Big Big Train — Common Ground
Big Big Train's entertaining 2019 studio release, The Grand Tour only half-delivered on their previous year promise to "musically move on to different landscapes and subjects". Though some songs did just that, others fell into more familiar territory. Now, two years later comes Common Ground, which fully accomplishes their pledge noted above.
Almost completely gone are the folk leanings, replaced by a more direct, progressive rock edge. The album earns legitimate comparison to legends of the prog genre, such as Yes and Genesis. Like those bands at their best, Big Big Train creates an accessible sound on Common Ground, that doesn't skimp on the more adventurous prog elements. The epic, Atlantic Cable and the instrumental stunner Apollo are perfect examples of this. However, more straightforward moments like the (somehow) upbeat pandemic anthem, The Strangest Times and the inspiring title track, are nonetheless as impressive.
Lead singer, David Longdon, effectively shares vocal duties with drummer Nick D'Virgilio, guitarist/keyboardist Rikard Sjoblom and extended band members, Carly Bryant and Clare Lindley. The vocal interchanges and harmonies throughout these nine tracks are fantastic. Black with Ink, Dandelion Clock and the memorable album closer, Endnotes, all showcase the exceptional instrumental and vocal power of this band.
All The Love We Can Give, provides every singer a chance to shine, including Longdon emoting in a MUCH lower register. This takes some getting used to, but pretty much like everything on this album, it works.
Prior to the pandemic, Big Big Train had planned their most prominent touring ever in 2020. This included debut USA shows, which were understandably cancelled. As a testament to silver linings though, they instead utilised lockdown to create their best and most commercial-sounding work to date. Common Ground is a prog album that will certainly please long time fans of the band, but the change in direction can't be denied.
There is a musical directness to much of this material that could easily appeal to listeners outside of the prog world. That isn't a bad thing, as it is possible for a prog band to make music that is more accessible without losing their integrity. Big Big Train proves that here, and the inspiration behind these compositions and performances is palpable. Their most consistent album in terms of flow and quality, Common Ground is fantastic and a rightful cause for celebration.
Big Big Train, purveyors of all manner of classic prog goodness, have dropped their thirteenth studio release Common Ground that is almost the equal of their magnificent English Electric Full Power from 2013.
There have been a few personnel changes in the Big Big Train (BBT) camp since their last release 2019's Grand Tour and as good as that album is, this new one feels like the sound of a band refreshed, even though the song-writing core of the band remains in place. The other change is in the sound pallet used, with more prominence given to Rikard Sjöblom keyboards and the use of rockier electric guitar from new recruit Dave Foster (known to prog fans from his work in The Steve Rothery Band, Mr So and So and Panic Room). There is also less of a folk element evident. The sound quality on Common Ground is exceptional thanks to the mixing and mastering skills of Rob Aubrey.
So with that big introduction, what goodies await the listener over the course of its nine tracks?
The album has a theme running through it, as most BBT albums do. This one examines communication and what can bring us together. A searching for community and commonality in isolating times.
BBT open with Dave Longdon's The Strangest Times. Tackling the isolation head-on with, what I'm sure will become a topic for most artists in the next year or two, a reaction to the effects of the current epidemic. It has an up-tempo, piano-led melody and takes a leaf out of the ABBA songbook by commencing with the chorus. The melody fits firmly into the commercial, adult pop-prog of the likes of XTC and Asia.
Those hardened prog fans who find pop elements not to their taste, only have to wait for the second track, drummer and vocalist Nick D'Virgilio's All The Love We Can Give. This is a new departure for BBT.
Instrumentation whirls-around like demented dervishes, with the song's complex sound-world all held together by Gregory Spawton's superb, fleet and powerful bass playing. He seems to be channelling not the obvious suspect in bass king Chris Squire but rather the spirit of The Who's John Entwhistle circa Quadrophenia. It starts quietly with bass and Hammond organ, with Dave Longdon's vocals finding an hitherto unsuspected baritone register. Following the opening, there are the band's trademark, delicious harmonies, Mellotrons, great guitar riffs and enough eclecticism for a King Crimson fanatic.
Spawton's Black With Ink finds Rikard Sjöblom's keys going from thunderous ELP-style Hammond, to squelchy synth and Mellotron, with Nick D'Virgilio's fantastic drumming. The vocals between Longdon and Carly Bryant provide an aching aspect to the fabulous melody. The song examines how ideas can be distorted, and appeals for togetherness, letting 'words make common ground, on which we all can tread'. A refrain that re-appears in different guises in the second half of the album.
Six and twelve string acoustic guitars and tuned percussion on the opening of Dandelion Clock give it a Steve Hackett feel that develops into an electric folk-influenced tune. Longdon's vocals are on the edge of heartbreak as he sings of life and time passing. A short keyboard instrumental, Headwaters, separates it from the full-on progressive rock of Apollo. A fast paced and intricate instrumental whose falling melody and flute can't help but bring to mind the heyday of Focus, before Aidan O'Rourke's violin storms in and the keyboards go all Wakeman. It ends with the mournful sound of a five-piece brass ensemble (trombone, trumpet, tuba, euphonium and French horn). It is magnificent.
Longdon's title track is a delicate love song of quiet, mature passion; a tale that threatens to bring a tear to the eye supported by guitar and violin. It explores the common ground motif in a personal setting.
BBT then do what they have made their other trademark. A look at the forgotten and odd corners of British history. Often this is industrial history, and here it is the laying of communication cables to the USA. Spawton's Atlantic Cable is in five seamless parts. The opening instrumental section gains pace and power quickly and has a Tony Bank's-like synth solo. The vocal sections are terrific. Atlantic Cable has everything (and more) that you would expect from a band as talented as BBT. It pleads for communication in a fractured, isolated world as the common ground motif returns. It is their best long-form work since East Coast Racer.
It segues into the closing Endnotes. Violin is prominent in this stately-paced, rather lovely ballad. The brass ensemble is just beautiful, supporting a song of love for the autumnal countryside that can also be read as a tribute to music itself; earthy and imaginative.
Big Big Train's Common Ground, with its warm and inviting melodies, innovative arrangements and formidable playing is a distillation of everything that this band do brilliantly. If you want to find out what state-of-the-art progressive rock is all about, then don't miss out on this.