What prog rock does is to free artists from some of the limitations of pop, rock and folk music whilst incorporating their best elements e.g. memorable melodies or story-telling. The sweet spot is where high-quality songwriting and interesting music collide.
— Greg Spawton, “What is Prog?” (from Big Big Train’s 2017 concert program)
A sweet collision indeed. On the new album Grand Tour, the members of Big Big Train extend and refine their sonic vocabulary, and broaden their topical reach from the seminal Albion cycle (The Underfall Yard, English Electric, Folklore, Grimspound and various offshoots) to explore a wider, sometimes wilder world. As fans have come to expect, it’s both instantly appealing and bracingly challenging — richly melodic, spikily rhythmic music, continually reaching toward symphonic scope; words that reflect on, rejoice in and ruminate about the wonders of the past and present, this time breaking out beyond Britain to Europe and to farther shores.
Admittedly, Grand Tour starts more tentatively than some previous albums: setting the scene and foreshadowing what’s in store, “Novum Organum” (the first of drummer Nick D’Virgilio’s composing credits, with bassist Greg Spawton) is a gently hypnotic prologue for patterned percussion and keyboards. It eases us out of the dock into the harbor, with David Longdon sounding the album’s themes at low tide, setting sail “for science and for art.”
But before we can drift off, Longdon’s “Alive” slams in — a rocking kick-off that urges listeners to “Find your wings/Dare to fly/Find your feet/Then run for dear life”. Straightforward rock with a lighter, contrapuntal bridge, it’s a powerful, limber groove with lots of nifty textural touches (backing vocals at the octave, poppy handclaps, Spawton’s bass pedals under the driving rhythm, Danny Manners’ defining Mellotron riff and in-your-face synth solo, spiffy keyboard and guitar filigree at unexpected moments). And Longdon is having the time of his life, reveling in the new day to seize and the beauty awaiting him. He’s raring to go — and the invitation to come along is irresistible.
The next two tracks explore new topics in ways longtime Passengers may find familiar. “The Florentine” is Longdon’s latest character sketch — this time, of one of Western history’s most famous minds, Leonardo DaVinci, “Voyaging through time/To know where shadows are and light is not”. The folky, acoustic opening gives way to a brooding middle section, with the vocal harmonies of violinist Rachel Hall, guitarist Rikard Sjöblom, and d’Virgilio shading Longdon’s lines throughout to gorgeous effect. A lowering violin-led instrumental leads to a mashup of the two textures, climaxing with compelling solos from Manners and Sjöblom. The finale recaps the opening in full-band arrangement, then backs off for a restrained close.
The 13-minute “Roman Stone” is, in turn, another Spawton historical survey — tackling the history of the Roman Empire. No sweat, right? This five-part suite teases Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” lyrically (“Now look upon their works/Under a different sky/Half a world away”), ushering us from Rome’s foundation and rise through its peak, to its fall and its remnants. To convey the narrative’s sweep, Big Big Train uses every color on their palette, including their five-piece Brass Ensemble (already in from the second verse of the opening section), lush piano from Manners, flute/violin duets, chiming 12-string licks from Dave Gregory and Sjöblom, and more. “Fall” is especially effective, interweaving multiple melodies over a solid, chugging groove, yielding to a double-time flute/bass/drums break and a breathtaking brass build. The collapse of it all sets up the finale “Legacy” — hushed, then grimly downcast, elegaically triumphant in tragedy, with a sweeping synth recap of the opening, and 12-string arpeggios setting up the quiet coda:
Here were legends born
Here were stories made and told
In one city the whole world ends
As a tumbledown of walls
Its stones the bedrock of us all.
The first real surprise of the album follows: “Pantheon”, a D’Virgilio instrumental that launches Big Big Train into jazz fusion territory. It’s pungent and immediately ear-catching, with major/minor key clashes laid out in guitar licks and ominous brass riffs. Not to mention the funky midsection with keys, winds and guitars slithering atop and bouncing off each other, incorporating lusciously cutting violin and guitar solos. When the opening theme comes back (first in unison guitar/violin/flute form, then with everyone riding over the full brass), it’s a genuine thrill.
And the run continues with “Theodora in Green and Gold” (music by D’Virgilio — with a lead vocal on the bridge — melody by Longdon, words by Spawton, keyboards by Sjoblom). This is a knotty yet lovely thing, blithely hopping through time signatures and key changes, evoking the Ravenna mosaics of San Vitale via musical counterpoint and lyrical apostrophe: “Here they stand/Together for all time/Set in glass and stone/Reflecting the light that falls/On distant fabled lands”. For me, that heart-tugging chorus is worth the price of the album all by itself.
As Grand Tour gains momentum, “Ariel” unrolls Longdon’s most ambitious epic yet (yes, grander than Folklore’s “Winkie”) — an eight-part song cycle fusing fact and fiction, the Renaissance and the Romantics, pondering the mysteries of creation and destruction. Longdon gives the titular spirit from The Tempest life as a muse that blesses the fading Shakespeare and blights the tormented Shelley, bringing heavy weather all the while. The funereal sea-chantey “Come Unto These Yellow Sands”; the call and response vocals of “Noises, Sounds and Sweet Airs” and “New Place”; the wonderfully menacing storm portrayed by the octave vocals, low-down groove, growling guitar and cinematic strings of “‘O! There Are Spirits of the Air'” — all this sets up the dramatic, extended climax, growing from quiet acoustic roots to the inevitable, catastrophic return of the storm music. The sublime and the horrific, myth and history intermingle and detonate, leaving Shelley’s mourners both bereft and in awe.
And still there’s more: “Voyager”, Spawton’s latest saga of man and technology, completing a trilogy begun with English Electric’s “East Coast Racer” and Folklore’s “Brooklands”. Here, Big Big Train journey from the uncharted seas of ancient times to the unknown void beyond the solar system:
Beyond the next headland
Over the far horizon
Out into the open skies
To find out what we are
How far we’ve come
How far we can go.
Along the way, there are so many highlights: the warm, inviting exposition “On the Ocean”, the lush brass development of “The Farthest Shore” and the determined leap into space of “The Pillars of Hercules”. “Further Beyond” puts rhythm section and strings, augmented by Mellotron, to stunning use; and the “Cinema Show” style instrumental workout of “Grand Finale” features Manners, D’Virgilio and Gregory catching fire and burning brightly! “The Space Beyond the Stars” depicts Voyager alone in the cosmos, backed by haunted strings with cavernous bass and drums — the perfect set up for Longdon’s dramatic vocal peroration on “Homecoming”, with band, brass ensemble and orchestra urging him on as the opening song returns, for an incredibly moving close.
But home is where the best journeys end — and Greg Spawton’s closing “Homesong” brings us there with panache. Quietly mindful lyrics — delighted for the trip, grateful at its end — seamlessly meld with an upbeat polyrhythmic workout, driven by Spawton’s marvelously melodic bass lines, then capped by a final, heart-melting brass chorale, with Gregory soaring above like a nightingale.
I was concerned that, by expanding their subject matter beyond their home country, Big Big Train’s reach might exceed their grasp — but I needn’t have worried. Grand Tour is another stellar effort from the band, every bit as inviting, nourishing, and emotionally fulfilling as the rest of their output from the last decade. As always, Spawton, Longdon and company revel in beauty — of melody, harmony, rhythm, vocal counterpoint, instrumental interplay — and in drama — of history’s long march, of humanity’s singular gifts, of the perennial impulse to explore, create, build, and value. Like all Big Big Train’s work since The Underfall Yard, Grand Tour isn’t a “play it safe” sop for their fans or a cynical bid for mass appeal. It’s the work of this septet’s collective heart, humanist in the best sense of the word –confident and unflinching, yet open and humble in the face of a world of beauty beyond the self; willing and able to discover and cherish the gifts that lie before us all.
You can pre-order Grand Tour at Burning Shed or The Merch Desk. For more on the album, check out this interview, conducted by Nick Shilton of Prog Magazine, filmed at the Royal Astronomical Society in London.
— Rick Krueger
P.S. The management of RosFest has announced that Big Big Train will headline their 2020 festival in Sarasota, Florida (details to follow). So the long-awaited Big Big Tour of North America is becoming a big big reality …