Men of Steel: Big Country's Steeltown (1984)


I can't remember what I wrote this for or exactly when, just that it was written a long time ago. I'm posting it now because this album always reminds me of the week after Christmas, seeing I bought it then back in 1984...

Big Country are one of the great rock bands of the Early Eighties, but also one of the most misunderstood.

As artists crashed onto America's shore from Great Britain by the boatload, critics and audiences were prone to pigeon-holing them based on their biggest hits or most memorable video. A deadly serious band by any measure, Big Country was tagged as a novelty act on account of the bagpipe sound of their screaming guitars. 

But their first hit, 'In a Big Country', was a vitally important song because it alone carried the flag for straight-up rock and roll at a time when LA hair metal and British synth-pop was dominating the charts. 

Big Country were inevitably compared to U2: both bands fused Led Zeppelin-styled guitar rock with early Clash-styled social protest and added in copious amounts of rain-swept Celtic mysticism. Both bands utilized the seminal British producer Steve Lillywhite, who had previously helmed landmark albums by XTC, Peter Gabriel, The Psychedelic Furs and Siouxsie and the Banshees.

Their first two albums employed all the tricks from Lillywhite's kitbag: pounding drums and bass, huge doses of reverberating guitar, and the feverish intensity of playing that he coaxed from his charges. But where U2 were stylish and instinctive amateurs, Big Country were virtuosos. Where U2 never managed to truly put the pedal to the rock n' roll metal, Big Conutry were relentless in their fury. In comparison to Steeltown, even U2's hardest rockers are MOR mush. 

Steeltown is one of the most intense records you'll ever hear. Unlike today's metal bands - who offer up a cliched catalog of gimmicks to make their music sound ferocious - Big Country relied on good old-fashioned thrashing on their instruments. A contemporary review of Steeltown remarked that even with the volume down, the album sounds loud. 

From the first thundering crescendo of 'Flame of the West', the album stomps, pounds, roils and flays. The rhythm section seem locked into a death duel, playing as wildly as they can manage, but remain locked in exhilirating lockstep nonetheless. The two guitarists do likewise, and the frenzy of the playing only heightens the dark tales of tragedy that Stuart Adamson showcases in his lyrics. 

The fury lets up only for two numbers: 'Come Back to Me', a haunting dirge about a newly-widowed wife, and the touching love song, 'Girl with the Grey Eyes'. The latter also boasts embellishments strongly reminsicent of 80's era King Crimson.

But buckle your seatbelts for the rest of the album. 'East of Eden' is a pounding dirge that is capped with flame-thrower guitar trills in the fade-out. 'Steeltown' adapts a traditional Scottish reel to scorching hard rock, and features lyrics that would coax tears from a skeleton.

'Tall Ships Go' is a galloping rocker, with frenetic drum syncopations and staccato phased guitar. 'The Rain Dance' is another jig, drenched in soaring slide guitar. The last cut on the official track-listing is the heart-rending 'Just a Shadow', a lament sung to a unemployed worker and his battered wife. 

The lyrics rip out your soul: "It all seemed fine for you/'Til the struggle of ambition turned in violence upon you/ Sometimes a landslide come/If you're hiding in that avalanche you need a place to run." 

Hardly the words of a MTV haircut jockey.

Steeltown was a hit in Thatcher's Britain, but went unnoticed in America. The Music Industrial Complex was force-feeding sappy pop down everyone's throat, and Big Country's thrashing pessimism was wildly out of step. Bonus track 'Wonderland' was a hit though, off theearly '84 EP of the same name. A flat-out classic, it's a soaring dose of optimism and exhiliration that is more in step with The Crossing than Steeltown. But it's presence is welcome on any CD. 

If you can bear the overwhelming power of its music, Steeltown will reward for many, many years to come.

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