I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of listening to Big Big Train’s latest work, “Grimspound,” for a few weeks prior to its release, and it’s taken me as much time to figure out exactly what it is.
This isn’t about whether or not the music is good…oh, it’s good. Very good. It’s an absolute must-buy for Big Big Train “passengers,” both new and returning.
With each subsequent listen, I kept asking myself:
- Is this merely a collection of leftover songs from what had to be a creative outburst when “Folklore” took shape?
- Is this sort of a “Folklore Part 2?”
- Is this a standalone album altogether?
- Is this part of a much bigger canon of releases?
I’ve decided that the answer clearly isn’t “a collection of leftover songs” and it’s not really “Folklore 2,” but you could argue for the other two points.
Anyway, that’s just a frame on the picture. Let’s delve through the music, shall we?
As to be expected with BBT, the music on “Grimspound” has a richness and authenticity to it that will make one want to revisit this collection of songs time and again, just as I’ve been doing with all of their releases since I first heard the “English Electric” albums, then going back to experience “The Underfall Yard” and “Far Skies Deep Time.”
“Grimspound” starts off with “Brave Captain,” a fine album-opener that I can easily see as a set-opener at a future BBT concert. While being a big, bold track, it also has some quiet moments as well, leading back to its strong chorus.
We then get an early (too early?) instrumental with the kinetic “On the Racing Line,” where the band flexes its prog chops in the first half – reminding this listener of the fabulous “East Coast Racer” from “English Electric Part 2”- and settling into a more familiar pace for the second half. The 10-minute “Experimental Gentleman” follows and is a strong blend of catchy choruses and stellar playing – plenty of twists and turns.
“Meadlowland” gives us a mellow break from the twists and turns of the previous tracks, but it’s an important track in the BBT canon, for its lyrics could easily serve as the band’s mission statement:
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.
I mean, if you can’t stand for that, you’ve stumbled onto the wrong website.
“Meadowland” eases into the title track, which surprises us with some lovely acapella vocals near the end. Given drummer Nick D’Virgilio’s time spent with Kevin Gilbert and Spock’s Beard, I wonder if he might have led that piece of arranging. His playing on “Grimspound” is as good as any of his previous drumming work with any artist.
“A Mead Hall In Winter” (what a great title) seems to be the “kitchen sink” track on the album, featuring numerous twists and turns, but sewn up nicely near the end. Reminds me a bit of “Winkie” from “Folklore.” We even get a (quick) lead vocal from NDV!
The album concludes with “As The Crow Flies,” which initially didn’t hit me as a way to conclude an album, but about 2:30 in, a quiet, 6/4 section gradually builds towards singer David Longdon’s finest moment on the album, finishing with a falsetto note near the end that serves as the “chill factor” moment of “Grimspound,” after which Rachel Hall’s violin melody picks up that of a vocal sung earlier in the track and helps lead us out.
The playing here is simply fantastic – Rachel Hall’s violin work clearly stands out, as does Greg Spawton’s bass playing. Danny Manners and Andy Poole have long had their stamp on BBT’s sound, and Rikard Sjöblom and Dave Gregory provide more than their fair share of fine guitar moments.
One could argue that a sense of “sameness” has crept into BBT’s sound and writing with “Grimspound” – more singing of hedgerows and “far skies,” and side snares and flute solos in middle sections, but one thing is clear from this incredible, six-album arc starting with “The Underfall Yard” – Big Big Train has clearly found its voice, and it’s a unique one in music, certainly in progressive rock. It’s one that rewards listeners for spending time with the words and music, for none of it is undertaken lightly by this band.
If only all bands could put this much care into their work.