Comus's sinister weirdness.
Recently, one of those blogs gave me the opportunity to hear a record that I've long wondered about, that being Comus's "First Utterance". People speak of it, seemingly in hushed tones, as an incredibly frightening record, sounding both anachronistic and utterly alien. I downloaded it having no idea what to expect; after all, plenty of records that I've been told about over the years have let me down, and nothing seems more likely to do so than a record that is supposedly scary. It's hard to do terror right, and a lot of books, movies, and even albums that I've come to looking for scares have left me only with gross-outs or vague feelings of letdown.
See, I don't know why it is--and trying to figure it out would surely not lead me to any healthy conclusions--but I love to be sincerely frightened by a work of art. It's an experience I enjoy. I like horror movies that scare me, which is why I consider "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" a masterpiece (I shouldn't even have to say it, but of course I mean the 1973 original, directed by Tobe Hooper), "Maniac" surprisingly good, and "Last House On the Left", which continually kills its own mood due to use of inept comic-relief passages, an ambitious failure. On the literary side of things, it's H.P. Lovecraft who has been most successful at frightening me, though Stephen King has done a pretty good job at points himself. The closest I've ever come to being frightened by a work of music was my experience with "Through Silver In Blood" by Neurosis, which gave me nightmares once when I tried to listen to it while falling asleep. Bad idea.
Anyway, Comus sounds a lot different than Neurosis. In fact, it sounds very different from pretty much any album I've ever owned. The closest reference point I have here is Joanna Newsom, who uses anachronistic instrumentation and a voice that sounds like it came unspoiled from the Scottish highlands (or the deep woods of the Appalachians) 100 years ago to create fundamentally modern music. When I listen to her sing in her yowling tones and play her harp, I can hear elements of music from hundreds of years in the past, but her songwriting style is very much in the modern vein of pop-based singer-songwriter music, and her lyrics are generally about normal experiences that 21st century Americans go through on a regular basis. She writes about sad things, like her dog dying, or relationships ending, or being too depressed to get out of bed. Her songs are ones I can relate to.
Comus may use similarly anachronistic instrumentation, but their emotional perspective is completely different. In fact, I'd say that it's fundamentally alien, not only to modern people, but probably to any normal human from any point in history. Their songs are written from the perspective of solitary wood-dwelling hermits, who may not even be completely human. They sing about rape, murder, and insanity, generally from the perspective of the person committing whatever crime is being discussed. When female vocalist Bobbie Watson sings, the vocals are surprisingly angelic and pretty, and her lead vocal on the album's longest song, "The Herald", combined with that song's more arcadian musical and lyrical tone, makes that song the most pleasant the album has to offer. However, "The Herald"'s 12 minutes are atypical of the record as a whole, and when bandleader Roger Wootton handles the vocals, as he generally does, things are far more disturbing.
Wootton's voice is as bizarre and, to the newcomer, off-putting as Joanna Newsom's often is, but does not establish the human connection with the listener that Newsom at least strives for. Instead, he mixes his bizarre voice with disturbing lyrical subject matter to create the impression in the listener's mind of a demonic woodland creature with murder on its mind. In the album's opener, "Diana", Wootton sings over a churning groove about how the title character, Diana, better keep her feet up, because he's coming to get her. The song details a chase through a night-enshrouded forest that sounds like something out of an H.P. Lovecraft story. In fact, several points on this album make me think of the moment some hapless Lovecraftian protagonist stumbles into a clearing in the woods where degenerated humans frolic around a bonfire, playing primitive music and engaging in some disturbing custom like human sacrifice. "Drip Drip" is a good example of this, musically if not lyrically. The words tell a story of a post-murder body dump. Wootton uses ornate descriptive language to tell of the burial of a freshly murdered body. "I carry you to your grave, my arms your hearse," he sings, in a line that will doubtless evoke recognition in Opeth fans reading this entry. It is obvious just how profound an influence Comus has had on Opeth's lush, acoustic soundscapes even without catching this particular lyric, but realizing that Opeth used a Comus lyric for an album title just makes it that much clearer.
The song starts out with a slower, more stately tempo, as acoustic guitars, hand drums, and violin back Wootton's only vaguely human vocals. However, as it proceeds, things get more frenzied. I've heard a lot of people in recent years use terms like "psychedelic folk" and "freak folk" to describe artists like Devendra Banhart or the aforementioned Ms. Newsom, but those artists never sounded nearly as freakish or psychedelic as Comus do to me during the middle section of "Drip Drip." Guitars strum frantically, violins churn out speedy runs of higher and higher notes, drums are pounded and rattled... it's a full-on acoustic freakout. I like it for the same reasons that I love the modally-based raveup sections that artists like the Yardbirds would include in the middle of their more interesting garage-rock tunes. Things sound like they're going to spin out of control, and they very nearly do before the tape appears to slow down and the entire frenetic jam session winds downward into a still upbeat but more controlled coda.
"Song To Comus" follows "Drip Drip" and discusses the band's apparent patron saint, the Greek god of revelry and "nocturnal dalliance." The song tells of said Greek god playing music that enchants a young maiden. At first, she's bewitched, and enjoying partying with Comus, but then he rapes her and takes her virginity. It's creepy, to say the least. This song, which at seven and a half minutes is medium-length for Comus, is a pretty decent summation of the album as a whole. Beginning with some rather sweet music, it only opens itself up into its full and frightening glory after it's gotten a little ways into the proceedings. Sure enough, by the time the song is two-thirds over, the band is playing frantically once again. It's not the freakout of "Drip Drip"'s climactic passage, but it's close. And right at its peak comes this disturbing lyrical passage: "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." Immediately after Roger Wootton bellows the final line of this verse, the music drops almost completely out, and the band plays a very soft reprise of the first verse, Wootton whispering the words in a way that highlights their sinister nature, one that the listener could have missed the first time. There's no missing it now.
There's plenty more of this kind of stuff here, from "The Bite", a tale of the pursuit and eventual hanging of a Christian, to "The Prisoner", which details a pre-modern incarceration in an asylum from the point of view of the incarcerated. I haven't yet listened to it in the dead of night with the lights off, to see exactly what sort of effect it can have on me when I give it the optimum conditions with which to work, and I'm not sure I'm going to. I see way too much potential here for this album to scare the shit out of me, and I don't really know if I even want to subject myself to that. As it is, even listening to it right now, at 3 PM on a sunny afternoon, it's vaguely disturbing. That said, it's also an excellent example--certainly the best I've encountered thus far--of psychedelic folk. It can be enjoyed on many other levels besides that of the fright factor, and I will certainly continue to do so.
Comus - Song To Comus
[And for the record, since I know that this record commands a high price, there is a blog out there with the album in its entirety posted. If you're good with Google, I'm sure you can find it.]