Album review: BIG COUNTRY – Out Beyond The River, The Compulsion Years Anthology

BIG COUNTRY – Out Beyond The River, The Compulsion Years Anthology

Cherry Red [Release date 25.09.20]

The late great Stuart Adamson and his band, Big Country, made an indelible musical mark on UK popular culture. Their history is well documented.

This anthology focuses on a very narrow, but hugely fertile period of time for the band… 1993 to 1994, the years they were signed to the EMI offshoot label, Compulsion Records.

The boxset comprises of:

CD1 : Remastered version of “The Buffalo Skinners” (the 2005 expanded edition)

CD2 : Bonus tracks, B sides and rarities

CD3 : Buffalo Skinner demos

CD4 & 5 : Remastered “Live Without The Aid Of A Safety Net” (live album 1993, recorded at Barrowlands [RIP] Glasgow)

DVD : Video recording of Barrowlands’ gig

“The Buffalo Skinners” (1993) saw Big Country regain some of the momentum they had lost in the years since “The Crossing” (1983) and “Steeltown” (1984). Both albums had taken the UK and the USA by storm. But that was then.

Ten years later, what once were cutting edge guitar sounds had become passe and were now jettisoned, and the vacated space filled to the max by declamatory choruses, thumping chordwork and the searing torch songs for which the band were known.

Adamson may have recalibrated The Big Country template over the years, but never forgot his roots. The traditional musical themes and motifs of his adopted home country still course through the veins of this very personal album.

Lyrically, the aggressively infectious ‘Alone’, ‘Seven Waves’ and ‘The One I Love’, reflect adamson’s troubled personal life, each filled with fiery, emotional lyrics that all but set fire to the page.

And, as you would expect, he continues to rail against “the man”, targetting fake religions (Long Way Home) and bloodsucking corporations (Working Man), amongst others. It’s almost as if Adamson is reaching out to his “hero”, Neil Young, aiming to claim the same level of American iconography in his own material. It’s high tension stuff, and might have benefitted from a drop in intensity from time to time.

Long time fans will love the CD2 and CD3 content, poring over what was and what might have been. It’s always a joy for a paid up afficionado to follow the threads of a recording, from demo beginnings to finished article.

The dark notes and the abrasive guitars in the “monitor mixes” of ‘Ships’ and ‘We’re Not In Kansas Anymore’, are an auditory delight. And while the finished versions are not what you would term ‘highly polished’, some of the raw and powerful metaphorical screams of defiance, apparent in the basic mixes, have unfortunately been pushed below the surface.

In the same year, Big Country performed live on stage at the legendary Barrowlands in Glasgow. The band wasn’t big in Scotland, it was huge. Live, the majesty and passion of the band’s music give their sound a sense of freedom, liberation. And the audience responds in a frenzy of enthusiasm. Noisy waves of appreciation ripple through the crowd, dying to a respectful sigh when the band launch into an unbroken, 9 song sequence of acoustic guitar based songs.

Of those, the picks have to be ‘Harvest Home’ and ‘The Storm’, two standouts from the debut that survived a long gestation to make it finally onto the band’s magnum opus. A word too for the covers of Young’s ‘Rockin In The Free World’ and Smokey Robinson’s ‘Tracks Of My Tears’. Clearly two songs that, for different reasons, resonated with Adamson.

The whole gig in its entirety is spread out over CDs 3 and 4. And adding a (slightly truncated) DVD version turns the gig into a truly immersive experience. Hats off to Cherry Red.

Tragically, Adamson’s death in 2001 confirmed that the meaning, message and musicality of his work would perhaps no longer reach as many people.

Hopefully this boxset will help to put that right.  ****

Review by Brian McGowan

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