For the past decade, English ensemble Big Big Train has been at the forefront of culturally resonant progressive rock. Sure, their earlier material was certainly distinctive, intellectual, and enjoyable, but it wasn’t until singer/flautist David Longdon joined on 2009’s The Underfall Yard that the group fully leaned toward its luscious British accounts of places, people, and events. Combining heartfelt and historical accounts, stunning vocals and melodies, and unswervingly elaborate yet welcoming playing, Longdon and company—violinist/vocalist Rachel Hall, keyboardist Danny Manners, bassist/guitarist Greg Spawton, drummer Nick D’Virgilio (ex-Spock’s Beard), guitarist Dave Gregory (ex-XTC), and vocalist/keyboardist/guitarist Rikard Sjöblom (ex-Beardfish)—never fail to bottle the magic of their 1970s progenitors into thoroughly fresh, charming, and invigorating new sequences.
Their latest LP, Grand Tour, is no exception. Arriving less than two years after its proper full-length predecessor, Grimspound (which itself was succeeded by a lengthy set of new and re-worked material—The Second Brightest Star—a mere two months later), its contents are “set in distant lands and beyond” and inspired by “the 17th and 18th century custom of the Grand Tour, where young men and women traveled to broaden the mind.” (Among other things, the group explores “the legacy of the Italian Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci . . . the rise and fall of Rome . . . the beautiful mosaics of Ravenna, and . . . the shipwreck of a great poet lost in a tempest off the coat of Italy.”) Truthfully, the collection is ever so slightly less substantial, memorable, and adventurous than those that came right before it, yet it’s still laudably characteristic and consistent all the same, proving once again why Big Big Train is a one-of-a-kind master of its craft.
Without a doubt, Grand Tour contains some of the band’s top offerings this decade. For instance, the brief opener “Novum Organum” places Longdon’s trademark impassioned majesty over a relatively sparse yet succulent and sentimental score of mournful piano chords, delicate percussion, and an impactful central celestial keyboard pattern. Afterward, “Alive” is as joyously energetic, catchy, and multilayered as Big Big Train has even gotten, with awe-inspiring harmonies and frenzied, resourceful timbres leading to sheer captivation from beginning to end. These first two pieces alone cement the ensembles unparalleled knack for both songwriting and arranging, and fortunately, the excellence continues via the warmly life-affirming and boisterous “The Florentine,” the surprisingly zany instrumental “Pantheon” (which, despite being penned by D’Virgilio, oozes Sjöblom’s emblematic playfulness), and elegantly emotional and erratic multipart suites like “Ariel” and “Voyager.” It’s astounding enough that Big Big Train can craft material this special at all, let alone do it over and over again with such prolificacy and dependability.
That said, there are a few aspects of the LP that are a bit too familiar and/or unaffecting, leading to a marginal been-there-done-that vibe. Specifically, select moments of the majorly splendid “Roman Stone” evoke moments of “The Underfall Yard” and “Curator of Butterflies” too closely, while “Theodora in Green and Gold” channels “The First Rebreather” with equal weight. There are also miscellaneous scattered instances throughout Grand Tour that, while certainly magnificent in and of themselves, just feel a bit retreaded and predictable as well (not only musically but lyrically, with keywords like “art,” “science,” “hedgerow,” “valleys,” and “sky” once again making an appearance). Of course, these are all minor gripes, but as with any great creator that you follow, you eventually have heightened awareness of—and increased disgruntlement for—their clichés.
Grand Tour ranks just below is immediate precursors, but that’s really more of a testament to the brilliance of those outings than it is a disparagement of this one. Even at its safest and most expectable points, the work still radiates the troupe’s unique artistry in staggeringly satisfying ways. At its zenith, the LP matches everything that came before it (and thus, rivals anything produced by the septet’s contemporaries or, for that matter, influences), further solidifying Big Big Train’s place as one of the most treasurable and important bands in the genre today.
Released by: English Electric
Released Date: May 17th, 2019
Genre: Progressive Rock
- Greg Spawton / guitars, backing vocals, keyboards, bass guitar
- Nick D’Virgilio / drums, backing vocals, percussion, guitars, keyboards
- David Longdon / lead vocals, flute, keyboards, guitars, bass guitar
- Dave Gregory / guitars
- Danny Manners / keyboards, double bass
- Rachel Hall / violin, vocals
- Rikard Sjöblom / keyboards, guitars, backing vocals
“Grand Tour” Track listing:
- Novum Organum (2:33)
- Alive (4:31)
- The Florentine (8:14)
- Roman Stone (13:33)
- Pantheon (6:08)
- Theodora in Green and Gold (5:38)
- Ariel (14:28)
- Voyager (14:03)
- Homesong (5:12)
Although it's a tad too familiar and safe in spots, 'Grand Tour' nevertheless captures everything that's made Big Big Train radiate historical, literally, and sonic sophistication for the past decade