Trance trio Above & Beyond release new album 'Common Ground' to the biggest cult following in dance music
There are a few bands in the annals of contemporary music that have cultivated massive, cult-like followings despite rarely crossing over onto mainstream radio -- jam bands The Grateful Dead and Phish immediately spring to mind. But as electronic music has greatly increased its influence on pop songs over the past decade, more electronic acts have attracted similarly spiritual fan bases with underground roots all over the globe. And no one has done so quite as successfully as British trance group Above & Beyond.
The vast majority of popular electronic music producers focus on urging their listeners to party and throw away whatever emotions they’re carrying from the work week. Meanwhile, Above & Beyond's lyrics more so aim to spark a willingness to confront whatever sadness people might be feeling, take a lesson from that experience and move on collectively with the loved ones around them.
"I think it’s rather short-sighted to write about dancing or clubbing as a subject matter," said DJ/guitarist Tony McGuinness. "We’re writing about what happens after you’ve been at the club and met somebody, and start a life. It's about the things that happen to you on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday as opposed to just the things that happen on Friday and Saturday."
It might sound like a fairly straightforward concept, but it was a novel one in the electronic landscape when McGuinness, Jono Grant and Paavo Siljamäki formed Above & Beyond in 2000. Fully exploring themes of gloom and loneliness in songs that can fill the dance floor has fostered a deep feeling of unity among the trio’s followers.
Above & Beyond fans (who haven’t yet donned themselves with a Deadhead-esque nickname) are a loyal bunch that regularly help the band sell out shows at iconic venues worldwide such as Madison Square Garden and the Sydney Opera House. They’re all hoping to get picked to "push the button," a ritual where a few lucky fans are plucked out of the crowd to join the band on stage and kick-start the drop to a hit song.
And though the radio play the group attains is largely confined to satellite giant SiriusXM, the 2015 LP "We Are All We Need" peaked at No. 34 on the US Billboard 200, No. 12 on the UK Albums chart and No. 1 on Billboard’s Dance/Electronic Albums list.
Expectations are just as high for follow-up album "Common Ground," released Friday as they proceed on their U.S. tour.
Singles such as "Tightrope" and "My Own Hymn" had built anticipation and given fans more iterations of the band’s tried-and-true approach to trance music. Previously unreleased tracks “Cold Feet” and “Naked” could also easily become set staples, with catchy refrains ripe for crowd singalongs.
But several songs on the album also break the mold for what many would expect to hear on an Above & Beyond release. The rhythmic buildup of "Sahara Love" is driven by a bass guitar, and drum-less ballad "Always" represents a rare step for any electronic artist.
"'Always' is this really beautiful, bittersweet story about how someone may come and save your life -- or they may not,” McGuinness said. "You can really read it either way or both ways and feel in tune with either of those outcomes."
Some might also interpret "Always" as the remedy to help recover from a breakup or lost love. It’s a different musical take on the same poignant formula that has sprung Above & Beyond to success, and the reason why their weekly radio show took the name of their third album, "Group Therapy," after listeners expressed that's what attending one of their shows felt like.
"I think "Group Therapy" as an album title has come to signify pretty much what people’s experience of our music is, certainly when they experience it collectively at a gig," McGuinness said. "These may be sad songs, but these are emotions that we can all identify with and that we all share. The net effect is a very uplifting one."
Above & Beyond are currently on their U.S. tour for “Common Ground,” and the group’s new documentary “Giving Up The Day Job” chronicling their acoustic performance at The Hollywood Bowl debuts at the Cinepolis Chelsea in New York City on January 30.