The period after the release of debut album Elegies to Lessons Learned saw I Like Trains without a record deal following the demise of record label Beggars Banquet as well as an amicable parting of the ways with cornet player/projectionist Ashley Dean. For many bands, this might have heralded a reluctant return to their day jobs but not so I Like Trains. Screwing their courage to the sticking place, the band self-released epic instrumental EP, The Christmas Tree Ship and single Sea of Regrets, as well as honing their live skills in support slots with Goth legends, The Sisters of Mercy and indie wannabees, The Editors.
All of which leads me nicely to new album He who saw the Deep. Released on their own newly formed record label ILR and financed through fan funding via Pledge Music ( where fans were asked to pledge towards the album's release in return for items as diverse as a broken effect pedal and a game of Scrabble with bassist Alistair Bowis), the body of work that has formed the bulk of their live set in recent years finally sees a welcome light of day on record.
Like its predecessor, the album can be loosely described as a concept album, but whereas on Elegies, the theme of human folly throughout history seemed at times less of a framework to hang ideas on than a straitjacket, allowing little more than a literal interpretation of the songs, He who saw the Deep is an altogether different fish. Here, the marriage of lyrics and music is such that the listener is not so much allowed as forced to bring their own life experiences and personal interpretations to the table: enabling the decline of civilisation to be viewed both impersonally through the macrocosm of a continent under threat in Progress is a Snake in which singer Dave Martin's leaden tones become the sound of Europe slipping into the sea, as well as at a more persona and individual level in songs such as We saw the Deep, which has to be the greatest love song this side of Nights in White Satin in my book. Other tracks, such as A Father's Son suggest both a reluctant acceptance of our own inevitable mortality and that of the planet, as well as highlighgting the futility of the attempt to ward it off through procreation, as though we might in some way cheat death by the mere passing on of our genes.
With its title taken, one assumes, from an early version of the ancient Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh, one of the album's central themes appears to be this acceptance of our mortality- just as Gilgamesh journeys to the realm of the flood hero, now god, Utnapishtim in search of immortality only to learn that " when the gods created man, they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping" so too we learn that " the higher we climb , the further we have to fall" and that we cannot escape our fate. In this way, the album is best listened to as a whole as the songs gradually meld together to take on the form of their own mythic cycle, creating a seamless journey between past and future in which the all pervasive image of the sea that ebbs and flows through it, is able to stand both as the literal rising waters that threaten to engulf us, and as a symbol for all human loss and suffering, our very own personal "sea of regrets."
As well as being a progression lyrically, the album is one musically too, with the rhythm section of bassist Alistair Bowis and Simon Fogal being given the space to become the perfect whole they have always threatened to be. Mr Fogal's drumming is of such an intensity on this record, that should Led Zeppelin ever choose to reform on a more permanent basis, they could do much worse than to look any further, though of course he would need to sign a "no football" clause in his contract. Not to be outdone, guitarists Guy Bannister and Dave Martin have also stepped up a gear or two, finally finding a few of the happier chords on their instruments which has the effect of creating a lyrical dissonance between the lighter tone of the music and the darker nature of the record's themes and lyrics. Although the production is lush and as multi-layered as ever, the band at times seem to be more willing to let go of their trademark bombastic big sound, aware that the tone of gentle admonishment and regret that is at the album's heart is perhaps better served by a more stripped back approach. With final track Doves, a slow, funereal epitaph, it is clear that we are not going to go out in a blaze of glory, but rather with a weary slipping of our moorings, like another ill-fated Titanic. The album presents no black and white solution to our problems, but rather offers an eschatalogical vision in which our fate may be little more than the inevitable consequence of our own finite natures, which enables all of us, of every generation, to view the planet as an infinite resource for the duration of our own lifetimes. When at last Gilgamesh is offered the chance for immortality, the plant given to him is stolen by a serpent which sheds its skin to be reborn anew- here, we are the snake, but the shedding of our skin offers no hope, no chance of redemption for we learn that while a " snake can shed its skin" it can "never change." Let's hope that such pessimism is ill- founded and that it is not too late for our planet or ourselves as with this record ILT are finally both on the right train and going in the right direction.
A profoundly moving and sophisticated album, it is a must have in any record collection.
(A promotional ending! Released on 25th October (2010), the album is available on pre-order from the shop at http://www.iliketrains.bigcartel.com where you can also purchase a ticket for the launch show at The Deep, a submarium in Hull. The band are also undertaking a small run of live dates in October (2010 - for any future readers or those who don't believe in timelines - Ed), details of which can be found on their website http://www.iliketrains.co.uk).