As a reviewer, I try to wield the Sword of Truth while wearing the Trousers of Objectivity. No fawning and grovelling from me – fearless, searing honesty is my only approach. Publish and be damned is my philosophy.
Just because Big Big Train are my current prog darlings and I’m counting the days to seeing them live in London in September, don’t expect me to go easy on them or pull any punches when it comes to reviewing their latest release. The truth shall set you free.
Ready? Here goes…
I bloody love this album, I do. And the more I play it, the more I love it.
BBT have done it again. They have produced an hour and seven minutes of sublime music that contains all the elements that made last year’s Folklore such a success – and more.
First, and foremost, is their ability to create warm, wistful melodies, full of yearning, longing and drama, that hit you with an emotional wallop. It also helps that BBT are great musicians, superb arrangers and accomplished lyricists, able to create evocative word-pictures and tell moving stories without slipping into obtuse, nonsensical Yes-ness.
And they have carved out a nice little prog-rock niche for themselves – they are the curators of English history and folklore (even though one of their members is Swedish and another American), singing about architecture, vanished industries, countryside mythology and brave wartime pigeons. After listening to a BBT album you want to do nothing more than stroll across the Malvern hills before popping into the nearest cathedral for a spot of brass-rubbing.
Grimspound is their tenth studio album but, like Doctor Who, I prefer to number them from their reboot. So it’s the fifth album after vocalist David Longdon joined founder-member Greg Spawton in 2009 and co-opted XTC guitarist Dave Gregory to create what is now an octet of talented instrumentalists.
They have a lot to live up to. Last year’s Folklore was a solid gold, 24-carat smash that should have won best album at the Progressive Music Awards (Marillion? Yawn…). Grimspound is Folklore’s companion album – originally an EP of left-over tracks, which suggests material that just wasn’t good enough to make the cut, but nothing could be further from the truth. Not only is it a worthy companion to Folklore but it’s superior in many respects – denser, more adventurous, more challenging. There’s fewer vocals and more beautifully-arranged instrumental moments, more opportunities for keyboards, guitars, violin and drums to take control and shine. There’s no instantly accessible anthems such as Make Some Noise or Wassail but that’s because this is deeper stuff, repaying repeated listenings and yielding its treasures gradually.
Some things have remained the same, and that’s the way Longdon and Spawton delve into Britain’s culture and folklore to tell stirring and sometimes surprising stories. The opener, Brave Captain, explores the derring-do of First World War pilots. A swirling rush of air gives way to Longdon’s vocals as he tells the story of a “brave captain of the skies”. Harmonies burst triumphantly into life before a dramatic instrumental section allows riffs to build and coalesce, propelled by Nick D’Virgilio’s muscular, inventive drumming. It’s 12 minutes of exhilarating, passionate music that will leave you feeling like you’ve just done a barrel-roll in a Sopwith Camel.
On The Racing Line is a rare excursion into jazz territory, a driving instrumental showcasing pianist Danny Manners’ flying fingers as the band create something that draws inspiration from EST and Snarky Puppy. Experimental Gentlemen, a 10-minute paean to the British scientists who accompanied Captain Cook on H.M.S. Endeavour, is slower-paced and more contemplative before erupting with some stomping power chords and a catchy chorus that will lodge in your head long after the track has ended.
At less than 4 minutes, Meadowland is the shortest track on the album, a gentle acoustic delight that sounds a bit like Wind And Wuthering-era Steve Hackett meets Fairport Convention. The band dedicate it to the memory of John Wetton. Title track Grimspound – it’s name taken from a prehistoric settlement on Dartmoor – contains some of the most gorgeous melodic lines on the album. Ah, those major seventh chords… It ponders what we will leave behind us when so much of our lives consists of ephemeral digital code.
The Ivy Gate is almost The Incredible String Band, featuring original Fairport vocalist Judy Dyble and Longdon sounding more like Peter Gabriel than ever before, singing about a ghost waiting to be reunited with his family. Then we arrive at A Mead Hall In Winter, a 15-minute epic opening with a simple guitar riff that’s picked up by the rest of the band, expanded on, developed and eventually turning into a piece of perfectly arranged prog that embraces rock, folk and an instrumental workout that Emerson, Lake & Palmer would have approved of. It’s proof, once again, of BBT’s ability to make even their longest songs sound like they are just the right length to tell the story, when some other bands will flog a single musical idea to death.
The CD ends with As The Crow Flies. Personally, I prefer the vinyl programming that finishes with A Mead Hall…, just as I preferred the vinyl track listing of Folklore, but whilst musically it probably works better higher up the list, thematically it’s a fitting end, linking up with the crow image on both the Folklore and Grimspound covers and suggesting the merging of the natural and spiritual world, as well as a journey taken through life.
Of course, Grimspound is not perfect and, stepping back into my Trousers of Objectivity, I can predict some of the criticisms that will fly its way. Apart from the jazz influenced On The Racing Line there is nothing here that deviates much from the previous four albums, back to The Underfall Yard in 2009. They are one of the few prog bands my wife likes when most of the music I listen to makes her feel physically sick, so it’s fair to say that BBT play things a little safe. There are no rough edges here – everything’s smoothed off and carefully shaped. Also, I can see that the band’s preoccupation with old Albion could leave some non-British listeners cold.
Perhaps it’s time for the band to get a little more adventurous, a little angrier perhaps with a more modern focus. An anti-Brexit album? I’d go for that.
In the meantime, I am wearing the Underpants of Anticipation in advance of their concerts in September, and so far as Grimspound is concerned, let me repeat the opening four words of As The Crow Flies: “All here is good.”
01. Brave Captain (12:37)
02. On The Racing line (5:11)
03. Experimental Gentlemen (10:01)
04. Meadowland (3:36)
05. Grimspound (6:55)
06. The Ivy Gate (7:26)
07. A Mead Hall In Winter (15:19)
08. A The Crow Flies (6:43)
Total Time – 67:48
Nick D’Virgilio – Drums & Percussion, Backing Vocals
Danny Manners – Keyboards, Double Bass
Rikard Sjöblom – Guitars, Keyboards, Backing Vocals
Rachel Hall – Violin, Viola, Cello, Backing Vocals
Greg Spawton – Bass Guitar, Bass Pedals
David Longdon – Vocals, Flute, Piano, Guitars, Mandolin, Banjo, Lute, Melodica, Celesta, Synths, Percussion
Dave Gregory – Guitars
Andy Poole – Acoustic Guitars, Keyboards, Backing Vocals
Judy Dyble – Vocals (on The Ivy Gate)
Philip Trzebiatowski – Cello (on On The Racing Line)
Record Label – English Electric Recordings
Country of Origin – U.K.
Release Date – 28th April 2017