67 · 9 May 96
The Comsat Angels: Waiting for a Miracle
Probably the best thing about reissues, from my perspective as a reviewer, is that they give me license to discuss some of my favorite old music under the heading of new things. These Comsat Angels discs have been sitting under a Roxette compilation on my shelf for a few months now, waiting for theme-issue companions. The universe of popular music has many stylistic radii, but Roxette and the Comsat Angels sit at opposite ends of at least a few of them. Where Roxette are giddy, polished and irrepressible, the Comsat Angels, particularly in the early days, were dour, exposed and unapproachably oblique. Where Roxette make deliberately shallow music that you could dance in the streets to until the world ends, the Comsat Angels make music that has perhaps spent a little too long locked in its room thinking about precisely what the dancers are denying. Where Roxette has sold millions of records, and when EMI fails to release their compilation in the US I feel compelled to conclude that they are complete idiots, the Comsat Angels are practically touchstones for obscurity-awareness, and the fact that their first three albums have now been re-released on CD is easily one of the ten most astonishing developments I can readily think of in the digital era.
Yet, here they are. RPM Records, who would be the first record label ever elevated to a peerage were I Queen, have, somehow, managed to separate the rights to the band's 1980-1982 Polydor output from the historically uncooperative label, and so, to my immense surprise and satisfaction, I can now move something else up into my most-in-need-of-being-reissued slot (the first four Pop Art records would fit on two CDs I think, hint hint).
Waiting for a Miracle, the band's 1980 debut, is the one of these three that I've lived with the longest, and is thus the one with which I feel the strongest bond. The Comsat Angels' stark, atmospheric style emerged just about fully-formed, and while it has evolved further over the course of the ensuing decade and a half, this album remains as seminal an explication of it as anything, in my opinion. Mik Glaisher's dry drumming is eerily measured, and he manages to play hi-hats, possibly the most routine percussion instrument in modern popular music, as if their inventor had brought the very first prototype set over to his house without any fixed idea of what they were to be used for. Kevin Bacon's bass groans and shivers like the night sky flexing. Andy Peake's keyboards circle like flights of translucent-fleshed bats with glow-in-the-dark skeletons. Stephen Fellows' guitar howls through this frame like wind through a bombed-out discotheque ruin, and his clipped voice picks its way through the tense lyrics as if rehearsing a new liturgy for the survivors' grim church. If you've ever wondered what goth could have been without the pallid makeup and the self-consciously arcane Wiccan anachronisms, this is the album to investigate. If you've been looking for a record you can claim, haughtily, as the simultaneous stylistic precursor of both U2 and Curve, this will do. It is as coherent and individual an album as any band has ever entered the world with, I think, and it also contains "Independence Day", a moment of pure early-Eighties perfection to have always at hand in case anybody attempts to reduce New Wave to "Don't You Want Me" and "Safety Dance" in your presence.
Just having Waiting for a Miracle on CD at all is a gift from the world weavers, but RPM is a label run by collectors, for collectors (that is, in fact, their slogan), and so the original album is here augmented by exhaustive liner notes and the three non-album tracks from the first album's era: the edgy "Home On the Range", b-side to their first Polydor single, "Total War"; the ominous, monastic "We Were", b-side to "Independence Day"; and the early version, from a British compilation, of "Ju Ju Money", which was later redone for Fiction. This thoughtful touch excuses you from the arduous and expensive process of locating the early singles in their original form; too bad I already went through it.
The Comsat Angels: Sleep No More
The second album, Sleep No More, from 1981, is even quieter and more inward-facing than the first. The band seems to have opened its recording space up and disappeared into elusive interstices of it. Even the noisiest songs here feel somehow suspended, frozen in the process of changing state, inaccessible to normal listening strategies. Mik drums faster, but his snare is swallowed in reverb, and the songs remain in that dreamlike paralysis where no amount of purposeful churning generates any forward momentum. Sounds like the engines, klaxons and shifting cargo of interstellar ore barges reverberate through hanger-bay-like chambers, and Fellows sings like he's been drifting in the void between suns for so long that his mind has fragmented into its own distracted audience. There were no singles from this album, and you will not identify any that those before you overlooked, either. This music can be enthralling and haunting if you approach it patiently, but if you startle it with sudden movements, it will curl up into an impervious ball, and you will get bored and go away long before it opens up to you of its own volition.
This reissue has five bonus tracks. Appropriately, the band's most difficult album is paired with the single that preceded it, "Eye of the Lens", which I think is their most accessible Polydor (i.e., pre-synth-pop) moment after "Independence Day". The two non-album b-sides from the twelve-inch single are also included, the blocky, martial, near-instrumental "Another World", and the meditative, expansive requiem "At Sea". The disc concludes with the comparatively upbeat post-album single "(Do The) Empty House", and its b-side, "Red Planet Revisited", a distorted homage to the band's first self-released single.
The Comsat Angels: Fiction
Compared to Sleep No More, Fiction, the third Comsat Angels album, from 1982, is practically ecstatic, though on just about any other human scale it's still rather desolate. The band's approach remains largely atmospheric and textural, but the production this time allows the rhythm section to participate more directly in the arrangements, which restores much of the propulsiveness of Waiting for a Miracle. In general these songs, informed by the dark geometries of Sleep No More, are substantially denser and more intricate than the ones on the first album, but there are notable exceptions, like the airy opener "After the Rain", the angular chant of "She took a drink from the radio" in "Zinger", the throbbing bass and square drumming of "Not a Word", and the goofy processed voices saying "Gravity is my enemy, / I want to do some time / On cloud nine" at the beginning of "Birdman". Parts of "What Else!?" remind me distantly of Roxy Music, and there are several points on the record where I hear guitar figures that make me think of later U2 work. Echo and the Bunnymen and Chameleons comparisons also suggest themselves, and there's even a drum line that would sound just like Adam Ant if it was about 40% faster and twice as loud. The rebuilt second incarnation of "Ju Ju Money", with its crashing drums and sonar-pinging guitar, is the album's centerpiece, Fellows' taut intonation of "They'd sell us down the river without a second thought" done in a voice too weary to convey any outrage at the affront. This album isn't quite as impressive to me as either of the first two, but its existence, mediating between the arresting void of Sleep No More and the A-Flock-of-Seagulls-like album to follow (Land, the one Comsat Angels record that remains so far unavailable on CD), makes it precious all the same.
The reissue adds four essential b-sides. "It's History", a pre-album single, is graceful and appealing, and with more synthesizers it might have even survived into the band's next era. The glossier single remix of "After the Rain" is interesting foreshadowing, as well, though its stutter-step b-side, "Private Party", is as difficult as any Comsat Angels song. The collection, and the era, concludes with the surging obscurity "Mass", a Sleep No More out-take that was released on the odd Dutch 1982 hits/b-sides compilation Enz, the entirety of which, between the albums and the reissue bonus tracks, is now accounted for on CD. If you care about the early Eighties, this trilogy would be near the head of my required-listening roll, and the ease with which you can now introduce yourself to it (I think these are still technically imports, but I've seen them in stores here in Boston at domestic prices) means, according to my calculations, that you should go buy them today.
Big Country: The Crossing
I own five copies of this album. I have my original vinyl copy, of course (actually, two of these, one autographed, though not to me), and it's that matte blue cover with the band's compass-and-thistle coat of arms embossed on the cover that I see in my mind whenever I think of The Crossing, the particular crease of that sleeve that I feel in my fingers when I hear the opening drum rolls of "In a Big Country". It is this track order, too, with "Fields of Fire" in the fourth slot, after "Chance", and "1000 Stars" at the end just before "Porrohman", that seems like the natural one to me, though I've heard them swapped, as they are on all CD versions, enough by now to get over the vertigo. The first of my three CD copies is the US version, which has remained readily available since the format reached critical mass. Here the casual fan would probably have stopped, but as you will see before this issue is out, this is not my most compulsive bit of Big Country behavior by a long shot. The fourth copy is the one from Through a Big Country, the box set issued in Japan, which contains the band's first four albums, with bonus tracks added to each. My fifth copy is this new UK reissue, which secondhand information intimates will replace the existing US version on these shores as well, eventually. It is digitally remastered (though after A-B comparisons with all six albums my non-audiophile stereo gear and I can detect only slight increases in clarity and tonal balance), and contains four bonus tracks and new liner notes, but the thing I can't get over about it is that it is red.
If you don't have this album, I recommend it on all grounds I can think of, and I only stop there because I haven't yet mastered telekinetic control well enough to march you down to your nearest CD store with an outstretched credit card through sheer force of will. Big Country is my favorite band, and this is their best-known album, and beyond that intersection of factors I'm unlikely to avoid an abject lapse out of sensibility. "In a Big Country", "Chance", "Harvest Home" and "Fields of Fire" are the lifeblood of 1983 for me. The novelty appeal of the vaguely bagpipe-ish guitar sound was the band's hook into the US, but far from ethnic novelty, this is actually a bracing, intense and emotionally rather harrowing album. The band's combination of post-punk drive with a sensitive awareness of Highland tradition infuses the music with a level of sincerity and personal commitment that is not often found. There is anthemic grandeur here, and dance-floor-potential energy, but at no point on the album do either of those tendencies overpower the band's empathy for the tormented characters whose souls inhabit the songs. When this album was new and I was sixteen, I didn't know how unusual this was. In the thirteen years since, the record has become increasingly astonishing to me, to the point where now I wonder if it could have been made at any other time. Who, in 1996, could pull off its synthesis of individual naivete and rich history? In a world where Peter Gabriel and David Byrne have become half ambassadors and half conquering admirals of the MTV nation, ostentatiously absorbing world styles into their own work and packaging native talents for yuppies in search of portable culture, who still has both the courage and the independence to incorporate their ancestral heritage into the innovations of their youth without making a corresponding PBS special about it and trumpeting the gimmick like a Nobel Prize nomination? As overexposure drives music towards the poles of amiability and extremism, who will appreciate a record like The Crossing that aspires toward neither, staking out, instead, a territory somewhere in the middle that it defends to the death for reasons that it doesn't expect to convince you of if you don't understand instinctively?
Whomever it is, if they buy this reissue their version of the album's experience tacks on the sinister "Fields of Fire" b-side "Angle Park"; "In a Big Country"'s bouncy b-side "All of Us"; the actual song called "The Crossing", an intricate, multi-stage epic that appeared on the "Chance" twelve-inch (and later on the Wonderland EP); and the very Skids-like early b-side "Heart & Soul", from the "In a Big Country" twelve-inch. This isn't the whole b-side output from the period, by any means (it leaves out an endearing New Year's Eve live cover of "Tracks of My Tears" and two particularly odd early songs called "Balcony" and "Flag of Nations (Swimming)", as well as several alternate/extended versions of singles), but it's a logical selection from it, and "Angle Park", in particular, is among my favorite BC songs.
Big Country: Steeltown
I only have four copies of this one, but it is my favorite Big Country album and thus, in some sense, may be my single favorite album in the world, though once you get to my top seven I'm not really prepared to assign an explicit order. Where The Crossing is bleak and compassionate, Steeltown is louder, angrier and even more confident, its music more muscular and less constrained. It careens from cryptic, vitriolic anti-Americanism (the Reagan excoriation "Flame of the West" and the more introspective "East of Eden") to one of the decade's three great mining-town anthems (the title track; the other two I have in mind are the Alarm's "Deeside" and U2's "Red Hill Mining Town", and there's also Hunters and Collectors' "Back in the Hole", though that came much later) to a timeless soldier's lament ("Where the Rose Is Sown") to a pregnant war widow watching a victory parade ("Come Back to Me") to unrequited lover's nightmares ("Tall Ships Go", with the wrenching refrain "I hear your voice and it keeps me from sleeping; / Why must it always be dreams when your voice comes to me?", and "Girl With Grey Eyes", with the plaintive "I am the ticket, / You the prize, / When begins the winning?") to a bizarrely unromanticized engagement song ("Rain Dance") to some uncharacteristically uplifting rock and roll ("The Great Divide") to a haunting ballad of abuse and strength ("Just a Shadow", with the stirring conclusion "Still the promise comes of living fit for all / If we only get our back against the wall. / I look at backs that pushed the wall for years, / Scarred by many knives and too much fear."). These songs are part of me. I have taken them so thoroughly into myself that I imagine the converse to have happened, and I half feel like copies of this album go out into the world with pieces of me pressed inside. They probably don't, really, but just in case, handle your copy carefully.
Except for some remixes, the bonus tracks here cover the era's b-sides in toto. The first two are the diptych "Bass Dance"/"Belief in the Small Man" from the "Where the Rose Is Sown" twelve-inch, a lithe instrumental leading into a crashing anthem of self-reliance. Third is the band's rousing cover of Roxy Music's "Prairie Rose", a song that mentions "big country", though I have no idea whether the name came from the song or they just discovered it there afterwards. Fourth is "Wonderland", the single the band released in between the first two albums, which is usually my favorite Big Country song, and thus might be my favorite song in the world, if such a thing is meaningful. The extended version included here is cool on its own terms, but is significantly different from the original, which you'll have to buy a compilation to get on CD. And last is "Winter Sky", a mesmerizingly repetitive and uncharacteristically simple acoustic song from the "Just a Shadow" single.
Big Country: The Seer
The Seer's place in Big Country's opening trilogy is much like Fiction's place in the Comsat Angels'. It backs away from the darkness of the second album and starts to open up the band's sound, and with the assiduous application of hindsight it is possible to hear in it hints of the radical stylistic shifts coming in both bands' fourth albums. In Big Country's case, this album is perhaps a less imposingly coherent edifice than the first two, but its songs are individually as strong as any, at least to me. "Look Away", "I Walk the Hill" and "One Great Thing" are the most cathartic rock anthems, "Red Fox" and "Sailor" are the most involved, "The Teacher" has some musical allusions to "Rawhide", "Eiledon" and "Hold the Heart" are mournful ballads, "Remembrance Day" is a mournful ballad that they decided to play with canon-shot drums and fiery guitar after all, and "The Seer" has Kate Bush and Big Country, two of my five favorite artists, performing on the same song. With the departure of Steve Lillywhite, who produced both The Crossing and Steeltown, this album sounds markedly different from the first two, especially in the thick processing applied to Mark Brzezicki's drums, but the band's fundamental approach is still evolving along a continuum.
The b-sides during this era were dominated by music from the soundtrack the band did for the Scottish film Restless Natives, but this is due for a separate CD reissue later this year, so the bonus tracks have to come from elsewhere. There is one non-soundtrack b-side, the anti-apartheid rallying cry "Song of the South", which appeared on the "One Great Thing" single and is my second favorite Big Country song. Next are the extended mix of "Look Away" and the "Disco Mix" of "One Great Thing", which I think are easily the most radical of the many reworkings the band did of its songs, though in the later case the effect is rather more hilarious than impressive. And last is "Giant", an instrumental b-side from "Wonderland" days that was later reissued with vocals as "All Fall Together", but which I always thought sounded less forced in this vocal-less form.
Big Country: Peace in Our Time
Then things changed. For Peace in Our Time the band recruited an American producer and swapped walls of guitars for airy and elegant arrangements with gauzy synthesizer backdrops. Eager to prove that compassionate artists don't necessarily attract any more tolerant fans than anybody else, most of Big Country's supporters promptly abandoned the band amidst gales of disgruntled ridicule. To me this album is breathtakingly beautiful. It doesn't sound much like its predecessors, but after three albums of similar style I'm neither upset nor surprised by the band's decision to try something else. The prettier, gentler treatments here show off Stuart and the band's songwriting skills, and while the production does not essay invisibility, I find its careful tension between sumptuous embellishment and uncluttered simplicity to be exquisite, almost magical.
This era produced a large pool of self-produced b-sides, though, and their fiercely raw and noisy dynamism became a lightning rod for fans who resented the direction change. Probably the best of these was "When a Drum Beats", from the "Broken Heart" single, which is included here in somewhat truncated form as "When the Drum Beats". The second bonus track, "Starred and Crossed", originally from the "King of Emotion" single, is practically country, with wheezy harmonica and shuffling drums, and Stuart lapsing into a slight drawl. The last one, "Longest Day", is an early rough draft of sorts of "Broken Heart". Given the relative wealth of non-album material from this era, the fact that there are only three b-sides on this reissue (four if you count "The Travellers", which was the "bonus track" on the first CD version), making it the shortest of the lot both in tracks and time, is kind of frustrating, but if the announced obscurities album appears later this summer as promised, and contains all the songs it should, then there will be no need to worry about a song more or less here.
Big Country: No Place Like Home
The fifth album, released in the UK in 1991 and not at all in the US, is to me the most problematic and painfully personal of the band's records. Mark Brzezicki quit the band during the break before its recording, and he drums on it only in a session-player capacity. The band's unity was integral to their original identity, and the psychological repercussions of this rift are momentous. Reactions to Peace in Our Time also clearly took their toll on Stuart, Bruce and Tony, and this album finds them at a loss for a new theme to unify their efforts. As a result, the songs here are a dizzying mixture of styles, from the cartoon blues of "Republican Party Reptile" to the swaying slow-dance of "Ships". I've taken the time to find the virtues of all of them (the plodding banjo of "Beautiful People" held out longer than the rest), but this is the last album I'd recommend to Big Country initiates. Ironically, it's also the one I'm most relieved to see reissued, because both my copies of the first run, though still functioning to date, are definitely succumbing slowly to the dreaded CD-bronzing disease, and PDO claimed that they were unable to replace this album as they did my other victimized discs.
The three bonus tracks here are the between-albums peace-ode single "Heart of the World", a churning and metallic b-side called "Kiss the Girl Goodbye", and the gentle, folky "Freedom Song", both the last two from the CD single for "Republican Party Reptile", one of only two singles released from this album.
Big Country: Through a Big Country
I said we'd get to my most ludicrously obsessive Big Country purchase, and this is it. Through a Big Country is Big Country's greatest-hits album. Why, you might ask, would I, who own every last one of these songs on some other release, buy this album, which contains no additional liner notes or otherwise unavailable music of any sort? A reasonable question, but one that is rendered moot by the realization that not only did I buy this compilation the first time, but I've now purchased it again, just to get the words "Digitally Remastered" running down the case hinge. Actually, it's worse than that, since I also have a copy of the US version of this collection, The Best of Big Country, whose track list differs from this one's only in two songs (and of course I already had all four), which makes essentially three copies of this album, where according to any sane analysis I needed none.
I'm not even that fond of it as a compilation. In both incarnations it sticks almost exclusively to the band's UK single output, and while this is a run of remarkable songs ("Harvest Home", "Fields of Fire", "In a Big Country", "Chance", "Wonderland", "East of Eden", "Where the Rose Is Sown", "Just a Shadow", "Look Away", "One Great Thing", "The Teacher", "King of Emotion", "Broken Heart", "Peace in Our Time" and "Save Me"; the US version even puts them in the right order, and adds "Heart of the World" and "Republican Party Reptile", while the UK edition fills the last two slots with the non-singles "Eiledon" and "The Seer"), it's also very predictable, and I prefer compilations that go out of their way to introduce listeners to things they would not have heard before (though admittedly, in the US almost all of these songs qualify).
But you shouldn't be messing around with Big Country compilations, anyway. If you've waded through this entire catalog-reissue overview, you ought to at least go out and pick up The Crossing. It's part of musical history, so even if you don't like it, you'll be able to take it down off the shelf some lazy summer afternoon forty years from now, show it to your grandchildren, and say "Kids, I used to own a machine that would play these infernal frisbees." And then you'll have to explain what frisbees were, and before you know it it'll be dinner time.