Common Ground

Big Big Train

English Electric, 2021

http://www.bigbigtrain.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/11/2021

The golden age of British progressive rock band Big Big Train that began a dozen years ago has been marked by dichotomies. For most of that time the group’s songwriting duties have been split fairly evenly between co-founder Greg Spawton and lead vocalist David Longdon, and has repeatedly split batches of songs in two, issuing English Electric Part One (2012), followed by Part Two (2013), and taking song ideas left over from the sessions for Folklore (2016) and developing them into its sequel Grimspound (2017).

For the group’s new studio album Common Ground, they have divided the single disc into Part One and Part Two. This might feel like a callback to vinyl days—side one and side two—but in fact the two sets are far out of balance in terms of runtime, with One clocking in around 24 minutes and Two at 38. Instead, the difference is felt more in the approaches taken; Part One is more experimental and Two more familiar in its classic-prog-derived stylings.

The other dichotomy here is thematic, with Spawton continuing to focus mostly—though not entirely—on historical and philosophical concerns, while Longdon (joined this time by drummer/vocalist Nick D’Virgilio, who pens two tracks) takes an approach more grounded in the present and concentrated on a relatively unusual topic for a prog band: love. What’s most notable about this dichotomy in the end, though, is how the band has woven these threads together around the theme of human connection, whether through love, literature or technology.

Common Ground is also BBT’s first album as a quartet, the band having shed three members in 2020: Dave Gregory (guitars), Danny Manners (keys) and Rachel Hall (violin/vocals). Despite these substantial losses, the group retained both of its principal songwriters in Spawton and Longdon, as well as a pair of versatile singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalists in D’Virgilio and now-principal guitarist/keyboardist Rikard Sjöblom. With the addition of new faces for these sessions—Carly Bryant (vocals), Dave Foster (guitars), and Aidan O’Rourke (violin)—as well as the return of the Big Big Train Brass Band led by Dave Desmond, the band sounds full as ever and thoroughly invigorated.

Still, change is clearly in the air. Album opener “The Strangest Times” is an upbeat, rather jaunty number about, er, COVID lockdowns. Which sounds impossibly dreary, but it works, because it’s a quality song, melodic and engaging and a thematic cousin to earlier BBT tunes like “Hedgerow” and “Upton Heath” in its focus on regaining balance and sanity by getting out into nature. There’s also sharp keyboard work from Sjöblom and Longdon, supplemented by fiery guitar from Foster.

From there things get, well, stranger. D’Virgilio’s “All The Love We Can Give,” in addition to its rather familiar “all you need Is love” message, is a substantial departure from the band’s historic sound, with Longdon opening and closing the song in a lower register that doesn’t always feel comfortable, and alternating lead vocals with D’Virgilio. The eight-minute track offers all the dynamics and drama one might anticipate, but its at-times rather Broadway flair feels out of character for BBT. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

If the experimentation on the prior track didn’t throw you, wait ‘til you hear BBT do a full-band vocal throwaround on “Black With Ink,” with Longdon, Bryant, Sjöblom, and D’Virgilio each taking a verse. This experiment works better, though, injecting a sense of community into a Spawton historical narrative about the preservation (and destruction) of knowledge through the ages, which also features an especially limber and energetic instrumental segment.

Part One closes out with “Dandelion Clock,” a contemplative mid-tempo number about the turning of the seasons. The principal melody played on piano and electric guitar, then violin, is a bit of an earworm, but on the whole the track feels rather insubstantial, perhaps a side effect of its comparatively modest scale.

Part Two opens with a pair of instrumentals, which sounds odd, but ends up working well. The brief “Headwaters” functions as both intermission and cleansing breath, a delicate, concise solo piano piece played and co-composed by Sjöblom. Its D’Virgilio-composed companion piece “Apollo” is a highlight, an exhilarating instrumental tour de force that features the entire band, but is all NDV in its irrepressible energy and dynamics.

From there they move into the heart and soul of this album. “Common Ground” is a stunner, with Longdon’s piano and acoustic guitar playing a chiming heartbeat of a melody that builds to a billowing chorus. A love song that’s also an anthem of unity, it offers progressive shifts in tone and tempo that really work, a strong lyric and tremendous lead vocals from Longdon. The closing section, featuring a searing Sjöblom electric solo weaving under and around final chorus, leading into an a cappella finish, left me eager to hear this one played live.

The album’s requisite historical epic follows, and ye gods is it impressive. Spawton’s five-part, 15-minute “Atlantic Cable” opens with evocative, melancholy piano before seguing into a terrific instrumental portion with the principals jamming hard on not one but two different themes in succession, the first frenetic and the second grand as the sky. Then Longdon’s vocals enter atop a bed of flute, piano and acoustic as they unspool the tale of the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable connecting Europe with America. “Bring all together / A world undivided / Let mankind be as one” sings Longdon over a gorgeous melody, tension gradually building again as Bryant joins in on harmony vocals. As they move into another superb instrumental bit led by synths (Sjöblom) and violin (O’Rourke), Spawton’s bass begins bounding all around the room as D’Virgilio runs wild on his kit and Foster’s lead guitar comes in hot for a stomping solo. At the finish they bring it home with piano and choral background vocals and a return to the theme of common experience binding us together: “We look up at the same stars / See further as one.” It’s yet another masterful BBT epic, abundant with beauty and thrills.

In what’s become something of a tradition for the group, the big, bold penultimate epic flows into a gentle denouement. Album closer “Endnotes” opens with composer Spawton on acoustic guitar leading a sweetly melancholy melody as they spin out a love song for the ages. “And with good luck / And in good time / When you need a hand / She will be by your side... Holding her hand / Right to the end / When the light is low / And the music fades.” It’s an eye-dampening poem of mature love and devotion—and then the horns enter and the bass pedals kick in and the song swells like an inflating hot-air balloon, enveloping the listener as Longdon gives everything he has to the anthemic final verse. In a nice bit of book-ending, the closing line calls back to the very first BBT release some 30 years ago, From The River To The Sea.

As always, the art direction and album packaging is terrific, another beautiful object for the BBT audience of Passengers to treasure and pore through, enhancing the listening experience in ways large and small.

In the end, Common Ground knits up the dichotomies at its heart with simply stellar playing and songs rooted in the very current and vital idea that community and human connection are what will ultimately save us all. Big Big Train shows its range here with some gutsy experiments, and if every one isn’t a smashing success, well, that’s why experimentation requires courage. Common Ground features a welcome bounty of the sort of anthems to shared purpose and values that we not just want but need to hear right now, played with hearts on sleeves and enough raw musical talent to level a mountain.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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