47 years ago, one of the most surreal and scariest albums ever came out on the Dawn label. I was only 23 years old in 2008 when I first heard Comus’ music on a progressive rock podcast, it just took me by surprise hearing the song Diana for the first time and I bought the album straight away. I wouldn’t say that my life changed, but it certainly took me to a whole new level discovering what is known as Acid, Psych, Pagan or Progressive Folk.
This wasn’t just Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and the Kingston Trio, it was raw, in your face, and it gave me chills every time I listened to the album from start to finish. I would listen to it again and again and again. Comus’ debut is not for the faint hearted. This was something that came out of nowhere and I was hooked right from the start.
Now, ten years later, the good people at Esoteric Recordings have reissued this unearthed and unsung treasure, and among supporters, including Current 93, Lee Dorrian, Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt, and the late great David Bowie who was an early champion of the band, First Utterance is the album that refuses to die. The band’s music and lyrics weren’t about protest or traditional themes but went right to the core by tackling the subjects of mental illness, violence, and rape.
According to an interview in issue 12 of PROG Magazine with Lee Dorrian (Napalm Death, founder of Rise Above Records), Roger Wootton described that the inspirations came from the essence of Jefferson Airplane, Captain Beefheart, and The Velvet Underground.
Taking their name from the Greek God and John Milton’s masque in honour of chastity, Comus launched in the late ’60s when Wootton and Glenn Goring met at Ravensbourne College of Art in Bromley, where David Bowie himself studied. They performed regularly at The Arts Lab at 182 Drury Lane in London and Bowie appreciated what Wootton was doing, asking the band to be one of his supports at the Purcell Rooms in 1969.
Comus also admired what Bowie was doing and the direction he was going, and they appreciated the support he gave them. Comus played on the college circuit and appeared briefly in Lindsay Shonteff’s obscure 1970 film, Permissive, also providing the opening theme, incidental music and songs. The plot line of the movie is about a girl who comes to London and meets a friend named Fiona who is involved in a relationship with a bassist played by Alan Gorrie (Average White Band, Forever More). Violinist Colin Pearson would later work with Shonteff’s on the scores for two more films, Big Zapper (1973) and The Swordsman (1974).
Comus signed to Pye’s progressive label, Dawn Records, in 1970, also the home of Demon Fuzz, Heron, and Titus Groan, and recorded their debut album. First Utterance is one of those albums you might want to prepare yourself for, given the controversial subjects they tackle, and believe me, they are not easy topics, the insights are not pleasant and it might be a dangerous area that you want to stay away from.
John Milton once said, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make heaven of Hell, a hell of Heaven”, and that’s what First Utterance does, it shows the listener those dangerous locations you need to avoid. The opening track, Diana features the eerie guitar slide that Glen Goring adds to bring some intensity, followed by Colin’s violin, Bobbie Watson’s vocals and Andy Hellaby’s bass, walking through the spider-webs on a loop.
Roger’s calm and snarling vocals deal with the character’s fate, picking up the pace before intensive percussion and violin signifies the victim’s reign of terror as she runs to find shelter before it’s too late. When you listen to the 12-minute composition The Herald, Watson’s vocals are at times reminiscent of Mellow Candle’s Alison Williams and Clodagh Simonds. It’s one of those pieces that feels like you’re walking through a forest at night, goosebumps and chills running down your spine. Wootton’s incredible half-speed guitar increases the tempo before Rob Young’s flute sets up a sun rising scenario, oboe giving us a quick view of a ghost town as Pearson’s violin takes us towards it through a dusty sandstorm. You can hear a pin drop. Roger’s theatrical performance on Drip Drip has a Quasimodo-like vibe, carrying the essence of Family’s Roger Chapman. He and Pearson duel between the rhythms and the melodies, racing towards the finish line and giving the band a chance to add some unbelievable folk-like improvisations, Roger and Colin’s guitar battling it out in the ring, Hellaby’s bass sliding and Watson’s howls nodding towards Zappa before Roger’s Munchkin-esque vocals cry out to the gods to being gentle.
Now Song to Comus, a disturbing Gothic fairy tale with a hopping and skipping dance thanks to the acoustic guitar introduction. It is perhaps one of the scariest songs tackling the subject of rape, Wootton pouring his heart out as his vocals go from calm to nightmarish terror, as if there’s no one to help the victim.
I feel that there is some acknowledgement of Anthony Burgess’ novel and Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 cult classic, A Clockwork Orange, where Alex and his droogs go into town and hurt people because they just don’t care, and of course Sam Raimi’s 1981 horror classic Evil Dead where Cheryl, portrayed by Ellen Sandweiss, is attacked and raped in the woods. Comus know how to tackle these controversial subjects and let the listener know that a dangerous monster is on the loose so you’d better get out of there as soon as possible because you’ll be next.
The Prisoner takes on the subject of mental illness, guitars suggesting the eerie scenario of going inside the asylums and meeting one of the characters sent there to be cured. It has suggestions of the case of actress Frances Farmer’s time at the Kimball Sanitarium where she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and given insulin shock therapy, before being committed again to the Western State Hospital after she physically attacked her mother, and Ken Kesey’s critically acclaimed play, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. This is a person who wants to remain free from the hell that he’s in, the issues of paranoid, delusional confusion and shock treatment, Comus tackling it very well as while it has gentle surroundings, inside the asylums, it is not pleasant. The last minute and 57 seconds sees Comus raising the pace, Pearson laying down some violin work as the person frees himself from the hospital and runs away from the treatments and torture.
The four bonus tracks on this Esoteric reissue feature three songs that were on the Maxi-Single RPM release, containing Diana plus In the Lost Queen’s Eyes and Winter is a Coloured Bird. There is also All the Colours of Darkness, which previously appeared in the 2005 box set of the band’s recordings, sung by Bobbie Watson. Acoustic and electric guitars slide back and forth with a melodic, waltz-like piano and mournful violin. Wootton’s guitars set up the snowy storm, Watson is almost like a ghostly spirit that has haunted this house for eternity, describing the chilling scenario before turning away from it, never to return.
When the album was released in 1971, it didn’t sell. Although NME and Time Out gave First Utterance generous reviews, it received negativity. But according to Comus, a postal strike might have been the reason why the album did not make an impact. The band split in ’72 until Virgin Records became interested, a second album, To Keep From Crying, being released in 1974, produced by Family’s Roger Chapman.
Nothing was heard from Comus until Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt showed his appreciation, naming his band’s third studio album My Arms, Your Hearse after a line from Drip Drip, and their eighth album Ghost Reveries where the track The Baying of the Hounds is from a line in Diana. The band reunited, thanks to Mikael’s support and persuasion to get them back together for a performance at the Mellotronen Festival in Sweden ten years ago.
And Comus are still going strong. The 20-page booklet contains liner notes by Malcolm Dome, interviews about the history of the band, photographs, promos, programs, an ad for the Penny Concert tour, and a newspaper article about the band. Comus deserves more recognition, it is time to open the doors and give them the warm hand shake they deserve. First Utterance is still one of the scariest folk albums I’ve ever listened to, and ten years later for me, it still holds up.
01. Diana (4:35)
02. The Herald (12:10)
03. Drip Drip (10:51)
04. Song to Comus (7:29)
05. The Bite (5:29)
06. Bitten (2:18)
07. The Prisoner (6:17)
08. Diana (Maxi-Single Version) (4:24)
09. In the Lost Queen’s Eyes (2:50)
10. Winter is a Coloured Bird (8:01)
11. All the Colours of Darkness (7:21)
Total Time – 71:52
Roger Wootton – Lead Vocals, Acoustic Guitar
Colin Pearson – Violin & Viola
Glen Goring – 6-string & 12-string Acoustic Guitars, Slide & Electric Guitars, Hand Drums, Vocals
Andy Hellaby – Fender Bass, Slide Bass, Vocals
Rob Young – Flute, Oboe, Hand Drums
Bobbie Watson – Vocals, Percussion
Gordon Caxon – Drums (tracks 8-10)
Record Label: Esoteric Recordings
Catalogue Number: ECLEC 2629
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 25th May 2018 (originally 1971)