A Million Fleshy Things: The Songs Of Comus - by Chris Blackford
Comus emerged from the now much maligned, polystylistic ferment of late 60s/early 70s British progressive rock, though few now remember them. They quit after a second LP in 1974. I have to thank Vernon Joynson's wonderful encyclopedia, The Tapestry Of Delights, for bringing their extraordinary 1971 debut First Utterance (Beat Goes On BGOCD275 CD) to my attention.
This six-piece certainly lived up to their name. In Greek mythology Comus is the god of revelry, the son of Circe and Bacchus. Comus is also the title of a dramatic poem by the renowned 17th Century English poet, John Milton, and the poem's central theme - female chastity tempted in the archetypal 'wild wood' of moral perplexity by the demonic enchanter, Comus - sets the tone for First Utterance, especially 'The Song To Comus'. 'Diana', another allusion to Greek/Roman myth, also describes the threat of insatiable lust to virtue. Other vulnerable innocents face abusive power in songs about brutal murder mixed with Gothic eroticism ('Drip Drip'), Christian martyrdom ('The Bite') and mental illness ('The Prisoner') - all described with disturbing candour. The acerbic lyrics and Roger Wootton's vocals (echoes of Family's Roger Chapman) convey terror and hysteria with alliterative force; there's often a sense of sadistic pleasure in Wootton's tone which gives the album a nasty, yet compelling edge. This is certainly no idealised, Hippie evocation of a mythical, bucolic past. Even Wootton's cover artwork, as memorably grotesque as Barry Godber's for King Crimson's debut, suggests a darker direction. And the angular dissonance of Andy Hellaby's bass guitar and Colin Pearson's violin on 'Bitten' sounds very much like free improvisation in action, though sadly it only lasts a mere two minutes.
Throughout, the musicianship is thoughtful and applied to well crafted arrangements with instrumental episodes that present a considerable dynamic range - poignant, lyrical pastoral-folk, typified by the purity of Bobbie Watson's high vocal register, skewed blues and chamber rock, to some of the most menacing acoustic guitars, violin, hand drums and bass, I've heard from this era. First Utterance is certainly one of a kind, and one of the most inventive and distinctive works to come out of the 70s progressive rock movement. A minor classic.
In his informative sleevenotes, Fraser Massey puts forward a resourceful, if not entirely convincing, case as to why Comus and First Utterance didn't make the big-time. Disruptive postal strike of 1971 apart, selected unfavourable press reviews remind us of the basic, inescapable fact that Comus' music was an acquired taste; too damn spiky and unruly for the average folkie, yet too concerned with intricate arrangements and acoustic instrumentation to fire up a hard rock fan. A headline tour supporting hugely popular progressive folk-rockers Jethro Tull would have been just the ticket to raise the profile; however, it's unlikely that Tull management would have risked serious competition from such a stylistically idiosyncratic outfit.
If the Comus story had ended here, all would have been gloriously perfect. One audacious album left to tantalise posterity's obscure-vinyl junkies into posing the unanswerable question: what would they have done next? Unfortunately, perhaps, Comus answered this question themselves by producing a second album - one that devotees of the first would not have expected or hoped for.
Accomplished musicianship from more or less the same line-up, plus guest appearances by Henry Cow's Lindsay Cooper and Didier Malherbe of Gong, can't overturn the abiding feeling that, although satisfying in places, 1974's To Keep From Crying (Virgin V2018) is a sporadically fascinating flop. That it was released by Virgin, then arguably the most 'progressive' of the British labels serving the progressive rock market, makes the commercial and conventional nature of the recording initially appear somewhat baffling. But, on closer inspection, the mid-70s also saw Virgin release unexpectedly conventional/commercial recordings by Captain Beefheart (Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans And Moonbeams) and Can (Landed) - none of which were greeted with much enthusiasm by discerning fans of these groups, who regarded them (and still do) as questionable attempts to achieve wider recognition and higher record sales. Comus, then, were probably willing participants in a similar marketing strategy which also failed to achieve the desired commercial goal.
It's perhaps not surprising that To Keep From Crying still hasn't been reissued on CD, and unless Comus suddenly become fashionable (Steven Stapleton and David Tibet praising them in The Wire will certainly help matters) there seems no compelling reason for Virgin to deliver. Moreover, unlike the First Utterance LP (Dawn DNLS 3019), which has long been a much sought-after and expensive item for prog collectors, To Keep From Crying is not regarded as an especially rare acquisition, though this doesn't prevent it from being a reasonably pricey second-hand purchase.
Nevertheless, 'Down (Like A Movie Star)', the opener, augurs well - a punchy folk-pop song with hints of Wootton's vocal wildness at its edges, and some colourful touches from Cooper's bassoon and Keith Hale's marimba. It's the strongest song on the album. Third track, the brief 'Waves And Caves', reveals Andy Hellaby's interesting "effects and tape music"; what sounds like looped backwards bass guitar and discreet synth is sufficiently moodily pre-ambient for it to be at home on an album like Eno's Another Green World, released the following year. Two other miniatures by Hellaby, 'Panophany' (its percussive bass guitar effects rather like Kev Hopper's ingenious 90s "spoombung" preparations) and the concluding 'After The Dream' (multitracked auto harp), again give hints as to how the group might have explored more promising experimental pathways; but the overall impression is of studio engineers and, presumably, group opinion, conspiring to create a more polished sound with all the exciting, untamed qualities of the first album smoothed out, or pushed to the periphery. Catchy, inoffensive folk-pop is, for the most part, the end product, though 'Perpetual Motion' flirts with Beach Boys style vocal harmonies, and the title-track contains some driving bass by Hellaby; haunting melodies, like 'Touch Down' and 'Children Of The Universe', are sullied by twee Hippie versifying, or develop into inflated anthemic singalong.
Notwithstanding this absorption in the conventional, Bobbie Watson's impossibly high vocals retain a lingering sensuality, yet the delicacy of her tessitura is no longer counterbalanced by Wootton's seething hysteria; here, he and his lyrics are distressingly benign, and quite unlike Roger Chapman. A key element in First Utterance's invigorating drama was this striking dichotomy of vocal expressivity and the sexual charge it generated. Sadly, To Keep From Crying is a much safer soundworld to inhabit, and consequently a disappointing finale to Comus' career. R
According to Vernon Joynson's aforementioned encyclopedia, a 45rpm recording was made comprising 'Diana' plus two pieces not included on First Utterance, 'In The Lost Queen's Eyes' and 'Winter Is A Coloured Bird' (Dawn DNX 2506). An even rarer EP (Dawn 1006) containing outtakes from the debut album also exists.
Beat Goes On Records, P.O. Box 22, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk IP28 6XQ, England
This piece is based on a short review published in Rubberneck 23 (December 1996) but is published here for the first time in this extended form (January 1999).
Text © Rubberneck; image © Beat Goes On Records