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Rediscover: Comus: First Utterance

Rediscover: Comus: First Utterance

First Utterance stands as unquestionably one of the greatest albums of the 1970s, which makes it, by many estimations, one of the greatest albums of all time.

Comus’ First Utterance, when you find it, feels like a gift from the universe – one of those moments where, from the very first song, you find yourself thinking: “I’ve been looking for this music my whole life.” The record is not unlike the totem at the center of the film The Blood On Satan’s Claw – also released in 1971 – in which a 17th century English village witnesses the rise of a satanic cult of children bent on reconstituting the demon to which the claw, found innocently enough in a field, belongs. First Utterance has that same maddening effect. It takes the listener captive and causes one to attempt a re-imagining of history where this album was not a forgotten grail, but a central part of the culture.

Someone could have told Comus to plug in their guitars and turn up the distortion; they could have told them to scale back a bit, to tone back their wild, growling Gothicism. Had Comus done the former, they might be remembered as worthy contemporaries of Black Sabbath; had they done the latter, the band to remember them with would be Fairport Convention. One gets the feeling that someone – maybe an A&R guy – did make these suggestions. Thankfully, no one in the band listened to him.

“Diana” opens the album with an ominous violin, loping bass line and ghostly slide guitar. The song tells the story of Lust and Virtue personified. Lust tracks Diana (the embodiment of virtue) through the woods and, finally, devours her. Inspired by John Milton’s Comus, a masque – that is, a morality play presented at a royal court – presented in 1634, the song picks up its pace as the chase drives toward its conclusion. Unlike Milton’s play, there are no lessons learned here, Diana is left running and panicked in the woods, Lust whining at her heels. On the track, Roger Wootten’s voice sounds like the braying of the hounds in the song – his voice a clear forerunner for the acquired taste of voices like Jeff Mangum or David Longstreth.

Wootten knows that singing songs is akin to acting, to playing a role – and he gives astonishing performances. On the chaotic, murderous “Drip Drip” you can almost see his eyes glowing red with bloodlust. For “The Prisoner” – a story of a mentally ill man committed to a hospital against his will – Wootten begins with a clear and sympathetic falsetto before oscillating between many different voices to mirror the status of the persona in the song.

In contrast to Wootten’s vocal pyrotechnics is “The Herald,” on which Comus brilliantly balances the hard-edged, discordant, growled vocals of their male singers with the crystalline voice of Bobbie Watson. The song showcases her range as she weaves the fable-like story of the herald of dawn bringing in the morning. The track is broken by a lengthy instrumental passage of guitars reminiscent of Nick Drake and a gentle flute solo. It is in the alternation between folkish beauty and rock ‘n’ roll sacrilege that the band’s secret formula lies. As such, the tracks here are dynamic, often made up of multiple movements and melodic motifs.

“Song to Comus” takes the poetic of “Diana” and strips it of its Edwardian coyness. “Comus rape/ Comus break/ Sweet young virgin’s virtue take/ Naked flesh/ Flowing hair/ Her terror screams they cut the air/ But no one hears her there” go the lyrics of a repeated bridge in the song. The percussion is frenetic, the violin and flute flair repeatedly above and between the vocals. But this is no celebration or pagan bacchanal – the song is pure horror, like most of the songs on First Utterance. This atmosphere of horror suffuses “The Bite.” The song relates, at breakneck speed, a lost Christian on some dark moor who is surrounded by wild animals, teeth flashing, but wakes up at dawn in a jail cell only to be hung from the gallows.

After First Utterance, Comus disbanded. They reformed in a different configuration a few years later to make the interesting, but less revelatory, follow-up To Keep From Crying and then kept quiet for four decades. This decade they brought back the original lineup and released Out of the Coma, as much a victory lap as a sequel to their first effort. But part of the revelatory nature of Comus is in the surprise, in the way first hearing their music is like the closing yells of “insane” that bounce back and forth between left and right speakers at the end of First Utterance. They infiltrate your mind. For that reason, First Utterance stands as unquestionably one of the greatest albums of the 1970s, which makes it, by many estimations, one of the greatest albums of all time.

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