Four more excellent reviews of 'East Of Sweden'; first, from Roadburn:
Praise for Comus‘ East of Sweden from San Francisco’s aQuarius Records: “Live reunion album” aren’t three words (in sequence) that we normally get too excited about. But when the band is the legendary British pagan acid folk rock act Comus, who are responsible for having made one of our very favorite albums of ALL TIME (their 1971 debut on Dawn, First Utterance), one that Andee here in fact ranks as his absolute favorite record ever, well, that’s another story.
With their cult following growing and growing over the years (with big fans like Opeth and Current 93 helping to keep their name out there), Comus finally reunited to play the Melloboat Festival in Sweden in 2008, and at the time we seriously considered buying plane tickets to fly over and attend. They’ve done some more gigging since, and Allan was in fact lucky enough to get to see ‘em at last year’s Roadburn festival.
He can attest to them being pretty darn incredible, it’s hard to imagine that their younger selves could have done much better of a job, though they might have looked the part of pixies and freaks a bit more – not everyone in the band still has long hair these days, though some of ‘em do, and actually their female singer Bobbie Watson looked like she practically hadn’t aged at all, still a bewitching blonde beauty, with a lovely lovely voice… and they really, really were enjoying themselves. As they obviously were at this historic Melloboat gig as well, and sounding fantastic especially considering it was the first time they’d played together in 34 years!!!
We’ve heard a bit of this recording already, the song ‘Diana’ from their Melloboat performance appeared on a limited edition split 7″ we listed a while back, and we noted that it sounded perhaps “even more woozy and carnivalesque and maniacal than they did back in the day”. They definitely nailed it, maybe it’s some pagan magic, ’cause remember, Comus is the ancient god of revelry, and he wasn’t gonna let anybody on that boat down.
While it’s not the same as having actually been there, of course, we figure some diehard Comus fans are gonna be curious to hear this. Especially since it includes, in addition to renditions of five of the seven songs from their debut, a cover of ‘Venus In Furs’ by the Velvet Underground! A song we guess they also did back the ’70s, the VU being an influence on them that we wouldn’t have considered, but it totally fits, creepy and catchy, with sawing violin, sounding like something that they could have written themselves for inclusion on First Utterance.
The full tracklist: ‘Song To Comus’, ‘Diana’, ‘The Herald’, ‘Drip Drip’, ‘The Prisoner’, ‘Venus In Furs’, ‘Song To Comus (encore)’. That’s right, they did ‘Song To Comus’ twice, but omitted two other songs from First Utterance, ‘The Bite’ and ‘Bitten’, oh well. At least they didn’t do a bunch of stuff from their not-so-critically-acclaimed second album… You can decide for yourself if you want to hear this, or just stick with the mystical original, some folks (including some of us) may prefer to leave live Comus to the incomparable realm of our own imaginations, where they have long dwelt…
Released on a new imprint co-run by C93′s David Tibet, this CD includes photos, lyrics and liner notes in the booklet.
At 40 years old, Aquarius is the oldest independent record store in San Francisco. We try to only carry music we love, and we’re always searching for more new, cool, weird and wonderful music. All of which we then share with you, our loyal customers.
Comus – East Of Sweden
Even in this age of Tunng, Espers and countless assorted other groovy out-there New Folk outfits who are busy fusing ancient melodies and instrumentation with samples, beats and all the trappings of hip urban coolness as fast as their little hands can programme, for most people the word ‘Folk’ still brings to mind images of worthy acoustic sing-a-longs, beards and real ale as relentlessly as driving rain on a Bank Holiday dowsing trip to Wessex. Let’s face facts, ‘Folk’ still too often struggles to shed the ‘hey nonny nonny’ and ‘all around my hat’ fuckery of its rather tiresome mid 20th Century incarnation. Don’t get me wrong, I love ‘Folk’ music, and its quiet but considerable influence in ‘Rock’ is often cruelly overlooked in favour of the more gritty and credible – and sexier – ‘Blues’ (…go out and play Traffic’s awesome “John Barleycorn (Must Die)”…), but it’s just so damned…nice. Isn’t it?
Roger Wootton, however, always had other ideas. Forming a band with several compadres in 1968, he took their name from a lesser-known 1634 work by John ‘Paradise Lost’ Milton – commonly known as Comus – in which the titular character is a malign, debauched necromancer intent on having his wicked way with the female protagonist, ‘the Lady’, and slaking his considerable libidinous appetite. For those paying attention at the time, the clue was really all in the name; that and the fact that their early rehearsals centred around acoustic jamming to Velvet Underground numbers.
Wootton and his fellow malfeasants, finding too much that was soft, cosy, cloying and false in the contemporary Hippy movement instead took the left-hand path, constructing a sound that was aggressive and confrontational, with lyrics that dwelt deep, deep in the woods, all brutal imagery of mental rage, abduction, violence, violation and murder. Wootton sublimated his difficult relationship with his mother into the band’s twisted approach, and though it doubtless made Sunday lunch a rather uncomfortable affair, it enabled him to enter fully into his jet black stage persona, their singular take on ‘Folk’ music making the band much more akin to the Punk movement of later years than to any of their Hippy peers. One key early champion was David Bowie, then beginning the early phase of his post-Space Odyssey ascent to the Rock firmament, who gave the band both an early residency his Beckenham Arts Lab and a support slot at his prestigious South Bank gig in November 1969. Legend has it that he was more than slightly aggrieved when Comus proceeded to blow him offstage. Ungrateful sprites.
The band’s first album, First Utterance, duly appeared in 1971. The sleeve featured a stark, black biro drawing by Wootton, a hairy, twisted Comus, all jutting ribs and priapic leer; it looks more Rudimentary Peni than Pentangle. The music contained within the grooves was, for the simple Hippy folkie, no nicer than the cover, seven original compositions of woodland Paganism and violent physical communion. This was no ‘getting it together in the country,’ no peaceful rural backdrop for a sunshine dream of self sufficiency and dilettante agriculture. This was the dark, evil spirit of the forest coming to defile you, slit your throat and dump the body deep amongst the trees where it would never be found. Perhaps unsurprisingly, hostile critical reviews and general public revulsion soon terminated the band’s existence, with their last live performance taking place in 1972. Two years later the rump Comus did reunite, with assistance from members of Henry Cow and Gong, but the resulting album To Keep From Crying fared no better than its predecessor. And that, as they say, was the end of that. Except, of course, that it was not.
All through the shock and awe of the Punk years, the Eighties alternative and the Nineties million fractured sub-genres, Comus’ reputation grew steadily attracting audiences drawn by their unforgiving musical danse macabre. When Current 93 covered “Diana” on their 1990 Nurse With Wound/Sol Invictus split LP set, Comus’ status as neglected British experimental progenitors was complete.
In Sweden too, the legend of Comus had done nothing but prosper like a strangling vine over the intervening decades, spearheaded by the unflagging patronage of Mikael Akerfeldt, leader of progressive Death Metal outfit Opeth. Then in 2007, Akerfeldt’s friend and promoter Stefan Dimle decided to take proceedings one step further, and, with huge amounts of cajoling and pleading, persuaded the slumbering homunculus of Comus to awaken from its long sleep in order to perform at his Melloboat Festival. Finally, in March 2008, over thirty five years after their last performance, Comus once more appeared live, leading their deathly chant across the Melloboat, which took place over 40 hours onboard the Silja Symphony, a 204m luxury cruiser, and the largest ferry on the Baltic Sea. East of Sweden captures the band’s set, as uncompromising in 2008 as it had been almost forty years beforehand.
Kicking off with “Song to Comus” in which our eponymous anti-hero enjoys some unabashed maidenhead puncture in the forest (“Naked flesh, flowing hair, her terror screams they cut the air”), the band follow with “Diana,” another threatening tale of chastity meeting with lust under the woodland canopy and coming off a distinct second best. Featuring some wonderfully evocative violin from Colin Pearson, “Diana” is pure Wicker Man, a cheery sing-a-long for a pleasant evening spent the lounge bar of the Green Man as a virgin policeman blazes away merrily outside. At the track’s end however, instead of a stentorian “You’ll simply never understand the true nature of sacrifice…” the band instead greet and acknowledge the audience, “You are amazing. Thank you. What a welcome.” It is a brief moment, but genuine and truly heartfelt. Comus may have been curled up asleep in his verdant woody bower these last thirty six years, but now he’s back, and his followers have at last gathered to worship and give praise.
“The Herald” follows, a beautiful and gentle respite from the business of depravity, sung with ageless grace by Bobbie Wilson, her voice belying the years with its clarity and purity. Still, after that brief moment of quiet contemplation it’s time to return to the business of the day once more; primeval explosions of lust amongst the trees. “Drip Drip” is truly Comus’ most demented piece of work, nine minutes of pure musical psychosis in which Wootton gives vent to every last piece of primitive evil dwelling within him, “Your lovely body soon caked with mud, as I carry you to the grave, my arms your hearse.” When he repeats “I’ll be gentle” over and over in a voice that sounds like it has cloven hooves, it is, quite frankly, difficult to believe him. Drip, drip from your sagging lip indeed.
Leaving the forest temporarily, “The Prisoner” is a tale of electro-shock therapy conducted on a mental patient confined to an institution and praying for release from the living Hell being endured. Clearly, even when Comus leaves his woodland lair for the city, nothing endured is any sweeter. Returning to the band’s very early days, “Venus In Furs” takes the Velvets’ magnum opus and runs it through the dark folk filter, turning Lou Reed’s tales of urban NYC sado-masochism into a natural descendant of traditional British murder ballads such as “Pretty Polly.” Finishing off with an encore reprise of “Song To Comus,” the CD ends with the band basking in the adulation that had been denied to them decades before, “Bloody Hell have we enjoyed it.” And why not? There can be fewer sweeter victories to savour than having been far ahead of the curve, and the opportunity to come back much later and be vindicated for it.
Coming only a week after a Justice Secretary has faced raging volleys of approbation for his comments on the nature of rape and the sexual exercise of power, doesn’t the music presented on this CD tread a much more ethically dubious line? Indeed it does, and no band recording their first album today could expect to produce such material and find any level of mainstream musical acceptance. Yet it has always been the business of traditional folk music to delve into the darkest recesses of the human psyche and explore the horrors that lurk there. Like myth in its wider sense, such folk songs were the framework in which the darkest human perception and behaviour were explored, codified and handed down as both example and warning. The music of Comus forms a seamless part of that continuum, as if it had been written in 1671 rather than 1971, and sounds as troubling, evil and thrilling as at any time since.
Just stay out of the woods, OK?
Recorded live on a boat in 2008, this CD documents the first performance of Comus in over 30 years. Evidently whatever pact they made to make First Utterance had a retirement clause in it as the band sounds remarkably potent here. Had this been an archive recording from their creative zenith, I would have been impressed but bearing in mind this is the first time they had taken a stage together in over 30 years, this is phenomenal.
Playing at the request of Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt (a massive fan of Comus to the point of naming their fantastic 1998 album My Arms, Your Hearse after Comus lyrics), the group made their way out to a metal festival based on a cruise ship setting sail from Stockholm where they received a rapturous reception based on the sounds of this recording. This set was originally issued as a DVD a couple of years ago and while this CD covers the exact same material, it is nice to have this music in a format that is more user friendly (I am not one for sitting down with music DVDs very often).
Opening with a powerful version of "Song to Comus," it is difficultto be anything other than blown away by the primal, sexual force of the music. Roger Wootton’s voice sounds as demonic here as it did on First Utterance and he sounds like the feral forest entity Comus in human form. The Bacchanalian frenzy continues with "Diana" which sees Colin Pearson’s violin cutting through the music like the baying hounds through the undergrowth chasing the song’s namesake. As good as this is, the highlight of East of Sweden is undoubtedly "Drip Drip" (incidentally my favorite song from First Utterance). Violent, murderous and exquisitely played, this is the perfect example of why Comus were such an important and thrilling band. Importantly, it shows that they still have the potential to stir up the same feelings and excitement in listeners today.
While there are no new Comus songs on the album, they do include a cover of The Velvet Underground’s "Venus in Furs" at the end of their set. It does not have the same sheer power of the original but no VU cover has ever really managed to surpass the originals. Yet, it fits better with the material from First Utterance than Comus’ own second album. The CD finishes with the encore: another rendition of "Song to Comus," which riles the crowd up as it did at the beginning of the concert. It says an awful lot that an artist can play the same song twice and come out of it sounding like heroes. Granted they are violating and frightening heroes but heroes nonetheless.
However, East of Sweden is still a ferocious and essential recording that is as good to my ears as First Utterance.
Last, from Record Collector:
Comus - East Of Sweden
Comus’ debut album, 1971’s First Utterance, sounds as fresh and relevant today as when it was recorded, connecting with fans of modern psych-folk such as Tuung. Thankfully, the band that helmed it are more than just another notch on collectors’ shelves, thanks to the CD reissue of their two albums, as well as modern day champions such as Mikael Åkerfeldt of Opeth and David Tibet of Current 93.
A concurrent surge in interest led to the amazing spectacle of a Comus reunion at the Melloboat Festival in Sweden in 2008. This CD captures that concert with stunning results. Song To Comus was always ahead of its time, and the reconstituted band attack it with passion, as Roger Wootton’s guttural vocals give the song an – at times – dub reggae echo. Driven by violin, percussion and Wootton’s plaintive delivery, Diana swivels and pivots to perfection – as do The Herald and The Prisoner, while there’s even the added appeal of a cover of the Velvets’ Venus In Furs, a perfect song for Comus to take on.
Having made additional performances since this fantastic show, we hope and wait for news on the band being lured into the recording studio again. If they are, you’ll read about it here.