Various Artists – Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volumes 8-11 (1997)

  Amphetamine Reptile Records ■ 9 25194-1


Released April 22, 1997

Technical Credits Unknown, Likely Varied



Side One (Vol. 8 & 9): Side Two (Vol 10 & 11):
  1. Superchunk – “Basement Life”
  2. Guzzard – “Bites”
  3. Jawbox – “Low Strung”
  4. godheadSilo – “Lotion Pocket”
  5. Bordeoms – “Pukuri”
  6. Supernova – “Sugar Coated Stucco”
  7. Chokebore – “Brittle & Depressing”
  8. Love 666 – “You Sold Me Out #2”
  1. Bailter Space – “Glimmer Dot”
  2. Steelpolebathtub – “A Washed Out Monkey Star Halo”
  3. Chrome Cranks – “Dead Man’s Suit”
  4. Brainiac – “Cookie Doesn’t Sing”
  5. Today Is the Day – “Execution Style”
  6. Rocket from the Crypt – “Tiger Mask”
  7. Calvin Krime – “Fight Song”
  8. Gaunt – “Kiss Destroyer”
  9. Servotron – “Matrix of Perfection”

I’m often wary, wandering into any record store for the first time. There’s no real guarantee of what anyone has or will carry, and in a used store it becomes even more complicated, as they can only carry what records they’ve acquired to sell. And that, then, depends on the locals. The first time I walked into Dead Wax Records, I wasn’t sure what to think. Between the place I now live and the places I work, there’s not a lot of music to be found. Even the oft-ignored (for financially justifiable reasons) FYE and similar “TWEC” (TransWorld Entertainment Company, who owns FYE, Coconuts, etc) stores make no appearances. There’s a Best Buy, a Wal-Mart, a Target–certainly nowhere you’d find vinyl (beyond the semi-kitschy ‘7″ with a t-shirt’ thing Target is doing–but I owned most of the ones that looked interesting to me, or saw no reason to get the 7″), and nowhere you’d find a good chunk of my music collection, vinyl or otherwise.

I found a small used record and used/new CD store about fifteen miles away and had a very strange experience there, locating both upstate New York’s Immolation’s third album and some Split Enz albums I was looking for on CD. I found some Throbbing Gristle material, too, which is only appropriate for this particular entry–well, parts of it. I couldn’t really make heads or tails of the place, though I’ve intended to go back a few times (never managing). When I started my current job just a bit further out, though, someone there mentioned a local record store, which piqued my interest immediately. I swung by after work that day, only to find it was closed on Mondays, deciding to come back the next. That next day, I wandered in and found it comfortably cozy and close, as you’d expect from a fledgling (only a few months old!) record store. However, its walls were papered with posters and fliers for bands I knew well–but knew well from my forays into music in the last few odd years more than anything else. Snapcase. Gluecifer. The Murder City Devils. The Supersuckers. Turbonegro. Mudhoney. All the sorts of things I’d tried (sometimes successfully) to push on a very picky person I know.

When I started flipping through the records there, I found I was in a store I could definitely see myself returning to. I brought a stack of 7 12″s up to the counter and was told I had really good taste. I was buying Prince, Black Flag, Alice Donut, The Church, Leon Russell, and The Fall albums–and this one. I later went back for a single volume that was hanging out there, Vol. 6 in the “Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets” series, too. But that set–including my favourite Church album, Heyday–basically informed me this was a worthwhile stop. And, along the same lines, it was confirming that this set included Jawbox’s “Low Strung” that sealed that purchase and left me shrugging and stacking everything else in (Heyday was a no-brainer, mind you, and was the “gateway” to accepting that I would purchase more that day).

I knew the series, vaguely, because tracks from it will often appear on compilations now, such as the Sub Pop reissue of Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff, or, most pertinently, Jawbox’s My Scrapbook of Fatal Accidents. My habit of relentlessly parsing out the bonus tracks on CD releases was fruitful, as it often is: it informed me both of the series’ existence, and its particular approach to art, meaning I recognized them as soon as I saw them–and it was that that sealed the store as worth digging in for me. Many bands have appeared there, the ones familiar to me including the above, Rocket from the Crypt, the Melvins, Helmet, Lubricated Goat, Tar (who did a split with Jawbox, which I own), Superchunk, and the Jesus Lizard. The last is a stretch insofar as familiarity, but those were the names I knew–in most cases, bands I owned full-fledged releases from (Lubricated Goat quite by–hilarious–accident).

If any of those names mean anything to you, then this is probably an interesting-sounding compilation. If they don’t, this is probably a scary-sounding compilation. And that’s probably fair–while Superchunk and Jawbox are by no means known for anything ultra-noisy, abrasive, raucous or otherwise “difficult” and largely any bands “known” for that aren’t known in the first place, unless you’re asking people who like that kind of thing (or they know the more popular and largely more accessible works of those groups–like the Butthole Surfers’ “Pepper”, for instance). But this isn’t a noise compilation–at least, not completely. It’s a mix of alternative, noisy, post-, and various other kinds of independent music, though it largely eschews the “indie” variety, if you’ll allow that rather expansively-narrowed definition.¹

Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volume Eight
(Superchunk, Guzzard, Jawbox, godheadSilo)Originally released in April, 1994
 

Naturally, Volume 8 was of supreme interest to me. Most of the Dope-Guns series is 4 tracks on a 7″, two per side, but there are variances throughout. Volume 8 was not an exception to this layout, though–even as it does have seemingly the strangest appearance that could be managed, starting from my own experiences.

Despite living in Durham and working in Chapel Hill for the majority of my adult life (no longer, in case the “there are no record stores here” wasn’t a tip-off), I never really listened to Superchunk. I kind of filed them with Guided by Voices and Pavement and a bunch of other bands I heard spoken of in awed tones with respect to indie rock in the 1990s. I tried a few out about ten years ago and nothing caught my ears, but the newfound love for Pavement in the past some-odd years and growing love for GBV has led me to soften my disinterests and try things. I picked up a few Superchunk singles in my last wanderings through used CDs, and liked what I heard. “Basement Life” is a bit more buzz-y than the singles (“Hello Hawk” and “Hyper Enough”) I’ve picked up, which didn’t bother me and seemed quite fitting for a release on a label that has “NOISE” built into their logo. It’s a stomping roll through a rumble-bass-focused track of fuzzy, catchy fun. What strains it has of indie rock–the only instance on this compilation of compilations–is the full-on Pavement kind (I’m betting also the Superchunk kind) that still carries the genetic trace of punk in its semi-sneering vocals and snarky tone–less “Revolution”, more “whatever”.

Guzzard apparently didn’t last much past this compilation’s original release (indeed, not long enough to see the release of the three volumes combined), but sounds more like you might expect from a label associating itself with noise, though it’s still pretty accessible. “Bites” grinds and buzzes a little more, and has a forward-leaning aggressive tone to it than “Basement Life” by far. Nice, strong, clear drumming that wasn’t always present or as well-produced in hardcore acts appears and backs a strained yell of a voice, as well as very clear hardcore origins for the group. It’s a nice, tight, buzzsaw follow up to Superchunk.

Jawbox’s contribution is a nice bridge between the work on their first two full-lengths (Grippe and Novelty) and the works for which they’d become best known and loved (For Your Own Special Sweetheart and Jawbox). Original drummer Adam Wade had left to join Shudder to Think (labelmates of Jawbox on Dischord–interestingly, both being the Dischord bands to hit major labels in ’94) and now the great Zach Barocas had joined and added a ton of spice to the group with his unique drumming style. He’s not quite in the front seat he’d be in the albums that would follow this recording, but his “voice” is clearly present. J. Robbins’ voice is “punkier” than it would be on most of those next two albums (with the possible exception of Sweetheart opener “FF=66”). It’s a smart contribution to the release, as it, too, is like the noisier edge of their range.

godheadSilo were a peculiar group, being one of few to work with the “bass and drums” set-up, lacking a guitar, keys, or other ‘focal” instrument. The track sounds like a strange amalgamation of the low-end droning of bands like SunnO))) and some of the (knowingly) sloppier garage rock of the last two decades. It’s the first clear sign of “noise” on the album, though it’s a clearly defined song, built on a(n admittedly repetitive) bass riff and simple drumming, with vocals shredded by distortion themselves. It’s a catchy number despite that–maybe the years of metal and rapidly increasing years of noise rock have inured me to those things and let me hear the underlying guts of a song, I’m not sure. Still, it works well, and feels like a nice comfortable medium stance between “noise” and the kinds of genres that didn’t quite cross that line, but sat snugly against it.

Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volume Nine
(The Boredoms, Supernova, Chokebore, Love 666, Bailter Space)Originally released (later) in 1994


Spacial concerns obviously pushed the fifth track on this one onto the second side, but I can’t complain too much, as it’s still 4 of these put together, and each was a wild mix of artists, anyway.

I can’t say I’ve heard of a single one of these bands–maybe Chokebore, but that could just be the fact that my research around this has taught me that they, like many of the others, were Amphetamine Reptile “natives”, and would release their singles and albums through AmRep, too. Indeed, they did a split release with Guzzard and Today Is the Day the same year as these first two Dope-Guns. Still, otherwise? Completely new.

The Boredoms’ appearance with “Pukuri” immediately gave me a better impression of what AmRep was interested in including. Kazoo-like sounds and a tromping beat bring to mind the kinds of weird melodies and instrumentation that would sometimes meander through early Zappa/Mothers records (particularly “Mothers” ones), especially the brief “interludes” that appear between songs. It devolves into screaming, dissonant and semi-random guitar distortion and even more distorted recordings of drums–but seems to inevitably circle back to the same marching melody that it started with in spite of that. The drumming gets “tribalistic” at some point, and sort of takes on a kind of focus, though the track wanders through a variety of “movements” and sounds, wah-wahed guitar, strange wails–this is not the kind of track most people throw on for a good time, but it’s appreciably intentional, despite its chaos. I’m gaining a bit of a taste for this kind of controlled insanity, I have to say, though it still comes out a bit weird sandwiched in with “normal” songs, even if from punk-related bands.

“Sugar Coated Stucco”‘s intro makes it sound, at first, like it’s going to be even weirder than “Pukuri”, but breaks off into extra-nasal pop punk of the kind I’ve grown to like a lot (think Screeching Weasel, not Blink 182, if that helps at all–though I realize it probably won’t for most I know to read this). The vocals are so nasal, though, that they almost disappear into themselves. It’s catchy like all that stuff should be, though, simple and built on guitars and drums that are perfunctory–they’re there to build the beat and melody and nothing more, really, and that’s what they should do here. Interestingly, they were responsible for “Chewbacca”, the song in Clerks (which isn’t nasal at all–go figure). Hayden Thais ended up joining Man or Astro-man? though–and later Servotron, who appear on volume 11 here.

While their name implies something aggressive, speedy, and thought-to-be headache inducing, or perhaps the inappropriately aggressive name for a pop punk band (that sound just doesn’t seem to work as intimidating, despite the occasional name implying it ought), they’re more in the Mudhoney vein than anything else–sludgy, just-above-plodding and fuzzy as hell, with a vocal totally uninterested in sounding “pretty”, but staying firmly where it is placed, it might even bring to mind that of Alice Donut’s Tom Antona, too.² “Brittle and Depressing” doesn’t sound much like either musically, though–it’s strong, and has a nicely cranked out, unobtrusive lead guitar.

Love 666 contribute “You Sold Me Out #2”–it’s a great little track, that seems to somehow wind its way between hints of shoegaze conventions and sludge-rock ones. I’m not sure what, exactly, that adds it up to–but it’s interesting. Drums thump and guitars buzz loosely, while the vocals are clean, clear, near-spoken and very upfront. There’s a clear chorus, where the voices reach a kind of weird, amateur harmony that is endearing and lovely in its strange little way. The way the thumpy fuzz of guitar hammers down after it is really great, though–confusing what the track actually is without ever losing sight of itself in the process.

When Bailter Space’s “Glimmer Dot” drops, it’s totally unexpected. Unabashed shoegaze (!), it warbles along in the shoegaze vein of My Bloody Valentine, washes of guitar and production that seems to blur everything into a single stream of sound, despite the still recognizable variation in instruments. Vocals are in the half-lidded, drugged-out style that marks most shoegaze, and the whole track is great, but wildly unexpected. It’s entirely possible this track would be worth the whole compilation to someone who couldn’t stand the rest, if they liked shoegaze enough. 

Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volume Ten
(Steel Pole Bath Tub, Chrome Cranks, Brainiac, Today Is the Day)Originally released (later) in 1994

I guess these records were coming fast and thick in ’94, which makes sense as the whole series of 11 came out between ’91 and ’94, but, dang, that’s three, and I know 11 came out years later…I figured they were spaced out more than that.

The name Steel Pole Bath Tub rings only the faintest of bells–nothing helpful, but something that insists I’ve heard the name before in the context of a band. I’m not sure how, why, or what context it came in, but I don’t think I would’ve gone with their actual sound if I was asked point blank before I’d heard this what they sound like. “A Washed Out Monkey Star Halo” at least is a track I’d be inclined to call instrumental even if it isn’t–a nice fat bassline opens the track and carries it a long under semi-unnerving guitars and over a steady drumbeat. Vocals are seeming babbles, distorted and distant, acting as a layer of sound more than a perfectly clear expression of thoughts as words. It sounds a bit like a story, but it’s hard to peel out of the music, seemingly on purpose.

The Chrome Cranks ride a rather rockabilly beat in “Dead Man’s Suit”, with the scattered slide of many of the more twisted modern interpretations of that genre. The vocals are like the more frantic and unhinged Nick Cave vocals–but with layered echo and even more punk influence. It’s like a rockabilly band through a carnival mirror and the spinning room of chemical influence. For all that it does seem ramshackle, the guitar finally takes off on a solo that is sharp and pointed in its quick run, deflating the song for a moment, before it takes off again. A fun track, and rather in contrast to what has come before on both of the previous records.

Brainiac has the frenetic drumming of a punk band, but the proximity-distorted (is he eating the microphone, perhaps?) vocals and the elliptical swing of the guitars makes the placement of “Cookie Doesn’t Sing” next to “Dead Man’s Suit” terribly appropriate. It’s a wonderfully weird track, in more the Birthday Party (I don’t know why Nick Cave’s on the brain right now) than the Butthole Surfers sense. It’s not an effect I haven’t heard before, but it’s exactly the right one in context, like a spitting flurry, slurred into a deceptively steady swing.

 It’s no surprise that Mastodon’s Brann Dailor and Bill Kelliher floated through Today Is the Day at some point, even if “Execution Style” isn’t an example of their time there. I’m reminded most immediately of the peculiar choices of time signature and stylistic variation in bands like Coalesce and Botch–the most aggressive, abrasive, and heavy ends of hardcore, but filtered through tight musicanship. The guitar here is beautiful in its knowingly unsteady vibrations–I cannot think of what it reminds me of (despite hearing it for the third time now) but it’s a sound I know, not derivative enough to feel obvious, though. It’s an odd track here, but aren’t they all?

Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volume Eleven
(Rocket from the Crypt, Calvin Krime, Gaunt, Servotron)Originally released in 1997
 Man, where did time go?

Now this band, while I’m still only just getting a good feel for them, is the other that I felt assured in purchasing this record for–Rocket from the Crypt. I picked up Drive Like Jehu’s Yank Crime on recommendation a few years back, and quite liked it. DLJ’s John Reis would of course become “Speedo” of Rocket from the Crypt (as well as plain ol’ John Reis in Hot Snakes) and there we have the connection for me. “Tiger Mask” is a fantastic example of RFTC for sure, the semi-dramatic rumbling rock and roll that defines much of their work, under Reis’s affectedly rocking vocals, which turns more melodic and shaky for that great and catchy chorus. It’s probably the most fun song on this whole record–and I mean 8-11, not just 11.

Calvin Krime is apparently the band Har Mar Superstar was in before being Har Mar, and it’s actually a kind of cool song they contributed–“Fight Song”. It’s a series of layered “conflicting” tracks: multiple vocalists and a stop-start drumbeat, guitars gluing the two together. It’s actually very tight and solidly played and interesting. Unexpected and interesting, but fitting with the RFTC track, stylistically, in many ways.

Perhaps AmRep had abandoned a lot of their noisier strains by 1997–I don’t know. Gaunt continues the heavily rock/punk feeling of both RFTC and Calvin Krime, with the rapid patter of pop-punk drumming but a rather windmill-chord style rocking guitar. Vocals cross somewhere between the sneer of pop-punk and the sandpaper edging of a vocalist like RFTC’s Reis. The guitar is great, its lead loose and bendy, never showy, just pointy enough to make itself known. There’s a brief interlude for some cool tom drumming, and then a perfect ending.

Servotron may be the most interesting find, band-wise–even if not necessarily sound-wise–for me. One of those groups (actually like Supernova above) that decided to go whole-hog, naming themselves all with robot names and dressing up in costumes to emphasize their chosen subject matter and mythology, they sound like they listened to a lot of the B-52s, down to the choked-down male-female alternating vocals, but with hints of rather more Devo-style weirdness slathered over the whole thing. There’s a deliberate monotone to their vocals that is even given the “robo-voice” treatment here and there. Of course, the whole song is about robotic genocide of humans (so long as robots remain as limited as they do, we can find this weird and amusing instead of terrifying–but really weird for such devoted lyrics writing, I’d say anyway). The song actually ends up breaking down into something smoother and less stilted toward the end, with a rather warm and soft synth coating it, their vocals finally reaching the title: “Initiate! The matrix of perfection!” repeated until the song ends in a cleverly placed sudden stop.

When you find someone talking about the Dope-Guns series, they usually speak rather highly of it–and now I can see why. I’m going to have to resist the temptation to explore a number of these bands in greater depth now, but I doubt that resistance will last long. It’s a great mix of styles, never seeming like it wants anything more than to showcase interesting sounds from interesting bands–not force you to buy other records (indeed, these tracks are exclusive to the series, in most if not all cases, barring modern compilations and reissues), nor to give you that record to make you seem “cool” by annoying the hell out of anyone else with weird noises. The weird noises, instead, seem like just another iteration of interesting sounds.

Give this thing a spin, actually. You’ll probably find something you like in here somewhere!

  • Next Up: Guest Writers!

¹There are at least three largely useless genres I know of–not useless for content, but useless as labels, they’ve been stretched and abused so significantly that little if any clear thread is left to connect them. “Indie”/”indie rock” is one of those. It means way too many things, yet there’s a vague, nebulous idea there, of some kind. And it’s not on this record. Mostly. 

²I’ve been accused of writing things that require too much music knowledge to make sense to the unfamiliar on my last blog, but it’s hard to think of appropriate voices. Mudhoney was relatively popular during the early grunge surge, though never as popular as they were hoped/expected to be. Alice Donut have never left the underground, not really, so I’m sorry for that one. But it’s what I hear! And if you know those bands, cool–I’m talking to the lots-of-people-I-know don’t, and operating on statistical probabilities. Besides, it’s a footnote.

Day Thirty-Eight: The Church – Untitled #23

Unorthodox/Second Motion Records ■ LP-SMR-012

Released March 6, 2009
Recorded by Jorden Brebach, timEbandit Powles, David Trump, and David Skeet
Mixed by David Trump with timEbandit Powles(S1-1,2,3; S2-4), Jorden Brebach (S1-4; S2-1,2,3; S3-1,2,3,4), timEbandit Powles (S4), and Marty Willson-Piper (S3-3)


Side One: Side Two:
  1. Cobalt Blue
  2. Deadman’s Hand
  3. Pangaea
  4. Anchorage
  1. Happenstance
  2. Sunken Sun
  3. LLC*
  4. Operetta
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. On Angel St
  2. Lunar
  3. Insanity*
  4. Space Saviour
  1. So Love May Find Us*
Back when I wrote about Burning Airlines’ Identikit, I decided to be a smartypants and ask J. Robbins and Peter Moffett for opinions on where to go with that entry, and got different responses from each. It did, however, help to decide which release to go with that time. When I started planning ahead for my next polls (after the onslaught around artists starting with “B”) I saw that I had the Church in the running. I actually typed up that poll (Untitled #23 vs. Starfish) and then decided that, since he had actually passed along my previous writing about the Church (now and forever the most popular post on that blog, as a result!), I would ask Steve Kilbey for input here. After doing so, I started pondering asking Marty Willson-Piper, and maybe even Peter Koppes, just to get a well-rounded set of responses, if I could, but I was surprised to get a response from Mr. Kilbey almost immediately. Without any demands, he simply told me he’d prefer I write about Untitled #23, without question (as I had asked specifically if he had a preference). When that response came in, I thought about it. I realized that, most likely, he said this because, well, if there’s a Church album people know about–it’s Starfish. It seemed, then, like it would be the right thing in all senses to follow his wishes. I took down the poll (few if any even saw it), and marked Untitled #23 for writing today.
I’ve already written about how I stumbled into the Church (the link above will take you there, if you are curious), so I’ll go ahead and leave it at the most barebones note possible. The portion of it which relates to this very entry is as follows: while I knew their biggest single, I stumbled into some of their most recent work a decade ago by chance, and this was my most expansive introduction, and informed my understanding of how the band sounds almost more emphatically than even the song that was thoroughly ingrained in my head. It was a sound appropriate for my musical tastes at the time–I was deeply into post rock, and the sounds that lay within albums like After Everything Now This were not far off from that same sensibility.
Untitled #23, as a record, is a major variation on the album as it was released on CD. The three tracks I marked with an asterisk (*) above are not present on the CD version, and were released as the B-sides on the Pangaea EP. The order is also quite significantly shifted, with former closer “Operetta” moved to the end of Side Two, and “Space Saviour” shifted forward a full seven tracks–amongst other things. This does make for a bit of a change of pace, but the tracklisting’s overall changes, compared to just dropping the extra tracks at the end, work where they lay (or lie, I’m not too sure).
Steady, clear, patient drumming begins the album in “Cobalt Blue”, a gentle electronic noise fading in, before Steve Kilbey’s voice enters, guitars¹ shortly following and chord-based, one moving higher but holding with the other. “To go and mingle in my mind”, Kilbey sings, and his voice echoes and drifts upward, pulled back down as the bass enters. Acting as counter to the guitars and giving them a brighter feel, the bass expands the range of the song itself, filling out the lower end where it had been left clear for the opening. Each time Kilbey’s voice floats off into scattering reflections, there’s a sense of a soft light spreading across the track, though after one occurrence about halfway through it takes the guitars with it, and leaves a woodwind sound that is just a bit darker, shadows falling where we just saw light. A mumble of distant voices rises up under this as a solo manifests slowly; it’s not the kind that defies the work around it, or elevates its tone or feeling to another one, it expands on the existing mood, a mix of light and softened darkness. The drums walks the track out with four easy snare hits, two pauses, and four more. Despite the snare emphasis, it’s not a march, though, it’s a normal step, one that walks us gently into “Deadman’s Hand”.
Far more uptempo, but in no way suddenly upbeat, “Deadman’s Hand” is relentlessly catchy. The riff it comes in on is distorted, but the kind that eats at the edges of the sound, rather than explicitly defining it. It’s a dark, lower-pitched kind of riff, though it doesn’t have a downward motion to it: it’s more like the kind of sound that might once have stuck the band with the label “gothic” (which has happened), but is more, perhaps, Gothic, than it is “gothic rock”–the sense of wizened or aged darkness, rather than a simple implication of deliberately depressing material. Frank Kearns adds a 12-string ring over the top of this, one that adds to this sense, despite the tendency for 12-strings to often cheer things up. When Kilbey begins singing, it’s with his normal voice, but tempered with a clever production move that changes it in spite of itself: he’s singing gently, but with the lightest “echo” that gives it an extremely ethereal quality. That “echo” is other voices here, of course, doubtless those of Marty or Peter (or both), but so subdued as to sound like shadows of Kilbey’s own. It’s a weird feeling: the drumming is uptempo, but the overall sound manages to catch itself at either end, turning it into some kind of catchy pop/rock song filtered through a drain on the most energetic elements.
The last track in its original placement, “Pangaea” begins to introduce us to the sounds that permeate the rest of the album: the first moments are a blend of mixed sounds, including touches of harp from Patti Hood and scattered notes from multiple guitars. A 12-string and bass gently bring everything together as a light cymbal wash marks the actual change. Gently strumming 12-string, thumping bassline–the song is a wash of sound, accented by backing vocals that “Oooh” gently and prettily behind Steve’s voice, which has regained its usual edge: a certain sharpness to the baritone that is incredibly distinct, that enunciates clearly, yet with a sort of catch to this that is unbelievably appropriate for their music. It all feels like a spread of sound, warm and soft, with Kilbey’s sharpened voice cutting at it, as he sings, “You’ve got your hands/’Round my throat/You’ve got your voice/In my head”, a haunting response from the others adds, “No matter what”, his threats suddenly softened by the chorus: “Pangaea…” the edge dropped and the last syllable turned to a pretty little wave. The 12-string suddenly takes over, sliding expertly through a solo that runs counter to the staid cello of Sophie Glasson.
Moved from near the end of the album, “Anchorage” is langorous compared to the preceding tracks, but the wandering, subdued keys seem to pull it upward somewhat, small points of light dotting the sliding drums, the downed guitars that blend perfectly with the keys, the lower end balanced between the mournful draw of Glasson’s cello and the almost upbeat bassline. “Just the way the dead have felt/Nothing like the way my name is spelt/But I belt it out anyway” Steve sings, the serrations emphasized, defiant, as roaring distorted electrics build the track over huge drums and splash, the wave only a small one. Scattered electronic noises are left in its wake, as the track goes on, a guitar taking off on its own to make its point, not taking it past an extended lead. The lyrics are constructed as defiant and pained, but are mostly delivered in defiance, expressing the pain with more aggression than hurt. Harmonized briefly, it’s like others carrying Steve’s defiance up when it might falter. Alongside them, a blazing guitar and then another wave, this one much larger–but it backs away, too, and this time leaves a quite chorale, the sliding tick of hi-hat emphasized drumming and a hummingbird-heart bassline. If it weren’t so eloquently sung and performed, it would be like a monologue to the absent, spoken with the openness and pride of a drunk, but the awareness, the consistency make it, instead, heartfelt admission and confession.
“Happenstance” makes for a rather curious song: at first that clean and clear biting winter wind of Kilbey’s voice and steadily strummed 12-string, tom-heavy drums and sliding bass–but then the upward curve of a higher tone turns it to something almost sunny, as Kilbey intones “Happenstance…” with just a touch of variation in each channel to give a fuller dimension to the sound. Near a whisper, Willson-Piper breathily adds a voice almost like a memory to this interruption, before that shine of lazy sun fans across it again. The trading voices of Steve and Marty, and the shining final peak of sound gives the song a feeling of relaxation almost narrated by both the present and the past.
Clanging bells and a soft buzz call “Sunken Sun” into place, though the song itself is an expansion of the sound of “Happenstance”, warm and easy resignation created with a guitar that climbs up, curious, to land on a ringing chord that is warm but expansive. As a line ends and a drum beat sounds, an operatic keyboard voice holds over empty space, ringing, echoing guitar that strikes with a sustained bass note falls across it, until it all hushes and returns to the calmness of the opening. One of the most striking solos on the album meanders in near the end of the track, never showing off at all, just growing naturally from the space it is left, often holding notes for extended periods, rather than cramming as many in as possible. It’s a beautifully organic extension of the song’s tone. The song fades off with those echoing guitar chords, clear and bright, but balanced by their companion chord into a sort of pained recollection of happy memory.
The first track to appear on the vinyl and not on the CD, “LLC” was given lyrics (and vocals) by Peter Koppes (as opposed to the usual Kilbey). A fantastic oscillating 12-string melody is the anchor of the song as a whole, and runs through all but . Much cheerier than anything previous (allegedly the cause for keeping the track off the album originally), it shifts into a predictive bridge and then a more steady chorus, before returning to that delightful 12-string run. A subtle lead holds and blends behind it, only taking real control at the very end with a rapid, twisting outro.
Originally the album’s closer, “Operetta” oddly fits in the same way as closer for Side Two and thus half the album. Strong keys and gently waving guitar eases the song into place, a seemingly endless sustain and echo on the spaced guitar chords emphasize the feeling of ends, of the music filtering out into the expanses. Overlapped, harmonized vocals and deep, low keys mark the chorus, like all preceding sounds and voices coming together by design to tie things together. This is how the song ends, too, slowly losing each layer until it is left as just a bending bass and drums, fading to nothing.
“On Angel Street” manages the neat trick of continuing without a lost beat from a track that could have ended the album. A long-held bass note accentuates a series of repeated keyboard notes and a wandering guitar. When Steve’s voice is added to this, it’s the sound of a singer alone, the keys keeping a full musicality in place, but making apparent the ambient nature of the song. The sounds are almost like blinking lights or quiet warning sirens, a backing to the voice that doesn’t imply furthered sentience or emotional presence, even as their slow shift between notes creates the emotional sense of the song. Wavering and wailing guitar leads come and enter like ghosts–beautiful but transient. That this does not end up coming off like a novelty, or an interlude, or some other kind of “fluff” is some kind of amazing.
Previously the penultimate track, “Lunar” has shifted backward only slightly (unless one counts running time). A lone woodwind starts the track as vaguely pastoral, a huge wash of ringing cymbal and the slow, resonating guitar chords setting up the slightly backed-up voice of Steve, thumping drums hinting at what is to come when a bassline filled with energy and activity absent from the other instruments comes in, churning the low end and attempting to push life into the adjacent instruments in their slowed tempos. It’s ineffective and everything falls away to a an echo-laden voice from Steve, on beat instruments, and then it seems to gain life, only to leave nothing but the woodwinds alone in its wake again.
“Insanity” is the other track that let’s Kilbey’s voice rest, as Marty Willson-Piper takes over, confident guitars stepping in ahead of the rest of the band, though when he begins singing–“It’s just insanity,” the operative word is “just”: it has a shrug to it, as if to suggest that there’s nothing to be concerned about. It works upward with each line, releasing at the end of them. It’s cheerier, even as it does not move any more rapidly. This isn’t to say it’s actually cheerful, it’s just not as…Romantic (that capital “R” is intentional). Marty’s voice goes vaguely Dylan-like, as he suggests the possibility that maybe it doesn’t make sense to ascribe the ways of the world to a divine plan, that it’s easier to see it as all random, and anything else might be, well…²
Oh, the guitar that opens “Space Saviour”; it carries just the right tone and effects, the slight watered sound and firm pull of the strings making it viscerally appealing without requiring or exhibiting the kind of feeling that a blues-inflected kind might. The steady on-beat guitar chords form a simple backing as Steve sings with the kind of voice that feels like he’s pushing it with as much power as he can–not volume, mind you, just force. The thumping four beats on drum matched with gradually opening splash are the perfect crescendo of repetition for the repeated needs of Kilbey’s words: “And I’ve gotta get up/And I’ve gotta get on/And I’ve gotta get off/And I’ve gotta get out…” When they fall away, the opening riff returns, and the drums turn to the thump and hi-hat of anticipatory restraint, as Kilbey intones calmly, gradually building back to that huge and determined parallel repetition. The song finally splinters and spreads, before leaving itself, to a watery, circling guitar that plays alone for just a moment before being left to hang.
When I noted that “Lunar” was only briefly re-arranged but with a qualifier, “So Love May Find Us” was, in essence, the entirey of that qualification. “So Love May Find Us” has a 17:48 runtime, and…I’m not sure I could, in good faith, attempt to walk anyone through it. This is not the kind of lengthy track that’s arranged around droning repetition for atmosphere, nor constant builds toward huge moments (like “Atom Heart Mother” does), nor cobbled together songs. It’s too well designed to feel like a completely improvised jam, especially with those tasty guitars in the first few minutes, shot out only every few moments, strong and clear, and hinting at a future threat. The drumming is controlled and low at the start, jazzy and interesting, burning quietly with the promise of future expanse. Eventually it begins to rumble, a solo of immense and unusual nature placing itself like a flag at the first third, marking the moment at which Glasson’s cello and Michael Bridge’s violin take precedent. For a short time, the song is more ambient than anything else, the bass drawing Steve’s voice back in with keys, before the drums finally fulfill the promise laid out earlier–not huge and aggressive, just free-wheeling and free-ranging, hi-hat traded for ride, fills and rolls eventually morphing into the standing beat. The song seems to end, hovering on ride, slowing keys, choral backing–but the bass draws it back in, the ride increasing in power, but easing off as the song shifts into a continued downtempo phrasing, ending with an excellent drum pass and a final wavering, splintering fade off.
The Church are often plagued by that comment: “Wait, the one from the 80s?” and there’s really no quality justification for it. They’ve released music with some regularity since that time, even as they’ve wobbled around the centrepoints that are Marty and Steve, Koppes taking a brief hiatus in the 90s. Their work has been generally well-regarded in all this time, even outside the fanbase. Untitled #23 was hailed as a supreme work, and justifiably so. This album is stunningly beautiful. It carries sounds you could ascribe to sources like post rock, yet when you try to pin them down, you realize it’s only a faint reminder. Neither treading their own water, nor anyone else’s, they’ve evolved steadily over the years within the very wide boundaries of their own sound. Bands with long histories often suffer obnoxious repetition of commentary–I’ve seen members of Pere Ubu incensed that their new album is not so much reviewed badly, as reviewed poorly, always referencing thirty year old albums as if that’s the only touchstone for a professional review, despite consistent releases all the way through now. They complained, too, of “Wow, they can still rock…” comments, which are similarly useless.
I suppose I could estimate how old the members of the Church were in 2009, but it doesn’t really matter. It isn’t impressive that anyone can still play at any age, nor that they can play well. It isn’t impressive that a band just isn’t releasing dreck after nearly thirty years either. What is impressive is the strength of identity in an album released almost 29 years after their first single. There’s no sense of struggling to maintain an established sound, or of flailing wildly for an entirely new one. No sense of tired, uncomfortable, should-have-retired-but-just-won’t recycling or cashing in. If a new band had released this work out of nowhere, it would be stunning. If any other long established band had released this work after a long hiatus, or even after working steadily, it would be stunning. And so this is: it’s not the sound of finally realized maturity, or of experimentation finally succeeding at re-lighting torches, it’s the sound of honed quality.
There’s no easy word for the tone that pervades this album, even with the addition of Peter and Marty’s “happier” songs (“Insanity” and “LLC”), which actually fit quite well within the whole, perhaps because of the tempering of “So Love May Find Us”. It’s the sound of the Church: not “goth”, but wise, lean, artful, and clear, with enough darkness that a casual look might relegate them (again) to goth. The album art–Marty’s photos, and the design of his significant other, Tiare Helberg and Guppy Art’s Rachel Gutek–is brilliantly perfect. It’s the kind of design and image that you can get lost in alongside the music. It’s simple and clean, all deep rust and cross-hatched off-white, but a close looks shows you thick, peeling paint and cracked walls. The interior is more of the same: the way the off white left side jumps out from the dark red of the exterior, the way the thick, peeling pale red of the right moves against it–it’s nothing at all and everything at once, whatever you want, need, or feel it to be, because it doesn’t openly declare anything about the music contained. The nonchalant font, the ambiguous (or plain) title, the lack of uppercase on the exterior, it’s brilliant for preventing preconceived notions.
This isn’t an album to have a big happy dance party to, no. And, while you could take it as a possibly uneasy lullaby, it has so much energy despite the slower tempos that it remains engaging, and perhaps more engaging than much of music is. I found myself completely aware but closing my eyes throughout listening, a feeling almost like waking during a solo in “So Love May Find Us”, yet bewildered as I could recall everything I had heard up to that point in the piece, as if it has nearly hypnotized me. It’s too at ease with itself to feel overly contrived, yet too tight to feel lazy and random.
I could question the fact that this album has not made “the rounds” of the music community, but nothing is so simple as quality imbuing a work with legs. And that’s a truly unfortunate truth.
¹I am normally inclined to ascribe names to instruments, but they traded up enough on this album that I’m simply not going to bother, except where guests appear (who are specifically credit to instruments on tracks!)
²As I’m sometimes wary of misheard words, I decided to peruse lyrical transcriptions of “Insanity” and found someone who managed to completely ignore the clear moments that define these aspects: “And it’s full of holes, this Holy Bible” became “And it’s full of holes is your only rival”, and “unless it’s just a myth and” to “and let’s just admit that”. It almost looks like censoring, or willful refusal. For a moment, I thought I’d imagined things, but, no, that’s definitely what he’s singing. And, strangely–these are the only transcriptions I can find. I do sometimes wonder about people…
  • Next Up: Eric Clapton – Slowhand

Day Twenty-One: Big Country – The Seer

Mercury/Polygram Records ■ 826 844-1 M-1

Released July 14, 1986
Produced by Robin Millar
Engineered by Will Gosling
Mixed by Walter Turbitt


Side One: Side Two:
  1. Look Away
  2. The Seer
  3. The Teacher
  4. I Walk the Hill
  5. Eiledon
  1. One Great Thing
  2. Hold the Heart
  3. Remembrance Day
  4. The Red Fox
  5. The Sailor

I thought, for a moment, that I’d sorted out a pattern to how people vote in the polls. I thought it was a relatively simple matter: choose self-titled albums, choose “biggest” albums–but then that was ruined when someone I know who knows music said he chose The Crossing because it sounded cool. Which is fine with me–my object is not demanding an existing opinion from anyone, but rather to find a way to settle on a release where more than one is available from an artist. “Ooh, that title sounds good,” is a perfectly legitimate reason for me, and it can offset the knowledgeable to some extent–whether they push for a “familiar face” or a comparative obscurity. Variety of response is helpful in getting a more complete aggregation of interest–after all, tastes vary wildly. If I didn’t poll, I’d be choosing deliberately and people would or could lose interest–it’s also like saying directly that I have no interest in some records I own, as well as occasionally (if not always) guaranteeing an avoidance of digging deeper into catalogues I intended to (hence buying the records) but never bothered to (and would, then, continue to fail to acknowledge). This is all a way of leading into the relatively middling response to the poll that led to this particular entry.


Big Country was¹ a band that started in the early 1980s after Stuart Adamson left the Skids, a post-punk band that didn’t make quite the mark Stateside that Adamson’s followup did. We’ll get to them in, well, a number of months, I suppose. They are most known in the United States for “In a Big Country”, their first U.S. single. Of course, they’d released two others before it in the U.K.–no surprise, as the band was formed there (and, in large part, from there). Still, it stayed their only Top 40 hit in the US for their entire existence, though it was the herald, in many ways, of only their debut album. That album was, of course, The Crossing, which is why I initially thought it was going to storm my poll. As it happens, it didn’t, the final tally being split between it, Steeltown, and The Seer. I had to ask for a tie-breaker at random, and it came from a high school friend who put out his vote for The Seer (though I suppose you probably guessed that!). I will thank him here for that favour, as I did not relish the thought of being left with a three-way tie to sort out myself.

I’m rather pleased, in the end: I sought out The Crossing quite deliberately, and own it on both CD and vinyl, though I intend to replace the expanded edition I have with the two-disc deluxe edition at some point. I do actually have the Wonderland EP on vinyl as well, a U.S.-only release, and CD copies of Peace in Our Time (utterly abandoned in polling), Steeltown and The Buffalo Skinners. It means, then, that The Seer is the most neglected of all the Big Country albums I own–a happy coincidence that it ended up the one I was asked to listen to, as I was less likely to otherwise. The availability of digital versions of most of the rest means I’ve listened to them, passively at least, a few times.

Big Country’s greatest claim to fame was their “bagpipe guitar” sound, which the band oddly did not use e-bows for, despite the fact that they used e-bows–and more than one, at that. Both Stuart Adamson and second guitarist Bruce Watson used them, even, but neither for that sound. It is quite prominent in “In a Big Country”, though I’ve found that many (including myself) would never have identified it as such without having it pointed out. I am quite sure I heard the song numerous times in my youth, but it was during my rather lengthy spell of watching the U.K. show Nevermind the Buzzcocks that I was reminded of the group, when a brief clip of “In a Big Country” was actually played there and it was lent an air of appreciation. The Skids, too, were applauded there–which is why I have one of their albums on vinyl (and another on CD).

I picked up The Seer because–well, let’s be honest: it was there. I had a brief return to old habits in the past year or two, seeking out a few odd 80s artists with relative mainstream success on vinyl, which is something I used to do when I first started collecting. Any Big Country I saw, I picked up blind, by virtue of how much I liked the sound and the kind of appreciation lobbed in their direction. It’s their third album, following The Crossing and Steeltown, and may be the most, well, Scottish album I’ve heard from them.

“Look Away” is the big single from the album, a much bigger hit in the U.K. and Ireland, hitting #3 and #1 respectively. It establishes the Big Country style immediately–a big drum hit launches a clever and rather lengthy guitar lead, and uses an interesting guitar sound during the verses that follow: a heavily plucked, two-string, and slightly alien sound that is joined by a more traditional but smooth guitar that matches the sound of the initial lead. The chorus is catchy as all heck, and is in Stuart’s usual style of increased energy, driven by far more expected rock guitars that emphasize it in a darker tone that only shifts upward at the very end. It’s deserving of its placement–well, its placement across the Atlantic from me, anyway.

A claim to fame in some part for the album as a whole is the title track, which catches a whole second fanbase: that of Kate Bush, who sings it as a duet with Stuart. This is the advent of the song’s traditional sound, or at least its melding into the post-punk guitars of Adamson and Watson. There’s a nice, fat bass from Tony Butler, but the star is the vocal rhythm of the verses, which is unmistakably in the style of traditional Celtic music (not to be mistaken for exclusively Irish, the Scots also retain a lot of this same culture, as does traditional Scottish folk music). It’s actually an interesting duet: Stuart takes the high end in verses, and Bush actually nearly speaks the same lines below him, though hints of her more well-known vocal stylings appear in the chorus. The entire song carries the feeling of the album’s own feel, themes and tones; there is a sense of ancient thought in it, being about a mystic seer who seems to live outside “civilization”, but one who predicts violence, bloodshed and destruction of a kind that Stuart’s quite clearly opposed to, as the album makes more apparent later.

While the “bagpipe” sound may be their trademark, Big Country were not a one-trick pony with guitars. The introduction to “The Teacher” is a favourite: a guitar that slowly plucks along in ringing Edge-like style², but that is answered by a braking, reverberating echo that turns into a dual lead that establishes a melody in advance. Stuart sings out in the chorus, “Teacher will you show to me/The bond between the land and sea/For I am new to mystery/I want everything laid out for me/All of History”, and the sense of obscured, misty spiritualism and embrace of the greenery and natural history seems to shine through in even a story of a first lover. And then Stuart blasts off with a lead in his inimitable style, one that seems to hint at the traditionally-inflected songwriting he exhibits while sounding thoroughly modern at the same time. It’s a strong moment for Mark Brzezicki on the drums as well, who has a rhythm that lies under that lead in just the right way.

The crunchier opener for “I Walk the Hill”, with its crystal, slippery lead and huge drum sound takes the band to a more familiar ground, where short lyric lines are more rhythmic than defining for the song. It has the feeling of familiar rhymes in its simplicity, and echoes traditional songs in a somewhat different way–that infectious, easy-to-learn nature of folk songs that allows them to be picked up by a whole group is present here, though the song is its own. There’s a pride and a humility in the song, both of which almost seem to give cause to flirtations with his native Scottish accent (though born in Manchester, he was raised in Dumferline, Scotland, and comes from a Scottish line). The ending of the song is, admittedly, quite “80s”, with that huge drum sound that defined them (and my aforementioned best friend in college and high school hated–and probably still hates), but played in that spacious way that just calls out for a sing along moment.

When “Eiledon” opens, you are left quite immediately with the notion of greenery in untouched lands in the British Isles, the guitars played with e-bows that smooth out their movements. When Stuart begins singing, and you hear those first few lines, you realize that sense is not misplaced: “The eagle soared above the clouds/The deer ran in the hills/And I may walk in cities/Where the wolf once had his fill”. The way he sings the chorus, his voice peaking at the middle of “Eiledon”, you can hear an aching love of place, which is a different kind of love than that of a person. It’s a continuation, too, of the spoils of man’s advance: the image of the wolf in the city, which he closes the song by referencing again with a call to wake those wolves–and the suggestion that this will bring a reckoning. It is also one of the few songs on the album that does bring in that “bagpipe” sound.

If there’s a passable song on the album, it’s likely “One Great Thing”–the message is solid and the sound is good, but the lyrics and the nature of them is like a determined call for unified voices. It’s a call for peace, a call for this to be the “one great thing to happen in my life”. It’s a good idea, and one of the more earnest calls in a portion of culture that has never been short of the call, but it edges close to a sound of contrivance, even as it doesn’t feel contrived. You believe Stuart means this, but perhaps outreached his grasp with the song he put together–looking too much to bring everyone into shouting along (the video including constantly shifting groups of people singing along encourages this notion, too).

While many who meet me never guess it, I’ve always been a bit of a sap. I actually have a phone, three phones back, in which the first message from someone, saved deliberately, calls me exactly that (it’s not entirely coincidental that said person is actually a Scot). “Hold the Heart” is an absolutely fantastic love song. It’s the story of friendship splintered by the introduction of romantic love, but Stuart sings as someone who accepts that perhaps they acted wrongly in this, yet holding out for this lost love to find their way back–confident of this eventuality, but patient and undemanding. “I will be strong/And I will be warm/I will let no one be near me/Until you will hear me/Just once again”. It’s not sung directly, and that’s clear, so there’s no sense of attempted guilt or other manipulation–just the sound of soaring hope. Adamson’s voice shifts into its clearest for that chorus: “But I would wait a hundred years/To hear you say my name/The way you did before he came/The way you will again”. When he sings out “hundred years”, you can feel that he means exactly that–there’s an intense passion to it that is intensely believable. And I haven’t even said a word about that beautiful e-bow lead line, which just wavers like a slide with a warm sadness throughout the song.

At first, “In your fine green ware/I will walk with you tonight/In your raven hair/I will find a Summer night” appears to speak of another love, but when he sings, “I must leave the land/And the hunger that is here/But the place I stand/Is the one I love so dear/Like a flower in some forest/That the world will never see/I will stand so proud/For I know what we can be”, you know that he is singing of home, of a land and a people–and, indeed, Scotland remembers its lost veterans on “Remembrance Day”. And, more than that, it is a song of Remembrance Day itself, as it is clearly the voice of a soldier leaving with pride in his home, and choosing to “be the sacrifice”. It avoids any of the traps a song like this might fall into–jingoism, hypocritical (considering Stuart’s previous sentiments, and future ones, with albums like Peace in Our Time) war glorification.

When I heard “The Red Fox” and read along with the lyrics, I knew there was something here to “decode”, so to speak–I knew Stuart was singing about something that would be immediate or obvious to others, but lost to me. I guessed that it related to Scottish history, and a quick Googling confirmed this right away. The Red Fox was Collin Roy Campbell of Glenure, tasked with retrieving taxes from the clans who was shot dead in the woods. The clan thought responsible was the Stuarts of Appin, and the prime suspect disappeared. It is generally thought that the Stewart chosen to stand trial, James of the Glen, was not responsible and was railroaded by a jury composed primarily of Campbells (eleven of fifteen were), and presided over by the Chief of Clan Campbell. He was sentenced to death and executed protesting his innocence. There’s no doubt that this is the story Stuart was relaying by song–he begins with the narration of the killer moving to kill Campbell, and switches to the voice of James, singing “Kidnapped in the dead of night/I did no wrong/I will not fight/It was not me/I will not run/But I believe in what was done”. Unsurprisingly, this is another song that carries the rhythm of a traditional Scottish song in many ways, lyrically. One of the best parts, though, is the moment that the song transitions between narrators–a guitar rings, then fades, the second guitar comes in rhythmically, the drums matching its staccato riffing, gradually speeding, until we find ourselves in what is almost another song–for it is, it’s that of James instead of the man presumed to be Donald Stewart. We even get a new chorus, and it’s another good one. Historical songs can be of some difficulty to carry off properly, but this one manages even that trick brilliantly. It’s worth noting this same story is part of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped!

The album’s closer is “The Sailor”, and it is one of the lightest songs, though in that inimitable Big Country style. It has faint strains of songs associated with seamen, yet lifted to strains reminiscent more of a land-locked freedom on distant islands. Which, of course, is kind of the point: it’s a song about finding a distant, ideal future, one separated from a standing existence as sailors. The guitar leads that follow an energetic speed-up of the song seem to carry it off into a clear sky, ending the album on a high note.

It’s sometimes said that this was the end of Big Country’s heyday, or that this was a tired reptition of the two albums that came before, but I’ve often felt that there’s a certain tiresomeness to the idea that a style is valid only for a certain timeframe–certainly, many (most!) things can get tiresome if listened to in rapid succession for an extended period of time, but most often this seems to indicate a dulling of immediacy for a listener–not necessarily a band. It’s not a definitive thought, but it’s one that drives a lot of both my taste and my frustration with music criticism.

The value of this album isn’t that it’s stunningly innovative (per se), as Big Country had already established themselves quite handily by now, and Stuart had now led two bands (as he had actually introduced the “bagpipe guitar” in the Skids). Heck, John Peel called him “Britain’s answer to Jimi Hendrix”–high praise indeed from a man determined to find diamonds in the rough. Perhaps an overstatement, but Stuart’s guitar style never feels like anything familiar, except with regard to his own prior (or later, depending on listening order) work. And it’s this freshness, even if some see it as “stale” within the microcosm of a single career, that helps to render it useful, as it lets a band maintain a stylistic approach while exploring different ideas. Certainly, there are themes Adamson returns to (I should mention, a handful of songs are co-written by Watson and Butler, but only 3 on this album, 2 with Watson and 1 with Butler), but overall, this album feels more like a declaration of a kind of appreciation for Scottish culture and history. Perhaps it’s somewhat more general than that, and certainly it’s married to an anti-violence sentiment, but it’s so defined by tracks like “The Seer”, “The Sailor”, and “The Red Fox” that it’s hard to think otherwise.

This is actually the first album not produced by Steve Lillywhite (whose name will appear a fair number of times in my record collection), but it doesn’t suffer a debilitating change for that, and Millar does an admirable job of bringing the kind of “majesty” and power that Big Country’s style demands. It seems many fans actually think of this as their favourite album, and many more had it as their introduction. It’s not a bad choice in either place, even if “In a Big Country” may hold the quality of recognition that is so helpful to many people in understanding a sound–not least of which is myself.

¹Let’s not mince words: Stuart Adamson died in 2001, and it’s difficult to pretend it’s still the same band without its primary songwriter, lead vocalist and lead guitarist. At least, one established for nearly twenty years at the time of his death, and that only decided to release new material a decade later

²Recall that this is 1986–U2 has achieved fame, War and The Unforgettable Fire are released, but The Joshua Tree is yet to come, and the Edge himself said at Stuart’s eulogy that Adamson wrote the songs he himself wished U2 could.