Big Big Train, GRIMSPOUND (Giant Electric Pea, 2017). Tracks: Brave Captain; On the Racing Line; Experimental Gentleman; Meadowland; Grimspound; The Ivy Gate; A Mead Hall in Winter; and As the Crow Flies.
The band: Greg Spawton; Andy Poole; David Longdon; Nick D’Virgilio; Rachel Hall; Danny Manners; Dave Gregory; and Rikard Sjöblom.
The Rating: Perfect. Beyond prog.
Go, go, go said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
–T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton.”
There can be no doubt that Big Big Train is not just one of the best bands of third-wave prog, but also one of the best bands of the rock era. I suspected this when I first heard THE UNDERFALL YARD back in 2009 and was moved at every good level of my being. Subsequent releases from the band have only confirmed this for me. Every note, every lyric, and every brushstroke matter for the band. They take their music seriously, and they take us—their followers—seriously. Aside from the music (if there is, in any reality, such an “aside”), it’s clear that the two founders and mainstays of the band, Greg Spawton and Andy Poole, know how to form and leaven communities.
For proof, one only has to look at the almost chaotic traffic and interplay of the fans on the band’s Facebook page. Even pages dedicated to nothing but rock don’t have the dynamism that this page has. Next to PROG magazine itself, the prog world has no greater outlet for news and reviews than the BBT Facebook page.
Then, look at the band itself. From Greg Spawton to Andy Poole. From David Longdon to Nick d’Virgilio to Dave Gregory. From Danny Manners to Rachel Hall to Rikard Sjöblom. In other words from amazing. To amazing. To amazing. To amazing. Or, better yet, too amazing.
Yes, that’s one heck of a lot of amazing.
The kind of amazing that Kurt Vonnegut might create as an opposition in a dystopian short story. After all, by what right does BBT have to claim such amazingness??? Bring out the censors and shotguns! Harrison Spawtonenon, indeed.
Seriously, name better musicians than these guys (and gal). Certainly, you can find those who are equal to each, individually. But, better? A better guitarist than Gregory or a better drummer than d’Virgilio? Likely not. Then, imagine how long it took the band to arrive at this spot, in the first half of 2017. Through an immense period of purgatorial trials, the band survived over a decade before coming into its own. Then, put them all together. Once you’re at the level of BBT in 2017, you’ve entered into a realm that is nearly beyond measurement.
To be sure, the band has earned its success. Sorry dystopian haters of excellence. You lose.
And, I’ve not even mentioned Sarah Ewing or Rob Aubrey.
Birzer, get to the album, damnit.
Ok, GRIMSPOUND. This post about the album will be my first such writing, but it will not be my last.
From THE DIFFERENCE MACHINE through ENGLISH ELECTRIC, I really thought Big Big Train was incapable of a misstep. Spawton, Poole, and co. had, to my mind (and I still believe this), taken rock to an entirely new level of ability and quality. My own determination is, granted, highly subjective.
I can listen to THE DIFFERENCE MACHINE, THE UNDERFALL YARD, or ENGLISH ELECTRIC at any time of any day, and I’m never—no, not once—uninspired. Each of these albums lifts me out of any reality—mundane or extraordinary—into something that can only be described as mystical.
Several other albums in the history of rock have played a similar role for me—such as Talk Talk’s last two albums, XTC’s SKYLARKING, and Tears for Fears’s SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR—but let me just state that such occurrences are rare, even for a music freak like me.
Interestingly enough, GRIMSPOUND began as an EP of material that didn’t make it to the final stage of FOLKLORE. How the band decided to make GRIMSPOUND a proper album is not information to which I’m privy. Whatever made the band decide to do so, though, I thank the Good Lord (or pick your favorite omnipotence or not) above.
In every way, GRIMSPOUND is extraordinary and more than a worthy successor to ENGLISH ELECTRIC. If nothing else (and there are a whole lot of “elses”), the band is more confident than I’ve heard them before. To state that the band is tight would be a gross understatement. “Integrated” would be a much better description. In particular, the last three members to join the band officially—Manners, Hall, and Sjöblom—sound as though they have been a part of the band from day one.
Yes, integrated is the best word to use here. Inseparable? Unalienable? Whole? Complete? Final?
The album begins with a spacey swirl before breaking into what might at the surface level seem a rock ballad. Fear not. BBT is not Journey. Once Longdon’s voice begins, the listener knows all will be well. That voice–at once glorious and yet so inviting–beckons us back into the world of BBT. A small boy meets a statue. Yet, that still statue breathes motion, breathes a quiet enthusiasm, and breathes timeless heroism. One of the finest moments of the album comes toward the end of this twelve-minute epic, as the lyrics leave the hero in the twilight between death and immortality. In so many ways, the respect that Londgon offers the protagonist is reminiscent of his dignified treatment of John Betjeman on ENGLISH ELECTRIC.
With a bit more prog in the keyboards and a sensuous violin, track two, “On the Racing Line,” thrusts us into the race of our life, a jazzy “Red Barchetta,” with Manner’s extraordinary keyboards leading us in this song just as Longdon’s voice led us in the first. It must be noted, this is the best driving music since 1981’s MOVING PICTURES.
After the ceaseless intensity of the first two tracks, things quiet a bit (but ONLY a bit) with the third song, “Experimental Gentleman,” a catchy song that I’ve found running through my head at odd times. This is probably the closest the band comes to a pop song on the album, but it’s still wonderfully BBT.
“Meadowlands” is soft and sweet. Or, maybe “endearing” would be the best way of describing it. I would challenge even the most manly among you to get through this song without at least some water appearing—however fleetingly—in one or both of your eyes. Interestingly enough, this song is the closest thing BBT will ever come to an anthem for the poet and artist.
Here, with book in hand,
Follow the hedgerow
To the meadowland
Here with science and art
And beauty and music
And friendship and love,
You will find us,
The best of what we are
Poets and painters,
And writers and dreamers.
Track five, the title track, begins where “Meadowlands” ends. True to northern mythology, the crow (or, more traditionally, the raven) serves as a messenger from the gods. In some mysterious way, Longdon’s voice makes us feel as though this album is a message from the gods. Truly brilliant.
“The Ivy Gate” will likely be the most talked about track of the album. Though it begins in a BBT fashion that closely resembles the songs from the EP, FAR SKIES DEEP TIME, the listener is quickly jolted out of any groove or preconceptions by the guest voice of Judy Dyble. She’s perfect, and her voice blends nicely with the album, the band, and the story. She’s a most welcome addition to the Big Big Train family.
At nearly 15 and ½ minutes in length, the penultimate song, “A Mead Hall in Winter” joyfully connects us back to “Meadowlands” as well as back to ENGLISH ELECTRIC and even all the way back to THE UNDERFALL YARD. Here, we find ourselves in the company of inspiring and inspired artists, building our community of hope and love against the twilight age in which we find ourselves. While not negating man’s reason, the song begs us to find our romantic and better selves.
The final song, “As the Crow Flies,” reminds us once again of the titular figure of the album, Grimspound, our intelligent and spiritual messenger from Odinsrealm. And, interestingly enough, Odin’s message undoes that of the Greek pantheon, asking us to fly as close to the sun as we so desire. Be human. Be fully human. Be glorious.
Much like Mark Hollis and Talk Talk, Spawton and Co. have taken us into a new level of music, beyond genre. Big Big Train is no longer “Crossover Prog” or “Folk Prog” or “Third-wave Prog.” While not leaving the rest of us behind, Big Big Train has certainly gone elsewhere. Indeed, far from leaving us behind, they’ve invited us to travel with them, as quickly as we can. To the Hedgerow, to the Meadowlands, and into the Mead Hall.
Yes, it’s winter, and the storms enclose us on all sides, but inside there’s warmth and, most importantly, friendship.