Progressive rock has always been defined by its trademark sound that fuses rock ‘n’ roll with noticeable influences of classical, folk and jazz music.
Even though the days of bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Pink Floyd and Yes commanding sold-out stadium shows across the world are long gone, the genre, creatively speaking, is still alive and well.
One recent band that emerged in the 1990s is a group that always emphasized the folk aspect of the genre as part of their overall sound, Big Big Train.
The current iteration of the band consists of multi-instrumentalist David Longdon on lead vocals, Dave Gregory, Andy Poole and Rikard Sjoblom on guitar, Greg Spawton on bass guitar, Genesis and Spock’s Beard alumnus Nick D’Virgilio on drums, Rachel Hall on violin and Danny Manners on keyboards.
Now the band has returned with their 10th studio album, Grimspound.
On the heels of the band’s previous album and extended play, 2016’s Folklore and Wassail, the band initially decided to release yet another extended play called Skylon.
It was intended to contain material written for, but ultimately cut from, Folklore.
Partway through the recording sessions however, the band decided that they had just enough material to warrant a full-blown studio record instead of just an EP. As a result, the album is marketed with the tagline, “A Companion to Folklore.”
In a day and age when artists and bands usually wait several years before putting out new material, the idea of anyone putting out a new album less than a year after their latest one brings mixed feelings all around.
It is always a treat to see any new material come sooner rather than later.
Some, however, could take the cynical approach and assume that the artist is putting out their musical leftovers just to make a quick dollar as a stopgap until the real follow-up album is made.
As mentioned earlier, this album started out as just that. Listening to the final product, though, makes it quite clear that the band was on such a creative hot streak that it felt like just an album and a couple of EPs were not going to be enough to get all of their ideas down.
Like its last album, what the band wants to do with the songs is tell self-contained stories without making it into a concept album. While the pastoral elements of its sound are still here, Big Big Train draws from other types of music during the album.
The guitars are much more prominent here than in some of the band’s previous work and there are fewer brass instruments, flutes and heavy orchestration.
The opening track, “Brave Captain,” is a rocker that bears strong influences from classic bands like Kansas, namely in its string arrangements.
The lyrics, which tell the story of a young World War I dogfighter named Albert Ball, perfectly augments the music. There are a few callbacks to Folklore scattered all throughout this new album.
“On the Racing Line,” which focuses on racecar driver John Cobb, picks up where the song “Brookland” left off.
D’Virgilio really lets loose with the drums on this track and brings the element of jazz fusion to the band which he previously brought to Spock’s Beard. There are even throwbacks to albums from years before.
The lovely acoustic ballad “Meadowlands” continues the story of Uncle Jack, who last appeared in his eponymous song on the 2012 album English Electric.
“Experimental Gentlemen” is more in tune with what the band normally releases, and the title track starts out as a slow ballad, but rapidly accelerates in the bridge in a simple but genius transition.
The album’s longest track is “A Mead Hall in Winter,” which is full of all the tropes and traditions that define progressive rock.
Throughout its 15-minute run time, the song shifts through a number of themes and melodies, and though it seems as if it is finished at the halfway mark, there is still so much more left for the listener to enjoy.
Grimspound closes on the somber “As the Crow Flies,” a lightly produced track, with only an acoustic guitar and D’Virgilio’s drumming carrying the song.
In contrast to the upbeat and optimistic feel of the album as a whole, this is admittedly a sudden change to end the album.
The song as a whole, however, is authentically Big Big Train through and through.
The very same thing could definitely be said about this album as a whole.