Friday, June 26, 2009

Friday Listening: Comus

I've quite obviously fallen behind. I have a few sketches of songs that will probably get posted all at once, but I feel I need to start tricking myself into thinking and writing about music more. So, as my last blog featured an almost-weekly Sunday Music post, I'm going to try to start a similar project, tentatively labeled Friday Listening.

And to make it easier on me, I'm going to use my Last.fm profile to help me pick one artist whom I listened to in that week. (I'm not going to always pick the top, because this might lead to repeats.) So this week my choices are Howard Shore (I put all three LotR albums on one evening), Comus, Stereolab, The Skillet Lickers, and Dead Can Dance. All tempting, but one earns me significantly more scene points.


Comus. "Diana."

I'm not sure how it's happened, but Comus has been added to the list of bands you're supposed to like but no one else is supposed to know. Their influence seems to have been sporadic, and I can really only trace this new interest to Current 93's decision to cover the above track.

In my one sentence review of Comus's First Utterance on RYM, I wrote "Like a raw Jethro Tull demo that accomplished everything it aimed for with much less stumbling to get there." I somewhat regret so limited/specific a comparison now, but I think this shows the sort of context most newcomers place them inside. Like Tull's forays into prog folk, Comus's 1971 debut stands outside the British folk rock scene, and although Roger Wootton's vocals invite some comparison to Ian Anderson at his most aggressive (not to mention Rob Young's flute), the Comus soundscape seems to owe much more to the experimentation of the Incredible String Band than to the British blues rock that formed the cornerstone of Tull (thanks in large part to Martin Barre).

When First Utterance appeared, British folk rock was well underway. It seemed that everyone was looking to Fairport Convention and their influences (Dylan, The Band, The Byrds) for their reference, though a few acts stood apart (most of these only "folk rock" in a very wide sense, like Amazing Blondel). Though I like late Fairport and Steeleye Span, there's no denying that their electrified folk was formulaic.

Coming together while the genre was still new, Comus created something entirely different. Their shifting rhythms, multi-part songs, and pseudo-Arabesque harmony are reminiscent of metal. Yet like most early metal, they are clearly a product of their generation. Witness the overwhelming late 60s feel of "The Bite," despite brutal lyrics about Christian martyrdom any black metal band would kill to have written.



Lyrically, Comus explores enough pagan themes to make Robert Plant blush. The two songs above concern dark subjects (rape and murder, respectively) and nature at its cruelest, most sexual, or most mysterious. Yet there's a lighter side to that mystery, and this takes center stage in "The Herald" (in three parts on the Tubes), where a flute-playing herald ushers in the dawn.

"The Herald" is the sort of song that frequently earns itself the adjective indulgent, but at least Comus fills the twelve minutes with a variety textures by using their multiple instruments and voices and a beautiful transition to the major key melody of the B section. Besides, unlike most real folk traditions, this isn't music for dancing or even singing along. This is art music and unapologetically so.

How do I feel about Comus? I always find it inspiring to hear a group uncover a sound that works using a unique and seemingly heterogeneous bag of tricks. I'm not a fan of psychedelia, so the moments where such influences are on display lose points with me (e.g., the verses to "Song to Comus", with their obvious nod to "Green Tamborine"). So overall, I enjoy them, and I'm glad I stumbled upon them.

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