When 43-year-old Big Country singer-songwriter Stuart Adamson was tragically found hanged in a Honolulu hotel room on 16 December 2001 following a battle with alcoholism, the general consensus was that the band died with him. It is with great surprise then that The Journey, the first new Big Country material without their enigmatic leader, is upon us. Vocal and lyrical responsibilities are picked up by Mike Peters of The Alarm.
Adamson himself had at one point given his blessing to Peters fronting the band should they ever tour again, ruling himself out of the equation as he pursued his own interests after settling in Nashville, Tennessee. Meanwhile, Peters continues to be an inspiration for all having twice fought off cancer yet still finding the strength to front The Alarm as well as play an integral role within Big Country since he was officially asked to join the band by guitarist Bruce Watson in December 2010, whilst halfway up Mount Snowdon on a charity walk.
Peters was indeed initially recruited for live shows as per Adamson’s suggestion when original members Watson, Tony Butler (bass) and Mark Brzezicki (drums) – plus Watson’s son Jamie (guitars) – took the band back on the road for anniversaries that came and went, all the while the humble Peters refusing to take centre stage, leaving this void free as a mark of respect for Adamson, adopting instead a side-on position. Butler has since retired from the band, with his duties passing to another ’80s stalwart, ex-Simple Minds bassist Derek Forbes (think Waterfront to pinpoint his distinctive bass sound).
When Peters’ involvement later progressed to writing, he completely immersed himself in past Big Country material, attempting to gain an insight into Adamson’s lyrics and style. The result is quite astonishing and unexpected, proving to be a concoction of the past where Adamson’s presence is almost tangible to moments that, against all odds, have breathed life into the band.
In A Broken Promise Land commences the album with a riff similar to The Seer’s Red Fox – unquestionably Big Country with those familiar guitars, despite the distinctive vocal change, Brzezicki’s familiar drum rolls evoking memories of some of the bands finest work. With Forbes’ signature bass sound driving the title track, coupled with the characteristic Big Country guitaring and Peters’ vocals, the result is a hybrid of all the aforementioned bands. Somehow it sounds familiar yet new, with lyrics appealing to sceptical fans: “Don’t be afraid to make this journey here with me.”
After The Flood pays homage to Adamson, even containing an attempt to recreate his trademark war cry, the track sounding slightly more Alarm than Big Country as the output twists and turns to showcase each ingredient. Lead single Hurt is another tribute to the former front man, its chorus strikingly similar to The Alarm’s Terms And Conditions; a very sad and moving song declaring “no one can hurt you now”.
One of the highlights of the album Home Of The Brave follows, the first indication that the band may be forming its own new identity without the traditional Big Country guitar sound, albeit slightly recalling mid 80’s The Cult in places. Angels and Promises slows proceedings down, sounding like it’s depicting a lost soul with lyrics like “I’m walking on a mountain without a summit” and “swimming in a sea without a shore”, even quoting a lyric from the groups biggest hit single, Chance – “I never felt so low”, as another ode to Adamson and his plight becomes apparent.
Last Ship Sails sounds uncannily like The Skids, being the band where Adamson first tasted success and Another Country clearly references In A Big Country, the distinctive guitaring returning to the forefront once again. Return recalls another Seer track, One Great Thing.
The impressive Winter Fire features an anthemic chorus, driving bass, cataclysmic drum patterns and some of the most memorable guitaring on the album as everything comes together perfectly to show what this mix can achieve. Album closer Hail And Farewell reintroduces the bands classic bagpipe sound (actual bagpipes this time perhaps) along with ebow into another anthem complemented by soaring guitars and chants – spine tingling stuff.
Amazingly, 14 years since their last studio album, the clock has been turned back and Big Country have produced an album on a par with some of their earlier work, probably surpassing 1988’s Peace In Our Time. Purists will bemoan the absence of Adamson, but Peters proves to be an able alternative. Bands can lose a drummer, a bassist or a guitarist without much perceived impact, but when the lead singer changes the identity can often be lost entirely. To their credit Big Country are still undeniably Big Country, and that is a worthy achievement in itself after losing such a talismanic frontman, for whom this entire album serves as a fitting tribute: RIP Stuart Adamson, your band is in safe hands.