Grand Tour

Big Big Train

English Electric Recordings, 2019

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Throughout human history, every advance achieved has required someone to step outside their comfort zone and explore the unexplored. That’s why humans have always celebrated those who push back against limits; their examples challenge us to live bigger and bolder, to be more and do more and imagine more than we’ve ever imagined we could. That instinct to seek and strive is the central theme of Grand Tour, the latest studio album from (mostly) British progressive rock collective Big Big Train.

The band—BBT for short—has done a bit of adventuring of its own in crafting this new collection. After a series of albums focused on telling stories of England, chief songwriters David Longdon and Greg Spawton have widened the scope of their lyrical focus with a set of songs that venture beyond the British Isles to ancient Rome, Renaissance Europe, and outer space. Once again their creations are brought to technicolor life by a seven-person core band consisting of co-founder Spawton (bass and bass pedals), Longdon (lead vocals and flute), Nick D’Virgilio (drums and vocals), Dave Gregory (guitars), Danny Manners (keyboards), Rachel Hall (violin and vocals) and Rikard Sjöblom (guitars, keyboards, and vocals), supplemented on several tracks by the Big Big Train Brass Ensemble of Dave Desmond, Ben Godfrey, Nick Stones, John Storey, and Jon Truscott.

The title Grand Tour is a reference both to the centuries-past custom of upper crust English university graduates going off to tour the continent to complete their education (and probably sow a few wild oats), and to the fact that Big Big Train itself is preparing for the first touring it has done beyond the shores of England in its long history as primarily a studio band.

At just over two and a half minutes, opener “Novum Organum” is one of the shortest and simplest songs BBT has ever released, and among the most essential. Over a spare backing of music box chimes, piano and synthesizer—adding a muted rhythm section along the way—“Novum” sets the tone for the entire album to come, laying out themes both lyrical and musical, an aspirational, heartfelt song that distills and expresses the human instinct to reach farther, to know more, to understand our world and the universe it inhabits. As Longdon sings of venturing not just across the seas, but “To the space between the stars,” you catch a hint of the plaintive, beeping clarion call of the Voyager spacecraft memorialized at length later on.

The similarly concise (4:31) “Alive” follows with a burst of energy, a vibrant, catchy, rather pop-inflected lead single that’s nonetheless thoroughly prog in its arrangement and instrumentation, featuring Mellotron, an off-meter bridge, and space for all seven players to shine. This expansive tune about how travel nourishes body and soul is invigorating throughout, but perhaps most in its headlong opening sequence, whose sing-songy Mellotron theme feels like a nod to the opening synth line of “Subdivisions” by Rush, another terrifically melodic prog anthem.

From there BBT delves into territory both familiar and fresh: clever and creative songs exploring the lives and perspectives of historical figures in science and art, but in this case, venturing well beyond the shores of England. “The Florentine” sketches the life of Leonardo da Vinci in warm tones, featuring 12-string guitars and rich harmonies between Longdon, Hall and D’Virgilio throughout. The middle section picks up the pace and features an evocative synth solo and exceptional guitar work from Gregory between 5:20 and 6:30 of this eight-minute song, before they circle back at the end for a gentle, poignant denouement.

The first of three full-blown epics here, the 13-minute-plus “Roman Stone” narrates the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. The opening sequence looking back to the ancients where the empire began has a haunted quality, with the brass band adding pathos that’s extended as Hall features in the second section. As the narrative continues to unfold, there’s a widescreen drama to the song—especially in moments like the extended instrumental section between 6:50 to 9:55—that speaks to the grand sweep of history that it’s inviting you to experience in musical form. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Completing the first half of the album, the D’Virgilio-penned instrumental “Pantheon” features an eerie opening theme leading into a knotty, off-kilter-feeling conglomeration of drums, guitars, synths, violin, flute and horns, with the drums at times seeming to trade places with the rest of the band, playing lead while the others keep the beat, before they all switch back. It’s BBT’s King Crimson moment, and in fact does convey the sense of ancient mystery embodied by the Pantheon itself, a weighty, otherworldly kind of beauty.

“Theodora In Green And Gold,” the second single from the album, sparkles like the ancient Roman mosaic it describes, with so many hooks and moments packed into its five and a half minutes that it almost feels like it’s over too soon. And yet, in typically BBT fashion, there’s no flash, only substance. Opening with a beautiful piano figure by Manners, the arrangement builds steadily and billows outward at the chorus. The middle section also gives D’Virgilio a chance to trade lead vocals with Longdon, a welcome touch that’s all the more fitting since the song is a rare-for-BBT three-way co-write, with Spawton supplying the words and Longdon and D’Virgilio composing the music.

The final third of the album is dominated by a pair of 14-minute epics. Longdon’s “Ariel” weaves a centuries-spanning narrative from threads of poetry and legend, Shakespeare and Shelley, imagining the titular storm spirit from The Tempest as an actual immortal influencing a series of real historical figures. “Ariel” is adroit, imaginative, and has its moments; if it feels a touch less consistently enthralling than some of the band’s other epics, well, that’s a high bar indeed. After opening in lower gear, “Ariel” gains momentum as it approaches the halfway mark. Around 10:00, we get dynamic work from first Hall and then Gregory and/or Sjöblom as the vocal chorus and rhythm section play off one another masterfully. The subsequent, climactic “storm” section hands the melody to a full string section as D’Virgilio storms away behind the kit.

Spawton’s “Voyager” extends the spirit of exploration beyond the seas and up into the skies. “Dare to wonder / Dare to try / Free from the bonds of the sun / Flying farther on” goes the urgent, evocative lyric as bass pedals act like booster rockets launching the song out beyond the atmosphere. The middle sections are fittingly spacious, otherworldly and majestic, with the brass section filtering back in here and there. The ninth and ten minutes feature a terrifically nimble and sinewy instrumental section before breaking back down to Hall’s winsome violin as we return to Voyager alone in the depths of space, sending “A heartbeat reaching out to home.” “Go further on / Out to the stars” exhorts Longdon as they transition to the climactic final section, a powerful, cascading series of moments closed out by this deft summation of the spirit of exploration itself: “Out into the open skies / To find out what we are / How far we’ve come / How far we can go.” By the end of this tremendous tune, it’s clear that the voyager—not just the space vehicle, but the archetypal human explorer—is the personification of the dreams and aspirations of all humankind.

Returning to Earth, “Homesong” brings the album to a satisfying conclusion, an energetic pastoral number that reminds us that one of the main purposes of a journey is to come home at the end and reflect on what you’ve learned and how it’s changed you. At the close Gregory and the brass band trade elegiac solos, Manners’ piano returns, and BBT makes its exit, leaving the listener alone with the sounds of birdsong and running water.

As with every recent BBT release, Grand Tour features exceptional packaging and detailed liner notes explaining the origins of each track, adding immeasurably to the audience’s experience of these painstakingly crafted songs. When the music is a genuine work of art, the packaging should be its equal.

In 2009 I described Big Big Train as “one of the most impressive and affecting progressive rock acts working today.” Ten years and half a dozen superb albums later, the only edit I would make is to strip away the qualifiers: Big Big Train is the most impressive and affecting progressive rock group working today, period. With the magnificent Grand Tour, they’ve once again delivered an album that celebrates science, art, history and philosophy in a set of sharply intelligent songs imbued with enduring power and emotion. Grand Tour is a soul-stirring embodiment of the transformative journey.

Rating: A-

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© 2019 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of English Electric Recordings, and is used for informational purposes only.