Martyn Bates & M.J. Harris
Murder Ballads (Incest Songs)
(Musica Maxima Magnetica eee 40, June 1998, Cd)

Review 1

by Michael Lund (Last Sigh, August 1998)

The third and final installment in Mick Harris’ and Martyn Bates’ trilogy of Murder Ballads CDs has just been released by Musica Maxima Magnetica. Unlike the first two volumes in the series, this album has been thematically restricted to songs of incest, a decision that Bates has explained as resulting from the vocal aesthetic of layering and overlapping his own voice on these recordings. It is also a CD that is strongly minimalist both in terms of the instrumentation employed, and the nature of the musical compositions – which are little more than monotone, droning backdrops for Bates’ vocals. Yet, the moods accomplished by these stationary, lingering tapestries of sound are stunningly precise in accentuating the emotions stirred by the slowly unfolding narratives that Bates gives voice to.

Four extended pieces constitute the album; each one a tale of incest, murder and loss in the classically ironic tradition, and presented in a language that evokes 18th. century British prose/poetry. The moral universe and settings of the tales are likewise of the past, and conjure up images from the works of such novelists as Thomas Hardy and Emily Bronte. Martyn Bates performs these tales in his characteristically beautiful and pure voice – carrying an immediacy that is at times frightening in itself. Additionally, his vocals have been treated with great care in the mixing of the songs; often the last word(s) of a line of lyrics will linger in the air several seconds after its utterance, like the after-image on the retina caused by looking too intensely at the sun. At other times, several recordings of his vocals have been layered and delayed, so as to create the impression of a chorus repeating the words of the story back to him. In short, the effect arrived at is one where the vocals at once appear sealed inside a chamber – perhaps the minds of the different songs’ protagonists, but at the same time also drifts near and far in the soundpicture – a vocal embodiment of fate, or perhaps nemesis.

Together, the disconcerting presence of Harris’ sound designs and the strange, elusive nature of Bates’ vocals, create a sensation of being trapped. Once the CD plays, the enticing quality of the vocals, and the sweet taste of taboo draws the listener in, while the flow of saturated ambiance invades the room, and banishes all other sounds. Murder Ballads (Incest Songs) reminds that the true horrors do not come heralded by blaring trumpets and stomping steeds, but rather silently seeps into the safest shelter through minute cracks and faults.

Review 2

by Antony Burnham (Metamorphic Journeyman)

Without a doubt the third album in this series is the most rewarding, with Bates’ drifting voice layering upon itself in chilling harmonies while HARRIS’s outer-world ebb and flow of passive but corrosive sonics remains further back, a deceptively simple curtain against which these four stories unfold. I feel the impact of the first album took them both by surprise – both were used to critical acclaim, yes, but Murder Ballads captured the essence of a world which remains safely in years gone by, a mysterious world predating everything we surround ourselves with in this end-of-the-pier peepshow pocket of time before we leap beyond the overblown Millennium time-marker into the 21st century. It’s a pre-industrial, more pastoral time, yet no safer than our own, where people keep children close in fear of all-too-real Bogey-Men, muttering “Folk just aren’t safe these days … .” Well, people have never been safe – rape, murder, abduction, cannibalism and all the other things we are simultaneously fascinated and revolted by have been with us since society was born, it’s just that the history-makers did it on a grander scale, leaving the small-time ghouls to become folklore and nightmare tales. If there is a weakness in this album, it is in the source material – the songwriting soon reveals itself to be very generic. The first track, for instance concerns the meeting of Brother and Sister, formerly unaware of one another’s existence, who are hit with the awful truth in post-coital revelations, to suicidal response from one sibling, and self-banishing guilt from the other. There’s a similarity in this tale with the darker ‘The Banks of Fordie’ where murderous brother dispatches his three sisters who are unwilling to surrender their maidenhead to him, neither party aware of their actual relationship to one another. The second track has Brother dispatching Sister & mutually-conceived offspring to put paid to rumours of her progeny’s paternity. Again, there’s a comparable story in ‘Lucy Wan’, yet in this story the Sister seems to volunteer the demise of herself and her child. Out of all thirteen Murder Ballads, the third track on this album is without doubt the most sympathetic and sad, where two Brothers, in sibling rivalry, wrestle for the affections of their Sister. One is (presumably) accidentally stabbed by the others sheathed knife. Unwounded Brother tries to save his Brother’s life but ends burying him in the churchyard. The final track has Brother killing Brother again, this time over the destruction of a tree. In this one the surviving Brother uses a similar lie to that of the murderer from ‘Lucy Wan’ – that the blood on his shirt is that of his greyhound. Small, petty criticisms compared with the magnitude of the songs. The ambience from the two earlier albums is somehow even colder, more chilling in this third instalment. You feel almost that any second the atmosphere might be pierced and the darkness inherent in the songs unleashed into your own environment. The talents of these two artists is catapulted into the stratosphere with these albums, and while thirteen seems a significantly apt number with which to finish the project, it would be a great shame not to hear more of the same. As I write this, one of the few sunny days we have seen this year is reaching its conclusion and the shadows of night are forming. I know the world out there isn’t safe – yesterday the police were at my door asking questions about a heinous crime which had been committed a stone’s throw from my doorway. Be in no doubt that, while manners have changed for our modern way of living, behind the eyes of strangers – and, more chillingly, even friends – there lurks a darkness to eclipse the darkest night.

Review 3

by Matt Ffytche (The Wire, August 1998)

This is the third instalment of Martyn Bates and Mick Harris’s Murder Ballads project. When he’s not working up aggressive digital grooves of Industrial force, Harris contemplates the world left behind: a cleansed, bruised and formless limbo of drones sifted from rubbed gong and humming machine tones.

This grey, ceaseless measure is a perfect foil for Martyn Bates’s layered vocalisations. Bates’s voice seems disembodied from strident emotional affect, even in his more straightforward song work with Eyeless In Gaza. It has something to do with the way his vocal lines twine and flow mellifluously, defying statement. It’s the perfect vessel for these archaic ballads about maidens sleeping with their brothers and then killing themselves with a wee penknife.

In terms of narrative detail and emotional significance, Bates’s ballads are opaque at the best of times. When he tackles taboo subjects, he becomes even more autistic, his obsessive repetition of seemingly innocent details standing in for the whole story. A long way from Nick Cave’s revelling in Gothic sinfulness. Bates’s sylph-like vocal figures, mystical as Celtic knots above Harris’s ghostly repetitions stretch four songs over an hour of haunted deliberation, furthering his search for a post-Industrial revitalisation of folk.