Grimspound by Big Big TrainRelease date: April 28, 2017
Following on from last year’s superb Folklore album, progressive rock collective Big Big Train have wasted no time in getting back to the studio. Riding a creative high, already at a peak through the aforementioned Folklore and the previous English Electric, it seems the solidification of a “band” has unleashed some juicy songwriting. Already brimming with talent through the lyrics of Greg Spawton and David Longdon, the musical pot pourri has been enhanced further with the addition of the songwriting skills of Rikard Sjoblom, no stranger to the prog rock scene himself. Add in the formidable backbone of Andy Poole, Nick D’Virgilio, Dave Gregory, Danny Manners, and Rachel Hall and you have the recipe for a big big concoction.
Initially starting life as an EP, Grimspound eventually turned into a full fledged album after the band hit the studio. Casting away the original Skylon songs, as the EP was to be known, the songs that were born became a kind of expansion on Folklore yet with its own identity. Thematically, the idea of song, science and story became the thread along which Grimspound took shape. The results of which are now here for all of us to hear.
Where previous releases have followed a pastoral Englishness, here the songs are much more intricate and progressive. Musically it is pure BBT but with the addition, in particular, of Rikard there is a more experimental feel about it. That’s not to say they have completely changed and what we have is still resolutely Big Big Train. You just have to listen harder, and that is what makes this such a rewarding listen. It’s pretty damn emotional too, with perhaps Longdon’s best performance yet.
It is with Longdon that we start, as a child borne away, arms aloft and running around his garden pretending to be flying his own aeroplane. The ‘Brave Captain’ of the title, a nostalgic remembrance of air shows as a child, and of Captain Albert Ball, a figure reminiscent of many within the BBT catalogue for his virtuous heroism and also his humanity, it also provides a similar feel to last albums ‘Twinky’, the song about the war pigeon. It’s also the last time you feel a link to the actual sound of Folklore as the music expands out once this glorious opening has ended.
‘On The Racing Line’ is an instrumental piece which takes in motifs from the previous albums Brooklands. One of the more interesting aspects of this is the unhurried musicality as the band allow each other to take the song in their own direction. It’s the beginnings of what will be a stretching out of their sound, taking each persons talent and using it in ways they haven’t done before. Perhaps what shines through most is how they sound like band who have played and written together. There is a closeness here which is unlike anything on their previous albums.
This newfound freedom plays into the wonderful, and future classic ‘Experimental Gentleman’. A song of many parts, it tells the story of scientific explorers on Captain Cooks ship, pushing at the boundaries of what is known at their time. Classic BBT, it sits nicely along a lineage which includes ‘The Underfall Yard’ and ‘Judas Unrepentant’, songs which bring to life history, all fed by Spawton’s wonderful knowledge and feel for interesting moments in time.
‘Meadowland’ features an exquisite guitar intro before revisiting an old friend in Uncle Jack. A song about an idealised place where people gather to share stories, the hedgerows of the pastoral landscape provide a return for our intrepid hero. It’s whimsical, yet somehow becomes the heart of the album as the ideas of stories shared and passed down becomes the integral theme. Taking the theme of Folklore and bringing it to a personal level, adding in that emotional resonance that happens through recognition. It’s an idea which reaches its peak later during ‘A Mead Hall In Winter’ which beckons you to join with songs, science and stories.
To reach such emotional targets there has to be a start though, and the title track goes through the mists of time to tell the tale of Grimr, also known as Woden. It is through Grimr that we get the image of the raven adorning the cover, and as is the way with BBT become a part of the lore behind the band. Grimspound is watching over you, making sure those stories are passed on in the manner in which they were meant.
A surprise lays in wait at ‘The Ivy Gate’ as Longdon is accompanied on vocals by folk legend Judy Dyble. It’s an enticing touch and kind of brings together the strands of folk and prog which rely on storytelling. It also shows how far BBT have travelled musically as they slowly morph from the progressive rock of ‘Brave Captain’ and ‘Experimental Gentlemen’ to the much richer and dense foliage of the almost medieval ‘The Ivy Gate’. This theme is taken into ‘A Mead Hall In Winter’ which is an absolute masterclass in music. Featuring stunning performances from all the band, that moment when the chorus hits is maybe one of the finest moments in the bands history and manages to encapsulate all the joy, the emotion, the resonance in its peak before running off down one of its progressive tangents.
Finally, ‘As The Crow Flies’ takes literal flight as BBT bring not just an end to this album but also what they call an end to the themes they started on The Underfall Yard. With many threads pulled together, the symbolism of the bird in flight signals the end of a moment in time. It’s a song of reflection, nostalgia and also looking forward in a way. As the song ends rather abruptly you wonder just where the bird will alight next. Grimspound may have told his story but there are new chapters to explore. That is for next time though, for now we have these ones to pass on.
Taken on its own merits Grimspound can easily be regarded as a triumph, when put in context with the thematic concerns and how it fits in with previous BBT albums it is nothing short of remarkable. It becomes a culmination of a set of albums which all fit in together and those who have followed from The Underfall Yard (and indeed, before), will recognise many motifs.
Musically it’s their best yet with its songs taking time to reveal their true beauty. It may even feel a little sense at first, and those hoping for a direct attachments may be disappointed. Like the stories being told, this is music which lives and breathes life and needs life to keep it going. You almost feel complicit with it, and you yearn for that feeling of belonging, of sharing secrets and stories, of communality. It’s an achievement that sets the bar high not just for Big Big Train but for prog rock on general. Maybe one day people will pass on the story of this album, a piece of music for the ages. A masterpiece.