ALBUM REVIEW: Big Country – Out Beyond the River – The Compulsion Years Anthology (Cherry Red Records)

Thirty-three seconds is how long it takes to realise that The Buffalo Skinners, the 1993 album by Scottish rock band Big Country was going to be a BIG step up from their previous couple of records.

That’s when the massive guitar riff kicks in on opening track Alone, and you realise that one of the best guitar bands of the ’80s are back, but with added oomph.

I loved Big Country when they emerged in 1983, with their e-bow-driven guitars and anthemic choruses, and their debut album The Crossing remains a long-time favourite.

But by 1991’s fifth album No Place Like Home all was clearly not well. The songs lacked the zest of earlier releases, and its disappointing performance saw drummer Mark Brzezicki quit and the band dropped by their label.

Two years later the band re-emerged on new label Compulsion, an EMI imprint run by Chris Briggs, the man who had originally signed them. They repaid his faith with The Buffalo Skinners, which for me was their best album since their debut.

Self-produced, it succeeded where big-name producers had failed; it captured how Big Country sounded live. Stuart Adamson and Bruce Watson’s guitars were loud, Tony Butler’s bass throbbed and the drums (by session man Simon Phillips) were like claps of thunder. In short, the songs rocked.

It’s that album around which this 5CD + 1 DVD set is built, and 27 years later it still sounds fantastic.

Two of the 12 tracks, Ships and We’re Not In Kansas, were reworked songs from the previous album which the band were not happy with. Both were transformed, particularly Ships, which sounds much better with guitars than without.

Highlights were plenty: Seven Waves, What Are You Working For, Long Way Home and All Go Together are all right up there with the best songs Big Country ever recorded.

Disc two of this anthology is B-Sides, Bonus Tracks & Rarities, which does what it says on the tin. There’s radio edits, alternate mixes and instrumental demos of album tracks, plus some well-chosen cover versions which demonstrate where Big Country’s influences were coming from at this point.

We’ve got songs by Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood Mac, Blue Oyster Cult, David Bowie and Black Sabbath, most of which received a live airing around this time.

Disc three is The Buffalo Skinners Demos, presenting the album, the B-side Eastworld and Rockin’ In The Free World as works in progress. I’m a sucker for this sort of thing, and love listening to how songs evolved from the way they were originallly conceived to how they ended up on record.

Discs four and five are the live album Without The Aid Of A Safety Net, recorded at Barrowland Ballroom in Glasgow on 29 December 1993. I’ve loved this since it came out, but never got round to tracking down the rarer 2CD version, which includes eight tracks not on the initial release.

That’s rectified here, with the whole set spread over two discs. Brzezicki is back on the drumstool, and the band sound better than ever. They start with a mini acoustic set including crowd favourites Harvest Home, Just A Shadow and Chance, as well as a couple of covers.

Then it’s time to strap on the electric guitars and steam through half a dozen tracks from The Buffalo Skinners (Kansas and Long Way Home being the standouts) , and more classics, such as Look Away, Steeltown, and, as encores, Lost Patrol and an exultant Fields Of Fire.

This is Big Country at their best, and the highlights are presented again on the DVD Without The Aid Of A Safety Net (Live), which follows almost the same tracklist as the original CD release (for some reason replacing Just A Shadow with Alone), and adding the promo videos for the singles Alone and Ships.

If you think Big Country were all about making guitars sound like bagpipes, you need to hear this set, which shows just what a good rock band they were. 8/10.

Gary Welford owner