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Comus - First Utterance CD (album) cover




Prog Folk

4.16 | 548 ratings

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5 stars Masterpiece of Depravity

Comus' FIRST UTTERANCE is a now legendary album, noted mostly for its demented sound and lyrical content. It was panned by critics at the time, and its poor commercial showing forced the band to break up. They would regroup for one more album on David Bowie's dime, and some of their notoriety now is due the fandom of Opeth leader Mikael Akerfeldt. (Mikael took the name of one of his albums, "My Arms, Your Hearse", from a "Drip Drip" lyric, and a later song, "Baying of the Hounds," from the lead track "Diana.") Certainly, there is an ethic to the album that would fall squarely in a metal vibe these days. But it is precisely the pairing of the upbeat folky sounds with the almost demonic content that makes the album so evocative.

Most "acid folk" tries to create woodland faerie soundscapes but leans more on languid acid than danceable folk. Comus, however, truly evokes a scene of European tribalism. The guitar strumming is crazed, on top of the beat, full of energy. (They actually use the famous "Pinball Wizard" acoustic rhythm throughout the song "Drip Drip.") Though one song, "The Herald" is more traditionally dreamy, the majority of the album is tense, quick, and sharp. This is not a bunch of hippies around a campfire, these are satyrs stomping on the hard earth with cloven hooves.

Gremlins, demons, elves on crack, all sorts of fantasy creatures have been used to describe Roger Wooton's vocals and overall mood of FIRST UTTERANCE. But this is clearly satyr music. Immersed in hedonism, paganism, and untamed danger. These aren't the powers of evil, these are their mortal minions. In contrast, Bobbie Watson provides a more traditional "fair maiden" sound to the mix, but the act comes with a knowing wink. She's clearly part already of the bacchanalian orgy. There is no fear in her voice.

All of the fantasy imagery aside, where I must give credit where credit is due is the music itself. The compositions are deceptively well constructed. While the pressured energy makes the music seem chaotic, the songs are actually quite deliberately structured. The accompaniment of flute and violin contains very specific melodic themes for each song, and their textural additions are clearly very intentional. I never get the feeling that we're listening to a free form jam. Even the Univers Zero-like, free time experiment "Bitten" has a very specific role in the pacing of the album, and the sad violin is clearly playing a written part. The rhythm section (definitely including guitar here, along with various hand drums, no trapset) is powerful, inducing movement at every moment. The guitar playing is loose in a good way. Though quite nimble, it's never showy, and always contributing to the overall mood of the song, however crazed that might be. The recurring glissandos by the slide guitar are extremely effective and the fast fingerpicking works perfectly.

So what makes this "Progressive" Folk? Probably the most important aspect is the ambitious reach of the album which is reflected in several multipart epic tracks. These succeed completely in their intention of telling a story that moves in terms of mood and plot. Certainly, the level of composition is much higher than typical 3 or 4 chord strumalongs. The incorporation of tribal drumming is not unique but ups the ante. In addition, the level of theatrics would make Peter Gabriel proud. These musicians aren't just troubadours telling a story. They are active participants in a festival. And finally, the album itself is very consciously constructed. It feels like a concept album because the music moves so well from one mood and sound to another. I had to look up the lyrics to assure myself that it was, in fact, simply a collection of separate songs.

There is a part of me that has trouble giving praise to an album that sings about rape and murder with such excitement. Certainly these have been subjects of folk music both old and new (listen to Gillian Welch's "Caleb Meyer" for an excellent modern version). But when the story is told from the point of view of the perpetrator with seething glee, something in me wants to show my disdain and my revulsion. We absorb what we immerse ourselves in, and I do not want any of this seeping into my soul.

However, the fact that this record evokes true revulsion at the subject matter, while so many others dealing with the same subject do not, tells you how effective the musical expression on this album is. The listener is drawn in by the excitement and novelty of the instruments, which from the first note communicate frenzied anxiety. The impish vocals fit the morbid lyrics, everything fits together perfectly. I don't get the sense that this is some horror show, rubber mask affair. I get the feeling that these guys sold their soul to the devil and I shouldn't be listening to it. And to deny the devil's power is folly. This is a masterpiece, but of something terrible.

Negoba | 5/5 |


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