Big Big Train – Common Ground (Album Review)

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When UK Prog Rockers Big Big Train released their last album “Grand Tour” in 2019, they had their sights set on international exploration, if not exactly domination. Branching out beyond the quintessentially English stories that defined previous albums, “Grand Tour”’s lyrics were primarily inspired by greater European history and the wonders of travelling. Unfortunately, their hopes of applying this ethos moving forward were held up by the global pandemic, which not only forced the band to cancel their first North American tour, but also caused splits within the band internally and geographically. Three long-standing members all departed over the course of 2020 and two of the remaining four members were bound to their home countries of Sweden and the USA. This left the band with no choice but to go full steam ahead into their next album, writing and producing remotely.

The result is “Common Ground”, which sees bandleaders David Longdon (Vocals, Flute) and Gregory Spawton (Bass, Bass Pedals) working together in the UK, with Rikard Sjöblom (Guitar, Keys, Vocals) and Nick D’Virgilio (Drums, Vocals) sending songs and stems from their homes in Sweden and America, respectively. Traditionally, Longdon and Spawton have handled most of the storytelling, but Sjöblom and D’Virgilio have gradually been bringing in more musical ideas since joining, and they have now reached a point where they are fully integrated into the creative process. Despite being physically separated, there is as much collaboration on “Common Ground” between the four musicians as there would have been if they were all in the same studio.

The shadow of the pandemic looms large over the album’s lyrics, with its overall theme of personal connection and the strength that comes from people working together. Album opener “The Strangest Times” is the only song with lyrics that relate directly to the pandemic and the album’s weakest track in this writer’s opinion, adding nothing of major insight to the conversation. Instead, it’s just a summary of all the frustrations everybody has felt over the last year. In the first two minutes alone, lyrical references are made to lockdowns, social distancing and “The PM’s 5PM Address”, and rather than being a strong, welcoming opener, “The Strangest Times” feels a bit like a forced treading of old ground, with the band calling out to its existing audience, longing to reconnect.

Fortunately, the rest of the songs on “Common Ground” are much more successful in providing a response to the current state of the world. Both the title track and “All the Love We Can Give” are simple love songs at their lyrical core, but take different approaches to dealing with the subject. “Common Ground” is an upbeat folk-pop song written by Longdon, taking direct inspiration from his own personal relationship with BBT Illustrator Sarah Ewing and weaving a story that not only fits in with his existing lyrical landscape of songs such as “Folklore”, “Uncle Jack” and “Hedgegrow”, but also provides a message of hope that works in any context.

By contrast, “All the Love We Can Give” is largely a solo composition by D’Virgilio, who has always put more nuance and emotion into his musical arrangements than his lyrics. D’Virgilio and Longdon trade vocals throughout the eight-minute song, which weaves in and out of movements, melodies, and time signatures. The result is a mix of classic and modern prog, with all the hallmarks of D’Virgilio’s previous band Spock’s Beard.

D’Virgilio’s musical chops are further flexed later in the album with his instrumental “Apollo”, which appears to be heavily influenced by classic jazz fusion from the likes of Weather Report, Jean Luc-Ponty and Mahavishnu Orchestra. Based around a recurring musical head played on flute, violin and lead guitar, the song takes several detours in-between where all the members of BBT get a chance to shine, including their signature brass ensemble. “Apollo” is also preceded by a piano piece by Sjöblom entitled “Headwaters”, which enables him to show off his skills as a more laid-back and subtle pianist before letting loose on “Apollo” with a technical Hammond Organ solo.

The remaining tracks on the album are based around the storytelling style that has come to define much of BBT’s music over the years, but this time the stories of “science and art” have been chosen to tie in more with the ‘“Common Ground”’ theme. The XTC-inspired acoustic ballad “Dandelion Clock” ponders the difficulty of having to literally change with the seasons, while “Black with Ink” recounts the formation of the Library of Alexandra, home of the muses. The trading of vocal passages between Longdon, D’Virgilio, Sjöblom and incoming keyboardist Carly Bryant fits well with the subject matter, as each singer takes on the role of a muse, telling their part of the story which flows together.

Continuing in the tradition of previous BBT epics such as “East Coast Racer”, “A Mead Hall in Winter” and “Voyager”, the album’s penultimate track is an epic song cycle based on a historical story. In this case, “Atlantic Cable” clocks in at fifteen minutes and inspired by the laying of a 3000-mile cable across the Atlantic Ocean in the 19th century, when telegraphs were used to communicate in real-time. Being the longest song on the album, it has allowed for the most amount of collaboration amongst the musicians – A full article has been published on the band’s website detailing how the musicians bounced musical ideas off each other. Highlights include the organ-heavy overture (a departure from previous overtures which have traditionally been driven by guitar, piano or brass), the heavy Rush-inspired 7/8 groove before the climax, and BBT’s trademark vocal call and responses with Longdon leading and D’Virgilio, Sjöblom and Bryant supporting. Ultimately, “Atlantic Cable” has all the calling cards of previous epics, but with a few musical subversions. Finally, the album closes with “Endnotes”, a calming coda to the entire album as “Homesong” was to Grand Tour.

Twelve years on from their breakthrough album “The Underfall Yard” and almost thirty years on from starting out as a side outlet for Spawton’s alternative musical musings, Big Big Train have now reached a point where they know their style and they know their audience. Consequently, “Common Ground” might appear to be on the safe side, with many of the band’s familiar tropes and sounds carried out across another 62 minutes of music that could easily be switched out for any of the albums that came before it. However, from a production standpoint, it’s been anything but safe: many of the lyrics are much more personal and introspective, and the writing is more of a band effort than ever before. If you’ve never heard a Big Big Train album before, maybe I’d point you towards “Folklore” or “English Electric” instead, but for long-time fans and passengers, “Common Ground” stands as much as a victim of the circumstances as an necessary step forward in the band’s already rich history. Still rooted in the longstanding strengths of Big Big Train, it results in a more diverse and ultimately satisfying album as the band continues to evolve.

Released By: English Electric Recordings
Released On: July 30th, 2021
Genre: Progressive Rock

Musicians:

  • David Longdon / Lead & Backing Vocals, Flute, Additional Acoustic Guitar & Keyboards
  • Gregory Spawton / Bass Guitar, bass pedals
  • Nick D’Virgilio / Drums, Percussion, Lead & Backing Vocals
  • Rikard Sjöblom / Guitars, Keyboards, Backing Vocals

Additional Musicians

  • Carly Bryant / Lead & Backing Vocals
  • Dave Foster / Lead Guitar
  • Aidan O’Rourke / Violin
  •  

“Common Ground” track listing:

  1. The Strangest Times
  2. All The Love We Can Give
  3. Black With Ink
  4. Dandelion Clock
  5. Headwaters
  6. Apollo
  7. Common Ground
  8. Atlantic Cable
  9. Endnotes

8.8 Excellent

Big Big Train continue their musical journey beyond their native England, with the band’s four core members collaborating remotely to connect with each other as well as their audience. Widening their scope with additional voices and songwriting contributions, the band takes more chances on a few tracks which reflect the tumultuous times we’ve collectively been through.

  • Songwriting 8.5
  • Musicianship 9.5
  • Originality 7.5
  • Production 9.5
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