Review – Big Big Train – Common Ground

‘Common Ground’ is the self-produced new album from Big Big Train on their own label, English Electric Recordings. The new album, recorded during the worldwide pandemic, sees the band continue their tradition of dramatic narratives but also tackles 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.

‘Common Ground’ sees the band taking in wider musical and lyrical inspiration from artists such as Elbow, Pete Townshend, Tears For Fears, Elton John and XTC, as well as acknowledging their more progressive roots.
 
Following the departure of long time members of the band, the core of Big Big Train is now Greg Spawton (bass), David Longdon (lead vocals, flute), Nick D’Virgilio (drums, vocals) and Rikard Sjöblom (guitars, keyboards, vocals). Carly Bryant (keyboards, guitars, vocals), who contributes vocals to ‘Common Ground’, Dave Foster (guitars), who plays on two tracks on the new album and Clare Lindley (violin, vocals) will join the band for the upcoming tour and there will also be the welcome return of a five piece brass ensemble. 

After finishing my first listen through of the new album, my first impressions were that, while it is familiar (especially with David Longdon’s distinctive vocals), there is something new and dynamic about it. Like all the best albums, it needs more investigation and listening to, but, to my ears, a subtle reinventing of Big Big Train is afoot!

So, a few days and many, many listens later, how do I feel about ‘Common Ground’ now? Read on and all shall be revealed…

It’s bloody marvellous, basically! I am a long time fan of the band and this is the first album that has really grabbed me and not let me go since the ‘English Electric’ series.

The wondrously upbeat Strangest Times with its brilliant Elton John inspired piano lines (take a bow Rikard Sjöblom) opens the album in fine style. David Longdon is in fine voice, especially on the ever so catchy chorus, and the guitar playing throughout is sublime, I’m left with a huge grin on my face as the track comes to a satisfying close. The track sees David writing about the Covid lockdowns, the separation of loved ones, the passage of time, deaths of people close to the band  “After the death of a collaborator Judy Dyble in July 2020, I time spent shielding with an ill relative. With everything that was happening around me and for the world with the relentless doomwatch tone of the news broadcasts, I spoke with Greg. I said I couldn’t just be writing songs about historical figures and scenarios. I felt that I needed to write about the here and now. In ‘The Strangest Times’.”

All The Love That We Can Give is a more laid back affair with a wistful feel to the keyboards and David’s vocal with a deeper tone. There are swathes of contemplative Hammond Organ and the guitar just sits in the background, like a conductor leading the band. Vocal harmonies abound and Greg and Nick prove what a fantastic rhythm session they are and then the track goes off into proper progressive rock territory, full of energy and intricate musicianship, another rather fine song indeed!

When the intro to Black With Ink starts I’m immediately drawn to a comparison with Kim Wilde’s Kids In America (wait until you hear it, then it won’t sound so daft!). The edgy keyboards and vocals sound like a call to action and the song just picks up and goes from there, it’s certainly up there with the best upbeat songs that the band have ever recorded. The vocal interplay is excellent and gives a real urgency to the track. If this is part of a new direction for the band then please count me in on the journey. To my ears, things get even better in the second half as a distinctive musical refrain starts to be heard (it’s one that continues to surface throughout the rest of the album too…) and becomes an earworm that you can’t get rid of, and don’t want to actually! Dandelion Clock is a nostalgic and thoughtful song that is dear to Greg’s heart a beautifully written piece of music with David’s vocal at its most plaintive and heartfelt. The chorus is a work of art and the whole track just works its way into your affections. A quite exquisite song that leaves you in a totally reflective and introspective state of mind.

Headwaters is the first of two instrumentals and is Big Big Train at their best when it comes to telling stories without words, a dreamlike, meditative piece that is painstakingly and perfectly created, just beautiful. Then we go to the opposite end of the musical spectrum with the vibrant notes of the energetic and dynamic Apollo. Nick D’Virgilio wanted “…to write the band’s version of Genesis’s Los Endos and to make a track that really showed off the talent of all the amazing musicians in the band.” And, boy, he certainly did that and has created one of the best progressive instrumentals of recent times.

The title track of the album sees the band in anthemic mood, Common Ground is a powerful piece of music, a statement of the state of humanity but delivered in a way that only Big Big Train can. Soaring vocal harmonies, powerful melodies and excellent musicianship create a an energetic and passionate song that grabs your attention and makes you listen and absorb the message within. The guitar and violin interplay is absolutely superb, this is a song that will have the audience at the live shows singing their hearts out, just outstanding!

It wouldn’t be a Big Big Train album if there wasn’t an epic song with a dramatic historical narrative that shows British pastoral progressive rock at its very, very best would it? Well, the band don’t let us down and deliver a transcendent fifteen minutes of heart and soul in the majestic Atlantic Cable. There’ll always be a place for tracks like this in the musical universe, soaring crescendos mix with intricate musical passages to create musical works of art that will always pass the test of time. Take songwriters of consummate skill and musicians at the top of their game and you will end up with superb songs of substance and heart and soul that have meaning and that tell the grandest of stories in the perfect manner.

Endnotes closes the album on an emotive note. Another one of Greg’s favourites (and mine), it is a perfectly composed song with heartfelt vocals from David that just bleed compassion and sentiment. The musical accompaniment is exquisitely elegant and the harmonies just make your heart sing and then, the brass! Oh my god, the hairs just stand up on the back of your neck as the notes sound out, there’s just something about that sound that makes my soul soar and Big Bg Train do it so well. What an incredible end to the album, I don’t mind admitting it has made me quite emotional.

So, there you have it, ‘Common Ground’ is recognisably Big Big Train but a Big Big Train that have moved the game on a little and given us an album of its time. Vibrant and upbeat, thoughtful, wistful and even melancholy at times, it is a collection of amazing songs that will touch you on a basic level and move you on many others. ‘Common Ground’ is the album that will make you fall in love with the band all over again and I can’t give it any higher praise than that!

Released 30th July, 2021.

Order the album here:

Big Big Train (burningshed.com)

Dave Foster Launches Kickstarter Campaign For Vinyl Version of ‘Dreamless’ Album

After much demand, renowned Panic Room and The Steve Rothery Band guitarist Dave Foster has launched a Kickstarter campaign to manufacture and release his latest solo album ‘Dreamless’ on vinyl.

You can support the campaign here:

Dave had this to say about the project:

“There have been so many requests to release the album ‘Dreamless’ on vinyl that it’s about time it happened. Its is one of those albums that deserves to be heard in all it’s glory on a turntable. Due to the albums length it spans four sides, so it very satisfyingly is a double album.

This edition of the album will feature some extra sleeve notes which are my notes about the recording and the origin of each track.

I hope that you guys really want this to be on vinyl as much as I do, it will sound ace. If the project doesn’t make it’s target, I don’t have the resources to fund it myself so sadly it wouldn’t happen…..but I think you guys will make it happen.”

I had this to say about the album when I reviewed ‘Dreamless’ on the 1st of June last year:

“The usually modest and self-effacing Dave Foster has stepped out of the shadows and onto centre stage to deliver his second solo opus and is to be applauded and admired for doing so. Such a variety of moods, styles and colours doesn’t always mix well but when it is done with consummate skill, like it is here, you are treated to a cornucopia of musical delights. While neither ground breaking or game changing, what it is is really rather good.”

Check out Amitriptyline from the album:

(Featured Image Andy Hibbs Photography).

 

 

Review – Dave Foster – Dreamless – by Progradar

image description

“For the virtuoso, musical works are in fact nothing but tragic and moving materializations of his emotions; he is called upon to make them speak, weep, sing and sigh, to recreate them in accordance with his own consciousness. In this way he, like the composer, is a creator, for he must have within himself those passions that he wishes to bring so intensely to life.”
Franz Liszt

‘Virtuoso’ is quite an honorific and Dave Foster would probably hate me calling him this for he is an unassuming and humble man who just happens to be a stunning guitar player. He can make the instrument come alive and even talk to you and, if that is not what being a virtuoso is all about, then I don’t know what is!

Dave is probably better known as the guitarist from the bands Mr So & So and Panic Room and for being Steve Rothery’s foil in the great man’s solo band. Never being in the spotlight but being a purveyor of intense guitar licks, solos and riffs that have gained him renown in the world of those in the know.

Steve Rothery

His first solo album ‘Gravity’ was released in August 2011 and I was suitably impressed with its mainly instrumental songs that were performed with more than a tongue-in-cheek hint of Joe Satriani or Steve Vai extravagance.

The press release for Dave’s second solo release tells us we have something different in store:

” ‘Dreamless’ follows his first solo release ‘Gravity’ from 2010, although as Gravity was a largely instrumental album, ‘Dreamless’ is, for the most part, made up of ‘songs’, with guest appearances by vocalists Anne Marie Helder (Panic Room/Mostly Autumn) and Dinet Poortman (NOONe) and Dave also sings a few tracks himself.

The impressive line up on the album features guest appearances from Steve Rothery (Marillion), Jonathan Edwards (Panic Room), Yatim Halimi
(Steve Rothery Band, Panic Room), Riccardo Romano (Steve Rothery Band, Ranestrane), Leon Parr (Steve Rothery Band), Matthew Cohen (Ghost Community, The Reasoning), Stuart Browne (Mr. So & So), Charlotte Evans (Mr. So & So) and Wal Coughlan (Gary Numan, Luna Rossa).”

Antonio Seijas has provided the artwork and, as with all his work (including ‘Dreamless’), the cover is stunning. The album has been produced by Dave and long time recording partner Al Unsworth and the album has been gorgeously mixed by Al.

Antonio Seijas

(Photo by Antonio Seijas)

So, what has this influential and distinguished musician got in store for us? ‘Dreamless’ is a cornucopia of musical delights, mixing styles and moods effortlessly.

The opening two tracks Cabello and Amitriptyline have a grown up and mature feel, they are songs with more than a touch of classic rock to them (Amitriptyline even has a punky tone to it), sharp-suited and super-smooth. Dave’s guitar is distinctive in sound and intonation and drives these two pieces along at a steady pace. Dinet Poortman has a great voice, full of emotion and lustre and it drips class. The rhythm section does what all great rhythm sections do, holds a steady course without being intrusive. The songs are well written and well crafted and, while adding nothing new, they are delivered with such finesse and artistry that they are going to be distinct anyway. The first song denies us a classic Dave Foster solo but the second follows that up in spades!

Sandwiching the dark and dangerous Black Sunrise (we’ll get to that soon) are the twin delights of New York Rain and Lingering with their wistful and winsome appeal. Vocals that have more than a hint of folkyness to them are ably abetted by Dave’s guitar which is delicate, organic and even slightly ethereal. If you’ve heard Neal Schon’s solo release ‘Beyond The Thunder’ then you’ll know what I mean. Intended or not, I really get a feel of paring back and returning to nature on these two beautiful songs. Dinet’s voice has a light tone of Joni Mitchell in places, just a gentle catch here and there and it really plays on your mood lifting you to an impossible high with its clarity and refinement. On New York Rain the subtle elegance of Jonatham Edward’s piano and Charlotte Evans’ exquisite backing vocals give a haunting grace and Riccardo Romano adds his tasteful keys to Lingering. Hazy summer days and nostalgic longings abound around both of these refined songs and they are a lingering light of hope in any darkness.

So dark, dangerous and seriously moody, yep, that’s the epic Black Sunrise, a monster of a track hewn from the granite of musical ambition. There’s a mysterious feel around the whole song, the vocals have an enigmatic ease to them and the guitars are decidedly heavy. It starts as a brooding beast that you know is building up to something cryptic and in your face. The monolithic chorus, massive riffs and in your face vocals, are brilliant but, if there is one thing that raises this track well above the norm, it is the enormously incandescent solo that springs from Mr Foster’s guitar, not once but bloody twice, quite superb.

Guitar tune

The stylistic mood changes continue with title track Dreamless which begins with a touch of middle-eastern promise before opening up into another smoothly delivered classic rock piece. Dave provides vocals on this song and he shows he has a talent for singing too. A slow building track that opens up with flashes of urbane, harmonised backing vocals and some rakish riffs to give a slight Floyd feel in places. A staccato, off-kilter solo  jabs at you to deliver the killer blow. Simple, pared back and gossamer light in texture and delivery, You Have No New Messages uses the twin talents of Dina and Dave to give you a moment of calm in the maelstrom around you. Three minutes of absolute elegance and grace, it calms the soul and lightens the heart.

Ache returns to that ominous, brooding tone and introduces Matty Cohen and Steve Rothery to the fray. A slow, involving number with Dave and Dinet sharing vocals, there is a yearning and longing at the core of its intensity. Taking a more progressive and convoluted route to your mind, the heart of this intricate track is the profound and intense solo that takes a serpentine route across your synapses. A song that leaves a sense of profound loss as it comes to a close. Brahma sees AnneMarie Helder take over vocal duties and has an almost flamenco style guitar opening before her deep and meaningful voice takes over. I like its profound atmosphere and prog-tinged classic rock notes. Clever songwriting invokes a palpable sense of profound anticipation running throughout that keeps you on edge and, when Dave turns into rock-god mode and  lets loose with a scorching solo, it is with a feeling of extreme relief.

panic room

Another piece of refined brilliance, Counting Clouds is all acoustic guitars, humble vocals and a peaceful easy feeling that permeates all. Ann-Marie and Dave trade vocals with aplomb and harmonise delightfully to create an aura of west-coast joi-de-vivre that wouldn’t have been out of place on an Eagles or Crosby, Stills and Nash release. The guitars are used to compliment the tone and there is an utter feeling of contentedness and completeness as it comes to a close. Our journey through the differing colours and emotions of Dave’s mind finishes with the obscure wonderment of Morphine Sleep. Seven minutes of differing soundscapes with a cinematic feel that is performed in its entirety by Dave himself. There’s a hunger and passionate longing in the sparse delivery of the guitar and a humble aspiration as it offers itself up for your delectation. It demands your rapt attention and you give it willingly as this wide variety of musical personalities and characters comes to a close.

The usually modest and self-effacing Dave Foster has stepped out of the shadows and onto centre stage to deliver his second solo opus and is to be applauded and admired for doing so. Such a variety of moods, styles and colours doesn’t always mix well but when it is done with consummate skill, like it is here, you are treated to a cornucopia of musical delights. While neither ground breaking or game changing, what it is is really rather good.

Released 25th April 2016

Buy ‘Dreamless’ from bandcamp

 

Review – The Dave – Gravity – by Progradar

Cover

Let me get one thing out of the way straight away, I don’t think The Dave is the best name for an artist. Only Dave Foster will know why he didn’t use his own name for this solo project but I just wish he had, my opinion only, mild rant over.

Dave Foster will be better known to you lot out there as the guitarist with noted Northern rock band Mr So & So, progressive stalwarts Panic Room and for being the guitar player and co-writer in legendary Marillion guitarist Steve Rothery’s band. It goes without saying that his CV is pretty impressive.

Now Dave is currently in the process of writing and recording a new solo album (thankfully using his own name) called ‘Dreamless’ so it seemed the right time to visit his debut release from August 2011, ‘Gravity’, and give it the Progradar ‘going over’.

I’m a sucker for great album art and the cover design for ‘Gravity’, by leading artist Antonio Seijas, is very striking indeed. A good start then but let’s check out the music and see what The Dave has in store for us….

Dave 2

‘Gravity’ is mainly an instrumental album but there are a few vocal tracks and my first impression is that it gives something more than your average guitar guru’s solo album.

First track Tesla could be straight out of the Joe Satriani songbook with intricate guitar histrionics. There are enough searing licks, riffs and solos to keep even the most avid guitar nut happy and it shows straight from the off that Dave Foster is one sublime guitar player. Convoluted and extremely intense, it is a thrill-a-minute hell ride on the flaming vapour trails of Dave’s fluid guitar playing. You just know from the title that Summer Sky is going to be a real feel good track and it doesn’t disappoint. Like a gentle amble on a lazy summer’s day it asks nothing of you other than to listen and enjoy. The keyboards and drums lay down a silky smooth foundation on which Dave can build with his supreme guitar playing. There is a fluent feel to the music as it flows serenely around your mind. Fast paced but never hectic, you set off on an unhurried journey and arrive calm and collected.

Paradox is the first track co-written by and featuring Dinet Poortman on vocals. This is a more straightforward rock track, very much in the Panic Room vein, and, as such, the guitar takes a step back. Dinet’s vocals are rich and luscious and add a velvet coating to this thoughtful song. Not what you were expecting on a guitar based album? Does it matter?, not one jot, it actually adds another dimension to this already impressive album. Back to the instrumental but with a much more serious and sober feel, Liberty Bridge is dense and pensive as a whole. The guitar drips sincerity and ennui then, occasionally, the light seems to break free and shine brightly. There is something crucial and weighty at the heart of proceedings, the sense of adventure generally reined in but, when it does manage to break the stranglehold, it illuminates with a fiery light.

Guitars

Polarised is an electronica edged pulsating industrial metal track that feels like it has the weight of the world on its shoulders. Dave (I think it’s him) provides a downbeat vocal that is all determined and no-nonsense and the guitar riff could have come from the depths of Motorhead’s debased mind, all dirty, edgy and darkly humorous. Fans of 90’s band Ministry will love the thundering guitars and restless keyboards and the guitar solo that closes out the track is pure, sublime theatre. Dinet Poortman returns on Only A Lullaby, a halting track that takes on a symphonic, female fronted metal mantle. Within Temptation and Nightwish come to mind but this is taken to a higher level. There is something dark and dangerous hiding in the shadows, an alien intelligence that gives this song something special. Once again, Dinet’s vocals are really special, she has voice that infiltrates your whole being and it works brilliantly with Dave’s coruscating guitar note which, on this track, burns slowly igniting something infernal inside you.

Apollo 13 is the most complex and elaborate song on the album, blending intricate, brooding sections of music with voice overs from the original space mission. It has a real sense of history and nostalgia to it and occasionally opens up into a heightened and passionate outpouring of brilliant guitar playing. Where the other tracks on the album seem to leave you to get on with your life as you enjoy them, this one demands you stop what you’re doing and give it 100% of your attention. A mesmerising, winding musical journey through space and time and one which clearly showcases the incredible talent that this man has. Shall we do smoky, burning blues guitar? Indeed we shall, Shining Light is a little gem of a track, heartfelt vocals and acoustic guitar lay the heart on the sleeve but it is the fiercely intense guitar that is the star of the show as it affects every fibre of your being. Lay back, close your eyes and enjoy this ardent piece of music.

Dave 3

Despite being only fifty-nine seconds long The Wait is much more than just an interlude. it is one minute of acute musical pleasure as the effects laden guitar leads you into a place of calm contemplation from which you really have a hard time leaving and it segues perfectly into the final track The Bride. To my ears there is a little sense of loss and melancholia to this delightful song. It is not immediately evident but it is there hidden under the graceful layers of guitar that are presented to you. A slight sense of regret that soon fades perhaps, this song brought up hidden emotions and a lump to my throat as the elegant and exquisite guitars lightly dance across your aural receptors. A real cornucopia of guitar playing delights, as it comes to a close I just sat there in silent appreciation.

So, if ‘Gravity’ is anything to go by, we are going to be in for some hell of a treat with Dave Foster’s new album. Admittedly I am a huge fan of instrumental guitar albums but this one is up there in a higher echelon than most of the rest. An album that, if you don’t already have it in your collection, you should head to the link below post-haste and buy it immediately.

Released 15th August 2015

Buy ‘Gravity’ from Bandcamp