Big Big Train - Grand Tour

Big Big Train – Grand Tour

I am a proud ‘Passenger’, a fan-boy, offering hero worship to the degree that I wish to give it. But there are no untouchable icons here, and in my view there never should be. So, initial thoughts are that anyone expecting the pastoral trilogy of Full Power, Folklore and Grimspound may be,

a) surprised,
b) disappointed, or even
c) heartbroken.

No need. Disappointment is not to be found here, it’s something new, a little bit different, but to the same high standards.

One of the accusations thrown at this band is of being ‘lightweight’ Genesis, a reflection on one of their many influences, and with lead song Alive there is a strong Phil Collins, latter-day Genesis feel that is broken with backing vocals from Rachel Hall, changing the tone and owning the notes that make its whole. The influence is there, in my mind, but not in a way of upset. I like the track a lot. Nick D’Virgilio’s drum sound is pure Collins at times, from the tones to the fills (no pun intended). Mr Longdon’s voice allows age to take its effect, dropping the highest notes. It suits, all is fine, and despite the comparison, it remains pure Big Big Train. This is the first single from the album and, as you might expect, any change from the last album is subtle. Is that just a hint of Watcher of the Skies I hear before bursting into a bold and big song? I am enjoying it very much, in a fair world it would challenge the charts, and even though I can’t shake my feel of the ‘bible book’ band, this deserves to be heard. Prog? Maybe not, but well-crafted songwriting, and worth repeated plays on national radio. Other comparative bands have been named in the BBT forum, and fair they are as the sound is multifaceted, the best comparative quote I heard was similar to It from The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. Listening back to back, it seems a fair point, though in overall feel they differ greatly.

So, back to where we began, the opener Novum Organum, or more fully ‘Novum Organum Scientiarum’, a philosophical work published in 1620 by Francis Bacon. The first hint that the band is moving on, with the changes that have occurred, the dynamics change, and as an album opener this does say to me, ‘the King is Dead, Long live the King!’ Those historical references will continue to abound throughout this album, and history for BBT is where their rich palette of tales comes from, but they are not standing still. The percussive opening moves quickly into band territory with David Longdon’s voice giving that link to the past. David has a distinctive phrasing, and it is apparent here.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s life story is told in song in The Florentine, not a sticky confectionary but a historical recollection of his achievements. It has an air of English folk, and yet not; Fairport in part, Steeleye in others, a touch of the Pentangle. Da Vinci is an inspiration, and like Greg Spawton, has provided me with a role model, whether to draw or think, or just to explore the imagination, and the sleeve notes contain much in the style of Leonardo’s notebooks. A fine rendition by Sarah Ewing, the representation of a Roman statue is beautifully drawn; Leonardo himself would admire. The words and music give a fine essence of the polymath of whom we believe we know so much, and yet probably only scratch the surface. I have deliberately not read the sleeve notes and will enjoy digesting their contents later (magnifying glass to hand).

Pantheon is a very interesting piece, I find the opening reminds me of film noir, detective movies, Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon, in fact, anything of that genre with Humphrey Bogart in it. It almost plays against itself in some passages, like a street punch up, our players circling, jockeying for position. I cannot dislike it and think that it is a brave departure from familiar territory and safe ground. The brass, beloved by some, is there, interesting strings; an ensemble piece from the mind of Nick D’Virgilio, and for a train which had the potential to stay on the same track, a welcome departure. I feel it is a piece that will grow on me after repeated plays, perhaps even becoming a familiar friend.

Theodora in Green and Gold made me jump, I don’t know why, it just felt like a bit of a surprise. There is very nice flow to this album, were this role reversal the said heavy influence of the Train could make a good example of leading rather than being led. The contrasting male vocal of Nick to David, and Rachel’s backing vocals, do make it again a change from the past, and whether singularly or harmonious they are welcome. Musically penned by Nick and David with words by Greg, the piece grows and grows with repeated listens.

Ariel, the tempest tale of nature and magic, opening part sea shanty as waves crash and rain falls. Mr Longdon inhabits persona dramatic, and as this grows, even though vocally very different in timbre, there are nods to Kate Bush, who also named a tune Ariel. The harmonies vie with Rachel’s violin in this piece that changes direction time after time, theatrical, lyrically descriptive, and one I can see as a popular live piece, passages allowing for brief solos unpinned by a strong and steady bass line from young Greg Spawton. Essentially a song of Byron (mad, bad and dangerous to know, according to Lady Caroline Lamb – she can talk), Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley and others, interwoven with the tale of Shakespeare’s The Tempest – other magicians are available. I shall read David Longdon’s sleeve notes with interest.

The great thing for me about the music here is that every track has a beginning, middle and end. There are no fade outs, the oft used ploy when you don’t know how to finish. Complete chapters, and all the better for it. Roman Stone confuses me, it has some of the style and content of old, but feels odd and fresh, though I cannot help but smile inwardly and think “What have the Romans done for us?” – Python is never too far away. The brass, drum and flute bridge at around five minutes seems like further building on the drum and brass sequence from the live performances; the more you listen, the more you warm to it. There are symphonic and jazz elements, and perhaps a determination to show that the attributed genre of progressive is an expanding universe, rather than a limited solar system.

Voyager fits well into that reference, at times allegorical, a historical exploration of a journey to the stars. For those that pre-heard this, you are indeed correct, and in a nice dark studio (the listening room this evening) it is nice to mellow out with the merlot and try to take it all in. It is interesting that in the sleeve notes the longer tracks are treated as suites, an arrangement that I guess allows for adapting to live performance, but that makes perfect sense to me. I have lived with this album for a week now, listening on a variety of equipment but not in the car, I’ll wait for the CD for that. Consequently, I have heard and absorbed but not entirely taken in the lyrics, and I have not lost interest. BBT are changing, the music is evolving, and expanding, but it holds at its core that which the Passengers love. The music here may attract a few more fans, I don’t think it is liable to alienate too many. Art critics will abound and draw their own conclusions (Aries’ nose is neither Greek nor Roman, rather modern really, but the rest is as cool as ever). Voyager is delightful, each listen brings new pleasures, and if not too complicated may be a joy live. Time and the journey shall tell.

The journey ends and our Grand Tour is complete, all that remains is the Homecoming, a return to familiar territory, hedgerows and village pubs, and the last track reflects on this. Our purveyors of music, science and art have produced another rich canvas with just enough progression, and I find myself enjoying more and more. Roman Stone is, to me, the hardest initial listen, but even that works in time. There is a nice trumpet solo in the middle that is very Miles Davis Sketches of Spain. I still prefer earlier albums, such as English Electric and Grimspound, but as part of a library of Big Big Train music, it fits. I hope Alive gets more than Bob Harris giving it national radio play, it deserves it. It is a balanced album of old and new, it has some love, it will gain more (from me). Homecoming delivers those treats of the English pastoral and is a nice piece to end on. Big Big Train have become an old friend to me, they visit places and subjects that I would like, they take me to places I didn’t know I even wanted to visit. That is something that remains with Grand Tour, it delivers that BBT ethic of well-performed gold, with two or three diamonds or other gems thrown in.

There are hints of change without rushing too quickly or too far from the band that many have loved. Pantheon, the instrumental, has by review end become a firm favourite; Roman Stone has by osmosis leaked into my being. The Second Brightest Star felt like a collection of good songs (London Suite aside, which is almost perfect), Grand Tour does feel like an album. I think it is a transitional album and more surprises are in store with the next one. It will attract new listeners/Passengers, they will enjoy it, but I think many will find rich treasures in the back catalogue as well. The short are as good as the long, from Alive, through the folky The Florentine, Pantheon’s jazz tinges, and Theodora in Green and Gold (anything to do with Lord Percy?). The only certainty I have, and I am very glad, is that the journey will continue.

[In the event of review disappointment, Tony has now retreated to the TPA nuclear bunker, guarded by highly trained ninja hedgehogs, a moat of highly strained sprouts, with a few uncooked weaponised sprouts as deterrents. He will not be accepting visitors but will attend his chosen concert in disguise (stilts and a red top hat).]

01. Novum Organum (2:33)
02. Alive (4:31)
03. The Florentine (8:14)
04. Roman Stone (13:33)
05. Pantheon (6:08)
06. Theodora in Green and Gold (5:38)
07. Ariel (14:28)
08. Voyager (14:08)
09. Homecoming (5:12)

Total Time – 74:25

(…in the best Shakespearian sense)

Nick D’Virgilio – Drums, Vocals, Additional Keyboards, Guitars
David Longdon – Vocals, Flute, Additional Keyboards, Guitars
Rikard Sjöblom – 6 & 12-string Guitars, Keyboards (track 6), Vocals
Danny Manners – Keyboards
David Gregory – 6 & 12-string Guitars
Rachel Hall – Violin, Vocals
Greg Spawton – Bass, Bass Pedals, 12-string Guitars
Brass Ensemble:
Dave Desmond – Trombone
Bob Godfrey – Trumpet, Cornet
Nick Stones – French Horn
John Storey – Euphonium
Jon Truscott – Tuba

Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 17 May 2019

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