There are those groups that you listen to a lot during a certain period, and then largely file away as “good at the time, but not so interesting now”. For me Comsat Angels were one of those bands, and as much as I loved the early stuff, for a long time in my mind their career ended with 1982´s “Fiction”. While the first three albums were generally considered examples of fine post-punk indie there was also something else there. BBC film critic and great fan Mark Kermode has been quoted to have said “the Comsat Angels are what Joy Division would sound like if they could play and sing”. Not really sure that I agree with that comparison, but that´s another story.
The band formed as a four-piece in Sheffield in 1978, by original members Stephen Fellows (guitars/vocals), Andy Peake (keyboards), as well as the fabulous rhythm section of Kevin Bacon (bass) and Mik Glaisher (drums). Taking their name off a J.G. Ballard short story from the collection “Low-flying Aircraft” is to me a sign of impeccable taste, but at the time sometimes ridiculed since Ballard-references was not that uncommon (for example Joy Division´s “The atrocity exhibition”).
After debuting with the “Red planet” single, the band was quickly picked up by Polydor and from 1980 – 1982 released their three classic albums – “Waiting for a miracle”, “Sleep no more” and “Fiction”. While artistically hugely satisfying the relative lack of commercial success made Polydor drop the band, and they also disappeared from my view for a long, long time.
First album “Waiting for a miracle”, recorded in only ten days, combined pop and contemporary indie aesthetics and included one of their truly great numbers “Independence Day”, as well as many other accomplished songs. The defining aspect of this album is both a lightness of touch and profound musicality. There wasn´t that many bands around at the time that could actually write great and varied songs, as well as playing them flawlessly.
Next output “Sleep no more” was a much more planned product. Loads of thought and effort was put into the sound of the songs, with extra travail exerted on the drums. While according to legend Martin Hannett left Stephen Morris batting away on the roof of Strawberry Studios for the recordings of “Unknown Pleasures”, Comsat Angels used the lift shaft of the Polydor building to create the booming drum sounds of this record. In a pre-release interview Stephen Fellows said that you would be better off listening to this album with a crash-helmet. No degree of sophistication when it comes to the production techniques of this selection of songs can however detract from their brute quality. Without a doubt one of the true masterpieces of the era. Dark, intense and immensely beautiful. One of these records that anybody interested in real music needs to own.
Third album “Fiction” entered slightly less difficult territory, with the great and glistening opener “After the rain”. While a collection of good songs it estranged the band from the Polydor record company, resulting in the band being dropped. The following years adopted by Jive and Island records didn´t even register with me, although much high quality music was produced.
The sound of Comsat Angels on record was always very different from their live experience, and the best way to understand their special way of playing to an audience is in my opinion the compilation “Time considered as a helix of semi-precious stones”. Borrowing the name from a Samuel R. Delany short story and released in 1992 by BBC music it contains unique versions of many of their best songs, recorded for different BBC radio shows. This is Comsat Angels at their peak, with songs enveloping their entire career so far. So good it will create an eternal impression.