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Big Big Train - Common Ground CD (album) cover

COMMON GROUND

Big Big Train

 

Crossover Prog

3.91 | 100 ratings

From Progarchives.com, the ultimate progressive rock music website

SilverLight59
4 stars Always big big excitement for me to hear a new Big Big Train collection of songs. My first contact was with the album 'The Second Brightest Star'. Quickly worked forward through their newer albums, and then back tracked through the older portion of their catalog. Kind of got accustomed to a certain kind of complexity, density, and frequently pastoral sound.

This album, well, it's different. That's not necessarily bad; in fact, it may very well be good depending upon your point of view. It certainly seems to be their most accessible album. That's not to say that there isn't complexity and progressive delights. It may also be one of their most diverse stylistically. For example the first four tracks are so different it almost comes across like material that would have been on different albums in their progression. That being said, the songs still work well together and don't feel fragmented from the whole.

The opening track 'The Strangest Times' is a nice piece of, dare I say, prog-rock pop, an up beat solid opening, catchy and memorable. I have noticed that this has become a bit of a tendency in the opening portion of their last few albums, to have a strong energetic song that comes across as almost radio friendly. That being the case , I wasn't all that surprised to see another one here. Not a complaint, just an observation. (8/10)

The second track 'All the Love We Can Give' is just, um, where did this come from? This is something totally different than anything from their past. The vocal is done in a far deeper tone than any other BBT song. My immediate go to comparison was the vocalist of 'The National', an alternative indie band that I happen to like quite a bit. While completely unexpected, I adapted to it, even liking it, pretty quickly. This track features quite a few tempo and instrumental changes, and alternating vocal styles, yet remains quite accessible. (7.5/10)

The third track 'Black with Ink' comes across as something of a mid-tempo rocker with a very pleasing female counterpart vocal, very welcome as it gives the track a notable warmth! Nice guitar and synth instrumental running in the mid section makes it clear this is still progressive. (8.5/10)

To this point, first listen through, I was at a bit of a loss as to how different the album was sounding compared to their recent albums, very modern, not very pastoral. While there are changes in tone, tempo, and power, they seemed to be, for lack of better words, kind of stripped down to the essential elements making them pretty easy to absorb. It seems to be a stark deviation from the more complex unfolding music of previous albums where it might take several listens before the songs become familiar to you. That being said, it wasn't that I disliked the first three songs, it was just unexpectedly very different. And indeed, it appears that they are a bit different band with fewer members and less diversity of instruments.

However, track four 'Dandelion Clock' moves back to the more familiar BBT wheelhouse that we know well. This is a lovely up tempo pastoral type ballad that just makes you feel good. It's not overly complex for sure, but an ear worm type of song that you can easily find yourself humming. (9/10)

Next comes the second third of the album, two instrumentals. Given the accessibility of the first four tracks, again not necessarily bad, but for sure a surprise, this seems to be a brilliant placement of these tracks. They serve as an aural palette cleanser between the first and final thirds of the album. The fifth track 'Headwaters', is definitely pastoral in nature, a singular haunting piano melody over a very light wash of synths. This is a track that is, oh, too short. I would have liked to have seen this developed a little further. (9/10) Song six is 'Apollo', a considerably longer instrumental that is a total leap in multiple different directions, full of upbeat progressiveness with synths, guitars, and a few of the expected classical instruments that BBT is so good at weaving through their best songs. This again has a more familiar BBT feel to it. (8.5/10)

The final third of the collection tends to move even more so towards a more expected sounding BBT. The seventh song, the title track 'Common Ground', starts with piano and acoustic guitar, nice melodic lead vocals, and enjoyable backing vocals to create a full sound. The song gradually builds up and closes out with an intense but restrained guitar and violin solo. Again, quite accessible but definitely a highlight. (8.5/10)

Next comes the eighth track 'Atlantic Cable'. This is just a fabulous fifteen minute musical adventure, perhaps the first song in this set that feels fully like an extension of their recent albums. Complex. multi faceted, partially pastoral, partially synth bathed, partially a rocker. Lead and backing vocals are spot on. This has everything that is expected in their best songs. My top track for sure! (10/10)

And finally the closer, 'Endnotes'. After the rousing conclusion of the previous track, this one opens pensively, then evolves into a lovely ballad, that immediately has a familiar comforting type of feel to it. While different of course, it reminds me of the first BBT track I heard which was the 'Second Brightest star', which I had an emotional attachment to almost instantly. This track has a similar attraction, it felt like an old friend right away. Of note is the closing portion which is very effective with a gradual brass build up and a real sense that these really are the end notes, well done! (9.5/10)

So, my closing thoughts? A very interesting crossover of classic BBT (the final third), and a newer more polished modern direction (the first third). At first it seemed a bit disjoint, but with subsequent listens (many!) the parts do create a cohesive whole that has really become a grower for me. There is an interesting transition going on here: the new has a bit of the old in it, and the old a bit of the new. I have found myself playing it almost daily for a few weeks now, and not getting tired of it. A good indicator of a successful collection of songs. It's probably for the best that any band works to reinvent themselves a little bit. It's good to keep us guessing what they will do next. For sure, I am very curious as to where the next collection of songs will go. But as for this one, for me, four plus stars, well worth adding to your library, and a pretty good introduction for anyone unfamiliar with BBT.

SilverLight59 | 4/5 |

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