Big Big Train - Grand Tour
English Electric Recordings
Progressive Rock
9 songs (1:14:22)
Release year: 2019
Big Big Train
Reviewed by Goat

Modern progressive rock bands aren't always happy to be portrayed as throwbacks to the early 70s heyday of the genre before punk and new wave spoiled the party, yet seven-piece ensemble Big Big Train are all about the past. They've released a string of albums since 1990 about English folklore and landscapes, musically close to the pastoral era of biggest influence Genesis and featuring members of Spock's Beard, XTC, Beardfish, and Genesis itself, drummer Nicholas D'Virilio having been chosen as one of the two drummers to replace Phil Collins on Calling All Stations. This is their twelfth full-length and something of a novelty in that it's the first to raise the band's lyrical gaze over the Channel to travel in Europe and beyond, the title referencing the seventeenth and eighteenth century custom of going on grand cultural tours. There's a lot that could be said about self-obsessed Englishmen even before bringing in topics like Brexit, but we stuffy half-cousins to the continent are the best at prog rock (and most music, in fairness!) and Big Big Train are a solid argument in Albion's favour.

Limited appeal, then? Not really, given the breadth of material present on Grand Tour, almost too much with three epic pieces each over thirteen minutes long! Opening with brief intro Novum Organum and soon leading into a burst of poppy prog optimism in Alive, the album puts emotional heft in immediately. Alive is a hugely enjoyable song, easily the most memorable piece present with its layered vocal lines backed by a complex and technical instrumental backing; something of an anthem with the repeated "know what it means to be alive" chorus and infectious keyboard melodies, to the point where it approaches Porcupine Tree levels of catchiness. The album doesn't quite hit that height again, preferring to explore other terrain rather than repeat itself, so the very next track The Florentine is mostly pleasant acoustic folk-rock given atmospheric weight thanks to some beautiful violin playing from Rachel Hall and plenty of keyboard widdling (or whatever the term is!). No fewer than four members of the band are given credit for 'additional keyboards' in the personnel listing, and it shows; the instrument is a vital element in the band's sound, and the complexity and thought put in is impressive.

This, of course, doesn't matter if the songwriting is less than adequate, and although Big Big Train have definitely gone overboard here in terms of sheer volume, there's quality as well as quantity. First epic piece Roman Stone builds from a warm vocal base with some gorgeous flute courtesy of Phil Collins-esque vocalist and multi-instrumentalist David Longdon and terrific percussive backing to the vocal-led midsection which backs up a brass section perfectly. It contrasts well with the ominous Pantheon, less than half its length but using the brass and flute perfectly as part of a complex instrumental workout with more than a touch of King Crimson to it. And the piano-dominated Ariel is the second of the epic pieces that works well, touches of poppy catchiness allowed between the classic prog meandering to great effect - possibly a little too long at over fourteen minutes long, but by this point in the tracklisting it's easy to give the band leeway, and they more than make the time count.

You can say the same for the following final epic, the fourteen minute Voyager, lyrically again about travel (from earth to space, this time) and having a more wistful, reflective feel, with a touch of melancholy in the proggy near-orchestral centre section before the rock instruments return for a technical little workout that includes some of the album's best guitar. Of course, the band are just as good at writing shorter songs, and both songs that have as yet gone unmentioned are terrific. Theodora in Green and Gold is a near-ballad about the Byzantine Empress' depiction in a 6th century mosaic, driven by acoustic guitars and a subtly catchy vocal refrain, while the closing Homesong adds a touch of flamenco flamboyance to the percussion as the lyrics describe the feeling of coming home from a voyage. It's a fitting end to a concept album that demands a lot from the listener but rewards it, undoubtedly a long listen but with no tracks that deserve being cut; not the best that Big Big Train have ever been, perhaps, but more than excellent in its own right and a good place to begin exploring their discography if you're new to them.

Killing Songs :
Alive, Roman Stone, Voyager
Goat quoted 85 / 100
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