For a while, the career of the Comsat Angels appeared to follow a typical arc. On their first three albums, they hit upon a few ideas that happened to resonate with the times, and helped define the emerging post-punk sound. The critics liked them, but the sales weren't spectacular, partly due to a botched promotion job on the part of their label. In the meantime, post-punk quickly ran its course. Then, the Comsat Angels deliberately commercialized their sound and tried to make synth-pop albums with mass appeal. Those albums are generally viewed as their weakest work. The critics either disliked or ignored them, and sales didn't improve. The albums quickly went out of print. At one point, the band even tried to start over under the name Dream Command, with even less success.
But in the early nineties, more than ten years after their first album, the Comsat Angels experienced a surprising rebirth. Released in 1992, My Mind's Eye is not only a good album, but it actually sounds fresh and up-to-date with its time, like a nineties album instead of a throwback to eighties rock and post-punk. The band achieves this impression by tweaking the sound of their first three albums, making the guitars louder and denser and bringing them up-front in the mix, while toning down the keyboards and moving them from lead instrument to background texture.
The result sounds very much like the style called "shoegazing" that was briefly popular in the early nineties. Stephen Fellows even sounds like Catherine Wheel's Rob Dickinson at times. In fact, My Mind's Eye makes clear the connection between post-punk and shoegazing. "Always Near," for instance, has a droning guitar riff straight out of post-punk. But instead of the sparse, harsh production of an album like the Comsats' own Waiting For A Miracle, where the guitar would be second to the rhythm section, here it's the main attraction, loud and multi-layered, like on a traditional "guitar" album. At the same time, My Mind's Eye isn't all guitar -- the keyboards frequently fade in and out of focus, usually just enough to make the sound a bit moodier. So, the Comsat Angels don't manage the same guitar heroics as Catherine Wheel, but retain more of the atmosphere of post-punk.
If My Mind's Eye has a flaw, it's that it relies more on generic alternative-rock riffs and rhythms. There just isn't anything so original that it instantly grabs one's attention, like the opening guitar riff in "Eye Dance" from the band's second album. Many of the arrangements will sound familiar to anyone who has listened to a lot of nineties rock. However, there are a few songs that use these standard rhythms to stellar effect, most notably "Field Of Tall Flowers," which is probably the best song the Comsat Angels ever recorded, even when compared to the best of their early work. It's based on a very common, slickly produced riff on an acoustic guitar, but the performance is brimming with energy, and the guitar is undercut by darker keyboard tones. Also, the lyric features Fellows' best writing, narrowly beating out "Do The Empty House" from 1984, with a catchy and elegant chorus.
The album tends to grow on one. The individual character of many songs emerges only after a while. But once it happens, many parts can easily stick in one's head, mostly those pertaining to Fellows' singing. He gives a varied performance on the album, ranging from distorted shout-singing in the title track, to a lyrical falsetto in "Always Near," to a calm, slightly cold tone in "I Come From The Sun." Occasionally the music also rises to the surface to make a lasting impression, like the lilting lead in "Shiva Descending."
There's less extra stuff here than on Renascent's other Comsat Angels reissues. Unfortunately, there are no liner notes at all, which is kind of disappointing considering that this album occupies a unique position in the band's career. Renascent could have at least gotten the guy who wrote the notes in the other reissues to throw something together for this one. Also, there are only three B-sides ("Storm Of Change" is not included for some reason). They're listenable and they add a little tonal variety to the album ("Too Much Time" uses a boogie-style piano to extol the virtue of laziness), but none of them is a lost classic like "Eye Of The Lens" or "Do The Empty House." There's also one pointless instrumental, as well as alternate mixes of "Driving" and "Field Of Tall Flowers." In fact, these mixes were the ones that went on the original 1992 release of the album; the ones that take their place on the reissue have been slightly reworked. It's interesting to see how the small changes from the old mixes to the new ones have improved the album. The original mixes had grungier, more distorted guitars. The new ones sound more fragile, but fit better into the overall tone of the album. "Field Of Tall Flowers" in particular sounds much better and cleaner with just the basic acoustic riff than with the electric overlays.
It's a pleasure to hear the Comsat Angels sounding so revitalized. They still couldn't achieve commercial success, but they did make a forward-thinking album that is as good as their earliest and most well-received work, and occasionally even better. A couple of songs fall prey to alt-rock stamps, but for that matter, the first three albums weren't fully consistent either, and the peaks here reach quite high.