Big Big Train

English Electric Recordings / Giant Electric Pea, 2017

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


One of my favorite social media memes from recent years shows the Beatles at peak swagger circa 1968, all beards and suede jackets and thousand-yard stares. The caption reads: “Sorry for raising the bar too high.”

I couldn’t help flashing on this while considering Grimspound, the new album from British prog collective Big Big Train, a group that has effectively raised the bar into the stratosphere over the past eight years and five remarkable studio albums (not to mention EPs, live collections, etc.).

The group’s new album Grimspound was initially born from the same sessions that resulted in last year’s Folklore. The band had enough material left over to pencil in an EP release for this spring, but once they began developing the songs in earnest, old ones came back, new ones emerged and the running time for the release grew to over an hour of new music. Continuing themes explored in every BBT album since The Underfall Yard (2009), Grimspound delves into the essence of England, both the legends and the actual history of the nation, with an emphasis here on the Enlightenment values of science and reason and philosophy and art. (Low brow, BBT isn’t.)

An interesting development this time out is that, while co-founder / bassist Greg Spawton and lead voice / multi-instrumentalist David Longdon remain the band’s chief songwriters, the door is open for others to contribute, with Danny Manners (keys) co-writing one track and Rikard Sjöblom (ex-Beardfish, guitar, keys, backing vocals) co-authoring two others here. The backing—and occasional, brief lead—vocals from Rachel Hall (violin, viola, cello) and Nick D’Virgilio (ex-Spock’s Beard, drums) are prominent as well. As he has on every album since Underfall, Dave Gregory (ex-XTC) delivers supple, athletic guitar lines, while co-founder Andy Poole fills in the complex textures of these songs with acoustic guitar, keys and backing vocals. 

Grimspound opens in fine form with the 12-minute semi-epic “Brave Captain,” a tribute to British World War I flying ace Albert Ball that emerges in four parts, its lilting initial verses and choruses framed by dynamic instrumental sections. As always, from start to finish the eight-person lineup’s musical troops are deployed with utmost care and precision, especially in the closing section, where piano and violin play off deep, throaty synths and bass pedals as Gregory, Sjöblom and Hall fill the sky with notes, all against a backdrop of surging, celestial Mellotron.

“On The Racing Line” is a relatively brief (just over five minutes) instrumental that picks up threads of Folklore’s “Brooklands,” starting out as a piano-violin duet before shifting into a headlong, jazz-tinged jam. Next up is among the strongest tracks here, “Experimental Gentlemen,” a 10-minute, five-part historical narrative without an ounce of fat on it. Its overture-like opening soon gives way to a melodic earworm of a chorus narrating the seaborne adventures of “The observers and collectors / Making order of the world.” (In the detailed track-by-track liner notes, composer Spawton explains the so-called “experimental gentlemen” were scientists who joined Captain Cook on his travels around the world in the 18th century.)

The middle section of the album finds BBT mostly setting aside the expansiveness of its proggier excursions for an emphasis on the pastoral folk that is also an essential part of its musical identity. “Meadowland” is simply gorgeous, with gentle electric notes, violin, piano and organ complementing the beauty of the acoustic lead guitars and Longdon’s keening vocals as he pays tribute to “The best of what we are / Poets and painters / And writers and dreamers.”

The title track ironically feels like one of the lesser songs here, a melancholy tune about the relentless march of time (“What shall be made of us? / Our grand designs will come to dust / The gnawing of time”), seen through the eyes of the title crow as he soars over England. “Grimspound” eventually shifts into an appealing, energetic bridge before closing with an a cappella choral rendering of Latin phrases that’s quite nice in spite of feeling like a bit of a non sequitur.

“The Ivy Gate” is a ghost story of sorts, the highlight of which is the harmonizing between Longdon and guest vocalist Judy Dyble of Fairport Convention fame, offering hints of Simon & Garfunkel in its chanted “lie-la-la-la” segments. Around 3:35 the rest of the band takes the baton for a fairly heavy mid-song jam spotlighting the rhythm section and Manners’ muscular Hammond. (It must be said that former BBT lead guitarist Spawton has, since switching roles, rapidly established himself as among the best bassists in prog, an entirely necessary state of affairs when your rhythm section partner is the phenomenal D’Virgilio.)

This album’s most expansive tune, “A Mead Hall In Winter,” began life as a two-minute acoustic guitar and piano instrumental composed by Sjöblom before ballooning into a 15-minute epic, with music by Sjöblom and Longdon and lyrics by Spawton. The hard-hitting opening sections pay tribute to the “merchants of light” who gather at the mead hall for a kind of Enlightenment-era salon: “Meet me at the mead hall in winter / Set the world to right / With song, science and stories / Hold back the fading light.” The sentiment is reframed later on with an explicit reference back to “Meadowland,” just the sort of interconnectedness BBT weaves into many of its tunes: “Here in science and art / And beauty and music / And friendship and love / You will find us / The best of what we are.” In between, the band stretches out with several heady jams that give the song a burgeoning energy.

Grimspound closes with “As The Crow Flies,” a beautiful, again rather pastoral tune that uses the titular crow’s flight as a metaphor for grown children leaving home: “Take flight to the skies / With hopes and dreams / Good journeys, my loves / Straight and true.” In the latter portion of the song, the rhythm section shifts to a booming, elegiac cadence as Longdon hits the climactic chorus with everything he’s got: “Take flight to the far skies / Distant as you dare / Don’t let anybody tell you / That you’re too close to the suuuuun.” That final, lingering high note makes for a spine-tingling finish.

As has been the case for the band’s last several releases, Grimspound once again features stellar packaging and presentation designed by Andy Poole. Beyond the glossy cover illustration of Grimspound the crow by Sarah Louise Ewing awaits a gorgeous 22-page booklet featuring lyrics, detailed explanations of the origins of and stories behind each of the tracks, and full production credits. Even so, thanks to clever packaging, the sturdy four-panel wallet is still thinner than a standard jewel case.

Grimspound is another powerful entry in the cycle of top-notch Big Big Train releases that began with The Underfall Yard. While it might come up short of the “masterpiece” status this reviewer bestowed on Underfall, that’s principally a factor of the band itself having raised the bar so high. Grimspound is thoughtfully composed, meticulously arranged and charismatically performed, a terrific album that further cements BBT’s status as the top prog act going today.  

Rating: A-

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© 2017 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 / Giant Electric Pea, and is used for informational purposes only.