Comus

Let’s ruminate a bit over October. Isn’t there something strangely dark and alluring about this month? In nature, we look forward to trees changing their colors and the heat from summer subsiding to cool our muggy air. We look forward to these things, knowing full well that they’re signals of something shortly arriving: for nature its mass temporal, cyclical death and the ungodly frigidness of winter which extinguishes the last bits of unprotected life out there. This sight of change hastens something innate in us to go revel in this last bit of color before it ends. In day to day life, through the mass celebration of Halloween (or other similar Harvest festivals), we’re allowed to imagine or revel with masks, scares, and darker rituals of sorts. We look forward to these things, knowing (or not fully realizing) that we’re doing so because they’re meant to prepare us for sensations or feelings that are always revolving, at various orbits, in our background: you could say its the feelings of death, fright, darkness, and loss.

For some reason, no other month so vividly reminds us that we have to find ways to deal with such feelings. This celebration of life by reminding us of the pains derived from not valuing it, is the perfect reason to pick Comus’ First Utterance as the album of the month. I’ve yet to hear another album out there as truly dark and sinister, yet strangely alluring as this one. Where other “dark” albums find ways to repel (completely missing the point of this type of music), an album like this, finds way to grab you in its hands and force you to listen. Released at a time when hippie ideals were being replaced by mindless debauchery, and at the height of the Vietnam era when rampant conservatism threatened wanton bloodlust, no album release put the world on notice more of its upcoming decay than this masterpiece of dark folk music.

Roger and Glenn

Started in 1969 by two art students from Bromley in Kent Roger Wootton and Glenn Goring, this duo influenced by Bert Jansch and John Renbourn were trying to find ways to stand out. Thoroughly turned off by the facile idealism of hippie culture, and turned on by the darker sounds of artists like Family, The Velvet Underground, Mr. Fox, and the Pentangle who were looking at England’s pagan past for renewed sounds and influences, they themselves started to realize that their truly best songs were the darker ones.

By good grace, this duo was given a residency by David Bowie at his early folk venue, the Beckenham Arts Lab, from this venue they would slowly build a working band that augmented their take on dark folk. In order to continue playing their they needed to have a proper band name. Around this time, both of them had been reading up on the mythos of Comus, both the Greek story and John Milton’s Comus Masque a more contemporary work. The god of excess who would use song and dance to get commoners to do things they wouldn’t normally do was great, but the Comus from Milton’s work was even more intriguing.

Comus play.

This Comus was a necromancer who could use any dead body and use it to seduce the living into falling in traps set to sate his carnal pleasures. The attempt of this story was to show how even though a young girl fell under the lure of Comus, she found the will to refuse his seductive pleasures (saying no to wine, herbs, and other temptations). Masques themselves used to be masked plays or dances that would allow the noble gentry to commune with the common man. Somewhere down the line, as the writers of said plays got more sophisticated (A Midsummer’s Night Dream, anyone…) they were able to use such costumed outings as ways to subvert some kind of norm and politicize what they weren’t free to openly poke at. Milton’s Comus tale in theory speaks of the virtue of chastity, but in reality he also meant it as a play symbolizing the rich’s attempt to get away with their own debauchery by any cost measurable. They’d entice you with fool’s gold all in the quest to get their way. There’s a reason Puritans closed down such entertainment, it was a way for the arts to show the darkness in all of us and to experiment with our mores. When Donovan said, “won’t you join the dance” it went back centuries to an era where the dance freed you of inhibitions and prohibitions.

John Milton’s Comus

One of the first songs Comus ever wrote was called “The Bite”, this song full of two rotating themes one of the canines in the forest tensing with shock over someone creeping through their realm at night, and the other of a Christian escaping from his persecutors. Once the persecuted gets caught and hanged, then you know who the real scary demon is. This song full of powerful dark imagery, would serve as one of the bases they supported their belief of using Comus-like ideas and imagery to signify their sound. If they could present horror in various ways, they could use this abstraction to present certain injustices that couldn’t easily be presented in musical ways. This is the reason they were owning the idea of masking themselves in the Comus creature.

Comus – 1970

By the time of this first and only recording, they had augmented their duo with four other brilliant musicians. The most important was Bobbie Watson, a young gal with a certain angelic voice to serve as the foil to Roger’s demented vocal delivery. After that was the rhythmic tandem of Andy Hellaby on bass and Colin Pearson on viola/violin. Rob Young, would provide the airy respite of flute and oboe. Forsaking any kind of rock drumming, except hand drums played by Glenn, this 6-piece of which everyone contributed to backing vocals, was the group that the Dawn record label (home of recent entry, Heron) signed to record their first album. The sessions, truth be told, weren’t what Roger and Glenn expected. Their producer, Barry Murray, who came off recording Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime” didn’t know how to exactly produce a group without a drummer, and especially one without short, light-hearted songs. With the wonders of 8-track recording, the group did what they could to salvage a necessary sound they were chasing after.

Comus’ Comus.

The first thing that strikes you about the album itself, before you even get to the sinister elven vocals from Roger, is the totally creepy album cover. Drawn by Roger himself, with pen only, this was the visual representation of a body doing a primal scream. Once you actually muster the courage to open the inlay you see Glenn’s gorgeous pastoral watercolor centrefold. In a way, they’re preparing you for what lies ahead. Underneath the massive dark matter you have to release your body from, there is an important feeling that you can open up to. Now won’t you join its dance?

Comus inside.

First of all, forget what the track listing says. Sequence the album with “The Herald” as the opening track. Something about the most merciful, and lovely tune in the whole album slinking you down into the dark bottom of the rest of the album makes so much sense. The track itself, was written around a slide bass part that Andy figured out to do. This atmospheric sound allowed Roger to come up with the lyrics. These lyrics which start out 90% wistful, hint at the dawn erasing all of the dread that is coming up shortly. Heck, you can sequence this song at the end and you’ll see how much of a respite it gives from the preceding vision.

What you’ll remember most about the song is Bobbie’s heavenly vocals, Roger’s almost animalistic guitar playing, and the ever increasing dread murking about from Colin’s viola and the rest of the boys. Somehow, as Bobbie comes back one final time from all the resurging dread, joined by Roger singing and Glenn on dueling acoustic’s and Rob on wind instruments, that’s when you know the power of hope and perseverance. Perhaps the greatest failure of this album was in it not starting or ending this dark romp with this uplifting neo-pagan Sun song. Life’s not picture perfect? but don’t let that detract you from going further down.

Once “Diana” kicks in, that’s when you have to brace yourself. This song led by Colin’s viola, is the one that starts conjuring the Comus demon. Here you’re introduced to Roger’s knowingly demented voice. Plundering an evil mix of Ray Charles and Little Richard, he starts to sing about the actual tale of Comus. This Comus is a creature that smells and hunts down virtue, the role of Diana is to not let her guard down and linger too much. As the song gets joined by some powerful tribalistic drumming, and playing filled out with backup vocals by Bobbie, the rest of the band presents the dread of someone traveling where they shouldn’t go. Lust knows the panic signs of virtue…

Drip, Drip” the most rip-roaring song, is merciless and pure horror. Told through the viewpoint of the aggressor, it sonically paints a tale of uncontrolled chaos and confusion. Used as a way to showcase the violin work of Colin, it cycles through different stages of manic melodies and inhuman sounds until they build up a pagan trance that gets broken up by a terrifying end. When Robert sings about being gentle, it isn’t remotely in the direction of anything humane/human. When he finally ends it, no “la, la, las” will provide respite from the protagonist’s own inner turmoil.

The Bite” is a sinister Gypsy-inflected slice of music. Robert’s contracting vocals mirror the dark blues slide work he sneaks here and there. Viola and flute complement the hurried pace propulsing the track forward towards its swift end. The dark blues slide reintroduces the escapee captured in jail. When you hear the aural scream of pained martyrdom, that’s when you get the gist of the song. “Bitten”, almost Third Ear Band-like in delivery, is an eerie piece of violin and slide bass that lets you ponder the enormity of such death.

“Song to Comus” is perhaps the darkest track of them all. This is the warning call. Here is what you should fear. Plundering the catacombs of his vocals, Roger details how Comus hides in the shadows of the day, playing his joyful songs, to lure virgin hearts into his evil lair. Once there, past the forest, in the caves deep, he reveals his true self. A true self, fangs bared, that takes the chastity of any virtue through sexual carnage. Only daytime’s summer glare, providing respite/escape for the seduced. This is something you can aurally catch as well with the spry acoustic sounds played by Roger and Glenn, being joined by the trickster flute motives of Roger. When Bobbie and Roger harmonize, over the “beat, beat, beat” the enchanting begins and when Comus starts to “play, play, play” (with viola joining in) the truly sinister song unfolds…

The final song, or next to final, if you prefer “The Herald” at the end, “The Prisoner” is a strident song about the need for protecting the release of all such dark thoughts through art, music, etc. rather than bottling in or having someone negate them altogether by force/prohibition. Its pro-promotion of investigating the madness, its roots and causes, rather than sweeping it under the rug of conformity. As Roger sings “I can stand prison but even my conscious you hold”, he presents the gist of the whole album. If, everything he sang about before was just a means to release frustration, in some positive way, what’s the point in following demons that are already gone? Sometimes, all you need is to shed light on them.

This searching song, which starts with a melancholy mood, features a gorgeous vocal melody lead by Roger, showing the hope of treatment for some melancholia only being swept away by the negativity of unneeded solutions. There’s a primal scream around the 4:20 minute mark, when hope is thwarted by oppression, and the rest of the group picks up the sonic pace thats positively chilling. As the album ends abruptly to the tones of “Why can’t you leave me/don’t drive me insane insane insane insane insane…” so ends a truly masterful, thoroughly English, neo-folk album that captures the reason a lot of pagan rituals/art have blended so well with established orthodoxy/religion.

As much as we hate or think a certain path has all the answers, we have to give allowance to that which we don’t know. Virtue isn’t powerful, if its not cognizant of the reasons wickedness exist. Some of us can handle that kind of scare more than others, but having that bit of hope helps immensely to comprehend whatever lies down that path.

Comus live.

Tis only sad, that Comus was soundly forgotten at a time such a message was needed. Their record failing even though John Peel played their songs massively, and David Bowie, a huge early supporter, promoted them as an opening act and backup band. Shortly, after this release, they split up only to come back to release a follow up for Virgin Records, that they now admit was a rush job and not worthy of the Comus name. Somehow, though, this album much like other neo-folk albums from this English era, present the importance of putting yourself in the shoes or wearing a mask from characters you may have never know or places you can only dream of, the imagination lets you conjure up fantastic ideas that go beyond mere tradition. At a micro level, during Halloween, when you go door-to-door in your guise isn’t the melody you utter, just the first sign of the trick, hopefully what follows is the treat, one hopes…

Listen to First Utterance at Grooveshark.

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