The principal challenge facing any band that wants to stay the course is to create a sonic world that people will want to keep returning to. Big Big Train have seldom exhibited any cynicism, either musical or otherwise, and so we must assume that being as brilliant as they are, once again, on Grimspound simply comes naturally to the talented bastards. Beautifully understated and yet consistently enthralling, Grimspound is simultaneously more of the same and a fresh take on the band’s established blueprint.
Opening epic Brave Captain tells the metaphor-heavy tale of a young boy entranced by notions of airborne derring-do during the First World War: a lesser band could have succumbed to mawkish sentiment, but Big Big Train wield pathos and poignancy with elegance and relish, amid a musical backdrop that is as vivid as it is finessed. In contrast, On The Racing Line is a flat-out jazz rock jamboree, replete with octopus-limbed brilliance from drummer Nick D’Virgilio and some wild piano from Danny Manners. That such a change of mood and pace blends so seamlessly into its surroundings speaks volumes about the shared intuition that the current BBT line-up are enjoying. The 10-minute Experimental Gentlemen boasts numerous telling hooks and clever dynamic moments, but its true appeal lies in the sheer delight that leaps from the speakers, as six musicians revel in reciprocal chemistry and great ideas are exuberantly realised.
There is great subtlety here too, of course, not least on shimmering interlude Meadowland and the folk rock undulations of The Ivy Gate, which features a spine-tingling vocal from Fairport Convention’s Judy Dyble that gives the overwhelming but irresistible Englishness of the whole Big Big Train experience an extra boost.
The album reaches peak prog on A Mead Hall In Winter; 15 minutes of sublime twists, turns and textural sleight of hand. There are times when prog bands seem to feel obliged to churn out a lengthy epic because that’s just what prog bands do, but as with everything else on Grimspound, Big Big Train are so clearly in love with the very concept of the song, and what it can be, that A Mead Hall In Winter feels every bit as succinct as neighbouring songs half its length. Every little contribution, whether it’s from Rikard Sjöblom’s spiralling guitar or singer David Longdon’s array of peripheral instruments, feels perfectly placed and driven by instinct. At times, it’s startlingly beautiful. At others, like A Mead Hall’s audacious ELP-style breakdown and sudden detour into twinkling psych folk, it’s a simple case of masters at work.