Martyn Bates & M.J. Harris
Murder Ballads (Drift)
(Musica Maxima Magnetica eee 26, 1994, Cd)

Review 1

by Tony Herrington (The Wire, February 1995)

If the theorists of modern-primitivism ever get round to constructing a world that can really accommodate the computer and the campfire, they will have a ready made soundtrack in the shape of Murder Ballads (Drift), a studio collaboration between vocalist Martyn Bates and Lull’s Mick Harris.

Across the record’s four tracks, Harris synthesises a digital simulacrum of rolling weather systems and glacial shifts as a context for Bates’ high, plaintive voice to relate a series of arcane texts drawn from England’s oral folk traditions – long buried tales that speak of ancient taboos: incest, paganism, murder most foul.

“It might seem like an odd combination,” says Bates, “but a murder ballad is a song in longform and repetitive; it’s formless but it has these little motifs buried within it. There is a correlation because the ballads have their own set of internal rhymes and effects. As soon as I heard the first Lull album I could hear all these dark tales of woe working against it.”

Bates proposes another correlation: that the sense of total abstraction inherent in Harris’s approach to digital synthesis applies equally to our contemporary perception of these distant texts. “Because these songs come from an ancient oral tradition, a lot of the original meaning has been lost or transposed. They don’t speak to us directly – they speak to our buried subconscious.”

Since the early 80s, Bates has been attempting to resurrect the English folk song tradition by relocating it in new, unfamiliar contexts, whether as a member of Eyeless In Gaza, or in solo projects such as the recent Chamber Music (Sub Rosa), where he set some of James Joyce’s poetry adrift in limpid electro-pools. “The oral folk tradition needs rescuing from the purist approach. These songs are part of our collective unconscious, our national identity. It’s all tucked away in there, at one remove.”

Review 2

by Gerald Stevens (The Search For Dark Matter)

M.J. Harris and Martyn Bates collaborate to create a unique disc of extremely twisted folk tales sung softly over Harris’ (of Lull/Scorn fame) droning soundscape backgrounds. Vocal style is reminiscent of Current 93’s “Benediction”. Quite listenable, bordering on relaxing. “Uncle Martyn, tell me a story … .”

Review 3

by Antony Burnham (Metamorphic Journeyman)

First chapter in the Murder Ballads series – dark, rolling tones & chillingly dream-state voices tell four tales of cruelty. A series much lauded & deservedly so.The ‘tune’ to ‘Polly’ is perhaps the most distinctive among these first four of unlucky (for the characters concerned) thirteen. With is scrawling metal claws scratching the stratosphere. As with all in this series, the songs come from times gone by, bringing murderers and their victims out from a darkness thankfully distant enough to at least let us sleep at night. BATES – angel-voiced as someone once suggested to me – here lurks in the stygian shadows of HARRIS’s noise-scapes, following the acts of dark minds, in the case of this collection, probably fictional.

The success of this series is little to puzzle at – no one had gone quite this far in the field of dark ambient music – oh, CURRENT 93 suggested some dark, mysterious, slightly occult goings on, and the likes of CONTRASTATE has woven imaginary lands where evil seemed to lurk ever present, ever near. But no-one had managed to combine the wicked deeds which invariably ended up with one character in a shallow grave (and usually portrayed as an innocent) and usually the other hanging from a gibbet, with such a doomy, funeral pall backdrop of sound.

The second track, one of probably only two in this series where a certain sympathy lies with the murderer, the Fowler in question mistakenly (we are led to believe) shoots his ‘true love’ mistaking her for a Swan. Here MICK HARRIS creates a structured backing which could be a loop of bones moving around in an ossary, scapula scrapes against femur disquiet at the injustice of early death.

The third, an escapee from the third Incest Songs collection, has brother Geordie finding out his sister Lucy is with child and he is the Father. He quicky covers this fact from the world with help from his ‘broad sword’. The sounds behind MARTYN’s voice churn and swirl slowly like a gentle but final maelstrom which will right the wrong done on the girl’s Father’s doorstep. The final track here is by far the strangest of the entire collection concerning a character called Long Lankin who mysteriously enters the house of a Lady and, with the help of the ‘False Nurse’ and a needle to torture the Lady’s offspring, lure her to her bloody death. This story reminds me of the gruesome tales you used to find in the old PAN Horror books. This is set to a peristaltic roar, churning with foul dread, perfectly portraying the dark tale, adding deep shadows at the bottom of the stairs where the two murderers lay in wait.

Dark and dreadful, this first album seems a logical starting point for your journey through the Murderous past, to witness the blood spill and smell the freshly turned soil from each shallow grave.