Comsat Angels - "It's History (Boxset)

Comsat Angels - "It's History (Boxset)"

Reviewed by: Seth Styles

  My ex-roommate, one of those earth-tone clowns spawned from the grime of the early-90s grunge scene, often eyed my collection of post-punk and new wave music with disdain, proclaiming that music from the 1980s didn’t “have the same honesty and raw realism of bands like Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins.” Had I owned this collection of Comsat Angels albums and rarities, I might have been able to shut him up a lot more quickly. At their best, The Comsat Angels can produce sincere raw emotion without the flowery melodrama of some of their contemporaries. That’s not to say they lack flourish, but where other great bands like The Chameleons shove your head into a sonic field of twisting guitar melody, The Comsat Angels prefer to tell you direct and to the point by forging a straightforward melody that will burrow into your cortex and remain there on loop.

  It’s History collects the initial three albums by The Comsat Angels with bonus tracks as well as a fourth disc of demos and outtakes. A dissonant melange of rusty guitar noise ushers in their debut album Waiting For a Miracle and it sounds like it’s going to be a rather grim affair. Within moments, “Missing in Action” gives way to bouncing post-punk held together with maudlin sinews of seedy keyboards and a chorus that follows you like a shadow. Moments seem upbeat but the stripped wavering vocals betray a sense of universal melancholy. “Baby” begins with a vocal melody introducing crashing guitars and collapsing bass that seems to have directly influenced Failure’s Ken Andrews, all backed by horror film synth screeches. A juxtaposition of cold, geometric post-punk guitar plucking and warm vocals with an almost adolescent charm create the sound scape for “Independence Day”, a song which must have launched a thousand terrible hardcore bands that never got the point. New wave stomping cannot hide the heartbreaking chord changes of “On the Beach”, a mid-tempo dirge that unintentionally captures unrequited love in its quivering, beautifully insecure guitar-bass combinations, climaxing in a subtle, faded repetition of suppressed, ominous guitar screaming. The album officially closes with one of The Comsat Angels’ creepiest offerings, a tune called “Postcard”...a sort of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” turned on its dizzy head with apocalyptic synth drones and stabs that support the bitter accusatory vocals in a scathing verbal murder out of vendetta. The bonus tracks, including one of three versions of “Juju Money” that this collection offers, are well-chosen and classics in their own right. “Home is the Range” draws a lot from its punk roots and it’s a fun, bumpy ride though not devoid of a sense of resentment. Creepy, chanting voices like a chorus from the dead set the stage for the odd number “We Were.” The whimsical keyboard line somehow manages to add to the song’s haunted qualities.

  The sophomore effort, Sleep No More, leaps out at you in a fluid stream of guitar, but the vocals of “Eye Dance” bring that familiar moodiness back. In fact, The Comsat Angels seem even more weighed down by gloom, despite the dynamism of the music. The album comes on swinging with the beating heart and anchored limbs of Harrison Bergeron, but just like Vonnegut’s protagonist, succumbs to the tragedy. The chorus of “Be Brave” echoes this defiance in spite of being dragged down by the concerted effort of wonderfully mucky bass and synth. Ominous themes continue through the thump and drone of “Dark Parade” which allows the black clouds to part just enough to allow for a cascade of tumbling, twinkling piano. At the core of Sleep No More, it feels as though we’ve boarded up the windows but find ourselves standing on the beach, hammer in hand, gazing at the oncoming storm that hovers above undulating sea as sand and palm trees whip around us in a frenzy of tension. “Light Years” details the will to continue forward despite the inevitable fall. Escalating guitars soldier on over a beat that keeps things slow but steady, yet all come tumbling down repeatedly like a memory of failure on instant replay. Shockingly, “Our Secret” ends things on a defiantly optimistic, yet classically somber note with the repeated chorus of “we will never give it up.” The five bonus tracks on this disc yield one of The Comsat’s best songs, “Eye of the Lens.” Paranoid, perplexed, poppy...the sting of betrayal should never sound so sweet. Another classic, “(Do The) Empty House” is a fast-paced song armed with the sort of angular guitars that give fans of Will Sergeant and Ian McCulloch reason to get out of bed.

  The third album, Fiction, begins with “After the Rain”, a slow number full of wind chime guitars that sounds so uncharacteristic, you may start to wonder if they’ve gone a bit soft. The aggressive new wave disco of “Zinger” may cause some flailing limbs, but this still seems to be a new Comsat Angels. Could it be that they’ve finally gotten over it? “Now I Know” answers that question with a familiar bewildered vulnerability and twilight chord changes. The Comsat Angels have progressed, but not discarded the honestly ominous nature that gave them their identity. On Fiction, they’ve shed just enough light on their subjects to remind us how dark they were in the first place. “Juju Money”manages to sound defeated and victorious simultaneously amidst confident vocal proclamations, textured synth myriads, subterranean bass and a veritable hall of mirrors guitar vertigo. “Pictures” adds a rare touch of elegance to the maudlin affair while “What Else!?” caps things off with a paranormal mist of neo-psychedelic guitar mixed with bizarre synths that you’d expect from Missing Persons, Japan or maybe even early Prince. Of the four bonus tracks available on the Fiction disk, “Mass” remains closest to the brilliantly moody material characteristic of The Comsat Angels, yet the true diamond is the multi-faceted “It’s History” which keeps one face to the past while looking boldly forward. Optimism and heartbreak synchronize in the simple, yet brutally honest guitar strumming and weary vocals.

  The bonus disc is comprised of several demos as well as some unreleased material, some dating back to pre-Waiting For a Miracle sessions. “Work” and “Time To Burn” prove that the band had a little further to go before they encountered the dark recesses that inspired raWaiting For a Miracle, as the songs are catchy, yet lack a lot of the gravity of later material. That’s not to say the early Comsat Angels were a sing-a-long pop group, in fact “Time To Burn” touches on a few rare frown-inducing chords. The exclusion of “For Your Information” from the Fiction album should raise a few eyebrows, as it manages to deliver a montage of sunset chords caught up in a truly manic beat. The bonus disc also shows some sides of The Comsat angels that, in the given context, are outright bizarre. The Egyptian-meets-Atari bleepings of “I Know That Feeling” are followed by the toy keyboard marooned mania of “Island Heart.” Each displays a bizarre charm, but sacrifices a little of that classic honesty for an artificial heartache fantasy.

  From what I’ve heard, The Comsat Angels take a kamikaze nosedive following their first three albums, so It’s History is the ideal necessity with it’s multitude of bonus material. It’s pretty affordable, but limited to only 2000, so it may be long gone by the time you read this. Yet if you desire ominous truth without the nasal voice of generation x pushing you to commit suicide, seek out any of the above albums or this box set.

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