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Big Big Train - Common Ground CD (album) cover


Big Big Train


Crossover Prog

3.91 | 97 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
4 stars So, here we are in Summer 2021 with a pared-down 'Train. There has been a wee bit of a mass exodus from the band, for reasons which I admit are not wholly clear, and for this album we have a core fourpiece of David Longden on vocals, founder Gregory Spawton on bass, Rikard Sj'blom guitars, keys, and backing vocals, and last, but by no means least, the wonderful Nick D'Virgilio on drums and vocals.

Thankfully, for me, they have replaced Rachel Hall, the departing exceptionally talented violinist & vocalist, albeit on what appears to be a session basis, with Clare Lindley and Aidan O'Rourke, and other guests appear, together with the wonderful brass band ensemble.

So, most definitely the start of a new era. Is it any good? A question I asked myself with a little bit of trepidation when the cd plonked itself through the letter box on 30 July, and which I have been pondering since. The great record-buying public of Great Britain certainly seem to think so, because it debuted at an impressive number 30 in the charts upon release.

To begin, let us say that this is definitely (by the band's own separation on the cd booklet) a disc of two halves, and many comments I have seen around the weird and wonderful interweb suggest to me that opinion is sharply divided.

For a band who have made a (glorious) career out of writing epic songs about the past and England's role in that history, it comes as a wee bit of a shock to have an opening track, The Strangest Times, dedicated to the 18-month Covid-19 lurgy period of varying lockdowns and restrictions. Given the rather depressing subject matter, it is actually a bright and breezy piece of music which moves along at a fair old rate assisted by some understated piano work and frenetic fretwork, and it is a piece which has grown on me somewhat with repeated listening.

The second track, All the Love we can Give, is easily the most difficult to get one's head around. Written by D'Virgilio (and I might mention here that I have found listening to his latest solo work, Invisible, difficult to say the least), it features Longden singing in a tone several octaves below his usual floating range. However patience does bring its usual reward, and especially pleasing are the ensemble vocal harmonies, with Carly Bryant especially sounding very nice above Longden. Musically this is a stripped down 'Train, with the extended mid-track instrumental pretty noodly, and NDV treats us to a couple of sung verses, and whilst I now enjoy the track as a whole, it is not going to be a regular on any BBT playlist I create.

Black with Ink is the first Spawton written piece on the album, and Longden is mercifully reinstated to his wonderful full self, and Bryant contributes some lovely vocals, which should make watching her live next year something to look forward to. This is a very pleasant track, and three minutes in we have the first recognisably progressive segment of the album, with some very pleasing guitar and mellotron/Hammond keyboard work by Sj'blom. Deliberately retro in its feel and execution, the closing guitar led section is the first which takes you to that higher plane the band execute so well.

Dandelion Clock closes Part One, and is another Spawton effort, and is a short four-minute pastoral piece of music which quite honestly would not have sounded altogether out of place on Nursery Cryme. This is a very nice, calming, track which will hopefully convince those English Electric bastion of fans who might have been thinking that BBT had lost their collective marbles.

So, onwards to Part The Second, and what a treat it is. If what preceded it was good (and it is), we are now into full- blown BBT prog excellence with two instrumental pieces, namely Headwaters and Apollo. The first of the two is only a couple of minutes long and is a rather lovely Sj'blom piano solo, delicate and beautiful, the sort of track you will put on your headphones whilst lying under the sun in some meadow surrounded by nothing but nature.

Apollo clocks in at just shy of eight minutes. It is a fine ensemble piece, and it is great to hear Longden on the flute here, with Aidan O'Rourke providing a flowing violin line. Once again, we have those old-fashioned keyboards, and these are then three minutes in augmented by that all together fine brass ensemble. This track is BBT at their very best. Yes, it does have a retro feel to it, and this is quite deliberate, but you can only really sit back and let this wondrous noise, with its time signature changes and wall of sound, wash over you. A mighty fine mini-symphony, and easily a highlight of the decade, let alone the year. Play it loud, with the sunshine above you.

The title track follows, and this is Longdon's second of the album. This is another relatively short track, and is again a relaxing pastoral piece, which proclaims our shared humanity and revels in it. Upbeat and very welcome, especially the closing segment featuring more lovely flowing violin work supporting a gentle riff by Sj'blom.

Atlantic Cable is split into five movements over fifteen minutes of music, so this is the true epic of the album. The first part is a lovely flute and piano segment, strongly pastoral and thoughtful before moving into a more traditional folk-rock track. The subject matter is that of bringing together people separated over vast land masses with the building and use of phone line technology, and the final part of the track reprises the Common Ground theme from the title track through a beautiful gentle close following the crescendo which introduces it. Once again, Longden really does shine with some wonderful vocals (track two now being completely forgotten), and he is backed once again by some perfect harmonies. The whole musical experience tells a story, with the tempest of Lightning Through Deep Waters especially riveting leading to that gentle close. A wonderful piece of music which most certainly will figure on that BBT playlist.

The album closes with Endnotes. Another Spawton track, it is again a gentle start with lilting Longden vocals over violin and piano-led soundscapes which puts one in mind of smoky barrooms. The final three minutes once again bring in those smooth brass instruments, and this segment puts me in mind of (to me) the band's finest hour, namely Victorian Brickwork. Certainly, Longden reproduces the dripping emotion of that fine work, ably supported by the dreamy music. What a fine way to close a fine album.

This is an album which delights, and rewards persistence. It is an album which reaches out and fills the listener with that joy of life, moreover of that shared experience of living on Planet Earth. It proves that it is possible to make such proclamations without being overly preachy or pointing fingers at one's listeners. The album, in my opinion, cements BBT as the natural English Progressive Rock standard bearers (and, yes, I know that this is an international ensemble, but the music most certainly is not) and successors to the crown once worn with distinction by Messrs Gabriel & co.

Not quite the perfect five, although Part Two easily qualifies for this rating, but four stars nonetheless for an excellent work which should deservedly figure on most respectable prog writers top ten list for 2021.

Time to stop worrying. The future is bright, and that future is the Eastern Line Train.

lazland | 4/5 |


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