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.
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