Like Joy Division and the Cure, Sheffield’s Comsat Angels mastered the art of atmospherics; only nominally involved in rock’n’roll at the outset, they were actually interested in creating haunting mood music. Firm beats play against melancholy melodies and hushed vocals to create the impression of eavesdropping on someone’s inner turmoil, an approach which is morosely fascinating on Waiting for a Miracle (hailed in one UK paper as the greatest debut LP of all time, it remains a stunning masterwork) and tunes like “Total War” and “Independence Day” (both included live on the 1984 EP).
The Eye of the Lens 12-inch consists of four non-LP cuts (one later re-recorded for Sleep No More; the other three compiled on the Enz collection) highlighted by the surprisingly straight driving title track, one of the heaviest recordings of the group’s career. The rest are dark, smoky and blood-curdling, a prelude to the second album. The Comsats at their best.
Sleep No More is a tightly wound hotbed of tension, frayed edges, shattered nerves and spilled coffee. Although criticized for its bleakness, its dark and disturbing tone, this is a fascinating, underrated and often misunderstood work, ambitious rather than accommodating or immediately accessible.
On the quartet’s next album, Fiction, an unsettling sense of tension underlies Stephen Fellows’ dejected vocals and guitar on “Ju-Ju Money” and “Zinger.” However, even this artistic success raises questions about how much longer the band could prosper working in such a seemingly uncommercial style.
They did attempt to expand, trying their hand in the synth-pop market, a radical departure. Switching labels and getting their first American release, the Comsat Angels were forced to use the name C.S. Angels for the US. Land, produced by Mike Howlett, fails in an effort to cast them as a variant on A Flock of Seagulls, but it does contain a number of upbeat, memorable tunes that resemble a poppier, less serious Simple Minds. The subsequent EP takes two good songs off the LP and adds three early tracks; Enz is a compilation of pre-Jive releases.
The liner notes on the back cover of 7 Day Weekend are downright sad (“We had a stretch of good luck, which rapidly turned into bad…”); the music fortunately is more self-assured and dignified. Produced variously by the totally dissimilar James Mtume, Chris Tsangarides and Mike Howlett, there is scant sonic continuity, but that causes overall little damage.
Dissatisfied with their musical progress, the Comsats retrenched, switched labels (Island signed them on the advice of singer Robert Palmer) and totally abandoned their four-year synth-pop experiment. Chasing Shadows picks up where Fiction left off (in fact, the group has called it their fourth LP), with the return of thudding drums, booming bass and echo guitar, while mixing in some of the poppier melodies of the better tracks on Land and 7 Day Weekend. If not nearly as impressive as the early LPs, it’s still a strong record with a few choice cuts, the best being “Under the Influence.”
Finally tiring of the name game, Comsat Angels became Dream Command in ’89. Unfortunately, the first album released under this new moniker is something of a dud. While the band’s songwriting touch is still evident on “Venus Hunter,” “Reach for Me,” “Whirlwind” and “Phantom Power,” the record is drowned in glossy production, a soul-sapping sound unheard even during the group’s mid-’80s work.