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Big Big Train - Merchants of Light CD (album) cover

MERCHANTS OF LIGHT

Big Big Train

 

Crossover Prog

4.34 | 61 ratings

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fuxi
Prog Reviewer
4 stars Having admired Big Big Train for years, and having posted glowing reviews of some of their earlier albums, I wish I could shower this release with unreserved praise. It consists of two discs, and most of the second definitely contains top-level symphonic prog. Any contemporary band that treats its fans to a sequence which includes 'Judas Unrepentant', 'The Transit of Venus across the Sun', 'East Coast Racer', 'Telling the Bees' and 'Victorian Brickwork' (here performed in rapid succession) deserves our admiration. BBT's music may carry echoes of early-to-mid 1970s Yes, Genesis and Jethro Tull, and the band clearly build on a foundation of classic prog, but they come up with a wide range of sensitive, intelligent, impassioned, expertly arranged compositions, and I can't think of anyone working in the same genre today who achieves even half as much. The number of musicians taking part in the venture takes the breath away: for your money you're getting a highly likable lead vocalist, TWO lead guitarists, TWO expert keyboard players, a delightful violinist, a superb rhythm section and a magnificent brass quintet - all of whom expertly collaborate on a quasi chamber symphony level.

By the end of 'Victorian Brickwork' I felt like cheering, but I couldn't help thinking the jolly 'Wassail' (in spite of all its charm) is NOT a suitable album closer. Towards the end of this song, lead vocalist David Longdon repeatedly encourages the audience to sing along, but he never seems to succeed! In fact, there's little audience presence on the album (apart from some enthusiastic applause between the tracks) and it sounds as if all the music was taken straight from the band's monitors, or from whatever the players could hear through the earpieces they wore for the duration of the concerts. I must declare an interest: I was present at the first of these gigs, and I remember how dumbfounded I was when I saw some of the players were smiling blissfully throughout... You see, the things THEY heard were obviously wonderful, but a large part of the audience was subjected to a below par sound system. For most of the first half, all the guitars, keyboards and violin were drowned out by the pure noise of Nick D'Virgilio's drum kit, which needed no amplification. So if MERCHANTS OF LIGHT now comes across as a perfectly balanced recording (with D'Virgilio once again demonstrating he's one of the great prog drummers) this still raises the question if it's an accurate reflection of the music heard at Cadogan Hall.

I also find the first disc less convincing than the second. In spite of some first-rate soloing, neither 'London Plane' nor 'A Mead Hall in Winter' (the supposedly climactic mini-epic) are blessed with strong melodies, and in both cases David Longdon's over-earnest vocals soon irritate the listener. Nevertheless, when taken as a whole, MERCHANTS OF LIGHT must be called a remarkable achievement. I don't want to be a sourpuss and will grade it as 'an excellent addition to any prog music collection'.

fuxi | 4/5 |

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