Prog Tuesday: Comus – First Utterance

It’s difficult for me to think of any folk album that’s quite as memorable and unique as Comus’ debut, ‘First Utterance’. Although they were something of a one-album wonder, this UK act has gained a fair deal of love and admiration from the progressive community, as well as a recent wave of interest in light of Opeth frontman Mikael Akerfeldt’s fandom. While many remember folk from this period to be softened by hippie love and drug-induced compassion, ‘First Utterance’ has stood the test of time particularly because it went against those norms. Instead of a pleasant campfire singalong, Comus whisks the listener away to a dark and primal realm of tribal mysticism, violence, and mental illness. For all of its creepy atmosphere however, there’s something remarkably beautiful about the music that Comus has made here. I have no problem calling this one of my favourite albums of all time.

Comus takes no time to get things started; seconds into the opener ‘Diana’, a listener will have already heard the strangeness that dominates the band’s sound. Although traditional folk instruments are used, they’re delivered in a very quirky, even charming way. As the album rolls on, there are more conventional sections where acoustic bluegrass skills are sported, but the backbone of these songs lies in the strange sounds Comus are able to make with the acoustic guitar, a violin, or a flute. There is not conventional rock drumming on this album, but tribal beating that commends the primal horror vibe that the music gives off. As dark as the tone for this album is, the music itself enjoys some very upbeat moments, although the out-of-tune freaky garble is never far behind.

Where I think many of the album’s detractors may stake their bid is with the vocal work on the album. There are multiple vocalists on the album, and even more vocal styles at that. With ‘Diana’, we hear the music presented by a strange warble that sounds like something a goblin would chant to his forest tribe. ‘The Herald’ is the most beautiful piece here, with Bobbie Watson’s higher pitch virtually defining what the term ‘haunting’ can mean. The lyrics are almost unrelenting dark and disturbing, as if the band is pitching six or seven different ideas for cult horror films. Rape, murder, and severe mental psychosis are never too extreme for Comus. Of course, many listeners may be put off by the fairly grim nature of the lyrics, but in all truth, the disturbing lyrical themes are a hell of a lot more interesting than the typical acid folk tripe about loving your fellow human, or dancing with beautiful people, man.

As this and many other reviews will indicate, ‘First Utterance’ is a love-or-hate album, and for good reason. The band takes quite a few risks here, and as a result, it was panned at the time of its release. In hindsight, it’s seen as one of the great underground gems of progressive folk, and I would even say that it’s the best thing to have come out of folk rock in its time. Listeners with a mind twisted enough for itshould find an experience here that will be damned near impossible to forget.

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