Big Big Train - Grand Tour
Bryan Morey's Review
They're back, and they're more popular than ever. As I write this (May 24), Big Big Train have made it to number 35 in the UK charts. So they're now a top 40 band... in England at least. If this were top 40 in the US charts, I'm pretty sure this review would sound a bit different. But congratulations to the band. Hopefully their many years of hard work is paying off in some sort of financial reward.
If you're a hardcore progger, which seems likely considering you're reading this website, then I imagine this band is familiar to you. You have probably already heard Grand Tour by now, or if you haven't, it is because you don't particularly care for Big Big Train. All this to say, I don't think there is anything in Grand Tour that would make a fan out of someone who has heard their past work, and did not find it to their liking. Hopefully the band's chart success will open the doors to fresh ears to hear their wonderful music.
Grand Tour finds the band embarking on a once common endeavour for young university-educated people many years ago; the tour of Europe. Over the course of the album, the listener is taken to, well, primarily Italy and France. We visit Leonardo da Vinci and Rome, and we get a look at Ariel, a spirit from Shakespeare's play, The Tempest. Science and art intermingle throughout, particularly in the song The Florentine, about da Vinci, arguably the greatest artist and scientist of The Renaissance. Science also appears in the song Voyager, which references both the spaceships named Voyager and other more broad themes of voyaging. The band returns to England with the final track, Homesong.
This album has taken many listens for me to really get into the groove of things, but like always, it has been worth it. There are a few changes in some of the band's sounds, which I was initially inclined to attribute to drummer Nick D'Virgilio, since he wrote the music for a couple of the more unique tracks. However, it seems that the newer sounds I'm picking up occur throughout, even on songs that he didn't write.
David Longdon's lyrics strike me as being much more refined than in past albums. Alive, written by Longdon, is an anthem, similar to Make Some Noise and Folklore, except this is a lot better than either of those. His writing (both music and lyrics) on Ariel are quite good. The new sounds are used sparingly, but there are some themes clearly influenced by cinematic depictions of Rome. The album is also pretty heavy with piano and organ, which isn't uncommon in Big Big Train's music, but it seems more layered here.
I do have a general criticism of this album. I think the band played things too safely. They have changed their sound drastically in the past, such as the change between The Difference Machine and The Underfall Yard. Obviously the lineup change contributed greatly to that, but the band also said they would be changing things up after 2017's The Second Brightest Star. There really isn't much of a change here. Ok, the lyrics are mainly about mainland Europe instead of England, but they are still singing about the same sorts of things; science, art, myth, and history. That is all fine, but musically it still sounds pretty much the same. Lyrically, it seems like I've heard some of the phrases used here throughout. The references to hedgerows, chalk hills, and butterflies seem a little too familiar. At some point, the band will appear to start parodying themselves. Thankfully, Ariel is a unique track that doesn't fall into some of the band's established formulas.
The band has been around for a while, and this lineup has remained relatively constant since 2009, with only one person leaving and a few more people joining the band. Ten years is a long time. Think about how Rush's sound changed between their first album in 1974 and their output in the mid 1980s. The bands that didn't adapt at the end of the 70s failed, and very few stayed progressive. In this era of prog, we seem to like what we like, which could be encouraging a band like Big Big Train to make more of the same. At some point, though, I want to hear a progression.
Beyond that, I think they could make their vocal harmonies stand out a bit more. I'm a big fan of vocal harmonies, and I think The Neal Morse Band are the best in the business at it currently. Moon Safari are also quite good, but they've been pretty quiet lately. Big Big Train are the other big name that uses them a lot, but I think they could be more creative with it like The Neal Morse Band are. I love that D'Virgilio sings lead a couple of times, for a few lines on a couple songs on this album, but it still feels like the harmonies are missing something. I'm not trying to take anything away from Longdon. He still sounds as great as he ever has, and he has one of the top voices in the business. For what it is worth, the vocal harmonies on Ariel are more varied than at other points on the record.
Ultimately, this is a solid album from a consistent band. The band has earned the right to do as they please, and they have made another solid album doing things their way. However, the most different sounding tracks on the album, happen to be the most progressive songs on Grand Tour: Ariel and Voyager. The latter has moments that get remarkably heavy by Big Big Train standards, and I'd have to say, that is the strongest part of the album. Voyager is a rock song, tinted with the band's folk elements, rather than a folk song tinted with rock elements. The album opens and ends very well, making the album a cohesive unit that stands by itself.
Like I mentioned earlier, if you're already a fan of the band, then you've already listened to this and have enjoyed it. If you don't like the band, then Grand Tour likely won't change your mind. If you haven't listened to Big Big Train yet, then go ahead and give it a chance. If you like it, you most certainly will enjoy their output over the past decade.
Patrick McAfee's Review
After their previous studio release, The Second Brightest Star, Big Big Train announced that they would musically be "moving on to different landscapes and subjects". As much as they have been releasing quality albums, the idea of change made sense to me, because their output was becoming a bit samey. The first track released from Grand Tour was Alive, and this upbeat, accessible track certainly followed through on the promise of change. However, the question remained as to just how different the entire new album would be?
The fact is that Grand Tour is different to an extent. As promised, they have moved on from the pastoral English countryside, but the sound, style and structure of their previous work is still very much intact. That said, some of the material is noticeably less delicate. Pantheon, Ariel and Voyager display a prog rock edge that finds the band sounding more agressive than they have in the past. Big Big Train will never be mistaken for Dream Theater, but there is an added oomph at play here.
Other moments (The Florentine, Roman Stone, Theodora In Green and Gold, and Homesong) may feel a bit more familiar, but are no less entertaining. The Florentine in particular, is a perfect blend of the elements that make this band notable. Those same elements (infectious melodies, harmonious vocals, exceptional musical performances) are found in abundance throughout the entire album.
Upon hearing Alive, some fans expressed fear that the band was following in the commercial footsteps of latter day Genesis. That is certainly not the case, and the song (which I like quite a bit) is by no means representative of the entire album. Plus, there is a lot of progressive punch to be found in its four-minute running time.
Ultimately, this is another excellent and very progressive album from one of the best bands in the genre. The changes they have made are enough to keep things interesting, without alienating any admirers. Also, as popular as they are, there is an urgency and integrity to the material that confirms the apparent drive to still prove themselves. That determination can only be admired, and has resulted in Grand Tour being one the finest and most consistently entertaining releases of their 25-year career.