Album Reviews

Issue 2017-046

Big Big Train - Grimspound - Duo Review

Big Big Train - Grimspound
Country of Origin: UK
Year of Release: 2017
Time: 67:53
Track List:
Brave Captain (12:37), On the Racing Line (5:12), Experimental Gentlemen (10:01), Meadowland (3:36), Grimspound (6:56), The Ivy Gate (7:27), A Mead Hall in Winter (15:20), As the Crow Flies (6:44)
Bryan Morey's Review
Sometimes the best albums are the hardest to review. What do you do when you have a band as exceptional as Big Big Train? They have come to a point in their over 20-year career where it seems they can do no wrong. With a stellar cast of players, this band is firing on all eight cylinders. Musically, lyrically, and thematically, Big Big Train is as good as it gets. As someone who did not live through the so-called "golden age" of prog in the 1970s, I consider myself incredibly blessed to witness the brilliance of this band unfold in this current era of progressive rock.

In a way, Grimspound is so much more than prog. It transcends genres, because the band feels no compulsion to limit itself in that way. Of course, that does not mean the band has suddenly infiltrated their music with techno-pop trash. Rather, it means they compose music that fits a particular song, lyric, or theme, much in the same way that classical music does. By combining folk musical influences with a rock edge at points, such as in Brave Captain, BBT tell a story with both words and sound. I know of no other band that does this as well as they do.

Musically, I think Nick D'Virgilio is the must underrated and forgotten member of this group. As a drummer, he is equaled only by Mike Portnoy (I'm only considering currently active drummers - Peart is retired) in terms of talent and capability. Much like Phil Collins did for Genesis, D'Virgilio adds subtle yet complex overtones that simultaneously guide the music and enthrall the listener. His chops certainly make the music even more interesting than it already is.

As a whole, I do not believe any of the songs on Grimspound rise above the greatness found in the song, The Underfall Yard, but nobody said that they had to. After all, Genesis never bested Supper's Ready (in my opinion), despite having four outstanding progressive albums after Foxtrot. What is important, is that these eight songs are all excellent, both on their own and as a collection. You'll find yourself headbanging with the instrumental interlude on The Ivy Gate, not ten minutes after you've wiped away tears after hearing Meadowland. As I'm sure any parent can attest (I'm not one, so I can't be certain), you may find yourself in tears again during As The Crow Flies, which deals with children growing older and flying the nest.

Vocally, it was nice to see the band experiment further with different vocal harmonies, as well as include different vocalists in lead rolls. David Longdon is one of the greatest singers of the rock era, to be sure, but the brief change-ups in Grimspound progress the band's sound as a whole. Additionally, it gives the band the chance to take advantage of Nick D'Virgilio's and Rachel Hall's wonderful voices. While familiar listeners are well aware of both of those members' contributions to harmonies in the past, it was nice to hear them take brief leading roles. D'Virgilio's lead vocals in a short section of A Mead Hall in Winter was altogether unexpected, yet it was brilliant. Hall's vocals in As The Crow Flies adds a needed touch of sensitivity and femininity to an album filled with stories about war, ghosts, scientific experiments, car racing, and drinking. The inclusion of Judy Dyble, a founding member of Fairport Convention, adds a stunning touch to The Ivy Gate.

I want to bring special attention to the song, Meadowland, whose lyrics, which are repeated in A Mead Hall in Winter, are a masterful rebuttal to the intellectually modern world in which we find ourselves wallowing. According to the album's detailed liner notes, this song was based upon the life of Longdon's uncle Jack, and it is also a fitting tribute to John Wetton. In the lyrics, BBT essentially reject the insanity and dreariness of contemporary city life, in favor of the pastoral landscape. Indeed, the band tells us that those who bring the most joy to humanity, "the best of what we are / poets and painters / and writers and dreamers," are out there in the meadowland reading, creating, and enjoying nature. While most of the modern world rejects these folks, Big Big Train uphold them as examples of virtue. These people remind us of our humanity and the beauty of life, even in dark times. Even though they may not admit it, I believe that this song masterfully describes the band itself and their place in the music world. "The best of what we are" indeed.

A review of anything produced by Big Big Train would be incomplete without a mention of the packaging of the album itself. The care that the band puts into their packaging is astounding. Even the digipack gatefold CDs are exquisitely crafted. I can only imagine that the vinyl LP is even more beautiful. Sarah Ewing's artwork is even better than it was on Folklore. While I do miss Jim Trainer's artwork from their earlier albums, Ewing's work fits the pastoral/folk motif better than Trainer's does, for his artwork featured a more industrial edge, which certainly fitted their earlier work. A brilliant addition to Grimspound's booklet, which was not included in the Folklore booklet, are the liner notes written by David Longdon and BBT mastermind Greg Spawton. The detail they provide helps to make Grimspound much easier to digest, much in the same way the liner notes aided understanding for English Electric: Full Power.

I honestly cannot recommend Grimspound highly enough. For fans of their earlier work, there is much to enjoy here. Much is familiar, yet this album is more progressive than their last. While some may complain (not me!) that their sound is getting stale (blasphemy!), the band has stated that Grimspound is the final album in their folk-oriented album cycle. While I doubt the band will move into a death metal or djent direction on their next album, it does seem that they will be progressing into new and uncharted territory in the future. For now, enjoy the brilliance of their current catalogue, including this latest addition. Wherever the tracks may lead, Big Big Train have more than earned my trust to remain on this musical journey with them.
Theo Verstrael's Review
Within a year of the release of the great Folklore, successorto the phenomenal song cycle English Electric, Big Big Train treats us to yet another new album called Grimspound. It breathes in many aspects that it should be seen as a successor to Folklore. The cover is again dedicated to a crow, this time flying over mathematical circles and therefore looking somewhat less threatening than the Folklore one. The band composition has stayed the same, with long-time members Nick d'Virgilio (drums), Dave Gregory (guitars), Andy Poole (acoustic guitar, mandolin and keys), Greg Spawton (bass, acoustic guitars) and David Longdon (lead vocals, flute, mandolin) accompanied by Rachel Hall (violin, cello, viola), Danny Manners (double bass, keys) and Rikard Sjöblom (guitars, keys, accordion), making BBT an solid eight-piece.

This album features eight new songs packed in a nice carton sleeve that comes with a very well-crafted booklet containing all lyrics as well as descriptions by Longdon or Spawton of the inspiration and the background to the songs. That is a very nice and informative read and a rewarding asset for those buying the original album.

With so much attention paid to inform the listener and so many hints back to Folklore, an album I immediately cherished, my expectations were high. But sadly they were not fulfilled at all during the first spins. Instead I first felt disappointed about the music, the mellowness of the songs and the lack of the recognisable moments that were so dominant on recent BBT albums. I didn't hear interesting hooks or folky twists or catchy choruses in the songs; the elements that attracted me so much to recent BBT releases.

And thus I left the album to rest for a week or two, which turned out to be a wise decision. Now that I have returned to the album, I have started to discover things in the music I hadn't heard on first listens. I feel a sort of relief.

BBT proves to be capable of playing challenging music that nicely blends folk, rock, jazz and even blues into a collection of rewarding songs. Yet I still find this not to be another great BBT album.

It starts with album opener Brave Captain, that turns out to be a dull journey into a rather predictable musical landscape. Musically there is little to justify the 12-minute length, especially between the eight and ten minute mark when nothing much happens. There are definitely some good musical ideas and Hall's violin playing is beautiful, but the song lacks the bite that many other epic BBT songs have.

Fortunately the second song, On The Racing Line is a totally different story. The intro is beautiful, with cello and piano, after which d'Virgilio presents us with some fabulous, energetic drumming during the fast and constantly-changing first part of this jazzy instrumental, making this a rather a-typical BBT track. Halfway, the pace slows down and the song develops into a waltz-like, slow piece with beautiful interplay between violin, keys, guitar, bass and drums. A stunning track.

Then the album presents us with a couple of slow, yet melodic pieces in which especially Hall on string instruments excels. The start of Experimental Gentlemen, with slightly distorted vocals by Longdon, is not my cup of tea but fortunately that section only lasts for a couple of seconds, after which Longdon's vocals sound normal again. There's a short electric guitar solo in the middle, giving way to a melancholic three minute outro with piano, guitar and violin. Very satisfying.

Meadowland shamelessly shows the typical English folk side of BBT, with subtle violin and acoustic guitar playing behind a romantic vocal line. The lyrics tell about hedgerows, poets and painters and the beauty of the countryside. This is simply another of those folky gems that BBT has become renowned for. Absolutely beautiful.

Flute, acoustic guitar and violin set the stage in the title track, which is another mellow, slowly-floating piece. Around the six-minute mark a short guitar solo introduces the nice vocal outro, sung in an unknown language (the booklet doesn't mention it either). Yet it doesn't help to make this a strong track, as it lacks musical upheavals, original outbursts or attractive hooks. It floats and meanders, but that's about it, making it a rather weak title song.

The album regains strength with The Ivy Gate featuring guest vocalist Judy Dyble on lead vocals, offering a nice divergence from Longdon's voice. Their voices blend very well, and with violin, acoustic guitar, a soft bass and soft electric guitar and keys in the background, we hear a nice melody, albeit again very mellow and this time overtly folky. Hall's violin and Longdon's mandolin play a very intricate musical piece halfway through, which introduces the full band bursting out, actually for the first time on the album.

The music then gains power for some minutes. It becomes rock, and that sounds good, yet towards the end the band falls still again, allowing piano and the subtle vocals by both singers to fill the end section. Think of Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention or It's A Beautiful Day and you will be quite close to the sound of this haunting song. An intricate piece, and easily the best track on the album.

The epic A Mead Hall In Winter doesn't work for me. There are nice parts, especially during the first 10 minutes. The vocal melody is very melodic, the violin playing again attractive, and the guitar excellent. But there is also the dreadful part with organ and bass between 8 and 13 minutes. It is going nowhere, sounding as if Ken Hensley is rocking with Jon Lord and Phil Lynott, meanwhile forgetting that this was supposed to be a folky piece instead of a rock song. Next time I'll skip the last seven minutes for sure.

As The Crow Flies features Rachel Hall as vocalist in a slow, somewhat sad song, that works well as album closer. It sounds deceivingly simple but there are many dynamics in the music, albeit that is a quiet song. The lyrics deal with the emotions of letting your children go their own way, and they suit this piece perfectly.

From the liner notes (as said, a great idea), it becomes clear that these songs were written in the same period as the Folklore songs. BBT has thus been recording two different albums at the same time. Maybe it would have been wiser to elaborate longer on the individual songs, instead of releasing the album so soon after the former one?

For all that, Grimspound is far from a bad album. It is also far away from their former masterpieces. I will return to Grimspound once in a while but there will always be the thought that the songs could have been better, greater, and more memorable. Or maybe I should just be satisfied that BBT has succeeded in releasing yet another fine album, full of pleasant and enjoyable songs.
Bryan Morey: 10 out of 10
Theo Verstrael: 7 out of 10

Brother Ape - Karma

Brother Ape - Karma
Country of Origin: Sweden
Year of Release: 2017
Time: 40:23
Track List:
Oblivion (5:45), If I Could (1:52), Sixteen (4:11), Hina Saruwa (5:51), Don't Stand At My Grave (5:13), Let The Right One In (5:28), You Are (4:46), Karma (7:29)
Brother Ape are a Swedish trio (bass, drums and guitar) and this is their seventh album, one that is complied from several digital EPs and some new tracks that they recorded over the past few years

They are a difficult band to classify as they say their music is a cross between Led Zeppelin, Muse and Pat Metheny. Personally I hear a lot of mid 80s type Rush, but even so, this is a different album and one that has significant charm, with a divergent sound and a lot of sounds and textures that creates some good moods and soundscapes.

Opener Oblivion sets their stall out well with a big, surging riff and some frantic drums and a very handsome melody attached. It is a real corker of a track. Next comes the very odd but brief If I Could. It is mainly strings and vocal, with not really much of anything really. Filler.

Then we move into a heavy distorted guitar riff for Sixteen which is where the Led Zeppelin element comes to the fore. Again this has a solid riff, with some fine wah-wah on the guitar and a good groove and rhythm to proceedings below a Plant-esque vocal. This is another fine song with a nice guitar break at the 2:22 mark and a prominent bassline supporting the guitar lines admirably.

Hina Saruwa is another odd track, but offers an interesting musical arrangement with a good guitar riff holding it all together and some gentle keyboard passages in between. It is an intriguing track for sure, and a good one.

Another atmospheric track, Dont Stand At My Grave, is next, with a heartfelt vocal and some floating keyboard sounds. It has almost a choral vocal sound to it. It is a very downbeat, almost morose song but still worth hearing, with a lovely guitar break at the 4:26 mark that is very emotional and delicate.

Let The Right One In opens with a sturdy drum pattern, before a chugging guitar riff is employed and vocals are added. This is a faster paced track, with great dynamics during its five-minutes. You Are is pure folk rock, before the album closes with the forcefully melancholic title track.

Whilst I like this album, it confuses me as it has so many differing strands to it but with little cohesion. Whilst the music is above average, it doesn't really rock my world. The best tracks are Oblivion and Karma both of which are good, strong songs. The rest is okay but not spectacular or oustanding enough for me. You of course are free to disagree. I won't be offended.
John Wenlock-Smith: 6.5 out of 10

Semistereo - Trans Earth Injection

Semistereo - Trans Earth Injection
Country of Origin: Netherlands
Year of Release: 2017
Time: 50:30
Track List:
A New Tomorrow (5:34), The Search (10:41), Loneliness At The Door (5:13), 35 Dollar Special (6:07), The Storm Behind Your Eyes (4:58), Your Drama (7:29), Sin (10:28)
Semistereo is a band from The Netherlands that has gradually evolved over the last decade or so. If I read reviews from their earlier releases I see that they improve step by step and maybe even learn from the reviews. I reviewed their EP Re-Ignite and I stated: "Listen to The Search; I hope their new album has more of this type of song". It could be a coincidence but The Search is the only song that remains from their EP, and I can happily report that Trans Earth Injection has more songs of that quality.

The music style of Semistereo is alternative/progressive rock, with progressive influences from bands like Jadis, Anathema, Sylvan and a bit of Rush. According to their website, other influences are Oceansize, Karnivool, Deftones and A Perfect Circle. The EP Re-Ignite introduced Paul Glandorf on vocals, and that proved to be a good move for the Semistereo sound. On Trans Earth Injection the sound has evolved even more into a sound of their own.

Opener A New Tomorrow is a nice rocker, where heavy and mellow parts are nicely glued together. It is a powerful, yet compact song with many different elements of progressive rock. As I said earlier, The Search was the best song on their previous EP and it is also present on Trans Earth Injection. It is another diverse song with many different progressive elements. I do not know if they re-recorded it for the new album but it fits in nicely.

Loneliness At The Door is a song that is not all over the place, at least by progressive rock standards. It is however a good song and very well placed after the two more diverse openers. 35 Dollar Special is a Floyd-like track with lengthy melodic parts, strange sounds and talking voices. It takes some spins to get used to this song, but after that it becomes one of the highlights of the album. I especially like the bombastic ending with the horns.

After that it is a big step to The Storm Behind Your Eyes. I really like this beautiful mellow song with a fragile chorus.

The last two songs of the album show again the diversity in sound that can now be called the Semistereo-style. Your Drama has more heavier rock parts woven in. Then just like on Re-Ignite they save the best for last, with another ten minute plus song, filled with progressive rock stuff. Sin to me is the best song on the album.

Last time I stated that any new album should sound more like The Search, also the best and last song on that EP. This time such a remark is not necessarry, as Trans Earth Injection is a totally complete album; one that really surprised me.

Semistereo have taken forward the good parts of Re-Ignite and evolved their music into a solid sound of their own. The sound is very diverse but still Trans Earth Injection sounds very cohesive and will be a very good addition to any music collection of (progressive) rock fans.
Edwin Roosjen: 8 out of 10

V2 - Showdown

V2 - Showdown
Country of Origin: Netherlands
Year of Release: 2017
Time: 43:53
Track List:
Night Revelers And Night Hags (4:14), Hunt In Packs (4:30), Judas Figure (5:55), Fist Over Hand (5:27), Revelation Day (6:05), Tears Run Dry (4:37), The Servant Caelum Et Terras Miscere (3:51), Showdown (5:58), Sundance (8:16)
V2 is probably a new name for many, but they have already made two albums in the second half of the nineties. The band started with the name Vision, under which they recorded a demo Eclipse Of The Mind. In 1998 they released their first album, Indefinite And Mysterious, which is now a collectors item. Now 18 years later and Showdown is their second album, and they have changed their name to V2 (Vision2).

V2 started out with two friends who wanted to play music. Martin van Gulik (keyboard) and Bert Etterna (bass and guitar) simply had a passion for making good music and searched for a common musical interest. The common musical factor appeared to be symphonic rock, and bands such as Rush, Marillion, Toto, Journey and Dream Theater. Session vocalist Ernst Honingman did the vocals on Indefinite And Mysterious. On Showdown, besides the vocals, Ernst also participated in the writing, and so he is now a solid member of V2. Long-time friend Robert Voogt does the vocals on The Servant Caelum Et Terras Miscere. The drums are done by Jochem van Rijn.

Showdown is an album for the true fans of the genre of symphonic rock. Mostly the music is leaning on the keyboard, which is clear by the start of Night Revelers And Night Hags. But at other times the guitar is really rocking, like on the powerful chorus of Judas Figure with a pounding melody that just won't leave your head. During The Servant Caelum Et Terras Miscere V2 really opens up the gas. It is very daring to have such a high pace and heavy guitars during the vocals, but somehow it works.

The album also holds some more accessible songs like Hunt In Packs and Showdown. The latter can be seen in the youtube link. It is not the most representative for the album as a whole (if there is one), so be sure to check out more samples to get the whole picture on this diverse album.

Showdown by V2 is a symphonic rock album that does not bring a new kind of music in a shiny box, but I loved listening to it. This album holds many different elements of symphonic rock, and so it is not an album to digest in one spin. When doing a review you usually end up with standard remarks like: "sounds like ....", "the production quality is ....." or "the vocals sound like......". But in the end it is all about listening to music, nodding your head, and tapping your fingers to the rhythm.

The thing I will remember most about Showdown from V2 is how much I enjoyed listening to this album. This is the sort of stuff that first got me interested in symphonic rock. V2 probably enjoyed making Showdown and this is clearly noticeable when you listen to this album.
Edwin Roosjen: 7.5 out of 10

Wingfield, Reuter, Stavi, Sirkis - The Stone House

Wingfield, Reuter, Stavi, Sirkis - The Stone House
Country of Origin: UK
Year of Release: 2017
Time: 59:55
Track List:
Rush (12:15), Four Moons (5:12), Silver (8:33), Fjords de Catalunya (9:45), Tarasque (10:09), Bona Nit Señor Rovira (13:56)
I guess that there are a number of ways to approach the improvised, unrehearsed, and non-over-dubbed music that makes up the six tunes to be found in The Stone House. Some might be inclined to give up on it after the first few moments if it does not appeal. Others might proceed in the hope that it will, over time, reveal many things to appreciate.

The album only really clicked with me after I persevered and heard it for about the tenth time. I found that watching the film of the opening track, Rush helped enormously. Without it, I think that I might have found it a struggle to fully appreciate the inspiration, spontaneity and creativity that is at the heart of this recording.

The Stone House features the talents of Mark Wingfield on guitar, Markus Reuter on touch Guitar, Yaron Stavi on fretless bass and drummer Asaf Sirkis. The film gave me a reference point which remained with me for the rest of the album, and I was able to summon up an image of the players whenever the challenge of the music hinted that it would be helpful to do so. Visualising the players, also enabled me to distinguish the style, and recognise the distinctive sound of each of the guitarists.

The album contains lots of variety and can be both a languid and a frantic experience. The six compositions are consistently daring, incisive and sharp edged. They are bold declarations of the musicians' willingness to push the boundaries. What is on offer here, is music that is collective, experimental and loosely formed. The ability of each of the players, ensures that the recording contains great creative energy. Their performances display an emotional empathy that gives the whole album a cohesive sound. The tunes illustrate the players' undoubted technical prowess in a series of inspired performances where each instrumentalist is fully in tune with the other members of the ensemble.

Each composition is able to offer an element, be it a repeated riff or a drum pattern, that a listener might be able to focus upon or appreciate, as unchartered territories are explored within the improvised structures of the album. However, it is quite likely that some listeners might lack the patience to spend time getting to grips with, what on the surface at least, offers a series of challenging and some might feel to be impenetrable instrumentals.

The attitude that my neighbour Addfwyn Cyllell demonstrated as I gave him a lift to the Plough pub to hear the rasp-throated agony and wrinkled energy of a local tribute band, probably typifies the reaction that some might express on visiting The Stone House for the first time.

After just one minute, the glazed-eyed expression indicated that Addfwyn had zoned out and was ignoring the textured layers of the album's opening piece. Silently-mouthed word shapes quickly followed, to indicate that he was unable to free himself from this state. These emerged, procession-like, fully-formed and unconsciously-mimed. The wry smile betrayed that he had selected something from the Status Quo catalogue of his mind, as he loudly hummed his captured memories of Rocking All Over The World. As I bade him farewell, Addfwyn said that he did not wish to cross the threshold of The Stone House again.

As I have become familiar with The Stone House, I have enjoyed entering its unpredictable and often exciting world. There are many features that warmly welcome and reward visitors who dare to return.

The bass interlude in the middle of Rush is probably my favourite moment on the album. The array of evocative sounds and musical space occupied by Yaron Stavi, following the quick-handed, manic percussive playing of Sirkis, is very reminiscent in style to some of Eberhard Weber's glorious and improvised solo parts when playing live with Jan Garbarek.

Four Moons contains some of the albums' most stimulating parts. There is something unsettling, yet strangely beautiful about the tense rivalry between dissonance and harmony that appears to be at the heart of the opening section of this piece.

The soundscapes that dominate Fjords De Catalunya are highly evocative and would probably appeal to anybody who appreciates the work of musicians such as Terje Rypdal, who are also able to successfully create pictures with a colourful palette of sounds, by using subtly-textured guitar tones.

For those who like albums which showcase accessible song structures, imbued with memorable melodies, digit-tapping hooks and choruses, then The Stone House will no doubt be particularly unappealing. However, I really enjoyed the concluding sections of Tarasque and in particular Bona Nit Senor Rovira, which brought to mind the organic, richly-evolving and ever-changing style of Robert Fripp and Brian Eno in albums such as Evening Star.

Some two hours later, I picked Addfwyn up, somewhat worse for wear! He was clutching a signed, home-spun copy of Rocking All Over The Plough. Optimistically, I thought that he might be more receptive to The Stone House.

He was!
As the opening track began, Addfwyn did not complain. There was only one problem. He had fallen asleep!
Owen Davies: 8 out of 10
Album Reviews