I first became aware of Comus back in early 1996, when First Utterance enjoyed its first foray onto CD. Described by a reliable publication as “Freaky Folk Prog”, the largely acoustic music, idiosyncratic vocals and traditional instruments sounded right up my particular strata. Sadly I was a penniless student at the time, so intrigued was all I could afford to be. A few years later, when my financial situation was not quite so desperate, I stumbled across a copy of First Utterance on CD. It was £30 – three times what I would normally pay for an album – I was intrigued, but I wasn’t insane. In recent years it has been reissued a number of times, both on CD and vinyl, and these days you can expect to pay as little as £18 for a nicely packaged vinyl reissue. So on the 45th anniversary of it’s release, is First Utterance still the freak-folk classic that I was promised 20 years ago?
From the moment you clap eyes on its vaguely disturbing artwork, there’s something slightly uneasy about Comus’ debut. With its chattering hand-drums, ghostly vocals and dark lyrics, First Utterance seems more than a little wrapped up in occult and pagan imagery than your standard early 70s freak-folk release. There’s something that seems underlyingly sinister about Comus, which can put the uninitiated on edge and begin to wonder what the hell they’ve let themselves in for, however if you’re prepared to put these misgivings aside, they’re a band capable of transporting you to otherwise undreamed of worlds.
If you are a folk or a prog fan, there is much to enjoy on First Utterance, with its time signatures twisting like an ancient tree’s root system, making it sound like an eco-friendly alternative to the heavy handed ambition of the majority of prog’s big hitters. The album certainly finds Comus in energetic, almost frenetic musical form, while sounding quite unlike anything else around at the time of its release. While some of the acoustic guitar work recalls Jethro Tull in their quieter moments, as does the wandering flute, vocally there are precious few reference points, although a fleeting Family influence does occasionally bubble to the surface. On the whole, First Utterance album makes precious few concessions to commerciality, with only “Diana” being anything that may possibly ever have been played on the radio at the time of its original release, and even then very, very rarely (and even now only on late night show’s like Stuart Maconie’s Freakier Zone).
If you fancy a stroll away from the well-trodden path of 70s rock and want to hear the sound of a band who sound for all the world like they are attempting to chant away some joint hallucinogenic nightmare vision, then First Utterance is for you. Indeed, as strange as it may seem, Comus have seemingly seeped down the microscopic pores of music history, to the point where their music is now more influential than it has ever been, with the ghost of its uneasy queasy sound being much sought after by the more mercurial modern day purveyors of the dark side of indie-folk.
Perhaps the fact that First Utterance is now more readily available commercially means that it’s no longer the obscure classic it once was, but that doesn’t alter the fact that it has the ability to make the first time listener wonder what the hell is going on.