A Different Kind of Progressive
Prog rock preserves Western traditions.

Peter Gabriel fronts Genesis in the band’s early years.


Of the more recent bands, the group that most truly inherits the mantle of true progressive rock is the Anglo-American band Big Big Train (BBT). Formed in 1990, Big Big Train is akin to the finest of wines, only getting better with age. This is a cliché, but in this case it is true.

Greg Spawton, Andy Poole, David Longdon, Dave Gregory (yes, that same Anglo-Saxon demigod mentioned above), Nick D’Virgilio, Rob Aubrey (producer), and Jim Trainer (artist) have created the finest rock music since the early 1970s. Not that BBT is some derivative cover band. Far from it. Without exaggeration, I can write that BBT does nothing without a drive for perfection and without astounding intensity. Every note, every lyric, and every brush stroke has its place; the last several albums have exemplified justice in its highest, classical form. It doesn’t hurt that the band leader, Greg Spawton, identifies himself as a libertarian.

But, really, is this what conservatives and libertarians want, to listen to artists who identify themselves as we do in all things? No, of course not. We’re not simple-minded ideologues, and what perilous conformity we would create. We cherish real diversity, the ability of the individual person to be what God created her or him to be, to express himself in excellence, and to rise to the highest things. We want brilliant art, good humanity, solid form, and sanctified soul. In all of these things, Spawton and BBT deliver. Indeed, they’re first and foremost interested in the integrity of a thing.

Their last album, The Underfall Yard (2009), ranks up there with any music created since Bill Haley first introduced rock music to the western world. We might even make a bigger claim. The Underfall Yard is as interesting as any music created since Dvořák passed from this world.

Sixty minutes long, The Underfall Yard praises the gentle ingenuity and social order of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods in England. Almost utterly English in its tone and expression, the album captures the mythic soul of an era. With a fragile but virtuous invocation of an autumnal twilight of a culture, the album begins with the appearance of the evening star, always a sign of hope. But, through the hour of immersion, the listener visits fallen aristocrats, bygone brickworks, and decaying railways.

The song that is most profound in its lyrics is “Winchester Diver,” the true story of a man, William Walker, who spent years fixing the flooded area that was ruining the foundations of Winchester Cathedral. Spending hours at a time in darkness, sustained by an oxygen tank, the diver could hear the Mass celebrated above him while encountering what he assumed were visions of demons and hell below him. In this purgatorial moment, progressive rock reaches its height — a connection of the earth and the sky, the water and the land, heaven and hell. The human person, filled with integrity and determination, finds himself surrounded on all sides by adversity. In the end, though, he perseveres. The cathedral remains in form as well as in spirit.

The final song, the 23-minute “The Underfall Yard,” expresses the same longings as the rest of the album — the longings of progressive rock and, ultimately, of the human condition.

Twelve stones from the water
continents apart
the clouds are gathering again,
filling up the sky,
it rains on England.
Roofless engine houses
distant hills like bookends
frame electrical storms
moving out to sea
away from England.
Those days have gone, those days . . . 
Those days have gone,
their names are lost
the stories left untold.
Under an ordinary star
we are just moments of time,
it is the end of the line
this place is worked out.
Those days have gone.
their names are lost
the stories left untold.

With BBT, as with much progressive rock, we see loss, chaos, and the abyss pressing in around us, but rarely do these things overwhelm the man of integrity, at least not forever. Sword (or guitar) in hand, he stands firm, preserving the best of what came before and protecting what is to come.

— Bradley J. Birzer occupies the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies, and is a professor of history, at Hillsdale College.