As I write this I am sitting on my sofa listening without distraction to the album First Utterance, more intently than I have cared to on any other occasion. It is an album I have known for a few years now, and although a part of me wants to embrace its disturbing darkness, another more sensible part keeps it firmly at arms length.
The curtains are drawn, the lights are on and although I am protected from the drizzly rain and ragged wildness of nature by the double glazing and kept warm by the central heating, I feel another quite different chill inside me. The album First Utterance is probably one of the strangest and most disturbing, blood soaked and violated bodies of work ever committed to vinyl. Recorded by a band called Comus in 1971, there is has, as the cliché so rightly says, been nothing like it before or since. If you have heard it you will understand, if you haven’t – I dare you!
My first encounter with Comus was on an excellent compilation album called Footprints in the Snow which brought to my attention a lot of great and forgotten folk-tinged singer/songwriters and bands from the late 60’s and early 70’s. The track featured on this compilation was The Herald – beautiful and eerie, startling and soporific but above all else, utterly otherworldly. After reading about the music of Comus online and alternately want and fearing what I might end up with I eventually bought First Utterance as part of a CD set with the band’s second and only other album To Keep From Crying. The second album was created a number of years later with largely different band members and has not left the slightest impression on me. It may well be a good album, but if you’ve heard the first album it will obliterate all else. Since buying it I have listened to First Utterance very rarely – it is not an album that I put on regularly, I wouldn’t recommend it for the sake of your sanity. I have to be in a particular mood to cope with its unique intensity, the tumultuous music and the poisonous lyrics. I am listening to it again now because I have just bought a ticket to see the band live in London.
Of all the obscure musicians and bands (obscure even in their own time) that have recently been resurrected in retrospective adulation, Comus is by far the strangest and least likely to have reformed forty years after their unsuccessful first utterances. Unlike much of the Acid Folk (as it has come to be known) that has finally found an audience in 30/40-somethings, Comus is no dreamy back to nature, hippy idealist type of a band. Their forests are much darker places with few pools of light to break the gloom. The whole Acid Folk archaeology has been rumbling along for well over a decade now and running parallel to this has been a plethora of new folk acts breaking into the mainstream – Laura Marlin, Fleet Foxes, The Unthanks and Kate Rusby, to name but a few. Some commentators have linked this resurgence in folk with a desire for comforting sounds in tough economic times – or has it simply tapped into and stirred vague childhood memories of quirky folk-tinged sounds of children’s TV in the 1970’s, combined with flashbacks to a simpler, grow your own Good Life. This combination might give a reassuring Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall-ness to the general public’s perception of folk music, coinciding as it did with the commercialisation and cool-acceptance of green issues, organic produce and slow food. Comus are quite the opposite to this feel good perception and have nothing to do with a warm and healthy vision of arcadia.
To say that the music of Comus is slightly disturbed would be quite an understatement. With lyrics which revel in the details of murder, rape, fear and mental disorder, listening to First Utterance is not a comfortable ride. Like the character Comus in John Milton’s masque, the suffocating setting for all these horrific acts is the deepest shadows of the forest. Not having the patience to read Paradise Lost, I did read Comus, which is much shorter and actually quite entertaining. In terms of the myth, the deity Komos (or Comus) was the god of revelry and chaos, which is understandable as he was the son of Dionysus (Bacchus). But revelry suggests fun, something you could not accuse the band of. Their music is closer in spirit to chaos with it’s lyrics of twisted, self-indulgent sadism and the dense folds of its music enclosing the listener like the endless forest around its victims.
For this listening I have the volume up slightly higher than I would usually, not louder than I would for any other album, but this is unlike any other album. Previously I had listened to this album askance, never head on. There was always a cup of tea to make or something to look up on the internet. I had been equally beguiled and repelled by the songs – the juxtaposition of the siren-like female vocals of Bobbie Watson with the male guttural intensity of Roger Wootton, the largely acoustic instrumentation with the jarring, angular arrangement of the band. It sounded different again, as though I had never properly listened to it, it was as strange, if not stranger than I realised – the musicianship is tight and professional but spatially different to how I remembered. I don’t think anyone can absorb all the detail contained on this album, even after numerous encounters. As already emphasised, this is a disturbing collection of music which still retains the power to shock and bewitch – how it will translate in a live performance forty years after its composition remains to be seen.
Here’s a link to the band’s website:- Comus
And here’s a link to the track that started it all for me – The Herald