Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Vinyl in Sight: Grimspound by Big Big Train

'The Album' as a musical format was born on vinyl, and it continues to lead an active, fulfilling life there. On this edition of Vinyl in Sight, we take a look at the recently released Grimspound album from UK Proggers Big Big Train, out on Plane Groovy.

On The Platter

We're reviewing the limited edition 'frosted clear' vinyl, which is unfortunately out of print already, though there are plenty of 'classic black' copies still available at Burning Shed. The discs are gorgeous, just two shades coloured beyond glass clear, and a lovely match for the sandy-old-map illustrations on the jacket and insert. The striking lines and textures of Sarah Louise Ewing's paintings come through wonderfully on the gatefold jacket and clean labels; this whole package is about as pretty as an LP comes. The full-size, 4-page insert includes complete lyrics, song notes, credits, and band thank you's, so the bibliophiles and those conscious of linguistic meanings among us are well cared for.

The discs arrived pristine out of the sleeves, and were cleaned perfunctorily rather than necessarily. Apart from some low crackle at the drop-in and under the softest musical passages, Grimspound's sound is as clean and clear as its appearance. As they have before, Chris Topham and Plane Groovy lead the pack in quality with this release, and we'd enjoy a better world if the big labels would put so much care into their own pressings. The only complaint--and it's a minor one at that--is that the gatefold at rest swings open like an unhinged gate, and it's a bit tight fitting both LP 2 and the insert into their pocket. But what's a minor complaint amongst friends?

In The Grooves

The passage is clear from Big Big Train's previous album, Folklore, but it appears equally clear that Grimspound is a step forward and upward for the band. Eschewing the rich brass additions to the last few albums, the arrangements here focus on the band, as a band, ensuring that everyone in the group receives ample time in the spotlight. On an initial listen, D'Virgilio (drummer), Manners (keys), and Hall (strings and a lovely lead vocal) get more of a workout here, but repeated exposure foregrounds perfectly situated instrumental performances from Spawton (bass), Sj√∂blom (guitars), Gregory (guitars), Poole (acoustic guitar & keys), and Longdon (2 whole lines in the credits). Rob Aubrey's spacious and delicate mix preserves the potency of these arrangements.

Lyrically, these are stories of England's past, present, and future, shot through with the best Humanistic values of European Enlightenments & Romanticisms. We hear of both the admirable strengths and unconscionable tragedies found in the lives of those conscripted for "king and country," the enlivening optimism of scientifically-minded explorers, and rather a lot about loss, letting go, and death. The band dance a fine jig along the line between Big Concept Prog and Microcosmic Folk Lyricism, and the music mirrors this integrated approach. "Brave Captain" and "Experimental Gentlemen" embody the splaying progressive splendor many will associate with BBT, while "The Ivy Gate," "Grimspound," and "Meadowland" tip the balance slightly in favour of a folky/traditional lilt; it's all shot through with a bit of jazzy feel, as exemplified "On The Racing Line." In an analogous but never homophonous sense, Big Big Train are the contemporary Anglicana-Prog counterpart to the Americana/Heartland-Prog of Kansas.

As if the beautiful packaging and sound of this vinyl release were not enough, the alternate tracklisting for this double-LP lifts Grimspound even above the impressive sum of its parts. As with the Plane Groovy pressing of Folklore, this vinyl version of Grimspound features a subtle and rewarding reworking of the song order, though unlike Folklore there are no additional songs here to distinguish it from the CD version. What does distinguish the double-LP version of Grimspound--as if the glory of vinyl were not sufficient--is the conceptual neatness of two simple song swaps in the middle and at the end of the album. 

First, by ending the record with "A Mead Hall in Winter" after "As the Crow Flies," BBT subvert their own tendencies in releasing 3 straight CDs (counting English Electric: Full Power, Folklore, and now Grimspound) that sign off with the longest album track followed by a singer-songwriter ballad referencing flying animals. The available evidence clearly suggests that this is a winning formula, but a change-up is nevertheless suitably refreshing. More importantly, by swapping the final tracks whilst also inverting "Meadowland" and "Grimspound" in the middle of the record, BBT create a truly conceptual double album in which LP1 and LP2 comprise two distinct, self-contained, yet intertwined mini-albums. 

On LP1, the enthusiasm of "Brave Captain," centered as it is on a bronze memorial to the greatness of humanity in an exemplary human, passes through the instrumental tribute of "On the Racing Line" and the exuberant commendation of Captain Cook's "Experimental Gentleman" to its proper interrogation in the piercing question of "Grimspound": What shall be left of us?/ Which artefacts will stay intact?/ For nothing can last. LP2, while admitting the force of this question in the tragedy of "The Ivy Gate" and the brave face of "As the Crow Flies," undertakes the meritorious beginnings of an answer, initiated in the quiet mantra of "Meadowland" and carried forward in the jubilant commitment to meet together in "A Mead Hall in Winter." A melodic and lyric recapitulation completes the musical proceedings: Here in science and art/and beauty and music/and friendship and love,/you will find us,/the best of what we are,/the poets and painters,/and writers and dreamers. Furthermore, since "Meadowland" is dedicated to the late and decidedly great John Wetton, LP2 begins with its own encapsulated recapitulation of the memorial grounds in which we first find ourselves at the outset of of LP1. The running order would be almost too neat, if it were not perfect. If you have a turntable and a progressive spirit, Grimspound renders itself indispensable; if you've not yet embraced vinyl, this may well be the release to convince you.

Grimspound by Big Big Train is available on vinyl at Burning Shed (w/Bandcamp download)

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