What Hath the Train Wrought, Part I

It begins with Novum Organum, which refers to Francis Bacon’s revolutionary book that set the stage for our modern scientific method. It is a brief song (less that 3 minutes), but composer Greg Spawton manages to connect the bravery of an ancient explorer to the Voyager space project in 13 lines. It is a marvel of concision, and the melody, while simple, is beautiful -a perfect introduction to our odyssey.

Next is Alive, which explodes with exuberance. Our traveler is bursting with anticipation and excitement as he or she heads across the channel to Europe. I love this song – it is incredibly propulsive (like East Coast Racer) and exhilarating. 

David Longdon’s Florentine is a moving tribute to da Vinci, and it contains one of the best musical moments of the album – a spiraling, lyrical guitar solo worthy of the Renaissance master. Longdon’s lyrics capture his spirit:

A visionary painter, with technique so fine,
Viewed the world through two empirical eyes
A polymath
That did not fit the paradigm

Greg Spawton’s Roman Stone tackles the beginning, rise, decline, fall and legacy of the Roman Empire. He captures the scope and grandeur of the ancient empire by calling up images of aqueducts, edifices, and walls from one end of the empire to the other. As always, I am impressed with Spawton’s verbal economy. One brief stanza evokes the inevitable ruin and decay of the once mighty realm:

Here at the end of all roads
Broken in a scatter of stone
A thousand years have passed
Lights are dimmed as fires burn cold
Time has weathered the walls
As rain is the ruin of snow.

Equating the passing of millennia to rain washing away snow is just brilliant use of language.

In Pantheon, we are treated to a majestic instrumental by Nick D’Virgilio. It captures the symmetry and grandeur of one of the most famous buildings in the world. It’s a joy to hear all of members of BBT engage in an instrumental workout that exhibits virtuosity without unnecessary flamboyance.

My favorite track is Theodora in Green and Gold. A tribute to the 6th century Eastern Roman Empire queen, it is a marvelous synthesis of everything that makes BBT special: literate lyrics, a beautiful melody, and entrancing vocals. Using the imagery of a mosaic of the famous Byzantine saint – “Shivers of glass/Shards of stone” – BBT give homage to “the last of the Romans”: Theodora and her husband Justinian. It is simply a perfect song that I can’t stop listening to.

The centerpiece of GRAND TOUR is Longdon’s Ariel, which uses the spirit from Shakespeare’s The Tempest to weave a tale connecting Prospero, Shakespeare, Lord Byron, and Shelley. It consists of 8 parts, and it is quite an involved saga. From the last of the Romans to the death of Shelley – the epitome of the romantics – we have come a long, long way.

But we still have a ways to go, as Spawton’s Voyager brings us into the modern age. This 7-part epic is an ode to humanity’s indomitable spirit of exploration, as exemplified in the two Voyager spacecraft that NASA launched in the 1970s. They are both still functioning, even though they have left our solar system and are traveling “to the space between the stars”. 

Lest we lose our heads in the clouds, GRAND TOUR brings us back to earth with the lovely Homesong. A celebration of domestic bliss, it’s the perfect way to conclude our journey. The lines “The sound of distant church bells/Carried with the breeze/A song to call you home” remind us that there truly is no place like home as a stirring cascade of horns and piano celebrates the weary traveler’s return.

GRAND TOUR is the most ambitious project Big Big Train have ever attempted, and they succeed beautifully. Musically they are at the top of their game. The recent touring has tightened up their playing even more than usual, and even though the core group of seven members is joined by a brass ensemble and orchestra, they sound light and effortless. Lyrically, there simply isn’t another group that is on their level – their words are the most evocative and thoughtful of anyone performing today. I came to GRAND TOUR expecting a good listen. I finished it with my horizons broader, and my appreciation deeper for those whose courage and works have made our modern times possible.