Big Big Train don’t reinvent the wheel, rather they whittle it down to near perfection by adding their own twists to a winning British prog rock formula that places them at the head of the pack.
I might be one of the rarer fans that think Big Big Train have been on a good upswing this decade – their last album Grimspound is actually one of my absolute favorite albums of theirs! Naturally, I was looking forward to how they would progress their lovely prog rock sound, and I have the answer right here. Grand Tour, named after an old-fashioned European tradition and rite of passage, might not change up a whole lot, but still acts as the culmination of their stately, epic sound.
True to its name, Grand Tour is an aural period piece. It’s a common stereotype for English things to have regal or posh qualities attributed to them, especially by us Westerners, but Big Big Train are truly worthy of the descriptor. Their music feels proper and inoffensive, as if informed by a massive amount of etiquette classes. Maybe a fault for some, understandably, but I’ve always appreciated it. This new album doesn’t change that; to be honest, it doesn’t change much which is quite all right for me when it’s done so beautifully.
Big Big Train‘s music has always been lively, even when taking tragedy in stride, but not quite as much as “Alive” has – go figure. It’s like the opening musical number for a Disney movie, rife with upbeat melodic lines and larger-than-life structure. It’s like watching a young, plucky, perhaps animated adult prance upon the cobblestone street from their small town, swirling about and taking in all stimuli around them while they sing in a manner that beckons for others to join in. It’s theatrical and soaring, in ways I expect from the band and otherwise. Surely a different approach for them, but one that sets the stage for an album that wishes for you to appreciate all the grand things in life.
We couldn’t have a Big Big Train album without tremendously progressive moments and they are in abundance here. Grand Tour – emphasis on ‘grand’ – has three tracks clocking in at 13 minutes or more which is huge, almost daunting even for a prog fan like me. “Roman Stone” is the first one. Split into five parts, it’s the most urgent of the three with David Longdon acting as our orator for this historical journey with many references to ancient Rome (there’s actually a lot of references to Rome in this album). It has a very organic feel to it, using clean guitar of the electric and acoustic variety, building to an emotive brass section that plants its foot firmly in the middle of the track. It chills me to the core to hear the bass guitar flirt with the flute while drums splash and hammer out unbelievably tight rhythms, melodies dancing all around. There’s a neat ebb and flow with the pacing that makes it approachable for a long song – it alone could form its own standalone EP.
It’s very common for me to be swept up in the majesty of a Big Big Train album, and this is about the part when I completely succumb to it. With tracks like “Pantheon” and “Theodora in Green and Gold”, it’s not like I need much convincing to let myself go. The former song is an instrumental, more keen to soundtrack an A-list celebrity ensemble-led film than probably any other song on here. The orchestral movements on here are straight up bold in ways I haven’t heard from the band much before. The primary riff here is played by just about every instrument available, creating a multi-textured line through the relatively short track. It’s even accented by some nice synth leads! Time-altering sections warp the mix like wet parchment, but never go so far as to be alienating or overly technical – traditional British prog hardly ever does and that’s why I love it. The latter song is more conventional, carried by synth and piano more than any other, but also makes room for some awesome lead vocals from drummer Nick D’Virgilio. They turned out nicely and I hope he sings more in the future as he’s a good, light companion to Longdon’s mid-ranged cadence.
I’m compelled to use the word ‘epic’ a lot here, but it feels simultaneously played out and also inappropriate as it doesn’t fully encompass the breadth of the music on Grand Tour. What’s more than ‘epic’? Legendary? Mythic? Perhaps monumental? I struggle to find a word to describe the absolutely stunning group backing vocals on “Ariel” that almost bring me to tears, or the serene moments of restraint and grandeur that split up the busier sections of “Voyager” (the keyboard solo in particular is awesome). Big Big Train always play to their strengths, and to my tastes, by making music that transcends description; by crafting memorable music in such an organic and intrinsic fashion as if built from the elements of earth themselves.
Probably the biggest and, to me, only problem to address is how Big Big Train aggressively stay the course with much of their music. For my money, Grand Tour offers enough detours and scenic setpieces to warrant an earnest listen and stave off cynicism. I’m a big, big fan of epic, yet grounded and pretty prog, so I acknowledge that I’m liable to give it a pass, but be warned: it may not be the mold-shattering reinventing of progressive rock you’re in search of. It’s another divine Big Big Train album, showing the septet have plenty of steam left in them and they don’t seem to be waning whatsoever. That, if nothing else, is admirable, and I would still suggest giving this a try if you’ve grown jaded to them in the past.
It may be the honeymoon phase glinting in my eye, not to mention recency bias, but I feel strongly within me that this album has the potential to lead the group’s discography in terms of raw quality after time passes. Grand Tour has a couple of my favorite Big Big Train songs of all time; for a band with a storied history such as them to still impress decades later is no small feat. I sense moments of meta in this album when the lyrics urge to always keep in mind the splendor of the world around us, as if they are referencing this very music. I can’t imagine my world without Big Big Train, and this album simply adds another shade of color with which to paint my world.