The Comsat Angels
Waiting for a Miracle / Sleep No More / Fiction
1980 / 81 / 82
A / A+ / B
orget meticulously reasoned exe-ge-sis for the moment, have some spittle-flecked hyperbole: the Comsat Angels are one of the absolute best bands of the post-punk era and now that the thoroughly knighthood-deserving folk at Renascent have managed to license and reissue their first three albums you should really buy them straight away. You may also wish to track down the individual members of the band in order to throw money, handmade gifts, and nubile first-born daughters at them. (Lord knows they're overdue some proper adulation.)
Of course, this being the "Internet," some of the more obstinate and cynical among you may require further convincing, or perhaps even some indication of who on earth I'm talking about: the Comsats were a rather gloomy post-punk band from Sheffield who released the three records in question between 1980 and 1982. They followed a vaguely familiar trajectory, as far as post-punk goes:1980's Waiting for a Miracle was downbeat in tone but not without a certain manic, punky energy; 1981's Sleep No More progressed entirely into suffocating gloom, and 1982's Fiction showed hints of developing 80s pop stylings and the occasional glimpse of possible redemption. None of them did particularly well commercially (Polydor didn't know what to do with them), so they ended up signing to Jive and half-heartedly tried to make synthpop records for the rest of the 80s. It's a bit of a pisser, really.
Anyway, the thing about the Comsat Angels that makes them so much more deserving of attention than any ragtag collection of Factory Records mongs you care to mistakenly claim are better than them is the unique way they manage to combine a collection of incredibly spare individual elements into something that somehow sounds absolutely massive. A great deal of the credit goes to Mik Glaisher who perfected the art of Pounding All Kinds of Shit out of the Toms, while the synth, bass and guitar all contribute minimal, independently functioning fragments of sound that sometimes unite to create strange combinations of notes that ostensibly shouldn't fit together as well as they do. The sparing deployment and meticulous building of tension means that each dynamic shift ends up seeming brain-invadingly significant.
This minimalist aesthetic—initially adopted after an earlier, more noodly incarnation of the band was comprehensively blown offstage by Pere Ubu—is in something of a fledgling state on Waiting for a Miracle; the title track and ominous opener "Missing in Action" both have a particularly nervous energy to them, propelled along by Glaisher's monolithic pounding. Elsewhere there are more lumbering forewarnings of the darkness to come; the best of these, "On the Beach" and "Real Story" both evoke a weird feeling of dislocation, sharing the recurring lyrical obsessions of feeling like you're in some quasi-mystical Other Place and an odd fixation on being washed away by the sea. Steve Fellows' guitar work is at its best on these tracks, closing them both out with wistful, clanging motifs that seem to haltingly, reluctantly drag themselves along as if only half-paying attention. The closer "Postcard" offers the most obvious hint of the direction they were heading in, slowly layering a vaguely stalker-ish refrain of "just thought you'd like to know..." into an impossibly menacing mantra. There are a couple of slightly less successful moments—"Map Of The World" and "Monkey Pilot" are both likeably exuberant missteps that serve to moderate the downbeat mood somewhat—but this is still unequivocally one of the neglected classics of the period.
Sleep No More is without doubt the band's best work, sitting comfortably alongside Closer, Secondhand Daylight, and whatever album by the Cure you like this week in the pantheon of ridiculously gloomy art-punk masterpieces. The minimalism reaches a sort of obsessive, ascetic level here; everything sounds cavernous and huge (the drums on the haunting title track were infamously recorded with microphones placed at various points along a lift shaft) and every note serves solely to sustain the relentlessly doomy atmosphere. Some of the more resolutely hookless songs—especially "Diagram" and "Light Years"—initially seem impenetrable, but in context they start to make perfect sense, falling into place just as they fall apart.
Despite Sleep No More having few themes besides varying shades of paranoia, despair, and resentment, it's all tempered with a certain sense of restrained reflection that keeps it from veering too close to comedic anvil-fisted melodrama. This may owe something to the limitations of Fellows' clipped, vaguely Oakey-like vocal stylings. The subtle interplay between instruments also gives rise to the odd moment of weird beauty amidst the Sulk, evident on "Be Brave" when the almost unbearably claustrophobic verse unexpectedly gives way to a fragile guitar line that tinges the stern proclamation of "when it calls, we won't hear, we will shout and we will drown it out" with something vaguely resembling optimism. The only conventional up-tempo Rock Song, "Goat of the West," opens with a storm of white noise and slashing guitar before embarking on a run of Glaisher drumming so relentless that by the time it finally thuds to a halt you feel vicariously exhausted on his behalf. "Our Secret," however, closes the proceedings in the more familiar slow-paced vein, featuring another spindly, scarcely existent guitar line before ever-so-subtly building to a recurring drone of "we will never give it up," a device so awe-inspiringly monotonous you almost suspect they're still standing sunken-cheeked in the studio now, grinding it out forever.
They stopped at least long enough to make Fiction, widely and probably correctly acknowledged as the weakest of the three. With the band faced with a disinterested/clueless record company and uncertain how to follow up a statement as singular as Sleep No More, the result is a less consistent, assured record, but still a pretty compelling one. It's inevitably less bleak than its predecessor; the lyrics focus more on the standard ins and outs of personal relationships, and even though they're still generally downbeat—perhaps whiny—there’s a more pronounced streak of cautious optimism. If Sleep No More is the episode of South Park where Stan becomes a goth, Fiction is the bit at the end where Butters is heartbroken but still glad to be alive. That said, you can see why they never hit commercially: even the song that claims "the sky will clear again after the rain" manages to eventually end up sounding sinister. On the more animated front, "Ju Ju Money" impressively reworks an earlier, muted B-side into something more stately and dramatic, and "Now I Know" manages a decent blend of pessimism and optimism, moving from "it's so easy to believe the worst when it's all you hear" to "nothing can hurt me now I know."
Despite all this, Fiction is the album that benefits the most from the generous helping of bonus tracks; "It's History" features that watery "New Year's Day" piano effect and is one of their most convincingly Pop moments, while "(Do The) Empty House" is probably the best early 80s new wave pop-song-cum dance-craze-in-waiting about wanting to leave a dilapidated building. The bonus tracks on other discs are also exemplary: 1981 single "Eye of the Lens" in particular rivals Magazine's "Shot By Both Sides" and the Comsats' own earlier single "Independence Day" in carefully developing its paranoid tension to an absolute fever pitch. Aside from singles, there are also unreleased songs, comprised from outtakes and alternate recordings (i.e. they never appeared on the long-unobtainable 1995 RPM reissues), showcasing the sketches for what would become later work released on Jive.
The liner notes feature some insightful commentary from Steve Fellows. His reflections on his early work with the Comsats have always betrayed a certain frustration that they never went on to any sizeable success: there's an account of his 1999 meeting with John Peel detailed in the sleevenotes of the group’s BBC Sessions album, for example, where Peel reassured him that "people still listen to those records." And of course, given the rise of filesharing and the post-punk revival in the intervening years, it's been increasingly easy for The Kids to hear them on MP3s or box-sets of dubious legality. Now the arrival of full-blown Renascent reissue packages means you can enjoy them free from that guilt-like burning sensation. Even though Polydor's ownership of the recordings means the band still probably won't make any money (this is where the money-throwing in the street comes in), it doesn't hurt to give them a fighting chance at finally claiming their small-but-distinguished corner of history.