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Big Big Train

Crossover Prog

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kev rowland
Honorary Reviewer
5 stars Over the last few years Big Big Train have been making a real name for themselves in the prog world, but I have missed out on the last few albums, so haven't really been fully aware of what has been going on. To me they will always be special, the first band ever to send me something to review, and I still have that 1991 demo tape, 'From The River To The Sea', and I am looking at it now. My brain has real issues in understanding that this small independently recorded and released cassette is the same band who are now playing this incredibly complex and professional music that is coming out of my speakers. True, there have been one or two line-up changes over the years, and they have gone from a five-piece to an octet, but Andy Poole and Greg Spawton were there at the very beginning, and they are still there now (while then-drummer Steve Hughes has separately gone on to be a recording artist in his own right).

It is interesting to note not only the people in the band, but the instruments being played, as it does give an insight into the complex and layered nature of the music. These days it is David Longdon (lead and backing vocals, flute, acoustic guitar, mandolin, percussion), Dave Gregory (guitars), Andy Poole (acoustic guitar, mandolin, keyboards, backing vocals), Rikard Sjöblom (keyboards, guitars, accordion, backing vocals), Danny Manners (keyboards, double bass), Rachel Hall (violin, viola, cello, lead and backing vocals, string arrangements), Greg Spawton (bass, bass pedals, acoustic guitar, backing vocals) and Nick D'Virgilio (drums, percussion, lead and backing vocals). If that wasn't enough, they have the one and only Judy Dyble guesting on vocals on one number as well.

I will never forget Greg making a beeline for me when he saw me in a pub in Winchester as he wanted to know what I thought about their new album, and I had to admit that I didn't like it as I felt they had moved too far away from their sound and it was nothing like I expected to hear from BBT (I later changed my mind after I had played it some more, honest). But, this is not a release that I would ever have expected to hear from the Dorset boys, as this is something of incredible depth and layers. I think one of the things that really makes this album work so much for me is that it is obvious that everyone involved is a master of their craft, but they are all incredibly restrained and working together to provide what is right for the music. I have been lucky to see Nick play live with Spock's Beard numerous times, and have many albums on which he has performed, but this must be the most laid-back I have ever heard him. In many ways, the lead instrument is that of Rachel, but it only works as it does due to the backdrop that is provided against it ? which can be a 'simple' acoustic guitar, or something far more powerful.

Dave Longdon has a wonderful voice, and it his vocals, combined with the melodies and instrumentation that makes this a very special album indeed. According to ProgArchives they released the best live album of 2016, and I would have thought that the chances of this being the top 2017 studio album are very high indeed. I was one of the very first reviewers of their music, and back in December 1991 I said, "If you like Genesis (prog not pop), Galahad or Marillion, then this is the band for you". More than twenty- five years on, I am pleased to amend that, and just say that here is a band for lovers of all great music, whatever the genre. Superb.

Report this review (#1715838)
Posted Saturday, April 29, 2017 | Review Permalink
5 stars It's easy to become an immediate fan of Big Big Train. They truly have a very accessible, crossover sound -- a band that answers the desires of Gabriel-era Genesis fans who always wanted to know what would happen if Phil never took over and went 80s pop synth. I became a fan of BBT with English Electric and have never turned back. Every release from the band since has been two-lines-down-the-middle solid. BBT has accomplished what so many neo-prog bands very rarely obtain, they have defined their own direction and sound, and created a unique atmosphere -- a dazzling world you can escape to during these [email protected]#t insane, politically-charged times.

The musicianship is jaw-dropping excellent, proving that time, longevity, and a strong collaborative group with ambition can soar to unlimited heights. Nick's drumming is getting even better and I can't wait to see what he brings back to Spock's Beard after this performance. A highlight is "On The Racing Line," a dynamic, tour-de-force of instrumental mastery by all the musicians, but Nick is just killing it with the snare work, syncopation and creativity! David's vocal melodies continue to paint, with broad strokes, songs that evoke the earl grey, old-English world. The harmonies sound fantastic especially at the end of "Grimspound" and the duel vocals on "The Ivy Gate" are excellent! "The Ivy Gate", in particular, showcases how BBT never stands still within their defined sound, always blazing new trails. The song contains numerous structures, twists and turns that always keep the listener captivated at the subtle changes of mood and vocal inflections. The keyboards add a unique spice to the song "A Mead Hall In Winter," blending just the right amounts of piano and synth, dancing around David's soaring vocal lines. It's here where we could start to think BBT can be categorized as a love child between early Genesis, Sting's early solo releases, and a classical folk chamber group.

With three of the songs over the 10 minute mark, prog fans should delight. The consistent world BBT has crafted for listeners is ever-changing and still fresh. At sunset, as we finally ascend to the top of this mountain, we're in awe, observing a vast, uncharted sonic landscape ahead of us as BBT shows no signs of slowing down nor resting on their laurels.

Album Of The Year? They may have it locked up indeed.

Live Concert Pairing: iamthemorning opens. BBT headlines.

Report this review (#1716777)
Posted Tuesday, May 2, 2017 | Review Permalink
4 stars Yet another beautiful release from Big Big Train, but I admit I was concerned throughout the first track, "Brave Captain", which seemed overly repetitious, without enough going for it to merit it's 12-minute length. However, my concern immediately dissipated with the next track, "On The Racing Line", which is a fabulous instrumental, showing genuine creatively and even breaking new ground for BBT. Personally I think every BBT album deserves an instrumental, and this is quite likely the strongest instrumental track they've done and ranks with their finest work to date. Next is "Experimental Gentlemen", which starts and ends very well, to be followed by the lovely "Meadowlands", a more acoustic, pretty track, something they've always done very well. The title track follows, which is another one of my favorites on the album, using chordings that represent a bit of a departure from the rest of the album, and their sound in general. The climax of this song is in the middle, an instrumental break that is pure magic. "The Ivy Gate" is a folky song featuring Judy Dyble on vocals, who sounds wonderful. "A Mead Hall In Winter" is the magnum opus, a solid track, all over the place, with enough changes and variation to hold my interest, although I wouldn't put it in the same league as some of the previous magnum opuses such as "East Coast Racer" or "The Underfall Yard". RIkard and David did an excellent job putting this one together. The closer, "As the Crow Flies" is gorgeous, another of my favorites. There is a you tube video of this that is highly worth checking out. Had me nearly in tears. A great way to end the album. Overall, another winner from the kings of British pastoral prog.
Report this review (#1716822)
Posted Tuesday, May 2, 2017 | Review Permalink
5 stars Released at the beginning of 2017, this new album of Big Big Train had immediately convinced me that it was a masterpiece, better than English Electric 1 & 2, even better than The underfall Yard which had been my preffered one up to now... With several months of background, it is time to write my personal review and confirm its five stars! Grimspound actually I think is closed to underfall yard in terms of inspiration and melodies, but at even higher level. All songs are wonderfull, with variety between them and, in addition, arrangements, orchestration and techinicity of musicians, vocals included, are at their top. 2017 is still not finished but Grimspound is on track to be number 1! Just in my opinion my home.. .
Report this review (#1717923)
Posted Friday, May 5, 2017 | Review Permalink
5 stars Having discovered BBT only 5 years ago, I have fallen under their spell and so it was with much anticipation that I looked forward to this new album. When it was declared that there would be no brass on this release, I thought that it was a brave move given how unique that sound is. I am very pleased to say that Grimspound has met up to all expectations IMHO. I am not one to compare album versus album, I just take what I can from each one. The quality of the songwriting is still outstanding, the vocals, as always, excellent and the chops, well, of course they are top notch. Each of the songs give me something different to appreciate just like all the BBT albums and there isn't a song I don't like - again!

Great to hear Rachel Hall featured more and also the addition of the wonderful Judy Dyble on "The Ivy Gate" adds yet another positive element to the music. The highlights for me - at this stage anyway;

The "hook" in " A Mead Hall in Winter" one of the most sublime pieces of music I've ever heard . The feeling of sadness when 'Meadowland" finishes too soon. Imagining "Brave Captain" as the opener at this years concerts. The addition of three different lead vocalists being Judy, Rachel and Nick - again, adding to BBT's point of difference. Great keys and guitars all the way through with some interesting lines as part of the layered sound.

And the sheer "Englishness" of the sound and atmosphere. BBT continue to shine and give us a sound that is different from everyone else, long may this continue.

Report this review (#1721947)
Posted Monday, May 15, 2017 | Review Permalink
4 stars Review # 56. Personally speaking, I think that Big Big Train reached the top with the release of the English Electric 1 & 2 albums and the release of Folklore was a step back. Grimspound is the new album of this very talented English band, which comes one year after Folklore. I was kind of disappointed with Folklore, because I was waiting for something better after the 2 wonderful albums I mentioned above. In Grimspound, Big Big Train seems to leave the Folk influences aside, and concentrate to their usual melodic/mellow/romantic style. Beginning with the excellent 12-minute-long epic Brave Captain, the album begins to reveal to the listeners its beauty track by track. The musicianship of the band is at a very high standards once more, but that should not come as a surprise. The production is very good and the sound is crystal clear. Also, the participation of Judy Dyble (ex-Fairport Convention / Trader Horne) in the song The Ivy Gate was a big surprise. Most of the compositions are rather long and complicated, in a beautiful and 'gentle' way. (I can't describe it otherwise, I'm sorry). Also, most of the songs are including so many major changes into their structure, that is impossible to say from the beginning where each song is going to 'lead' you. A fine example of that, is the album's second track, the instrumental On the Racing Line. I didn't like the song at first, so after 2 minutes I skipped it. The same happened the second time I was listening to the album as well. But the third time, I was dealing with something and let it play. And right after the second minute, there is a major change of 'direction' which changes the song so much, that I was wondering which song I am listening to. Further than the opening song, the album includes one more epic, the 15-minute-long A Mead Hall in Winter, which, together with Brave Captain, are some of the highlights of the album, (together with the wonderful Meadowland). To conclude this, I think that Grimspound is one step above Folklore, and one step below English Electric 1 & 2. So, a rating of 3.5 out of 5.0 is a fair one I think. (But I will give 4 stars) If you like Big Big Train, you should buy Grimspound. If you didn't like Big Big Train so far, don't bother. If you don't know Big Big Train, this is a good album to begin with. But then I recommend to continue with English Electric 1 or 2.
Report this review (#1722466)
Posted Wednesday, May 17, 2017 | Review Permalink
4 stars Excellent! Close to 5 Stars.

More lively and diverse an album than Folklore, Grimspound is a welcome addition to the BBT catalogue. It keeps with the now-established mature BBT sound (and thus also BBT formula), but with enough twists and turns to keep it interesting, and to differentiate it from previous albums. Unlike the album Folklore, which I found drags a bit, Grimspound's 68 minutes go by in a flash. There are some of the pagan-folk influences introduced on Folklore (the main example here is "The Ivy Gate", with Judy Dyble guesting on vocals alongside David Longdon, and the violin of Rachel Hall is featured prominently), but I find the album harkens back more to feel of the English Electric (EE) volumes in terms of musical diversity and the ability to rock out in between softer passages. But there is still a clear theme/formula, with references to older English traditions and ways of life, and I find the lyrics to be quite similar to previous albums (for instance, "Brave Captain" here, like "Winkie" on Folklore, is about a world-war flying hero, "Meadowlands" harkens back to both "Edgelands" and "Hedgerow" on EE, etc). So, not much new in that sense. I indeed wish that they would find newer/different themes to sing about, not because I find the current formula in any way off-putting, but because they already did this so well on previous albums. Saying this, the music here is excellent, and I can totally see why people would give this album 5 stars. BBT have with each subsequent album honed their own voice, and this album doesn't lean quite as much on melancholic emotives - it is more direct. Standout tracks include the title track "Grimspound", and the last two tracks ("Mead Hall in Winter" and "As a Crow Flies") which I am sure are set to become among their most-highly requested live tunes. Those rank up there with the best of English Electric. But it is the instrumental "On the Racing Line" that I love the best. This track, which is actually an addendum to "Brooklands" from Folklore (and would become part of the "Brooklands Sequence" on 'The Second Brightest Star' released only six months after Grimspound), shakes up the album, and is exactly the kind of diversity that was missing from Folklore. Nick D'Virgilio's drumming is (once again) awesome - worth the price of the ticket alone - as is the guitar playing. Other tracks have mixed effects - mixed in the sense of diverse. "Brave Captain" is great, although I find the lyrics a tad trite, but it has a number of great musical moments, shifting between slow and fast etc. "Experimental Gentlemen" likewise shifts between time signatures, but the chorus is less musical than the 6/8 sections. "Ivy Gate" is wonderful - nice addition of Dyble's vocal, but "Meadowlands" sounds like an outtake from Folklore, with nostalgic and syrup-y lyrics (some which resurface in Mead Hall, although they fit in better there). On the whole, an enjoyable experience, up there among the best BBT albums, more memorable and diverse than Folklore, but not quite as good as their very best. I give this 8.6 out of 10 on my 10-point scale, which is near the top end of 4 PA stars.

Report this review (#1743316)
Posted Thursday, July 13, 2017 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars This band of seasoned veterans has morphed and gelled into a cohesive unit whose compositions set the standard for other symphonic prog bands of this decade.

1. "Brave Captain" (12:37) In my humble opinion, this is one of the best songs BBT has ever done. Where so many times before the music and the story the band is trying to tell feel over-the-top bombastic (for reasons that seem to often escape me), this time everything seems to click. Dave's vocal rendering of the story is nicely restrained. The amazingly evocative section starting at 4:12 is prog perfection. All instrumental contributions are so perfect, Nick D'Virgilo's drumming never more virtuosic and necessary. At 7:20 a mute-effected vocal begins the rendering of the flyer's story. It's so effective that I get goosebumps and tears brimming at my eyes every damn time I listen to it. And when Dave switches out of the closet into the open air to describe the last flight! Amazing! Genius! The instrumental play out with the single phrase "brave captain of the skies" being repeated by both Dave and a choir is perfect (as is the atmospheric "air" sounds as the song fades). (9.75/10)

2. "On The Racing Line" (5:12) organ, piano, bowed double bass open this one before the band breaks into a jazzy-boogie piano-based Nick D'Virgilio instrumental race. This song definitely serves to showcase Nick's amazing drumming: so tight, so concise, so well-integrated into the song--despite its many dynamic and tempo shifts. Great use of strings in support at the end. (9.25/10)

3. "Experimental Gentlemen" (10:01) parts of this song, both melodically and instrumentally, shine as among the best work BBT have ever done. The unfortunate thing is the sometimes awkward, disjointed and inexplicable shifts from section to section (e.g. from the amazing opening/intro to the simplistic singing section at the two minute mark--if there was ever a case to cite an instance in which two entirely separate songs are suddenly and inexplicably melded together, this is one). Fortunately, the melodies and lyrics of the first singing section are engaging. In the fifth minute, the vocals take a break and we settling into a section of very nice instrumental tapestry. But, then, suddenly, at 5:34, we're back to the "experimental gentlemen" vocal theme. The song is playing out like a Broadway reprise--like the introductory music you receive when returning from a musical play's intermission. "The wonder of it all" is a wonderful epithet signaling another switch--to a soft, gentle, and very moving instrumental section which plays out to the song's end. (9/10)

4. "Meadowland" (3:36) with it's 12-string guitar and violin, this one opens quite nicely. Shaping up to be a little more folk-country oriented than I expected, the song continues as an instrumental until the 1:18 mark. Dave's AMERICA-like vocal enters with the strings continuing to weave around behind him sans drums (with organ--and, later, piano). Nice, mellow song. (8/10)

5. "Grimspound" (6:56) a beautiful folky song with wonderfully simple and catchy melodies from both instruments, chords, and vocal lines. I love Dave's voice so much when he is restrained and relaxed. And I LOVE his flute work. At 3:35 the band decided that a little more umph! and bombast were needed. Too bad. What should have been left alone... Nice work from the strings (electric and otherwise) in sixth minute. I do love the choral singings of the Latin phrases at the end. (9.5/10)

6. "The Ivy Gate" (7:27) banjo is the most conspicuous instrumental presence with this one from its opening--until the warbling voice of the great Judy Dyble opens the singing telling the tale of Thomas Fisher. Constructed with ample variety and dynamics, no section, no lyric, no melody sucks me in enough to warrant repetition or research. This is a good song with just average appeal and engagement factor. (8/10)

7. "A Mead Hall In Winter" (15:20) with some very nice instrumental work--especially from the organ--and some awesome multi-voice background vocal arrangements. Again, the melodic lines employed here are simply not as engaging as the instrumental solos are impressive. (8.5/10)

8. "As The Crow Flies" (6:44) very nice, spacious song with the delightful presence of a female vocalist (Rachel Hall) singing the second lead. Flutes, piano, violin, acoustic guitars, organ, all are given ample room to be heard on this one--which is nice. (8.5/10)

Big Big Train certainly have their own style and distinctive sound. They are very polished, very skilled musicians, and their compositional skills and instrumental arrangements are of the highest quality and grade while their sonic renderings of music are always just shy of miraculous. Where they seem to fall a little short--at least, to these ears--is in matching their music to the story that they are trying to tell (or, perhaps better put, in matching their musical expression to the significance of the historical text of their chosen "heroes"). The conundrum they present to me time after time reminds me of the story I've heard so many times about the reactions of Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, Phil Collins, and Steve Hackett to first hearing the vocal story telling that Peter Gabriel had recorded over their music for The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.

4.5 stars; a near-masterpiece of progressive rock music.

Report this review (#1786026)
Posted Saturday, September 23, 2017 | Review Permalink
Mellotron Storm
3 stars After losing my long review once again on this site I'll try again with a short one. I'm pretty big on the middle period of BIG BIG TRAIN's discography from the 2007 "The Difference Machine", 2009's "The Underfall Yard", 2010's "Far Skies Deep Time" and 2012's "English Electric(Part One)". I couldn't get into "Folklore" or this one, although I do feel this is a little better than "Folklore".

Songs like "Experimental Gentlemen" and "The Ivy Gate" just don't do anything for me while the opener "Brave Captain" is my favourite. I'm not big on the strings here because they are so safe sounding but most of the album is safe sounding. I like the sections where they amp it up or do something adventerous, but there's way too few of those to make me consider anything more than 3 stars.

Hopefully this works as I press "save" but it's getting to the point on here that I'm having difficulty caring one way or the other. BIG BIG TRAIN is such a talented band who play mature music with meaningful lyrics, but i'll stick to the ones I mentioned in the intro thanks.

Report this review (#1803312)
Posted Saturday, October 14, 2017 | Review Permalink
2 stars Shortly after Grimspound came out, Big Big Train seemed to be the talk of the town. I couldn't click on a prog website without stumbling across news or raving reviews. A friend of mine recommended them, so I took a listen. Sorry to say, I just don't get what all the hype is about.

Overall, this album is not bad. In fact, it is just fine. It just fails to provide (me) with anything that is especially interesting, captivating, or moving. Let's look at some different aspects:

Aside from one instrumental piece, all of the tracks seem to share the same basic construction... play some introductory music, stop playing music and start singing, stop singing and start playing music, repeat several times. Then in the middle of the track, shift gears into a completely different mood.

I'm not a big fan of the either/or trade-off between groovy music and vocals. I like both at the same time. I find it more enjoyable when the band plays and the vocalist sings together, as one entity, not two separate entities trading time in the spotlight.

I'm also not a big fan of abrupt changes in mood, as if a new track has started. It really ruins the mental and emotional picture I established earlier in the song. It's kind of like a novel changing from a murder mystery to sci-fi fantasy half way through. It almost never makes sense.

So what about the quality of the vocals? I find them adequately average. They are pleasant enough, with no unnecessary melismatic runs or annoying note-seeking glides, but they are also of limited dynamic and spectral range. No faults or annoying habits, but nothing to write glowing reviews about, either. However, my ears perked up with interest when the female vocals started, and again when several vocalists harmonized together, but those instances were too few and far between.

And what of the music? There were plenty of musical interludes, and every so often a synth, or mellotron, or Hammond organ would chime in, but not for very long. There was occasional guitar presence, and lots of violin (which I love in prog music), but it was all very restrained, anti-climactic, and non-captivating. And despite enjoying Nick D'Virgilio in other settings, his drumming was constrained to basic background time-keeping. It was almost as if the band were trying their best to purposely restrain themselves. I kept wishing they would unshackle themselves and just let loose. I think they have the chops to do so, and the fact that they didn't (for whatever reason) was disappointing.

Overall, I would say that the album reminded me of a painting of a bowl of fruit on a table. Adequately executed, but lacking anything intriguing, interesting, stimulating, thought provoking, emotional, or adventurous. Worth a look, but nothing to dwell on. And while the artist(s) seemed to have the talent to paint a much more interesting picture, they failed to do so on this one. Two and a half stars.

Report this review (#1940239)
Posted Thursday, June 21, 2018 | Review Permalink
5 stars The first Big Big Train albums that I've heard were Grand Tour and Folklore and it was love at first sight. I was so impressed with the mature sound of this band that I was so eager to try the rest of their discography as soon as possible. One by one, Folklore, English Electric and The Underfall Yard were my favourite BBT albums, but now I think I most appreciate the sound of Grimspound. Brave Captain and A Mead Hall In Winter are one of the most beautiful songs I've heard this year, but the rest of the album sounds so relaxing and in the same time, dynamic and mature. An instant 5-star rating and highly recommended!!
Report this review (#2269658)
Posted Monday, October 14, 2019 | Review Permalink

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