Monday, December 13, 2010

The Comsat Angels - Waiting For a Miracle

Waiting for a Miracle (1980) ****

A striking debut that rightfully deserves its place as a post-punk masterpiece next to Unknown Pleasures and Boy; why the Comsat Angels never earned the recognition and commercial success of U2 and Joy Division is one of those great injustices that the fickle music industry leaves for us musical scholars to rediscover, 30 years too late to do the band members any good.  Like those two bands, the Comsats employ an insistent bass-driven rhythm section to deliver a gloomy yet colorful set of songs that emphasize atmospherics and mood, yet by no means ignore the art of the hook and melody (found as often in the bass as guitar lines, in classic post=punk style).  The Comsat Angels (name derived from a J.G. Ballard short story) add a retro-Doorsy keyboardist to the mix, lightening the musical mood considerably - a humourless, sleaze-free Stranglers wouldn't be out of place as another reference point (the first track even mentions aliens).  Might as well mention another keyboard-heavy post-punk band of the time, Magazine, while we're at it.  And the Sound, another U.K. band that debuted the same year with a very similar sound - serendipity it doubtless was.  Perhaps there was something grim and moody in the air in jolly post-industrial England at the time.  

Good, now I've gotten the obligatory spot-the-influences out of the way, let's get on to the songs.  There aren't any serious misfires, except for the garage raver, "Home on the Range," (the fastest song; the frenetic pace does not suit their flair for melodrama, which requires a slow to medium tempo), and "We Were," a plodding, tune-free chant that, with its fading in-and-out ghostly keyboards and ringey guitar dirge-clang, sounds like an outtake from PIL's Metal Box.  Both are not so coincidentally the final two songs; the Angels are conventional enough to frontload the album with their strongest songs.  It opens with "Missing in Action," their most urgent rocker, though the overall thinness of the production does the band's melodramatic minimalist maximalism few favors (making a lot out of less, in other words, and Comsats are nothing if not widescreen dramatic).  The thin production, however, adds a fragile dimension to the paranoid atmosphere, as the band creates a slightly 'off', unsettling tone by effectively deploying the spaces between the instruments and notes.  "Independence Day," was the single, and their only U.K. hit several years later in a denser, re-recorded version, though I don't hear it as all that stronger than most of the other material.  The lyrics seem to concern romantic travails blown up to existential crisises, not as poetic as Ian Curtis, with phrases such as the punch line to the title track ("but nothing ever happens") leaping out as vocal hooks.  A near-essential classic that belongs in the collections of discerning teenagers with sullen gothic tendencies, or those who simply enjoy driving, bass & keyboard heavy rock music with an extremely melodramatic flourish.

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