Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Comsat Angels - Fiction

Fiction (1982) **1/2

Following the oppressive heaviness of A Great Cure For Insomnia, the Comsats make a 180 degree turn into a shocking lightness.  By which I mean production and instrumentation - lots more space in these arrangements (ah, finally some breathing room) - not necessarily the emotional tenor, which is as sullen and gloomy as ever.  The combination of sleek, lightweight musical presentation and oppressively sad moodswingery makes for a startingly odd, and not altogether unpleasant, emotional affect.  However, that's the nicest thing I've going to say about this album.  Once again, the Comsats offer a richly, lovingly textured album of grace and beauty that's long on atmosphere and short on memorable songs.  Oh, it's not as if they aren't penning choruses and littering their songs with elements of hooks - slowly, they're returning to songcraft after the excessively layered texturecraft of the previous album - it's just the choruses are a bit too repetitive and the songs themselves so lifeless:  there's no energy to any of them.  This has the feel of a transitional album, as the band stakes out a new style halfway between the gothy post-punk of their first two albums and the shiny synth-pop they'd spend the rest of the decade pursuing.  As such, it's the last half-way decent album they'd ever release, before completely selling out and morphing into a poor man's Flock of Seagulls.  Guitars still float around prominently in the mix, even if synths are slightly more prominent and drum & bass are once again the clear dominators.  As I said, the sound itself is pleasant enough, it's the songs that are problematic - way more inconsistent than they need to be, and frankly after the lead-off single, "After the Rain," (its self-conscious brightness and lightness a meta-commentary on how, musically speaking, they've emerged into the sunshine from the grey, dark thunderclouds of Sleep No More?), this album takes quite its time in getting going.  Boring song, boring song, boring song....hey, "Juju Money," is nice'n'moody!  Cool brooding chorus, fellas.  Some more boring songs to wade through, and the album only truly wakes up near the end.  "Pictures," isn't much to speak of - musically, it's as dull as most of the rest - but it gets by via the sharply detailed lyrical theme of ripping up photos from a failed relationship and burning them in the fire.  "It's History," the final track, is a fine little pop song on similar theme, and "What Else!" the second-to-last track, is to me the album's most successful track, with its dynamic upbeat arrangement almost making it peppy (in a surly, moody way, of course).

Anyway, this may or may not be my bidding adieu to the Comsat Angels' ouvre, depending on how much of a masochist I am:  like I said, starting with the next album, they were so desperate to sell out that they made A-Ha look cutting edge, and the rest of their '80s output is for all purposes and intents worthless synth-pop dreck.  Oh, and I should mention one bonus track on the reissue, "Mass," which is completely out of step with the rest of the album's sound - it sounds like an outtake from the Sleep No More sessions, which it undoubtedly was.

1 comment:

  1. I think you're seriously underrating the Comsats, man! Granted, Fiction is the weak link in their first three album. It's still a wonderfully arty new wave album. The main vibe that I get from it is one of "airy"-ness. Like you pointed out, the production is scaled back from Sleep No More and there's always a lot of space in the songs — sometimes to a fault, though that was what the band was all about from the beginning (stripping away the unnecessary). Besides 'After the Rain' and 'What Else?!' (which are completely great), 'Now I Know' (a Sleep No More leftover), 'Birdman' (if you can get past the stupid Temptations reference), 'Pictures' (incredible guitar sound!) and 'More' are fantastic tunes. On the Renascent reissue from 2006, they appended the non-album a-side 'Do the (Empty House)' which is one of their best songs, if you ask me (illustrates perfectly how masterful the Comsats were at building a tension and letting it lessen at crucial points). 'For Your Information' is also another non-album track from this period worth mentioning, if for nothing else than that it's a rare Comsats song where Kevin Bacon plays more than the root — it's also got a wonderful coda ("Don't forget to remember" and whatnot). I think they were a lot better at song craft than you give them credit for, especially on this album. It's a very "early 80's" sounding album and I find that it sounds best on cold overcast days or at 2am — any time when it's a good guess that most people are indoors.

    They did Chasing Shadows in 1987, which was definitely a departure from the downright bad direction of Land and 7 Day Weekend, but despite its good moments, it's still pretty uneven. The Fire on the Moon album (released as the Dream Command) is easily one of the most misunderstood albums of all time. I blame this on two things: 1) that it was obvious they could do much better (but this was obvious from Fiction onward, anyway) and 2) the terrible write-up. It's really no better or worse than Chasing Shadows, so I don't understand the vitriol in the AMG review (they give Chasing Shadows favorable comments). The BBC sessions disc (Time Considered as a Helix for Semi-Precious Stones) presents better renditions of everything except the Sleep No More songs (which admittedly lose their shine without that huge production).

    Their 90's albums (My Mind's Eye and The Glamour) are a huge improvement and are probably their fourth and fifth best albums. They are unique within the band's catalogue because they contain many moments that find the boys finally relenting and just rocking out (I think the restraint and tense atmosphere of the earlier material is what puts a lot of people off of them). My Mind's Eye seems to be everyone's pick, but I actually love super long indulgent grab bag albums, so the Renascent two disc revision of The Glamour is my pick between the two later albums. Both are completely good though; finding the band obtaining a new voice in the new decade that does their legacy wonders in the long run. Finish strong, they did.