Here are three reviews of 2019 releases that fit under sub-genres of rock – the progressive rock of Big Big Train, the punk rock of Fontaines, D.C., and the experimental math-rock of Black Midi. All three are from the British Isles – Big Big Train are up to their 12th record, while Fontaines, D.C. and Black Midi released their debuts in 2019. Hope you find something to enjoy!
Big Big Train
Most bands release their most loved records within their first decade, then gradually lose key members and slide toward irrelevancy. Big Big Train have somehow done the opposite – the band were formed in 1990, but 2009’s The Underfall Yard was the album that gained them significant attention in the progressive rock community. Greg Spawton is the only constant member, and he’s since been joined by key personnel like former XTC guitarist Dave Gregory, former Spock’s Beard drummer Nick D’Virgilio, and vocalist/flautist David Longdon.
It’s arguable whether there’s anything progressive about Big Big Train’s progressive rock. The oft-cited point of reference is 1970s Genesis, and Big Big Train share many traits – notably a penchant for acoustic pastoralism and Longdon’s husky voice which recalls Peter Gabriel.
The title of twelfth album Grand Tour refers to wealthy Europeans taking a Grand Tour of the continent, taking in art and science. Lengthy suites like ‘Roman Stone’ and ‘Voyager’ provide the progressive heft, although often the shorter pieces are more effective. ‘Novum Organum’ is a beautiful pastoral opener, while ‘Theodora in Green and Gold’ is also lovely, featuring D’Virgilio’s prettier vocals. Whereas most of the arrangements could have come from a 1970s prog-rock album, ‘Alive’ adds a modern sheen that works well.
Contemporary progressive rock is like a small alcove of modern music, beloved by committed acolytes but overlooked by most music fans. Grand Tour feels like a museum piece, due to both the musical style and the theme, but there’s plenty of excellence all the same.
The D.C. in Fontaines D.C. stands for Dublin City – the band were forced to modify their name due to another group with the same moniker. The five members – Carlos O’Connell, Conor Curley, Conor Deegan, Grian Chatten, and Tom Coll – have a staggering preponderance of names beginning with C, and met at music college in Dublin. They discovered a shared love of poetry, and have together released two volumes of poetry. Dogrel is their debut album, named for Doggerel, working class Irish poetry.
Vocalist Grian Chatten grew up in Dublin County, and his thick Irish accent is perfect for the band’s punk attack. Fontaines D.C. are often classified as post-punk, but their guitars, bass, and drums arrangements remind me of straightforward punk; with Chatten’s gruff vocals, they resemble early material from The Clash and The Jam. Their lyrics are less nihilistic than you’d expect from a punk band, instead laced with the touch of romance that you’d expect from poetry students (“Well, Dublin in the rain is mine/A pregnant city with a catholic mind”).
With Brexit, Trump, and a growing concentration of the world’s wealth in the hands of the elite, conditions are certainly ripe for a new wave of political punk. In ‘Boys in a Better Land’, Chatten quotes a driver who “spits out “Brits out””, over a stomp that recalls The Stooges. ‘Liberty Belle’ recalls the straightforward British punk of the late 1970s, but the lyrics are noticeable articulate, with lines like “of the marriage of the socialite’s money to another one’s land”. The closing ‘Dublin City Sky’, is a distinct change of pace, a folk inflected piece that recalls The Pogues.
Like a good punk album, Dogrel prospers due to its visceral energy – a forty minute jolt of thoughtful momentum.
Like Dogrel, Schlagenheim is a debut album, and it’s also produced by Dan Carey. But the similarities largely end there – there’s some post-punk edge to Black Midi, but their experimental rock is convoluted and arty, drawing on the intricacies of math-rock. The roots of math-rock include the progressive rock of King Crimson and 20th century classical like Steve Reich, but more specifically Black Midi recall the guitar interplay of Kentucky post-rock combo Slint.
The four members of Black Midi are young, but nonetheless there’s a lot of instrumental firepower. In particular drummer Morgan Simpson is a virtuoso, but Schlagenheim is full of great riffs courtesy of guitarists Geordie Greep, Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin, and bassist Cameron Picton. Before recording their debut Black Midi recorded a live album with experimental rock legend Damo Suzuki, former vocalist with Can.
In contrast to their instrumental prowess, the group’s vocals are less convincing – Greep’s voice is cartoonish, while Picton’s voice is plainspoken and low key. It’s hard to know what vocals would work ‘well with this convoluted music, but the reason to listen to Black Midi is for the sophisticated instrumental interplay and headbanging riffs, and not the singing.
‘953’ explodes out of the gate with its heavy guitar riff and complex time signatures, while the tense and repetitive riffing of ‘Bmbmbm’ suddenly explodes into chaos. The intricate guitars of ‘Western’ recalls the interplay of Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew on King Crimson’s Discipline.
Black Midi are barely old enough to vote, but there’s already impressive virtuosity and head-banging riffs on Schlagenheim.