make sure the book gets reviewed. Thanks!

#11 Comment By Todd Morse On December 19, 2017 @ 11:43 am

BBT are supurb!! I first read of them in early 2017. I saw their videos at Live at Kings Place London, August 2015 and was blown away!! Of this sub genre of Prog… they are at the top

#12 Comment By Matt On December 19, 2017 @ 11:56 am

Glad to see an article linking prog and conservatism. I’ve noticed over the years that prog musicians have a certain disposition towards conservatism (or maybe it has just been wishful thinking).

Glad to see Adam (an above commenter) promoting Opeth (not that they need it, though), but he is forgetting that Opeth’s greatest album is Ghost Reveries 🙂

And glad to see a mention of Glass Hammer. Maybe they’re a bigger band than I thought…

Have heard of, but not heard, Big Big Train. I’ll have to give them a listen!

#13 Comment By Carl E. Olson On December 19, 2017 @ 12:55 pm

Lovers of prog and admirers of the great Dr. Birzer may want to check out [3], which Brad created a few years ago after he and I had some talks about having a music blog allowing for our eclectic tastes in music (I’m more of a jazz guy, but listen to a lot of prog). Brad is the heart and soul of the site, but there are a couple of dozen contributors, writing about the entire range of prog (old, new, bucolic, metalish, American, European, etc).

#14 Comment By SmoothieX12 On December 19, 2017 @ 1:17 pm

Thank you very much for introducing me to this, shamelessly overlooked by me, treasure. There is a definite flavor, a feel, to them: mix of early Steve Hackett solo albums (such as Voyage of the Acolyte), Marillion and even some references to King Crimson. Delicious!

#15 Comment By SmoothieX12 On December 19, 2017 @ 1:56 pm

@Adam

Prog is my favorite musical genre! Loved this article! May I suggest you check out the greatest band of all-time, namely Opeth?

No mellotron–no real art rock;) Opeth are very good but they are progressive metal band primarily. Even Iron Maiden have some manifestly progressive moments. BBT (I just finished listening to their English Electric Part 1) is exactly what doctor prescribed. They ARE the (new-old) sound of progressive rock as God intended;)

#16 Comment By Paddywagon On December 19, 2017 @ 2:18 pm

Mr. Birzer et al,

I had only heard in passing of BBT, but had not listened to them until just now. As I’m writing this, I’m finishing the last song “Hedgerow” on the album English Electric.

I must say, wow! Your recommendation did not disappoint! To me, BBT harkens the best of early Genesis, Yes, etc., while itself not being derivative. The guitar riffs seem straight out of Steve Hackett’s playbook, the keyboard work evokes Tony Banks or Rick Wakeman, and the vocals are a perfect blend between Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, and even Steve Winwood. But again, this band sounds fresh and original. Superb!

I’ve been trying to figure out what to get my dad for Christmas (he got me into prog), so I’m going to order three or so BBT albums for him today!

#17 Comment By russ On December 19, 2017 @ 4:04 pm

Cool stuff. Just listened to London Song: [4]

We listen to a lot of prog rock and metal at my “office” (brother-in-law’s home office) while we work (technical writing). It’s really suitable for the work we do.

BBT seems a bit lighter than where we usually end up, but I’d characterize it as good music to give a spin in the morning, while the coffee is flowing and energy is high. The after lunch doldrums and final push of the day need to be turned over to straight-up gritty metal (The Lord Weird Slough Feg, anyone?) or to pretentious power metal (ala Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody), or at least a band like Haken, whose music is kind of all over the place, but probably characterized best as pleasant progressive metal.

Here’s one of Haken’s best songs on what is probably their best album (yet, they seem to keep improving):
[5]

Back to Big Big Train, after listening hardly at all, I hear Neal Morse and Jethro Tull. I’m sure there are even more influences/cross-pollinations if I continue listening.

#18 Comment By EngineerScotty On December 19, 2017 @ 5:45 pm

How can any history of early prog not mention Jethro Tull–both for advancing the musical art, and for demolishing the pretense thereof? Thick as a Brick is a classic in the genre, even as it gleefully chews on the hand that feeds.

#19 Comment By Tony Joyner On December 19, 2017 @ 9:12 pm

Thanks for the tip on BBT! I hadn’t heard of them before reading this. Their sound reminds me very much of The Flower Kings, another great Prog band whose lead vocalist Roine Stolt was part of the great superband Transatlantic with members of Marillion, Dream Theater and Spock’s Beard.

#20 Comment By Rev. Jay Watson On December 19, 2017 @ 10:15 pm

Dr. Birzer, thank you for this fine, concise, and illuminating paean to the wonderful genre of Progressive Rock music in the work of Big Big Train. This is a band that any genuine conservative can embrace and thus be awarded a brief respite of homely enrichment of the soul.

#21 Comment By Adam Loumeau On December 19, 2017 @ 10:46 pm

@SmoothieX12

Opeth are very good but they are progressive metal band primarily.

Correction, Opeth USED to be progressive metal primarily. Like I said before, check out their last three albums. Not much progressive metal to be found.

As for Ghost Reveries, yes that is an incomprehensibly good album (my second favorite, behind Heritage). But not everyone is amenable to the “cookie monster” vocals. Hence, my recommendation for beginners to start with Opeth’s last three albums.

#22 Comment By LouB On December 20, 2017 @ 10:23 am

Here’s some heresy;

BBT is what Genesis might have been.

Yep, they are a darned good slice of prog at it’s very best.

#23 Comment By Ian Oakley On December 22, 2017 @ 5:06 am

Bit of criticism- Article jumps straight from first to ‘third wave’ – Sites Marillion as a third wave act when they were THE number 1 million selling ‘second wave’ act and perhaps other than the big three the must commercially successful prog band there has been …
Unfortunately BBT are also not that well known in Europe as the article seems to suggest but have a reasonable cult following Other than that good article

#24 Comment By Joe Field On December 22, 2017 @ 4:22 pm

Thanks for this, Brad. You’ve articulated what many of us BBT fans, the “Passengers,” have felt deeply.

This is a band that works on all levels: Memorable music, masterfully played and performed, with a connection to their fans that is unsurpassed.

“A river flowing from the chalkhills
Through the water meadows and the open fields
All you see is set out before you
All you need is walking beside you.”

Indeed.

[6]

#25 Comment By GeorgyOrwell On December 26, 2017 @ 8:31 am

The best kept secret for the future of Prog
[7]

…and we got the new team coming up, and ah, I am really ah, just enamored with the young lady, which was just with me for photographs, and that’s Rachel Flowers (applause) …she’s over there, …an adorable, amazing, …so talented young lady…
— Keith Emerson, 2014 upon being inducted into the Hammond Hall of Fame by the Hammond Organ Company, at The NAMM Show

#26 Comment By LouB On February 24, 2018 @ 9:28 am

The two PT’s are really good too, if you have the time.
Who are the two PT’s, you ask?
Pineapple Thief
Porcupine Tree

#27 Comment By LouB On March 21, 2018 @ 2:06 pm

Transatlantic (especially Kaleidoscope) is frenetically great stuff