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Comus - East of Sweden: Live at the Melloboat Festival 2008

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Artist: Comus

Album: East of Sweden: Live at the Melloboat Festival 2008

Label: Gnostic Dirt

Review date: Jul. 26, 2011

The Velvet Underground was always ahead of its time, even in 1992. The seminal quartet’s short-lived reunion and tour presaged by more than a decade the current deluge of reunited bands. Whether it’s nostalgia or simply the power of suggestion, it seems that no band is resistant to the temptation to try it again, whether for a one-off performance , à la Led Zepplin in 2007, or a full-on rejuvenation of a career, like the irrepressible Mission of Burma. Collecting original members can be a chore, or often an impossibility, but any thorny issues of authenticity seem to matter little to those fans who get the chance to relive their past, or experience something that they didn’t (or couldn’t) the first time around.

For fans of Comus, it’s definitely the latter. The band existed, largely unheard of, for only a few years, releasing a pair of albums before fading away to little notice in 1974. I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer a public service announcement at this juncture, so here it goes: if you’re as yet unfamiliar with Comus’ 1971 debut, First Utterance, cease reading immediately, and search it out. The Dawn Records original pressing is collectors’ fodder that often goes for three digits, but it’s been reissued more than once, and should be easy (and cheap) to find online. I’ll not spend more time spreading the gospel of First Utterance; suffice it to say that it’s an excellent collection of twisted folk tunes that seethe with a sense of the sinister and a maniacal energy that still hold the power to give listeners a thrill (and a case of the creeps) four decades later. First Utterance is the sort of record that seems to have exploded in popularity in the age of the internet and 180-gram vinyl reissues, its popularity a reverse of the Long Tail, a once obscure record now beloved by listeners all over the musical spectrum.

So if Comus is more popular than ever, who can blame the band for getting back together? More than three decades after disbanding, Comus took the stage at the Melloboat Festival in Sweden at the behest of Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt and festival organizer Stefan Dimle. For the concert, the band dusted off its early classics, smartly avoiding its second album, To Keep From Crying, which is kryptonite to many of the band’s most ardent fans. East of Sweden concentrates on old favorites, but it’s not the perfect setlist. I can understand the desire to both open and close with “Song to Comus,” but including it twice on the disc seems like overkill, and while the unexpected cover of “Venus in Furs” doesn’t sound all that out of place, why add it to the setlist instead of another 1971 original? Still, the album’s got the good stuff; the best songs from First Utterance are all here, and, all these years later, Comus can still perform them pretty well.

In some ways, East of Sweden is a rousing success. It’s a new Comus release, after all, and a reunion album that’s not at all embarrassing. A modern revisiting of this material could have easily sounded far more cheesy and theatrical than it does here. The instrumentation is admirably close to the originals and the performances not spot-on, but satisfying, and very much in the spirit of the 1971 recordings. There isn’t an abundance of new-fangled flourishes or showiness, though the clarity of the production and the mix lends the disc a noticeably modern feel. That’s a little disappointing, but one could hardly hope for a 2008 live recording to ape the production of First Utterance, and it’d be an annoying exercise in atavistic artifice anyway. Roger Wootten’s voice, always one of the most unique facets of Comus’ sound, has, of course, changed over the three-plus decades, but his attempts to match the idiosyncrasy of his much-younger self are admirable. He has a tendency to sound as though he’s playing a part; I’ve never thought that in 1971 he was worshipping the depraved, virgin-raping Greek god after which the band was named, or roaming English forests in dead bodies to despoil, but there’s something eerily convincing about his singing on First Utterance that’s missing here. He does the necessary vocal acrobatics, jumping from sinister troubadour to growling animal, but the repeated assurance of “I’ll be gentle, I’ll be gentle” in the middle of the song “Drip Drip” doesn’t elicit the same goosebumps as in the original. Bobbie Watson’s voice has aged quite well; her ethereal delivery has lost little of its allure over the years, and that plays a large part in how well Comus pull off the prettier material on the disc, like “The Herald” or the beginning of “The Prisoner.” A band can never sound the same as it did thirty years ago, but Comus manages the reemergence better than most.

So why do I have the feeling that East of Sweden may never enter my CD player again? I think the key is that this disc fills no void, and adds nothing substantial to what Comus has already done. Grateful Dead show swappers and Pearl Jam completists may disagree, but not every concert needs to be available on recorded media. Most are undoubtedly more special to those in attendance, and there’s little a CD, cassette, mp3 or vinyl side can to do to recreate the experience. East of Sweden documents one of those shows: Seeing the band live now would be a richly surreal experience, and would have seemed like an impossibility only a few years ago, but when better versions of these songs exist, this disc is more a curiosity than a revelation. Most Comus fans will want to hear it, but outside of its novelty, East of Sweden offers little temptation to return.

By Adam Strohm

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