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28 May 2011

Comus - 'First Utterance' (Earmark)

This is the stuff where legends are made, and certainly everything about First Utterance converges to produce something entirely worth of its acclaim. Since I like to wax personal here, I'll say how First Utterance surfaced on my consciousness around 2000-2002, which was also the time that I was discovering British folk/rock from this period, plus prog and other old gems. The Badaboom Gramaphone 'folk' issue was pretty influential and really set the template for things I wanted to investigate, and remember this was in the early days of mp3s - i think I might have actually sucked this down from Napster during it's heyday. After reading about the lost gems of bands like Fresh Maggots, Agincourt, and Tudor Lodge -- and often finding them less than gemlike - Comus was the real deal. In fact, the Badaboom Gramaphone #4 itself says "Seriously odd, and terribly necessary." There's not one thing that makes First Utterance so good; I wish we could say it was "just" the demented lyrical content, or "just" the frantic 12-string thrashing, or just the juxtaposition of insanely Appolonian beauty in the most Dionysian of contexts. But of course it's all of these things, and far more. My favourite track has always been 'The Herald', perhaps because it's tripartite structure seems to create an entire universe in one 12 minute burst. The female vocals are impossibly angelic, and the rolling waves of arpeggiated acoustic guitar have a narcotic effect on me. Despite the placid surface, there's some real thrashing about going on underneath it all - the sleep of reason producing demons for sure. It's a musical world I envy and would love to recreate myself, but such smooth confidence is beyond me. I guess it's a good counterpoint to 'Drip Drip', where the male vocals dominate in the most tortured and affected way. As a "band", Comus have what it takes - the long group instrumental passages are attenuated to a primal stomp, and the darting violin riffs jumping out constantly feel like they are emerging from a common dark heart. And when you're singing about being raped by a pagan spirit you better back it up. Both sides start with relatively short, upbeat tunes that would almost work as singles - 'Diana' and 'Song for Comus', the former being more or less the signature Comus song though it's far from their best. The string playing is fantastic though, and there's a real prog edge, reminding me a lot of Aphrodite's Child. Actually much of the record reminds me of Aphrodite's Child, but a bit more farmyard, and also Aphrodite's Child never sang about dragging Christians into the woods and killing them. 'The Bite' is of course the most overt in this theme, and it's also aggressively-paced, producing a real sense of fear, suggesting the poor victim's desperate attempts to escape. The flute playing here is deft as well, and I suggest anyone who thinks they might not like flutey folk music check this out. Because First Utterance defies everything logical about music. It's clearly created by the most extreme outsiders, a band motivated by pagan bloodlust as much as the pursuit of the sublime - yet it occupied some of the most accessible, upbeat musical territory. Even in the changing Britain of 1970, coming out of swinging London and all that bullshit, the subject matter is shocking. And musically, they couldn't be more out of step with popular music of the times. When put up against Sandy Denny, Anne Briggs and Fairport Convention, there's only a superficial resemblance in instrumentation; against Canterbury-school prog, there's none of the jazzy carefree benevolence. Tyrannosaurus Rex might be the only comparison, but maybe just because of the vocal resemblance - a song like 'The Prisoner', which addresses mental illness in a first-person narrative way, cuts through any sort of pop/psych surface. This particular edition is lovely - it's a thick vinyl pressing, gatefold cover, the extra-nice inner sleeve that has the plastic inside the paper to avoid scratching, and a bonus 45rpm 12"! The bonus material is the single version of 'Diana', which is a bit slower and more gloomy, and then two extra songs from an EP released in 1971. Of these, 'In The Lost Queen's Eye' is more of the same which is not a bad thing; 'Winter is a Coloured Bird' is significantly more chilled out, foreshadowing the shitty second album (which I only heard once, but disliked immensely). I had a friend who claimed to have found an original sealed copy of First Utterance in some weird Yorkshire secondhand shop for a few quid, and then he fell asleep listening to it and a candle melted and fell over and then burned the cover. Given the collectibility of the original pressing, he's a bigger fool for even breaking the shrinkwrap.

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