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


Big Big Train

Crossover Prog

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4 stars Review # 90. To those who are following the "modern" Progressive Rock scene, the name of Big Big Train should sound very familiar. It is one of those bands that have seen their reputation grow with each passing year. Despite that the band has been active since the early 90's, the truth is that they have become extremely popular among the Prog Rock followers during the last decade; mostly with the release of the albums English Electric Part 1 & Part 2 and Folklore.

Big Big Train is a band that gives live performances not so often. So, the 3 live gigs that they gave last year at Cadogan Hall, London, became sold-out immediately. And those gigs were followed by this live album, that has been recorded during these 3 concerts.

Merchants of Light is available as a double CD, including 16 tracks, and a very detailed and "rich" booklet. You also have the option of the 3-vinyl box set, or simply the digital version.

The 16 track set is pulled from the band's last 5 albums, Grimspound, Folklore, The Underfall Yard and English Electric I & II. (But 9 out of the 16 songs are from Folklore and Grimspound). (Also, I was surprised to see that they didn't include any song from The Second Brighter Star, which came out just a few months after Grimspound).

The album opens with a string overture, before kicking into a rocking version of Folklore. Right after that, it's time for the wonderful 12-minute-long epic Brave Captain, which happens to be one of my favorites. Song after song the band becomes better and better until we reach to Swan Hunter, which is one of the best songs this band ever recorded, and one of the album's highlights.

David Longdon's voice sounds great, and the whole band gives a flawless performance. And when I say "the whole band" I mean 10 people on stage, including a horn session. And despite the difficulties, the mix and the production are simply excellent, and the album sounds perfect! Merchants of Light is not just a live album, it is an experience. It captures one of the world's best modern Progressive Rock bands at their very best.

My Rating would be somewhere between 4 and 4.5 stars.

Report this review (#1999234)
Posted Friday, August 24, 2018 | Review Permalink
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'.

Report this review (#2010228)
Posted Tuesday, August 28, 2018 | Review Permalink

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