Amber is the first full length release from British neo proggers, Merchants Vice. The band was formed in 1997 and produced their debut EP "A Story To Tell" in 1991.
Neo-progressive rock may not appeal to everyone, but it has always featured excellent musicianship – and Merchants Vice continues that rich tradition. The drumming is excellent, and Amber features one of the best bass sounds in a long time. It is not dominant, but very clear, and it complements the music wonderfully. Nick Martin's guitar work is very strong and ought to be heard more, and the keys are particularly good. This outfit is as tight as a drum, and would probably put on an excellent live show. Amber is relatively straightforward Neo, not the most complex music in the world, yet very pleasant listening.
This is a song-oriented album with prominent vocals. Each word and every note is clear and sung in the mid-ranges in the style of the 1990s Neo. The vocals are in the Pendragon / Nick Barrett mould, and you may even hear some of Roger Daltry's timbre in there. But for all its strength and confidence, Les Wardle's delivery doesn't stand up to those comparisons.. It is pitchy in places and very dominant in the mix. You have to listen several times to appreciate the excellent songwriting and the strong overall musicianship. The limited range leaves some songs sounding somewhat atonal, half sung and half spoken.
Some tracks like "Hollow Man" and "End Of Story" are very punchy, but Wardle sounds much better in the slower, softer and darker pieces like the all-too-short "Dark Before The Dawn".
The nearly 12-minute track "Intoxicated" also bears special mention. It is an autobiographical piece examining sobriety and the process of making music. Listen for the mood and tempo changes, which represent different times and stages in the writer's inebriation and musical productivity. Very progressive, and nicely written.
Other than the dominant vocals, the production – done by the band – and Rob Aubrey's mixing are outstanding. The sounds on this CD are crystal clear, and every note is clearly audible.
The cover-art is curiously simple and would benefit from an explanation. The liner notes include the lyrics for each track but they are so small and the background is so busy that they are almost illegible. And that is a pity, because Wardle's lyrics are better than most in this genre and it would be nice to be able to read them properly.
Seven of the eight tracks range between 6 and 12 minutes giving the band plenty of scope to flex its creative muscle, and whereas Amber is a very good album in most respects, a little more tonal variety would be welcome. But remember that this is a debut album – and if the band grows in a few important areas, we'll be hearing a lot about Merchants Vice in the future.
1) Reason To Change (7:30)
2) Storyteller (7:09)
3) Glass Child (6:47)
4) Intoxicated (11:46)
5) The Hollow Man (9:05)
6) End Of Story (6:06)
7) Dark Before The Dawn (2:49)
8) All Our Lives (12:27)