Martyn Bates & M.J. Harris
Murder Ballads (The Complete Collection)
(Invisible inv 127, Nov 17 1998, Cd)

Review 1

by Barry Witherden (The Wire, December 1998)

A boxed reissue of DRIFT( 1994 ), PASSAGES (1996 ), and INCEST SONGS (1997), BALLADS makes traditional song acceptable to modern ears. I have versions of some of these songs by the incomparable Dick Gaughan, but these are, apparently, ‘post-Isolationist’ re-vamps. Even so, they are powerful experiences. In place of the stark, if vividly poetic reportage of the originals, Harris (Scorn) and Bates (Eyeless In Gaza) fashion beak, desolate, unsettling impressionistic dramas, capable of chilling the soul as well as the marrow. Listen with the light on.

Review 2

by Norene Cashen (

Rarely do two types of music meet on a level where they threaten to cancel each other out – let alone create something even more meaningful in their mutual vanishing. But Martyn Bates (Eyeless in Gaza) and Mick Harris (Napalm Death, Lull, Painkiller, Scorn) have done it.

The archaic murder ballads that leak from Bates’ vocal cords are intensely sad and carnal. They tend to leap off cliffs of hollow effects or drone on darkly, offering neither a robust delivery nor an element of irony to take the edge off. The archetypal characters who live and die in them give life’s full tragedy back to Harris’ electronically numbed “post-isolationist” dreaming. Drift (originally recorded in 1994), Passages (from 1996) and Incest Songs (1997) play out an unbreakable and timeless cycle of bloody folklore (people) and hypnotic soundscapes (the god who watches). The effect is chilling yet engrossing. Where most ambient music has barely enough courage to ring the doorbell and run, Murder Ballads slips through the cracks of the unconscious and does its work with remarkable ease. All the more reason to listen thoughtfully.

Review 3

by Gil Gershman (Muze)

Former Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris traffics in the isolationist ambience of Lull; Martyn Bates is the emotive voice of literate cult-pop duo Eyeless in Gaza. The unlikely pair – one given to terminally frigid drone, the other to impassioned, bittersweet voicings – finds common ground in folk music’s most macabre tradition, the murder ballad. These ghoulish parables are awash in blood and tears, the strands of love, hate, birth, death, sin, and salvation entwined within like the roots of an ancient tree. Mothers callously kill their children; suitors slay their maidens without remorse; and fate exacts its cruel price from all.

The three discs of Murder Ballads collected here were originally released separately, each set of four extended interpretations linked to a common theme. While such sinister songs as ‘The Cruel Mother,’ ‘Lucy Wan,’ and ‘The Bonny Hind’ may be familiar to followers of traditional and revisionist folk, Harris and Bates’ brilliant approach extracts every last drop of dread from the time-worn words. Harris’ bleak backdrops slither, knell, and resonate while Bates sings in a mournful melodic whisper. On the third album, Incest Songs, Bates’ vocals are subtly multi-tracked, sounding like the lament of a congregation of despairing angels.

Review 4

by Thomas Schulte (Get Music)

Murder Ballads is a three-CD set reissuing the trilogy of Drift, Passages and Incest Songs previously put out by Harris (Scorn) and Martyn Bates (Eyeless in Gaza). The three albums naturally belong together for their highly stylized content. Each one is a set of original compositions inspired by, and closely following, the patterns of the West European/American folk murder ballad. While gory stories on the TV news may seem to indicate a dark curiosity pandering to contemporary man, Harris and Bates’ work reminds us that such stories have always found an audience and gained life in frequent retelling. Mick Harris provides the forlorn, desolate soundscapes that have caused this music to be termed isolationist, or even post-isolationist. These attenuated pieces average about 20 minutes each. Over this cold, abandoned, synthesizer soundscape Bates intones a morbid, chilling, blue-eyed soul of syllables stretched out a gallow’s length. The combination of this sanguine poetry and chilling ambient darkwave is intensely fascinating to the point of being disturbing. Harris and Bates deserve high praise for so totally incorporating this blood-drenched footnote on music history as to create such a worthy body of work to add to and continue the murderous game. The set, in an understated gold and black package, includes fittingly antique artwork and complete lyrics.