The Comsat Angels
s far as I’m concerned, there can never be too much said about the Comsat Angels. So, as if by way of confirmation, here’s verbiage aplenty on the Renascent release which escaped being manhandled into an already slightly rotund review of their latest batch of reissues. In fact, To Before rightfully earns the individual treatment. It’s not a re-release of a previously available album—this is a double-disc collection of demos, out-takes, and items hauled out of those ever-mysterious “archives.”
Spanning a chunky 1978-1993 period (essentially covering the full discography, minus The Glamour—which presumably nicked all the unreleased tracks for its own bumper reissue), “To Before” dips in and out of the Comsats story across twenty four tracks. That’s a symmetrical twelve for each CD, number fans. Clearly, engineering some sort of cohesion in this situation is going to be tricky, but the running order has been as intelligently sequenced as possible in order to avoid the terrifying “haphazard collection of unconnected tracks” syndrome. Broadly speaking, Disc 1 deals with early efforts from the ‘78-‘82 period, encompassing the Waiting for a Miracle / Sleep No More / Fiction trilogy—and including a couple of numbers recorded in a Sheffield cellar—whilst Disc 2 handles ‘82 onwards.
Sitting pretty in the center of the former is the first ever Comsat Angels single release “Red Planet” (with related b-sides “I Get Excited” and “Specimen No 2” dotted close by), providing an intriguing look at one of the earliest incarnations of the band. More rambunctious than what was to follow on Waiting for a Miracle, “Red Planet” is a punky tale of colonizing a curious version of Mars resplendent with palm trees and swimming pools. Bass and guitar follow a unified, rapidly ascending-descending riff, which periodically and spikily reappears as Steve Fellows works through the weekly terraforming procedure in true Biblical style (“On the third day / We’ll get some atmosphere!”)
Other cuts pursue a more predictable path for those familiar with the group’s first few records. It’s worth noting at this point that nothing featured on To Before has cropped up as bonus material for previous Renascent reissues—though, for example, non-demo versions of “Mass” and “Work” have. As has the final version of single “Eye of the Lens,” presented here in demo form (one of those aforementioned cellar recordings). In keeping with the band’s output at the time, it’s a tense affair; combining a pervasive fear of continual surveillance (still topical) with the knock-on effect this is having on our unfortunate protagonists social life. The demo presents a track nearing completion, with spindly, coiling threads of guitar and oppressive rhythm section already in place—along with a finished set of lyrics. Considering the location of recording, it all sounds remarkably fresh.
Onwards, then, to Disc 2. This one took me slightly by surprise, because the bulk of inclusions are from less feted ages of Comsat history and, in the case of a couple of tracks from the Fire On The Moon album, eras which frankly aren’t meant to be much cop. That’s what I get for listening to received opinion rather than the records themselves (though, in fairness, Fire on the Moon was given such a limited release that it’s practically impossible to get hold of). Whittled down to highlights of the Jive and Island Records periods, the tracklist can certainly go toe-to-toe with the first disc without any worries whatsoever.
Again, almost without exception, the demos presented here sound so close to completed tracks as to be almost indistinguishable from final versions. Personal favorites are the heavy bass groove of “Under the Influence” (plucked from the Chasing Shadows sessions) and the relationship-on-the-edge drama of “Something’s Got to Give,” dusted with brief bursts of piano and delicately plucked chords. There’s much to admire elsewhere too—be it the prowling “Venus Hunter” or the slightly bizarre “I.K.T.F.” with its jerky beat and spiralling, Catherine Wheel keyboard effects.
At this point, I desperately have to avoid the cardinal reviewing sin of saying “so hey, if this is the sort of thing you like, you’ll like this!” Unavoidably, though, this really is a release for dedicated fans and completists. Excellent though it is for those persons, a newcomer to the Comsat Angels experience would be far better served by one of their first three albums. That said, for a set of demos spanning a fifteen-year period, both discs seem to flow with more coherence than they have any right to—a testament to the consistent quality and unity of sound exhibited by the band throughout their career. A word of minor warning (echoed by the album sleeve itself), the audio quality, especially on disc 1, can take a bit of a dip at times. On the whole though, both are remarkably clean-sounding. Mixed news if you’re an obsessive Comsats fan on a budget for the month: this rarities compilation is definitely worth the pennies.