Merchants Of Light

Big Big Train

English Electric Recordings / RSK Entertainment, 2018

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Roughly a decade ago, Big Big Train was a fairly obscure 18-year-old progressive rock band that had parted ways with two different lead singers, nearly imploded more than once, and was down again to co-founders Greg Spawton (guitars, keys, songs) and Andy Poole (bass and production). Their search for reinforcements was assisted greatly by ace soundman Rob Aubrey, who helped connect the pair with first Spock’s Beard drummer Nick D’Virgilio, and then vocalist and songwriter David Longdon. Ten years, six acclaimed studio albums, and a handful of highly anticipated live shows later, the rebirthed Big Big Train’s latest release, the double-live album Merchants Of Light, recently landed at #2 on the UK rock album charts.

As my dad would say, “It’s quite a story.”

Merchants Of Light collects the best performances of each song in the band’s set during last summer’s sold-out three-show run at Cadogan Hall in London, with the setlist delivering a sort of capsulized narrative of that remarkable decade-long journey. Songs from most of the band’s recent run of albums are featured, from 2009’s The Underfall Yard through English Electric Parts One (2012) and Two (2013) to the more recent Folklore (2016) and Grimspound (2017). 

On Merchants, the band’s expanded-for-live-work lineup includes Spawton (now on bass), Poole (now on keys and acoustic guitar), Longdon (vocals and flute), D’Virgilio (drums and background vocals), Dave Gregory (guitars, ex-XTC), Danny Manners (keys), Rachel Hall (violin and background vocals) and Rikard Sjöblom (guitars, keys and background vocals, ex-Beardfish). This veritable rock orchestra is further supported by a five-man horn section comprised of Dave Desmond (trombone), Ben Godfrey (trumpet), Nick Stones (French horn), John Storey (euphonium) and Jon Truscott (tuba).

Fielding this massive 13-person lineup allows the band to faithfully reproduce the complex, multilayered compositions they craft in the studio, no small feat. It’s a daunting enough task that some jitters, flubs, and lagging moments are to be expected—and yet, they never come. The performances captured on Merchants Of Light are remarkable both for the intricacy of the music being played, 13-strong, dancing on that live-gig high wire, but also for the billowing emotion invested as the band feeds off the energy they’re getting back from the audience and harnesses it to power these songs to fresh new heights.  

The opening sequence is all adrenalin, as Manners, Hall and the brass section warm up the crowd with the brief, classically-inclined “Folklore Overture” before the rest of the band emerges to deliver the anthemic title track to Folklore. “Brave Captain,” the dynamic album-opener from Grimspound, follows, a stirring one-two punch that knocks the crowd back on their heels. From there the first set alternates between gentler pastoral numbers (the lonely “Last Train” and the philosophical “Meadowland”) and a pair of prog epics, “London Plane” and “A Mead Hall In Winter.” Each of the latter features abrupt time signature shifts and heady jams that require the entire group to twist and turn on a dime—which they do, with alacrity, delivering renditions that are astonishing both for their faithfulness to the studio versions and for the robust emotion these performances manifest. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The keys to it all are three: every member of this ensemble sounds fully invested in this music, every one of them brings their “A” game, and every one of them feels essential to the performance you hear captured. Having said that, and with all due praise to the entire remarkable ensemble, one individual note: if this isn’t the single most impressive performance of drummer / background vocalist / musical sparkplug Nick D’Virgilio’s estimable career, I’d really like to know what is.

The moments keep coming in the second set, as the band sails through an abbreviated, slightly rocked-up version of “Experimental Gentlemen” before tackling the melancholy “Swan Hunter.” The latter, a relative obscurity drawn from 2013’s English Electric Part Two, is transformed into a highlight here as Longdon’s powerful, Gabrielesque lead vocals blend with and play off of the background chorus of D’Virgilio, Hall and Sjoblom. There is something absolutely magical about this particular combination of voices, and the precision and complexity of the vocal arrangements is a critical part of the BBT sound in the same way it was for classic Yes.

After an energetic run at fan favorite “Judas Unrepentant” (the tale of a rascally art forger), BBT delivers a masterful performance of one of its most sublime creations, Spawton’s “The Transit of Venus Across The Sun.” Horns, guitars, keys and voices propel the audience into the stratosphere on this timeless tale of romantic longing, which sets up the closing sequence beautifully.

“East Coast Racer” has quickly become the band’s signature suite in much the same way “Supper’s Ready” was for Genesis, or “Close To The Edge” was for Yes. The 16-minute epic I once described as a “love song for a locomotive” gathers momentum steadily as it carries the audience on a journey whose climax involves the entire 13-strong ensemble playing a musical theme that almost literally reaches for the sky, drums and guitars and horns pushing harder and harder, Mellotron billowing like a heavenly choir, bass pedals vibrating your rib cage—Oh, was I listening too loud again?—before Longdon puts the cherry on top, erupting with an ecstatic cry of “She fliiiiiiiies!” It’s simply spectacular.

The heavy-light dichotomy at the heart of much of the best prog—a descriptor which fits BBT like a glove—continues as Longdon’s “Telling The Bees” offers lighter musical tones supporting a heavier message about passing down traditions and the great circle of life. The main set closes with the equally powerful “Victorian Brickwork,” an extended elegy for Spawton’s father whose rich emotional undercurrents are captured poignantly in the music, especially the expansive late-song solos from Gregory and Godfrey.

An encore almost feels unnecessary after this, but the band returns with a playful duet between the irrepressible D’Virgilio and the horn section leading into a thumping, celebratory “Wassail” that closes out the evening in breathless fashion.

Beyond the songs, beyond the performances, it must be said that this is one of the best-sounding live albums I’ve ever heard. Every instrument, every voice is clear, distinct, and mixed to optimum levels. The crispness and immediacy of the sound and mix crafted by Rob Aubrey makes you feel like you’re standing in the hall watching these songs being performed.

Merchants Of Light is both a description of the historical figures—leaders of the Enlightenment—about whom the band wrote on Grimspound, and a description of the band themselves. Their music is full of light and passion and inspiration, and this album captures its essence in a live setting exceptionally well, standing tall alongside genre classics like Yessongs and Seconds Out.

Rating: A

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


© 2018 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of English Electric Recordings / RSK Entertainment, and is used for informational purposes only.