Big Big Train
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At first glance, you might think that Grimspound—the tenth studio work from English progressive rock troupe Big Big Train—is nothing more than a collection of subpar unreleased B-sides. After all, it was largely recorded (if not completed) alongside with last year’s Folklore, and it arrives a mere eleven months later. Whereas such quick turnarounds regarding [partially] leftover material have yielded lackluster results in the past (Radiohead’s Amnesiac, for instance), that’s certainly not the case here. Not only does Grimspound stand alongside its predecessor, but with its slight sublimation of nuance and risk over relatively safe accessibility, it may be an even more rewarding journey overall. Either way, the LP is yet another gorgeous example of why Big Big Train deserves to be revered.
As usual, Big Big Train focuses on narratives inspired by cultural heroes, hardships, and general history here. Specifically, they “tell stories from the oceans and the skies, . . . tales of scientists and artists and poets and dreamers . . . true-life tales of a flying ace . . . and the legend of a ghost waiting outside an ivy gate whilst the carriers of souls circle overhead.” In an interview with Amarok Magazine last August, founding bassist and co-songwriter Greg Spawton said that they originally planned to release an EP called Skylon that’d contain “two or three songs [from] the Folklore album which [they] didn’t get time to finish in time . . . with a couple of brand new songs.” However, they ended up with enough material for a full-length, and thus we have Grimspound, “a companion release to Folklore.”
Because they “weren’t really thinking about making an album” as they went, they felt comfortable “let[ting] [their] hair down a little” in terms of arrangements and stylistic balance. As a result, the sequence features a surprisingly large emphasis on instrumentals and other unexpected directions. Sure, it still sounds very much like a continuation of Folklore, but longtime fans will also find plenty of surprising turns as well. It’s precisely this balance of trademark method and striving boldness that makes Grimspound both endearingly placating and excitingly impulsive.
The commanding first track, “Brave Captain,” is a fine example of how well they to do just that. “A song about Captain Albert Ball, VC, DSO & Two Bars, MC,” it “considers the human element within heroic iconography, propaganda, and warfare.” It begins almost inaudibly, using its initial minute to slowly build a wistful atmospheric before a cataclysm of guitar riffs, strings, and steadfast percussion instigate a traumatic environment. Soon after, softer textures decorate singer David Longdon’s nostalgic and forlorn reflections. Honestly, these verses—as well the triumphant and engrossing choral counterpart of “Well, you should have seen me / Who would believe me now?”—are some of the catchiest melodies he’s ever sung. One-third of the way in, a sinister keyboard riff kicks off a forceful wordless passage (with razor-sharp guitar playing and syncopation) that’s a bit darker than you might expect, but it still feels very much at home. From there, ghostly vocal layers complement Longdon’s antagonistic proclamations as the band adorns tastefully until more intricate jams return us to the starting section. All in all, it’s an exceptional opener that reveals how Grimspound satisfies devotees while also taking them somewhere new.
“On the Racing Line” is a luscious instrumental companion to Folklore’s “Brooklands” (both concern driver John Cobb) that stands out due to its perpetual shifts in intensity, allowing each player a moment or two to shine while also seeing them join seamlessly in tandem. It’s remarkably focused, inviting, and erratic. Next comes “Experimental Gentleman,” a somewhat commercial entry that’s still multilayered and multifaceted enough to fit in. It’s by no means a lackluster inclusion (its harmonies and closing passage alone are magnificent), but if Big Big Train were ever to have a radio hit, this would be it. “Meadowland” is a gentle ballad indirectly connected to Longdon’s Uncle Jack (who was featured on the English Electric albums). Its warm acoustic guitar strums, equally calming piano chords, and folksy strings paint a pastoral background for Longdon’s charming celebration of community and creativity (“Here in science and art / And beauty and music / And friendship and love”).
The title track kicks off the second half of Grimspound with a delicate but cautionary air of ponderous uncertainties. There’s even a bit of bluegrass under the surface, and it’s fairly straightforward and tranquil until a robust and catchy riff/percussion combo adds electricity halfway through. Towards the end, more elaborate measures take over before ethereal male and female vocal overlaps break away from them, concluding the piece with a dense and chilling vibe. In doing so, the band hints at the overarching laments of “The Ivy Gate,” a stunning work that—with the aid of guest singer Judy Dyble—evokes the evocative storytelling of ‘70s icons like Fairport Convention, Trader Horne, and Strawbs. It also contains some of the most striking dynamic shifts on Grimspound, as the arrangement moves between serene aural blankets and raucous freak-outs with consistent poise and thematic relevance. (There’s also an atypical keyboard tone in the midst that adds some variety, and its closing chants are haunting.)
“A Mead Hall in Winter” also adds a tinge of neo-prog flair to Big Big Train’s beloved English score and songwriting. That said, its chief feats (aside from its clever connection to “Meadowland”) are its stunning central harmonies, fresh palette of singers, and feverish and vibrant instrumental segments (in particular, a recurring acoustic guitar riff that’s utterly entrancing). Without a doubt, it’s one of BBT’s greatest tracks ever, and luckily, it’s followed by a wonderful album closer, “As the Crow Flies.” Quickly paced and solemnly urgent, Longdon’s faint rasp and prolonged croons convey elegant desperation, as do drummer Nick D’Virgilio’s resolute beats, violinist Rachel Hall’s vocal counterpoints, and the assorted contributions of the band et al., whose woodwind, piano, bass, and electric guitar add-ons ensure that each moment is emotionally sparse or vigorous. It’s an impeccable way to end.
It may seem biased and hyperbolic to shower praise on every subsequent release by a band, but when they’re this consistently distinguishing and steady, nothing less suffices. Big Big Train has always been an outstanding act, but its current style (which began with 2009’s The Underfall Yard) is virtually unmatched when it comes to merging intellectual lyricism, symphonic embellishments, powerful singing, blissful harmonies, and engrossing progressive rock foundations. Plenty of other bands capture similar colorfulness and complexity (although none nail the ethnic flavor like this), but few, if any, others use it as precisely and carefully to aid the songwriting. Grimspound is indeed a faithful companion to Folklore, but it reaches beyond that by offering a triumphant testament to the magic, dedication, and adventurousness of its creators.
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