Looking back I feel that BBT really hit their stride in terms of establishing their unique sound with The Difference Machine (2007), an evolution that continued splendidly on The Underfall Yard in 2009, and which was impressively consolidated on 2010's excellent EP Far Skies Deep Time.
So if The Difference Machine marked a sort of turning point in the band's musical journey, not to mention public profile, what is to be made of their somewhat more obscure prior offerings? Gathering Speed, originally released in 2004, was the band's 4th album.
An excellent album in many ways, significant influences are nevertheless apparent. To me it is their `Steve Hackett album', replete with Hackettisms such as ebowed lead guitar and rippling acoustic guitar arpeggios backed with soaring keyboard sounds. (By way of contrast, I'm tempted to loosely characterise the reworked version of `English Boy Wonders' as BBT's `XTC album'). This is not to suggest that the music is overly derivative, but you can appreciate where they are coming from. Indeed, those exploring the back catalogue from a vantage point of the more recent releases will find much that is familiar on Gathering Speed, both in terms of songwriting and overall feel.
One defining characteristic of BBT's music is a melancholy outlook that is perhaps inevitable with the subject of their songwriting, which has a tendency to focus on the past. The songs are often heavily suffused with a sense of loss, evoking people, places, times that have passed into history. Sometimes the melancholy is of the nostalgic kind, an appreciation of and perhaps yearning for older ways of life. Sometimes it is unhappier, particularly when dealing with break-ups in personal relationships. The latter theme leads me to feel that BBT practically have a hidden, undeclared band member - the woman (or composite woman - there may have been more than one!) who provided the muse for the relationship anguish evident in various BBT songs throughout their career.
The production of Gathering Speed is a little rougher around the edges than more recent recordings, but hardly the worse for it. The playing is great, vocals are powerful and distinctive, and the songs mean something. This is an atmospheric, melodic, and occasionally moving collection that I return to again and again. Everyone will have their own favourite bits: personally I get carried away by the fabulous instrumental passage that takes off about 2:40 into `Sky Flying on Fire'.
The 2009 remastered reissue of Gathering Speed comes in a digipack with an 8-page fold-out booklet, with lyrics and beautiful artwork. The original edition was in a jewel case with a 4 page booklet without lyrics, a more limited selection of artwork, but with some band photos.