Lost in the Last Attack: Recovering the Comsat Angels

Whitney Strub

The retro-postpunk wave seems to have crested, but the Comsat Angels at their best transcended trends and flew the genre coop, traveling on their heavenly wings straight for greatness.

The Comsat Angels took their name from a JG Ballard story and titled their first EP Red Planet. The collection of the band's BBC sessions that accompanies Renascent's new reissues of the Angels' first three albums is called Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones -- this time quoting a short story that won the amazing Samuel R. Delany a Nebula Award in 1969. But anyone expecting science-fiction lyrics about spaceships and supernovas would do well to look in a musical galaxy far, far away; it's the dystopian realist strain of SF that informs the Comsat Angels. That's not radiation on the cover of their first LP, Waiting for a Miracle, it's the blurry cityscape of the band's hometown of Sheffield. And that's not giddy teenage kicks making the photo blurry; it's despondency in the face of existential futility. The band cites another science fiction tale in the song "On the Beach," but it has no need for the novel's post-apocalyptic narrative: the world of the Comsat Angels is already a bleak and hostile wasteland.

Waiting for a Miracle
1980, Polydor, re-issue: Renascent)

Sleep No More
(1981, Polydor, re-issue: Renascent)

(1982, Polydor, re-issue: Renascent)

Time Considered as a Helix
(2006, Renascent)

Not only were the Comsat Angels as grim as any of their peers, they were as great, too. But in the 26 years since Waiting for a Miracle they've been relegated to obscure cult status, overlooked even by Simon Reynolds, whose recently published Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 provides the most definitive examination yet of its topic. Those dates firmly encompass the salad days of the Comsat Angels, but Reynolds' 26-page "Core Curriculum" of the genre -- which is extensive enough to award six entries to the Desperate Bicycles -- ignores the Angels, relegating them to a brief mention among the 58 pages of also-rans filed under "Postpunk Esoterica". More esoteric than the Desperate Bicycles or Thomas Leer? That's a harsh historical verdict.

Renascent hopes to overturn it on appeal, and these four albums make an irrefutable case, even if the first two transcend the latter pair by a wide margin. Waiting for a Miracle (1980) established the band's tense pull and austere musical force, and the next year's Sleep No More followed the debut's logic to its limit, wound so tightly the soundwaves of its songs practically take corporeal form; if they did, it would be as the towering black monolith from 2001, looming overhead in physical defiance of human attempts to ascribe meaning. It's an unjustly ignored landmark in musical bleakness, and it's no surprise third album Fiction failed to maintain its intensity. That album still merits praise, as does the BBC collection of the wordy title, which documents the band's regrettable descent into a failed bid for pop stardom and thus provides the perfect closing segment to Renascent's quartet.

If Waiting for a Miracle is less gloomy than its follow-up, that hardly makes it upbeat. On the very first track singer Steve Fellows declares, "I surrender," and matters rarely perk up from there. Fellows also plays guitar, but the musical heart of the album comes from Mik Glaisher's expansive drums and Kevin Bacon's pulsating bass, which often serves as lead instrument while Fellows lets feedback ring. Andy Peake's keyboards form the crucial fourth element of the Comsat Angels, leading several choruses and piercing verses with sharp bleats of neurotic melody. The postpunk sound would quickly become a formulaic blueprint, of course, but the Angels served as one of its sonic architects. Their lyrical approach adopts the cold efficiency of a modernist architect. "Don't wanna be your baby," Fellows sings on "'Baby'", the extraneous quotation marks themselves problematizing the word. Midway through the song Fellows starts pleading, "say something... say anything," at which point he begins shouting the title repeatedly. A nominal term of endearment becomes a mark of alienation, a syllable to fill otherwise unbearably empty discursive space.

And that's the band at its most romantic; elsewhere, on the single "Total War", a relationship is militarized: "this is total war, girl." No wonder Fellows "can't relax" on the album's other single, "Independence Day." Both songs rely on stark minimalism centered around Glaisher's steady beat, which on "Total War" moves slowly enough for each thump of the kick-drum to hang in the air. The result is a heavy but powerful album, fairly unrelenting in its foreboding emotional tone but far from devoid of pop smarts. The band may be forgotten, but someone heard them: the killer bassline on "Real Story" beacame a Killers bassline when that band presumably drew inspiration from it for their own similar-sounding "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine."

Those familiar with British history understand the devastating effects of heartless Thatcher policies, but novices curious as to how dire things had already gotten by 1981 can simply hear it in the music: the grey cover of the Cure's Faith spoke for the music inside, while Echo and the Bunnymen took a temporary step away from pop on Heaven Up Here, among other examples. Sleep No More goes further into the void, sounding like an album written under self-imposed martial law. Glaisher's drums again lead the band, with a massive boom; only Public Image Ltd.'s Flowers of Romance that year relied as heavily on percussion. Like a John Bonham biography directed by Ingmar Bergman, Glaisher was recorded in a stairwell to add heft to his sound. But stomp like Bonzo he does not; restraint is the goal on this most pent-up of albums. Bacon scales things back even further, allotting exactly two notes to his bassline for the verses of "Be Brave." Tension mounts continuously throughout the album; "Dark Parade" describes the hostage situation in Iran (which helped Ronald Reagan win his role as reactionary American complement to Thatcher in 1980), but when Fellows intones, "no release," the phrase takes on meta-narratival qualities.

Sleep No More is a stunning work, even if it largely defies song-by-song breakdown in presenting a unified front. That front never falls prey to monotony, though, as the Angels display a mastery of dynamics. Glaisher's inexorable beat drops off on the ambient "Restless," and when the band next launches into the furious guitar riff of "Goat of the West" the effect is crushing. "It's so funny," Fellows sings, "but I'm not laughing." Typed out, the lyrics look dour and plain, but with the jagged guitar and Peake's sharp keyboard intervention jabbing at them, they take on the weight of an existential self-interrogation. Whatever Fellows asks himself, he answers in the negative, as the remaining tracks return Sleep to its ascetic death march.

Unable or unwilling to sustain the overwhelming gloom of its sophomore effort, the Comsat Angels turned in lighter directions on 1982's Fiction. Glaisher again leads the way: the album's first sounds are of him swishing at the hi-hat, which immediately informs one that new emotions are at play. Fellows verifies this, declaring, "the sky will clear again, after the rain." Though Glaisher soon forsakes brushstrokes for heavier stick-thuds, Fiction rarely strives for the hopelessness of its predecessor. Fellows sings with more approachable emotions and Peake asserts his presence more fully, making his keyboards a structural element of the compositions rather than its frequent previous status as a supplement. Too often the band evokes thoughts of Duran Duran's "Planet Earth" description of "some new romantic looking for the TV sound," but generally it works: "Zinger" delivers interestingly oblique lyrics, though the liner notes undermine their effect by revealing he wrote the song as part of a bet to see if he could create a song about nothing. At least it isn't about his dog Martha, I guess.

If Friction's solid but lesser songs gave some indication of new directions for the Comsat Angels, Time Considered as a Helix... confirms that. The first 13 of its 19 tracks deliver taut renditions of material from the first three albums and assorted ephemera of the period (of which Renascent has done a marvelous job collecting, bolstering each disc with non-album singles, b-sides, demos and outtakes), fleshing out the songs in new and often more human arrangements, but after the random cover of the obscure Rolling Stones song "Citadel", the tracks here reveal the unfortunate slide of the Comsat Angels into bland 1980s not-so-New Wave. "High Tide" struggles nobly to achieve mediocrity but fails in the face of its excessive running time, while "Mr. Memory" collapses under the groans of a horrid synthesizer. "Will you sail to this Island Heart," Fellows asks in another song; it's a moot question, since by the time he asks you've already drown in his newly saccharine sea.

The Angels would go on to sign with Jive, score a near-hit on the Weird Science soundtrack, and generally vanish from the public radar. A comeback in the 1990s abandoned their failed chart-pandering but proved temporary, and it's now Renascent's mission to refresh our cultural memory that this band existed and put out two great albums and one fairly strong one before succumbing to the allure of potential commercial success. That that success wouldn't come should have been obvious to a band that once sang of "waiting for a miracle, but nothing ever happens", but perhaps they got distracted by the "Ju Ju Money" on display in Fiction. At any rate, the timing may be slightly off again, as the retro-postpunk wave seems to have crested, but the Comsat Angels at their best transcended trends and flew the genre coop, traveling on their heavenly wings straight for greatness.

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