Big Big Train, Common Ground, July 30, 2021
Tracks: The Strangest Times (5:08), All The Love We Can Give (8:06), Black With Ink (7:23), Dandelion Clock (4:14), Headwaters (2:27), Apollo (7:50), Common Ground (4:54), Atlantic Cable (15:06), Endnotes (6:59)
I love writing about Big Big Train. In fact, they’re one of the reasons I was drawn into reviewing progressive rock on a more regular basis. They are also one of the reasons this website was founded back in 2012. Our founders understood that Big Big Train wasn’t your ordinary rock band, and the band deserved a more intellectual approach to reviews. I don’t know if I’ve been able to live up to the standard Dr. Brad Birzer set for us, but I try my best. Big Big Train makes it easier by providing such solid material to write about. Common Ground is no different. In fact it may be the best album they have released since I began writing for Progarchy. It is certainly the best record released thus far in 2021.
Common Ground gets off to a rousing start in the best way possible. I’ve never enjoyed the opening of a Big Big Train album this much. While I don’t dislike Big Big Train’s more mainstream pop-like tracks (“Make Some Noise,” “Folklore,” “Wassail”), they aren’t my favorite in the band’s catalog. While “The Strangest Times” might fall into that aspect of the band’s repertoire, I absolutely love this. The piano at the beginning is so bright and upbeat, reminding me a bit of some of the more popular artists the band site as influences on this record. However I think it reminds me more of the band’s work back in the days of English Electric. The guitar work is phenomenal, proving right away that even though brilliant guitarist Dave Gregory may have left the group, the group haven’t abandoned the unique sound he brought to the table. I imagine lots of credit should go to Rikard Sjöblom for maintaining that tone.
Nick D’Virgilio absolutely hits a home run with his lead vocal sections on “All the Love We Can Give.” I was hoping we would get to hear more of his vocals on this record, and we do. Of course there is also his brilliant drumming throughout the album, which we probably take for granted at this point. This song has some blistering instrumental passages with heavy guitars and some face melting Hammond keyboards. We also get to hear a different side to David Longdon’s glorious voice, featuring the lower end of his register. The vocal harmonies at points in the song remind me of Gentle Giant and the Neal Morse Band, although this is nothing new for Big Big Train. They seem to have utilized it a bit more though throughout Common Ground than they have in the past.
As a matter of fact, the next track, “Black With Ink,” allows that to shine. We get a lead vocal from Rikard, Nick, and Carly Bryant, who joined the band for live shows, providing backing (and apparently lead) vocals, keyboards, and guitars. It’s a nice touch that the band included her on the recording, as well as Dave Foster (guitars on two tracks) and Aidan O’Rourke on violin throughout the record.
Lyrically “Black With Ink” is somewhat close to my heart, since Greg Spawton was influenced by a trip to a museum (I work in the collections department of a history museum). After a BBT show in Birmingham, England, in 2019, Greg visited the local art museum and saw a label about the history of the collection, which suffered from a bombing raid during World War II. Spawton talks more about that song at the official Big Big Train blog for the album, but in summary it grew out of a frustration with the destruction of knowledge (book burning, destroying art, etc.). The song specifically looks at the destruction (many centuries and millennia ago) of texts at libraries in Alexandria and Baghdad.
On the other side of the lyrical spectrum, Longdon keeps the band grounded in the present. “The Strangest Times” and “Common Ground” are influenced by the insanity the world has been going through over the last year and a half. In a recent interview, Longdon admitted to Progarchy’s Rick Krueger recently that he cannot wait for these lyrics to no longer be relevant, since we are all sick of quarantines, lockdowns, and other assorted nonsense.
“Apollo” is an almost eight-minute-long instrumental track, and it is glorious. The song was contributed by Nick, and it grew out of material he had created at his day job at Sweetwater, a music gear retailer and production studio in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He describes this track as Big Big Train’s “Los Endos,” which I believe they achieved. It’s a beautiful song, and I can see them either closing a first set or closing a live show with it before an encore. The inclusion of Longdon’s flute was a really nice touch, which will most definitely be a hit live. It’s pure BBT, brass band and all.
“Atlantic Cable” has all the grandiosity of “East Coast Racer.” I don’t think I have enjoyed a Big Big Train song this much since ECR. Spawton’s booming bass is at Squire-esque levels of brilliance. The interplay of the guitars, violin when it is used, the myriad voices, the long instrumental passages – this is Big Big Train’s “sound” at its absolute finest. I hope when they play it live, they extend that guitar solo as it peaks toward the end.
Lyrically the track tells the story of laying the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic, formally linking the old world with the new. This song is much grander than that story, though. The story serves as a metaphor representing the commonality we all share, which supports the overall theme of the album. The track has calmer passages, but it still has the hard rocking sections that feature on the rest of the record and also hearken back to The Underfall Yard and English Electric.
A song about laying a steel cable across the ocean floor was never going to be a pastoral piece of music. It needed some stormy moments, some grandeur. And it needed to be long enough to tell an epic tale.
– Greg Spawton
The video the band shared for this song in the blog for the album is hilarious. It’s a video of Nick trying to figure out how to play the complicated time signatures. It was only a matter of time before the expletives were directed at Greg (all in good humor, of course), but it’s quite entertaining. It also goes to show how technically complicated this music is and how good these musicians are that they can (eventually) play it.
The Dave Desmond brass band shines bright as ever on “Endnotes,” the final track. The hint of violin reminds us of where the band has been, but in a more subdued light.
The pastoral elements and folk elements in the band’s arsenal are pulled back throughout Common Ground in favor of a heavier rock sound, but it’s undeniably Big Big Train. It’s exactly what I wanted from the band moving forward. I never complained about the pastoral direction the band moved into because I enjoyed it, but I’ll admit that I was beginning to miss certain elements that were more prevalent on The Underfall Yard and English Electric. I don’t think any of us wanted them to start copying themselves, though. Instead they have progressed into slightly different waters, pulling together all of those elements into a truly astounding whole. The hard rock, the atmosphere added by the violin and Longdon’s flute, and those stunning vocal harmonies create a pure sound.
Existing fans will almost assuredly love Common Ground. If you are new to Big Big Train, then this is as good a place to start as any. The album displays everything the band does so well.
Thanks Big Big Train. You’ve made a crappy year a little brighter.