Originally founded by songwriter Greg Spawton in 1990, English progressive rock band Big Big Train have continued to endure more than three decades later. 

Following a number of line-up changes over the course of their first five albums, the band’s breakthrough came with the recruitment of lead vocalist David Longdon and drummer Nick D’Virgilio (Spock’s Beard). Longdon had famously auditioned to replace Phil Collins as lead singer in Genesis following Collins’ departure in 1996, though that role was ultimately filled by Ray Wilson–who contributed vocals to the band’s final studio album Calling All Stations (1997).

Big Big Train’s sixth studio album and the first to feature Longdon’s vocals, The Underfall Yard, received critical acclaim in progressive music circles immediately following its release in December 2009. Over the next decade, they went on to win four Progressive Music Awards and played a number of sold-out shows in several countries.

Big Big Train The Likes Of Us 5.1 Atmos Bruce Soord

In August 2014, this latest lineup of the band (now also featuring former XTC guitarist Dave Gregory) gathered at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios to rehearse for an upcoming series of concerts at London’s Kings Place venue–their first live performances in nearly two decades. These rehearsals were recorded and filmed for a now out-of-print Blu-Ray release entitled Stone & Steel, which served as my introduction to Big Big Train.

Stone & Steel was also notable in that it represented the band’s first foray into the world of immersive audio. Big Big Train is an unusually large ensemble, perhaps too big for a traditional two-channel stereo mix to contain. In addition to the core group of Spawton, D’Virgilio, Longdon, and Gregory, Stone & Steel additionally featured Danny Manners on keyboard, Rachel Hall on violin and cello, Rikard Sjöblom on guitar, and a three-piece horn section. Sjöblom, Hall, and D’Virgilio also contributed harmony vocals.

All the ingredients for a multichannel experience were there, and the band’s longtime live sound engineer Rob Aubrey (with input from ‘surround sound consultant’ Neil Palfreyman) didn’t disappoint with his 5.1 take on the performance. The 5.1 surround sound mix of Stone & Steel placed the listener in the middle of the band, with elements such as harmony vocals, keyboards, and horns isolated in the rear speakers.

Big Big Train The Likes Of Us 5.1 Atmos Bruce Soord

The success of Stone & Steel led to three more live Blu-Ray releases with 5.1 surround sound audio: 2019’s Reflectors Of Light (documenting the band’s October 2017 performance at London’s Cadogan Hall), 2020’s Empire (capturing the band live in concert at London's Hackney Empire in November 2019), and 2022’s Summer Shall Not Fade (showcasing their epic July 2018 performance at Germany’s historic Loreley amphitheater).

Big Big Train had planned their first-ever tour of the United States in 2020, but their plans were ultimately hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic. In November 2021, fans were shocked to learn of the unexpected passing of David Longdon after a tragic accident at his home in Nottingham. The band would ultimately elect to continue on, with Italian singer/songwriter Alberto Bravin brought in to fill Longdon’s shoes as frontman. 

Bravin performed live with Big Big Train for the first time in September 2022, along with several other new recruits that appear on the new album: Norwegian keyboardist Oskar Holldorff (Dim Gray), British violinist Clare Lindley (Stackridge) and guitarist Dave Foster (The Steve Rothery Band, Mr So & So). Between August and September of 2023, the band played 17 shows in nine countries.

Now signed to InsideOut Music, the band are due to release The Likes Of Us–their 16th(!) studio album, and the first to feature Bravin’s vocals–on March 1. The Likes Of Us will be available in a variety of physical formats, most notably a CD/Blu-Ray set featuring 5.1 surround sound & Dolby Atmos mixes from The Pineapple Thief’s Bruce Soord. This marks the first occasion that a Big Big Train studio release has been remixed in an immersive format. Soord’s Dolby Atmos mix is also available to stream on Apple Music, Tidal, and Amazon Music.

Big Big Train The Likes Of Us 5.1 Atmos Bruce Soord

One of my favorite aspects of past Big Big Train releases was always the harmonies between David Longdon and drummer Nick D’Virgilio (a more-than-capable singer in his own right) in songs like “The Florentine,” but Bravin and D’Virgilio’s vocals compliment each other just as well in newer tracks such as “Skates On.” Of course, the big multi-part harmonies from the entire band are simply glorious. When all their voices perfectly collide at the climaxes of “Beneath the Masts” and “Last Eleven,” the emotional impact is palpable.

Though Bravin and Rob Aubrey did a great job on the stereo mix of The Likes Of Us–it’s a propulsive, dynamic listening experience–I think Bruce Soord’s Dolby Atmos mix is definitely the best way to experience this amazing new record. Soord remains one of the few mixers to really take advantage of all the possibilities that object-based immersive audio offers. Though some individual sounds do appear largely isolated in specific speakers, other elements seem to float out into the room with pinpoint accuracy. 

Take for example, the delicate acoustic intro to “Beneath The Masts.” Acoustic guitar first appears solely from the rear surrounds, while the lead vocals and piano seem to hang right in front of your face. Even though there’s only three elements in play during this passage, the mix fills out the entire space nicely.

“Since you only have 120 objects to work with in Atmos, it was a challenge to fit everything in. I had to be really creative in terms of the grouping. Greg [Spawton] came down to listen in my studio and he loved it. [The Likes Of Us] really was made for surround sound.”

Bruce Soord, February 2024

The coolest aspect of the Atmos mix would definitely have to be the treatment of Nick D’Virgilio’s drums. The kit takes up the front, front height, and side surround channels (there’s little-to-no drum sound in the rears or rear heights), forming an upside-down U-shape arc in front of the listener. The snare seems to favor the front heights at times, while the big tom-tom fills extend out towards the side speakers.

The album begins with “Light Left In The Day,” essentially a long instrumental with a short vocal-and-piano preamble. This piece functions as a sort of overture for The Likes Of Us, showing off the interplay between all the different elements in the band (horns, guitars, piano, etc) and allowing the individual soloists to show off a bit. The horn section appears mostly from above, with piano lifted upward from the fronts and a guitar solo mostly in the side surrounds.

“Oblivion,” the first single released from the album, shows off Big Big Train’s harder rock side. I thought Bravin’s more-aggressive vocal delivery in this song somewhat evokes Steve Walsh from the classic Kansas records. Backing vocals (“captured in the moment…”) pop up from behind, while Rikard Sjöblom’s lead guitar blasts mostly from the front heights.

Big Big Train have long followed in the footsteps of the classic British art rock acts of the 1970s with their extended story-based compositions, and The Likes Of Us continues this tradition with three longform epics: “Beneath The Masts,” “Miramare,” and the empowering closer “Last Eleven.” Though I’ve never really been a fan of side-long progressive rock epics like Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick (1972) or Yes’ Tales From Topographic Oceans (1974), “Beneath The Masts” flows remarkably well and manages to justify its nearly 20-minute runtime.

After a beautiful acoustic guitar and piano-led intro section, the song notably shifts gears at around the four-minute mark with the addition of electric guitar and the rhythm section. Harmony vocals soon surround the listener (“that’s how things are…”), leading into a short bass solo from Spawton. Taurus pedals underpin Bravin’s vocals (“it’s been a long journey home…”), and I love that atmospheric call-and-response bit between the horns and violin at around the seven-minute mark–it really gives the impression of being in the crow’s nest of a ship on a foggy night, looking out over the waves.

There’s a particularly wild passage around nine minutes in, where the organ swirls around the overhead speakers while a second synth part circles the bottom array simultaneously. Horn blasts from above alternate with keyboards below, giving way to furious solos from Rikard Sjöblom in the side surrounds and Lindley in the rears. After a mellower piano-and-vocal interlude starting at around the 13-minute mark, the song concludes in spectacular fashion with a blast of multi-layered vocals and a soaring guitar solo.

Big Big Train The Likes Of Us 5.1 Atmos Bruce Soord

Acoustic guitars fill up the side surround and height speakers for “Skates On,” with rear-panned harmonies from Nick D’Virgilio perfectly complimenting Alberto Bravin’s lead vocal upfront. Additional group vocals (“there’s light left in the day…”) cascade all around the room to great effect. The historical epic “Miramare” (taking its name from the 19th-century castle in Trieste, Italy) then features more all-around harmony vocals, with piano floating between the front and front height speakers.

“Love Is The Light” is another highlight, showcasing Clare Lindley’s violin from the top array while piano extends upwards from the side surrounds. More guitar solos from Sjöblom appear both from upfront and behind, along with flute and D'Virgilio’s harmonies in the rear. Finally, the closing track “Last Eleven” kicks off with a pair of electric guitars hovering between the rear surrounds and rear heights. Mellotron fills up the sides and tops, and the short synthesizer solo at around the 5-minute mark appears entirely from above. 

The Likes Of Us is a remarkable achievement for the band: a triumph of songwriting, composition, and performance in the wake of tragedy. Though obviously different from David Longdon, Alberto Bravin is an equally-excellent singer and seamlessly slips into the role of frontman. The album is sure to please fans of Big Big Train both old and new, as well as those seeking out an incredible immersive audio experience. 

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About the Author
Jonathan is an audio engineering enthusiast from New York with a passion for immersive audio, having amassed a formidable collection of multichannel optical discs and quadraphonic vinyl. He earned his undergraduate degree in Television-Radio from Ithaca College and is currently enrolled in a Master’s Program in Audio Technology.