Despite a reduction in its line-up, the English progressive rock quartet return with some of their finest material to date
Few modern progressive rock bands merge the eloquent warmth of several 1970s genre pioneers with contemporary stylings and songwriting as effectively and steadily as Big Big Train.
This is particularly remarkable considering how prolific the ensemble has been in recent years, as they put out four studio LPs—Folklore, Grimspound, The Second Brightest Star, and Grand Tour—and a few live albums/videos between 2016 and 2020. Whereas such swift productivity would usually risk diminishing the quality of each successive record, Big Big Train continue to operate at the same magnificent level; fortunately, that holds true for Common Ground as well. In fact, it contains some of the troupe’s most lusciously welcoming and enduring compositions yet.
Common Ground upholds Big Big Train’s penchant for vivaciously urbane and melodic music, which is especially laudable considering the difficulties that they faced behind the scenes. Not only was it recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it marks their first studio release since the departures of guitarist Dave Gregory (ex-XTC), violinist Rachel Hall, and keyboardist Danny Manners. By all accounts, it was an amicable separation inspired in part by their desire to work on other projects.
Artist: Big Big Train
Album: Common Ground
Label: English Electric Recordings
★★★★1/2 (4.5/5 stars)
As a result, the septet is now a quartet comprised of David Longdon, Greg Spawton, Nick D’Virgilio (ex-Spock’s Beard), and Rikard Sjöblom (ex-Beardfish). Although they have some additional help on Common Ground—via guests like vocalist/keyboardist Carly Bryant, guitarist Dave Foster, violinist Aidan O’Rourke, violinist/vocalist Clare Lindley, and the Dave Desmond’s Brass Quintet—the sequence is perhaps ever so slightly more simplified and accessible than its predecessors. However, it’s still full of the intricately sublime arrangements and engrossing melodies fans have come to expect and love.
In the press release, the LP is described as maintaining “their tradition of dramatic narratives” while also confronting “issues much closer to home, such as the Covid lockdowns, the separation of loved ones, the passage of time, deaths of people close to the band and the hope that springs from a new love.” They also cite a few particular inspirations, such as Elton John, Pete Townshend, Elbow, and Tears for Fears. As such, the collection also features some of the group’s strongest lyricism to date.
Consisting of nine tracks (clustered into two parts), Common Ground kicks off with the irresistible “The Strangest Times.” It erupts with trademark majestic playfulness and energy before Longdon characteristically robust timbre takes over to offer charmingly catchy sentiments about isolation and uncertainty during the pandemic. Even with its sobering subject matter, they manage to infuse a sense of optimism and community into every moment (“And I need to feel close to the earth / Breathe the clean air / To soothe my soul / Just to clear my brain / To try to keep me sane / . . . Together is the only way we’ll survive”). Of course, there are also gorgeous harmonies and a couple of killer guitar solos to make the track even more uplifting and riveting. All in all, it’s a marvelous opener that instantly proves how capable Big Big Train remain.
Each of the remaining tunes deserves as much acclaim and analysis, but for the sake of space and time, suffice it to say that Common Ground never loses any punch or poignancy. Specifically, “All the Love We Can Give” is a mostly gentle and regal ballad that’s offset by D’Virgilio’s stout detours (“Sign me up / Count me in / The water’s fine / I’m not afraid to jump”). His singing has always been as distinctive and commanding as his playing, so his vocal contributions here (as well as on the fiery follow-up, “Black with Ink”) are nice surprises for sure.
VIDEO: Big Big Train play “Common Ground” at Real World Studios
Later, “Dandelion Clock” provides some of the loveliest instrumentation they’ve ever had, while “Headwaters” is a superbly subdued piano interlude that sets up the complex, stately, and lengthy instrumental “Apollo.” From there, the title track is about as commercial as Big Big Train can be (which is to say that it’s quite hooky but also quite sophisticated and winding); then, the epic “Atlantic Cable” is a gorgeously multifaceted journey unto itself prior to the contemplative and ethereal closer, “Endnotes.”
Despite losing a few key members—and wrestling with a worldwide pandemic, as have we all—Big Big Train have lost virtually none of their craftsmanship on Common Ground. In every way, it sustains the excellence established by its precursors to stand as a triumphant display of perseverance in the face of internal and international hardships.
On that note, it’s a bit unfair to even compare it to what’s come before since its greatest feat is preserving what’s made the band so special since the Longdon era began over a decade ago. (That’s not to say that their pre-Underfall Yard work wasn’t great as well; it was just markedly different.) Rather than concretely rank above or below Grimspound or Folklore or the English Electric duology, then, Common Ground acts as another chapter in one of the greatest oeuvres in post-millennial progressive music.
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