Above & Beyond are leading fans on a journey in sound as they head in a new direction on Common Ground.
It’s been three years since Above & Beyond released We Are All We Need, and fans around the world have been anxiously awaiting the day when they would have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the newest long-player by the beloved trio – Common Ground.
Well, the day has finally come – Common Ground, the fifth studio album from Tony McGuinness, Jono Grant, and Paavo Siljamaki, is available to stream and purchase worldwide. Clocking in at just over an hour with thirteen tracks, it serves as the centerpiece for their biggest tour ever, which kicked of at the Los Angeles Convention Center and will grace venues like Red Rocks in Colorado and Barclays Center in New York.
As big fans of everything Above & Beyond, we were right there along with our fellow Anjuna Family members waiting for the new album, listening to each new single as it was released and even checking out Jono’s guest mix on ASOT850 yesterday. So the real question is – did it live up to the hype?
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With the first chords of “The Inconsistency Principle,” it’s clear that Above & Beyond are taking us on a journey.
One of my favorite things about Above & Beyond’s albums has always been their impeccably crafted instrumental intro tracks, and “The Inconsistency Principle” is every bit as stirring as those leading into previous albums. That having been said, it is certainly a bit of a departure – where every other intro track has heavily featured contemplative piano melodies, this feels like a page out of Pink Floyd’s book with a heavy dose of gently drifting through space. I, for one, am here for it. It kind of rocks.
From there, we’re treated to what are by far the two strongest singles from the album with the euphoric Zoë Johnston-led “My Own Hymn” and the triumphant return of Richard Bedford with “Northern Soul.”
Admittedly, when “My Own Hymn” first came out, I wasn’t a believer – it just didn’t resonate with me. That all changed when I saw it played out at ABGT250 and felt that huge rush when that synth line dropped and everybody in the place lost it – and now it’s one of my favorite tracks on the album. Joyful, hopeful, and overflowing with inspiration, it manages to be one of the best actual dance tunes on Common Ground while staying true to its message.
On the other hand, “Northern Soul” was an instant favorite from the moment I first heard it. The track hearkens back to the very best of the Group Therapy days with that incredible minor key melody and infectious beat. Not to mention, Richard Bedford’s powerful, haunting vocal gives the entire track weight, and the lyrics are absolutely perfect. This is, without question, my favorite track on Common Ground.
Rounding the bend into some of the newer tracks, though, I found myself feeling a bit lost.
Admittedly, when I first got my hands on a copy of Common Ground to begin listening, I had a keen ear out for the new tracks – had we already heard the best of the album with the staggering six singles that had already been released? Unfortunately, I think the answer is yes. The other tracks aren’t without their merits, but most of them just aren’t as memorable as the rest.
Moving from the epic “Northern Soul” into “Naked,” I was struck by one thing above all others, which is that those lyrics are positively cringe-worthy. Justine Suissa’s voice is as beautiful as ever, the guitar riffs are golden and pleasant, and the production behind it is pretty enough… and then she sings, “Let’s get naked,” and I’m sorry, I just can’t with this. What is this? A joke for yoga teachers? It’s not funny. Please. Stop it.
It took a few listens, but “Sahara Love” is probably my favorite of the tracks we haven’t heard before.
Moving into “Sahara Love,” I’m struck by the glimmering, 80s quality of it, and admittedly, this one has grown on me the more I’ve listened to it. Zoë Johnston is incredible, as always, and it is of course impeccably produced. It sounds a bit like Above & Beyond put on a costume and are being New Order for a bit. I don’t hate it – in fact, I think I might kind of like it. I have a feeling that this will be a track that, when I look back on it in a year or so, will be one of my favorites.
When “Happiness Amplified” hits my speakers, I find myself feeling at home with that piano line – it’s so calming and full of wonder, and reminds me of everything that I first came to love about Above & Beyond. And then the beat kicks in, we get a verse, and it transitions quite rapidly into the chorus. Bedford is, as always, powerful and vulnerable. But as pleasant as this tune is, it’s just that. I love many of the elements, but they don’t hang together on a track that makes me want to listen again and again. It feels a bit like the B-side of a better track they’ve released at some point.
Although we’d already heard “Is it Love? (1001)” in the past, we’d never heard this version before, and it’s definitely different – but Jono nailed it.
From discussing it with a few of my teammates, there has been a stark division on the album version of “Is it Love? (1001)“, and I may be in the minority, but I love it. Admittedly, I do prefer the faster version that the boys played at ABGT250, but regardless of the version, it’s got a great melody, and Jono’s voice is mesmerizing, unearthly, and absolutely perfect for it. I’m anxiously awaiting the release of the club mix of this one, because it is, in my opinion, one of the best tunes they’ve released in some time.
With “Cold Feet”, we get that shot of Oceanlab we’ve all been looking for, with Suissa’s voice leading the way on a well-produced, contemplative track. I wasn’t entranced by this tune at first listen, but its subtlety is part of what makes it, and the longer I listen to it, the more I like it. There are so many layers, it’s hard to capture them all the first time you hear it.
When I first learned that “Tightrope” was originally supposed to be an interlude that evolved into a vocal track, it made a lot more sense to me.
With that having been said, I have still never fallen entirely in love with “Tightrope”, perhaps because it evokes an unsettling feeling – which I believe was the point, anyway, so it did its job. As Marty Longstaff’s sole appearance on Common Ground, his vocal has been rather divisive – some love it, and some hate it. I’m split, personally. I think it works for this track, but I’m not anxious to hear another one by him anytime soon.
We’ve heard “Alright Now” for quite a while at this point, as the single version was released months ago. It’s a lovely track and without a doubt my favorite featuring Justine Suissa on the album. Her soothing voice is perfectly matched to the gentle piano melody, and the more groove-oriented elements fit in quite nicely without overpowering her. And, I must say – that key change in the last minute of the track is everything. I can’t get enough of it.
I find myself uniquely captivated by “Bittersweet & Blue,” and upon further reflection, the reason is quite clear – it sounds in many ways like an update of one of my favorite sleeper tracks on Group Therapy, “Every Little Beat.” With that having been said, although it elicits a similar sentiment, it feels like there’s something missing. Is it the sorrowful melancholy of the minor key that was so perfect for “Every Little Beat”? Maybe that’s what it is.
As the final single ahead of the album’s release, “Always” was immediately a fan favorite, and it’s not hard to see why.
Sentimental and powerful, “Always” is undoubtedly a tear-jerker. It’s got quite an acoustic quality to it, as well, incorporating some of those elements that have been so successful on the trio’s recent tours that eschew their traditionally digital sounds in favor of the resonance of actual instruments. It’s lovely, if a bit sleepy, but then, I think that’s sort of the point. How many of you will be using this at your weddings? It won’t be a small number, I’m certain.
The final track on the album, “Common Ground“, is one we’ve heard before at Above & Beyond’s most recent milestone show, and I have to say, as a standalone piece of music, it doesn’t do much for me. It’s pleasant, and it brings with it a nice warm, fuzzy feeling. But when paired with the message that goes along with it, well, I’m actually crying. I can’t lie. Watch and see for yourself:
One thing is for certain – Above & Beyond are going in a new direction with Common Ground.
Listening to the entire album, it’s clear to me that this is intended to call to mind a different mood and feeling than those that came before it, surely in line with their message of Common Ground. The tracks are sunnier – over half the tracks on the album feature a major key, and the lyrics are all on message (even though that might not always be entirely successful). And the entire album is a cohesive listen, lending that exact same feeling throughout.
What you won’t find here, for the most part, are some of those unforgettable, gripping pieces of musical excellence that have been featured on previous albums. Aside from the singles, most of the tracks on the album have the intensity turned way down, and I’m still trying to decide if that’s a good thing or not.
The mellower mood certainly lends itself to a more even album, but at the same time, I find that, compared to previous releases, there are far fewer tracks that I’m completely enthralled by. Perhaps with the release of club mixes of some of these tracks, that will change. But today, outside of “My Own Hymn” and “Northern Soul,” I’m not as captivated as I have been in the past.
This begs the question of what it is that we expect from our artists. Should they not be free to experiment with new thoughts, themes, and concepts? And of course, they should – any good musician knows that pushing boundaries is the only way to keep innovating and keep from getting boring, and stylistically, I have to respect that choice. Above & Beyond are one of my favorite groups of all time. They are incredible musicians, and I love the powerful, hopeful message that they portray.
But as it pertains to Common Ground? We have yet to see how the boys will play it out in their shows on tour, and that’s always an important element of their music, to be sure. But as it stands now, it’s pleasant, and it has a few great tunes on it – but it’s not my favorite album of theirs, and only time will tell how often I return to it in the future.
Common Ground Tracklist:
- The Inconsistency Principle
- My Own Hymn (feat. Zoë Johnston)
- Northern Soul (feat. Richard Bedford)
- Naked (feat. Justine Suissa)
- Sahara Love (feat. Zoë Johnston)
- Happiness Amplified (feat. Richard Bedford)
- Is It Love? (1001)
- Cold Feet (feat. Justine Suissa)
- Tightrope (feat. Marty Longstaff)
- Alright Now (feat. Justine Suissa)
- Bittersweet & Blue (feat. Richard Bedford)
- Always (feat. Zoë Johnston)
- Common Ground