Eyeless In Gaza
(A-Scale ASR 050, January 5th 2015 (pre-release Dec 9th 2014), 3x Cd with bonus download album and two books (Notes on Mythic Language & November: Inky Blue Sky) limited to 500 copies + digital formats)
by Jeff Penczak (Soundblab, 2015)
In his erudite, intense, dense, philosophical, naked, occasionally esoteric, but endlessly fascinating essays and diary entries, which accompany this nearly-five-years-in-the-making, three-disk set, Martyn Bates reveals himself to be a master of wordplay on par with Leonard Cohen, Jacques Brel, and other poets-turned-musicians-turned-novelists-turned-raconteurs. Words are important to Bates, but that should be apparent by his choice of “band” name (Aldous Huxley by way of John Milton) and the label that he and Pete Becker founded to release said band’s recordings – ‘ambivalent’, indeed.
They are also indelibly linked to the music that accompanies them. Even when he’s asked, as in several interviews reproduced herein, to describe his songs, in effect, to use words to describe other words, he always comes back to the interplay between words and music that define the nearly 30-year output (both solo and with Pete Becker as Eyeless in Gaza) that is archived into this amazing set. To this end, the inclusion (and Bates’ running commentary on most) of the lyrics offers another glimpse into his and Becker’s psyches.
Disc one (subtitled Egg Box Mask) collects 18 Eyeless in Gaza studio and live recordings from 1980-83. The hyperactive, new wave sounds expand on Bates’ punkier days in The Migraine Inducers, with the angry yelping of tracks like ‘Lines of Flame’ and ‘You, So Open’ typical of this period’s terminal angst as musicians struggled to find their way in the gaping vacuum between punk and the softer, MTV-endorsed new romantics. But Bates’ lyrics laid bare his soul for all to trample, while Becker’s percussive effects and primeval drum patterns ensured happy feet were satiated.
The duo also explored more atmospheric and experimental areas via haunting autoharp and chiming clockwork on the eerie instrumental ‘The Sun-Like-Gold’ and the haunting, cinematic effects achieved by bringing glockenspiel, melodica, glass, and keyboards to the noirish desolation invoked by ‘Alms Houses’. This is certainly closer to Throbbing Gristle and Public Image Ltd than the puffy-shirted poncing about of contemporaries like Duran Duran, Culture Club, or Spandau Ballet.
Keyboards found their way into more tracks as the years progressed, but not the swishy synths that flooded the pop charts and airwaves. Stark, minimalist clanking, dual organs, and tape manipulation imbues ‘See She Sells, on the Seashore, Shells’ with a frozen, barren atmosphere of terror, as if composed for an unrealized Tarkovsky epic.
Becker takes a rare lead vocal on the short, semi-poetic ‘We Shade Our Eyes’, which seems inspired by Daniel Miller (aka The Normal)’s ‘Warm Leatherette’ in ambience although without such visceral lyrics, inspired, of course, by JG Ballard’s Crash. Later tracks, like ‘Quiet Lustre’, ‘Prayerbook to the Quiet’, and ‘See the Dark Pools Flash’, find Bates working his lounge lizard persona, his satiny-sashy vocals bearing tinges of Black Celebration-era Dave Gahan or Julian Cope, ca. ‘China Doll’ and veering a tad closer to the new romantic extravagances the pair seemed previously content to avoid.
But then the expressionistic, neo-noir of ‘The Raindreaming Ship’ and ‘Songs of Coming Winter’ sidle in to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. It’s an almost evil landscape that also evokes the lifeless, aimless wanderings of Ballard’s Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition, which struck such a nerve in Joy Division’s Ian Curtis around the same time. The disc ends on a puzzling note with Bates’ operatic Klaus Nomi impersonation, ‘Song of a Man Who Has Come Through’, which sounds like he was a having a larf, although the recording keeps breaking down, as if the tapes they were manipulating failed to cooperate.
The second disc (Fixation) captures 15 of Eyeless in Gaza’s energetic early live performances (1980-82), often in front of a well-oiled and quite receptive audience. Here you will experience EiG’s early, “noisy” side, with the added bonus that studio versions of most of these tracks were never officially released – so completists will eat this up! The recording quality varies, as should be expected from 35-year old bootleg tapes (acknowledged by Bates in his liners, where he correctly suggests “The interest of these historical recordings outweighs the usual high-quality audio standards of other Ambivalent Scale releases”.)
Highlights include the staccatoed paranoia of ‘Blue Distance’; the eerie, sci-fi electronics of ‘The Skeletal Framework’ (perfectly suited to its performance at the Futurama III Science Fiction Festival in Leeds on 6/9/81); the maniacal, industrial sturm und drang kling[er]-klang of the Einstürzende Neubauten-meets-Faust ‘Darker Portraits’; the pleasant, lightweight pop excursion, ‘Forward Steps’, and the introspective, thousand-yard-stare of the wordless devotional ‘Palms’, which could be an emotional reflection on Christ’s stigmata.
‘Pale Hands I Loved So Well’ gets its first airing (a studio version is also available on the bonus disc discussed below), so fans can imagine how it would have fit on the album of the same name, released on the Norwegian Uniton label in 1982. Finally, the sax skronk of ‘Urge (The Favourite Game)’ [a Cohen reference?] sounds like the industrial age wreaking havoc in the rain forest and will appeal to fans of the outré outbursts of John Zorn, Lol Coxhill, and others.
The final physical disc (Morningsinging) comprises rare Bates’ studio and radio recordings, mostly from the late 90s. His solo recordings are more sedate and electronic than the group tracks included herein, so this may be a welcome respite from the pulse-raising live cuts and early EiG outtakes. The a capella ‘Bahnhofstrasse’ sets an atmospheric tone that continues throughout mostly acoustic radio sessions from Amsterdam (VPRO, 26/4/96), San Francisco (KALX, 13/6/99), Italy (a particularly heartbreaking live recording of ‘Elegy News’ from 20/5/89), and a tearful ‘For Love, Waiting to Die’ for the BBC World Service (29/5/92).
Acoustic studio sessions featuring Spanish and 12-string guitars (‘This Time’, ‘Born and Beginning’, and ‘When You Praise Her’) rub elbows with hushed interpretations of several legendary folk classics. Elsewhere, organ, piano, and pump organs mingle with tape manipulations to create stark musical landscapes (‘Lean Out of the Window’, for example, is not unlike Nico’s later work), which flicker around Bates’ pleading utterances, pulling the listener into his late-night world. So put another log on the fire, pour another glass of something strong and warm, and settle in for a soul-baring set of intimate confessionals.
So there you have it: three hours of nearly 50 rare recordings, almost all previously unreleased; Notes on Mythic Language, a 20-page lyrics booklet with Martyn’s aforementioned reflections on many of the tracks, as well as several contemporary diary excerpts and interviews; and a free, downloadable, 100-page PDF, November: Inky Blue Sky, which mixes and matches lyric fragments with images from Bates’ family album, a sort of updated A Humument. But that’s not all.
Purchasers will also be able to download a fourth disc, Mythic Language Extras, which unfurls an additional 10 unreleased studio recordings, outtakes, musical poems (courtesy of several Shannon Smith sessions, ca. Rust Red September), and Becker’s “enticingly wayward dub step stylings”. We finally get to hear Creature Box’s ‘Three Strange Angels’, an epic, 19-minute collaboration with John Everall and Teresa Mills of Tactile (original slated for the Creature Box project, Horse Startled By Lightning, nearly 20 years ago). A monstrous cacophony of throbbing industrial rhythms, scat vocalizing, and hypnotic musique concrete, it only makes us want to hear the album even more.
Then there’s the 38-second ‘Walk Away Detachment’, originally one of the three tracks intended for the By Proxy 5in vinyl EP, which are listed on, but omitted from the box due to a manufacturing snafu. It and the title track are angular, syncopated, metallic funk somewhat reminiscent of Gang of Four, while the peaceful instrumental closer, ‘Snow Theme’, is perfect for a late night stroll through empty streets during the next snowfall.
The first studio recording of ‘Pale Hands I Loved So Well’ illustrates how the track has changed from its live incarnation (on disc two) into a funky, Culture Club-styled dancefloor magnet about a decade later. The gentle ‘Balm’ is perfectly titled – a soothing, introspective, acoustic wash morphs into one of several of Becker’s dub workouts, another of which highlights the dreamy ‘I Came Hungering to You’ – ‘Scratch’ Perry would be proud.
All in all, this is one of the most extravagant box sets we’ve experienced in ages and a welcome addition to the personal collections of adventurous sonic enthusiasts everywhere. As the duo celebrate 35 years together (their latest, Mania Sour, was just released last year), it’s a special treat to go back to the beginning and hear where it all began courtesy these rare and unreleased tracks.
by Steve Pescott (The Ptolemaic Terrascope Magazine, March 2015)
Even at the time of their debut l.p., the sound and stance of Martyn Bates and Peter Becker a.k.a. EYELESS IN GAZA always appeared to be more redolent of misty English country churchyards than the usual issues of their contemporaries in the post-punk marketplace (1978-1984) – Woo and The Marilyn Decade being notable exceptions. Hymns to alienation and clenched-fist posturings were never really in their vocab. They also seemed to draw from a far wider palette of influences. Have a listen to the Country Bizarre c.d. (on Tago Mago Records) with Sir Lol Coxhill for proof positive of their questing nature. So...going back to last year, it would have been easy to think that the Cherry Red Eyeless boxed c.d. retrospective (from Photographs... to Pale Hands...), covered every last damn thing E.I.G.-related. Nope!! Not in your or my philosophy. I refer you now to the Mythic Language/Egg Box Music triple c.d. set; containing a startling fifty-one (!!) unissued tracks from the duo’s early years and a smattering from the early nineties. Containing, by and large, studio material from 1980-83, Volume One or Egg Box Mask is an enthralling mix of left field art pop and low key experimentation and certainly rises high above its somewhat strange title, which possibly refers to the material generally used for soundproofing a bedroom/attic space for recording purposes. Their roots perhaps? Though I could be way off beam here. What I can say with some certainty is that the off kilter psyched atmospherics at the heart of ‘The Sun-Like-Gold’ are absolutely stunning. Pete’s chiming autoharp lines finding a perfect foil in the (slighly) dubwise clockwork percussive backdrop. Difficult as it is to name favourites...I’d also make a plump for ‘See She Sells, on the Seashore. Shells’ which resembles a track by Syd’s Floyd that was deemed too wayward/outlandish for inclusion on Piper.... Fixation (Vol. Two) blows that earlier “country churchyard” quote straight out of the water! The vocal lines remain soulful, yet are more insistent, while under numerous/disparate recording conditions, the background instrumentation appears to be a lot more urgent and Factory-records based. It’s certainly a side to E.I.G. that has never emerged before and it’s that extra facet within these early 80’s live recordings that makes it all the more compelling to the eager Eyeless novice and experienced fan alike. Look out for ‘The Skeletal Framework’ where pulsing keyboards meet at the intersection of folk and electro and ‘Darker Portraits’ where Martyn’s gloriously clangy guitar is in a battle royale with his own spittle-flecked vocal splurge. There are clearly no winners. Morningsinging comes as the third and final instalment and collates a number of radio sessions made by Martyn Bates performing under the solo spotlight. I’m immediately struck by Martyn’s intensely personal delivery. It’s almost as if he’s playing in a corner of your living room. There’s the hallucinatory siren song of the all too brief ‘Bahnhofstrasse’ which effortlessly dispenses goosebumps after every play and then there’s the revitalisation of two traditional folk staples; ‘Sally Free and Easy’ and the creepy epic horror of ‘Long Lankin’, which was initially hatched on the superb Murder Ballads collection. Sparse arrangements seem to be the order of the day here, but these are full to the brim with emotional content. Glorious.
For what it’s worth, this exemplarary package (with its copious/informative sleevenotery), is already one of my favourites of 2015 and can be ordered through A-Scale Records; (www.eyelessingaza.com). Very highly recommended!
by Mike Barnes (The Wire, March 2015)
Eyeless In Gaza
Back in the early 1980s Eyeless In Gaza would stand facing each other on stage with guitars, keyboards and drums in a way that you might expect a synth pop duo to set up. A song like ‘Skeletal Framework’ on Fixation, the live disc of this retrospective collection, with its pulsing, echoed keyboards, is one of the few points of overlap. But rather than the mannered aloofness that was the hallmark of the era, these intense young men with severe haircuts were deadly serious.
What strikes most about the live tracks from 1980-82 is their rawness. This breaks out in the unbridled ferocity of frantically strummed guitar, while on ‘Darker Portraits’, Martyn Bates yells as if in the latter stages of possession over rim clicks and snare hits. The sulphurous blasts of ‘Kiss Syntax’ – a prototype of ‘The Decoration’ from 1982’s Caught In Flux – eclipse the recorded version. There is also some raw sax and keyboard improvisation on ‘Urge (The Favourite Game)’. The sound quality is variable, but the material, a lot of which was reworked or didn’t make it onto record, is well worth hearing.
The duo were prolific and Egg Box Mask is a treasure trove of unreleased studio recordings from 1980-83. Although more controlled, the music is still difficult to categorise. There are reedy organ washes reminiscent of early Pink Floyd, with Pete Becker wordlessly intoning; riffs of a Joy Division-like severity; and vocal bloodletting from Bates that occasionally recalls Suicide. And right from the outset there’s distinctively shaped melodic songs and darkly impressionistic instrumentals.
Third disc Morningsinging is a collection of Bates’s solo pieces – studio recordings and radio broadcasts – from 1987-97. With the sound opened out and slowed down you can see how folk forms and a sense of devotional music were there all along, with Bates’s lyrical explorations of where interior states meet the exterior world. And with hindsight it’s obvious how much control Bates had over his voice, even at its most feral, when listening to his beautifully sung version of Nick Drake’s ‘Way To Blue’.