Grand Tour Review Released 17/05/2019
- Novum Organum:
At once both ancient and modern sounds greet my ears; keyboards evoking a combination of hammered rhythm and interstellar signal that immediately encapsulates the intent of breadth of this, the grandest of Grand Tours. David’s vocal enters after 8 seconds of the opening hypnotic repeated phrase and even before the first minute has elapsed, some deeply affecting lyrics follow.
“With the sounds of distant earth”, a nod to the novel by Arthur C Clarke and the 1994 album The Sounds of Distant Earth inspired by the same by Mike Oldfield; “She has gone now into empty skies, she has flown out to the space between the stars…”
David’s ultimate, “at least we tried” sounds to these ears to be delivered in a world-weary resignation of mankind’s impending doom. A lump in my throat already and there’s another 74 minutes of this journey still to run… it’s a terrific curtain raiser!
The release of this song as a single ahead of the album release has seen it already settled comfortably into my subconscious as a right rollicking crie de coeur about grabbing life by the scruff of its neck and living it to the fullest – we might yet avert the doom implied at the close of the opening song if we but channel our energies, our passions, our love and respect and resign greed, intolerance and destruction to the past.
There was a novelty to the perhaps comparable Make Some Noise, the nostalgia of which I fully embraced but with Alive, the message is serious despite the lively, upbeat delivery – it’s a rallying call and I can hear now the response to this gorgeous slab of drum and keyboard-driven joy if aired in a live context. The air instrument-playing further evidence if needed of this serious group’s occasional humour – it took me quite some time to note their debt of gratitude in the booklet to Dr Geoff Parks for his “expert proofe reeding”!
It’s perhaps the first indication, too, of the increasing role of backing vocals, which, bearing in mind the wealth of voice talent available in the band ought not be unexpected. It’s a surprising delight to hear snatched vocal lines pop up from Rachel, Nick and Rikard all through Grand Tour.
- The Florentine:
The joyous memories of my family’s 2017 Italian trip are brought flooding back by the bright sun-evoking acoustic guitar opening conjures the inimitable images and colours of Tuscany. It struck me that acoustic guitar, along with piano, is often used to sketch the outline of a song as its composition begins to take shape; here it speaks to me of Da Vinci’s sketches and notebook annotations in the way the vocal seems to be delivered in short, almost bullet point fashion like notes in his codices.
When the acoustic guitar is joined by the electric there’s an almost jaunty, country feel before a cymbal wash and a bass pedal reminds me that (with all due respect) Slim Dusty is most certainly not represented in my record collection.
Wonderful, too, is the Big Big Train predilection for paraphrasing snippets of lyrics employed in earlier works, their familiarity and continued relevance weaving their way through songs and reminding us, as if needed, of the rich threads already laid into this marvelous tapestry of song-smithing… “See further…”, “Fine lines…” and “Drawings and designs…”
Brief solos at 2’30” (violin), 4’30” (keyboard) and 5’26” (guitar) each lift the song on ethereal wings to the skies as if borne by one of Da Vinci’s flying machines.
It’s interesting to hear of the polymath being referred to as a star – he certainly was a star although unlikely to be called such in the vernacular of the time, but it’s a nice touch, if it was intentional, to allude to the heavenly bodies he studied. Towards the end, there’s a suggested stately, Italianate court theme
A simply gorgeous song from start to finish. “Diving for pearls”, indeed…
- Roman Stone:
Acoustic guitar, violin and bass piano notes are joined by the lead vocal and then, once again, male and female backing harmonies. At 1’ 20” brass comes in perhaps as a reminder of the expansion of the Roman Empire into England; later there’s flute and a sense of the bucolic “co-existence” of the English rural and the might of the invading Eagle-led centurions. I love these “Hovis moments” that the Brass Ensemble brings to so many of the bands’ songs.
In Part Four: Fall, a terrific instrumental break with horns and flute and the quick-fire rim-shot and hi-hat appearing to chip-chip away evoking the hand dressing of stone and the carving of statues. The pace then quickens with added snare, toms and guitar before falling away to a sedate saunter with plaintive violin and yearning vocals as we reflect on what the Romans diddo for us. I noted in London Plane that the breakneck speed segment therein suggested an aural technique employed to convey the passage of a lengthy period of time. If correct, it is used here again to similarly stunning effect.
Towards the end of Part Five: Legacy is a triumphant synth-led passage that provides the necessary pomp to match the achievements of the Roman culture over centuries. The song ends as it began; quietly. The Rise and Fall in less than 14 minutes? Yes, and both lyrically and musically the band pull it off. Effortlessly.
A big slab of an instrumental written by drummer Nick D’Virgilio that takes the band through jazz-rock, big band territory and then throws in some KC and Jean-Luc Ponty-stylings for good measure. The weight of the piece more than conveys the extraordinary bulk of this concrete construction that Greg Spawton’s liner notes describes as a “squat, almost Brutalist” exterior that, when entered, leads to a “place of wonder” interior. Having travelled to Rome for the first time in 2017 and visited this architectural treasure, I imagine my next visit when I will have this instrumental in my ears as I sit and soak in the atmosphere…
- Theodora in Green and Gold:
Rikard appears to have added to his arsenal of keyboard sounds and effects! Yay! – this is Prog after all…
The opening is all tinkling, chiming tones reminiscent of chandeliers or candelabra
Here another figure from history is given new life in this homage in the form of song. Theodora begins life as a slave before becoming co-ruler with Justinian the First and a woman of some considerable influence. She reminds me of Hildegard of Bingen, a personal heroine of mine, in that she was prepared to stand her ground and expound her beliefs in the face of male religious or military opposition.
It is, first and foremost, a love song and it is blessed with a most beautiful and rousing chorus – there are so many references to light and its reflection on the colour and gold embellishments, a favourite motif in Greg’s lyrics, so here reflecting off the mosaic as candlelight reflecting and refracting on and through the crystal pendalogue and bead chains of a chandelier.
As co-writer with David, Nick delivers five lines of lead vocal that shine like the afore-mentioned light – a band overflowing with such vocal riches and when they combine and blend as they do on so many occasions on this record, it is a thing of joy!
I found this the most challenging track on the album but as David evidently found it challenging to research, write and compose, I didn’t feel so bad. It is the most audacious and complex of concepts and I remain almost at a loss for words at this imagined weaving of connection between the Gothic trio of Percy and Mary Shelley and Lord Byron, Shakespeare’s characters Ariel (whom we are urged to believe was real) and Prospero and set against the background of The Bard’s The Tempest… you get the gist, right?
David’s opening dark and brooding dirge-vocal evokes the similarly funeral tones of The Passing Widow from The Second Brightest Star complete with muffled drum.
In Part Three again violin and massed backing vocals attain new heights of beauty and in Part Four suitably squalling guitars amidst the rolling clouds and stormy seas, all the while orchestral strings filling out the sound even further to cinematic effect.
The fact that I am not commenting or appear to be fleeting in my remarks on every part of this lengthy song-cycle is not so suggest they are not integral to the telling of this remarkable tale. It is more the case that I still need further hearings to have the whole composition crystalise. Part Six resonates deeply for me in that it highlights that blur that we may all have experienced at certain times in our lives where what happened and what we remember happened often presents two quite different views on the same event
And Part Seven reaches dizzying heights simply through the repeated “Singing O, blow the winds O” line against increasingly frenetic drums and a final crashing gong before the waters are calmed once again and the song – and what a song – ends with Part Eight and the sound of waves, another recurring theme in the Big Big Train canon. Stunning…
… And when I believe I have heard the song that will top the lot of this latest offering, along comes the penultimate track to have me reconsider.
Another song about an inanimate object, albeit imbued with the same spirit of those who conceived, designed, built and programmed it, (in the case of Mallard, designer Sir Nigel Gresley, his assistant Oliver Bulleid, fireman Tommy Bray and driver Joe Duddington amongst others), ultimately giving the locomotive a life of its own.
This song profoundly affected me on first listening and had me dabbing at my eyes and catching my breath as East Coast Racer had done (and continues to do) in 2013. With my having nominated the latter as the finest progressive rock song thus far written, could this be the song that now claims the mantle in 2019? For the moment, Mallard is holding firm but Voyager is right up there.
A string of familiar motifs come thick and fast… “Sketches made in fading light”…, “Ten miles a second”… and “Set a course for the brightest world” as I try to conceive of the enormity of the journey that this piece of high-tech (at the time) machinery has undertaken, travelling to where nothing has gone before and even beyond that. It’s too much for me to comprehend and makes me feel smaller than usual especially when David’s echoing vocal trails into the void of infinite space.
At 6’53” comes my first “wow” moment! I am sitting with headphones on alienated from everything around me and my mouth falls open. Rolling drums Mellotron, bass pedals and piano hold sway for just twenty-eight seconds but had this been the only such “all hands on deck” moment of the song I’d have been delighted. But no, at the 9’35” mark of Part Six we hear other-worldly guitar strains, bass pedals, spacey keyboard effects and orchestra and at 12’ 20” another crescendo to outdo the first – again wow, I was not expecting that!
Voyager’s failing signal slows and stutters to…
There is no time to recover from Voyager as we are teleported back from interstellar space and are rematerialised on the banks of the River Stour in Dorset, England. Here I am reminded of long hill walks I took as a child with my father towards the end of which the thought of the sanctuary of home with a hot bath and change of clothes, a hot chocolate by the open fire was sufficient to brace me for the final couple of miles. Then followed the joy of recounting the best parts of our latest adventure, what birds and wildlife we had encountered and what different weather patterns we had experienced. A return to the familiar.
A babbling brook and birdsong bring us to the end of this epic Grand Tour, a concept album, if you will, due to the overarching theme. But it is so much more than that with echoes of Upton Heath, Brooklands, Hedgerow and Uncle Jack and so many of those previously mentioned lingering lyrics and phrases that have coloured the bands’ releases and remind us of their journey.
I have read comments suggesting that Grand Tour is a step too far along the same route that Big Big Train have forged since The Underfall Yard. I do not subscribe to this. Not only has the band produced six albums, three EPs, the expanded English Electric Full Power, the Stone and Steel Blu-ray and two live albums since that 2009 masterpiece but each subsequent release has delivered in spades. It has reached a pinnacle with Grand Tour where it has more fully embraced its multitude of talents to extend composing beyond the Spawton/Longdon combination and allowed greater exposure of an embarrassment of vocal riches to create an unparalleled lushness.
The band has suggested that this cycle of releases, so focused on Great Britain, its history and some of its unsung heroes and characters, is now at an end. I have heard more than enough progression since 2009 to await with bated breath any new direction the band wish to take.
Until we embark aboard the next Big Big Train production, adieu and thank you to all those musicians and contributors listed in the CD booklet…