I first heard of Big Big Train when listening to a sampler CD that came with my prescription to Prog Magazine. The song was “Judas Unrepentant” off of the soon to be released album, English Electric. I was listening to it in my car and thought it sounded a fun song — I could tell that there was some story going although I couldn’t quite follow the details. All I knew for sure I that somebody was charged with “conspiracy to defraaaaaaaud!” The track was compelling enough that I played it again. Then I played it again and had my friend in the passenger seat start writing down the lyrics. We listened to it over and over until we had the words down, and by that point could sing along with the full song and I had decided that it was one of the better songs I had heard that year. Shortly thereafter I purchased English Electric, and then English Electric volume 2, and Big Big Train had a new big big fan.
I have enjoyed everything else that I’ve heard from the band, but nothing has equaled the two Electrics. That said, I still great a new BBT album with great anticipation and it was with much happiness that I began to get acquainted with their 10th full length studio album, Grimspound.
The 8-track album is the latest from the band and continues the narrative-in-song approach to which fans have become accustomed. Among these are three ‘prog-length’ songs (prog length, as defined by me, is any song that exceeds 9 minutes in length. The first of these is also the first song of the album titled, ‘Brave Captain’ which relates the tale of Albert Ball, one of England’s top WWI fighter pilots. The song fits nicely among other lengthy songs from BBT and is an example of a band who understands how to write a longer song. Such an endeavor is fraught with peril, however, as a longer song risks suffering from lack of cohesion or the potential of having musical ideas that are insufficiently load baring for the weight of the song itself. Two of the three prog-length songs on Grimspound are unmitigated successes, with the album’s longest track, “A Mead Hall in Winter” providing perhaps the album’s strongest moments (the vocal call and response is particularly pleasurable). The shortest of the three, “Experimental Gentleman”, is also the weakest of the three, and while it isn’t terrible, the melodies are among the less compelling that BBT has recorded over their last handful of albums.
Of the musicians in the band, (does seven full members make it a big big Band?), none stand out on Grimspound more than violinist/violist/cellist and vocalist Rachel Hall. She is featured instrumentally on several songs, and her violin playing is among the most enjoyable aspects of the album. Additionally, she is featured on lead vocals on two songs, and while I balk at featuring a vocalist who isn’t David Longdon, she acquits herself quite well.
Additional laud must be given to the band’s drummer and resident American, Nick D’Virgilio. I have often felt him significantly underappreciated as a drummer and on Grimspound he shows why he should be mentioned with the best of the players in the genre. The second track of the album, On the Racing Line, is an instrumental number that moves quickly into a jazzy groove that acts as a sufficient show-off platform for Nick’s skill, but I find his playing in “A Mead Hall in Winter” even more impressive as he not only provides the rhythmic transitions that hold the song together, but his intricate work throughout is well worth active listening.
While Grimspound doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights of the Electrics for me, it’s an album that is well worth dropping a few quid on (is that how you English types say it?) and, as with all of their albums, rewards repeated listens. In fact, I think I’ll go listen to it again.
Big Big Train’s Grimspound will be released on April 28th, 2017. Pre-order their album from their official store at Burning Shed (for vinyl and CD’s) and/or The Merch Desk (for merchandise and CD’s). You can also pre-order hi-resolution downloads and listen to their other albums on Bandcamp.