Eyeless In Gaza
Plague of Years (songs and instrumentals 1980-2006)
(Sub Rosa SR 263, October 15 2006, Cd)

Review 1

by Mike Barnes (The Wire, January 2007)

Eyeless In Gaza
Summer Salt And Subway Sun
Plague of Years : Songs And Instrumentals 1980-2006
Martyn Bates
Your Jewled Footsteps :Solo And Collaboration Works 1979-2005

Even before one listens to the music within, the artwork of the two Sub Rosa compilations gives a visual insight into Martyn Bates’s muse. Photographs of nondescript houses in his hometown of Nuneaton, sitting under grey skies, are juxtaposed with rain-spattered windows, flame red sunsets and lush fields, neatly illustrating a sense of an otherness on the edge of the everyday that has run through Bates’ lyrics and music from the very first.

For a time in the early 80’s Eyeless in Gaza, the duo of Bates and Pete Becker, appeared to be raincoat-clad popsters with severe haircuts – a notion that soon evaporated. Their music was melodic, but there was intensity about it. Plague of Years illustrates how Bates remarkable voice has developed in character and poise from these early untrammelled outpourings of yells and yodels where syllables were chewed up or elongated to the point of incomprehensibility.

Eyeless in Gaza soon became more lyrical, with Bates’ lyrics capturing transience, loss, the subtleties of sensation and a pantheistic awe at the natural world. It’s unsurprising, then, that he has enjoyed an overlap with the folk tradition. Although ‘She Moves Thru The Fair’ (from 1985) has so much reverb it sounds like it was recorded in a cave (in a garage, actually –Ed.), it is beautifully sung. Bates’s exploration of folk forms is more in evidence on Your Jewled Footsteps. Although his earliest solo work is almost interchangeable with Eyeless In Gaza’s, ‘90’s collaborations with Max Eastley (‘Cherry Tree Carol’) and Mick Harris (‘Cruel Mother’, from their Murder Ballads album) are more spectral, with his voice soaring through the music’s space.

Although Eyeless in Gaza’s work has a tendency to slip under the radar, its quality has been remarkable consistent. Bates still enjoys a potent musical relationship with Becker and the brand new album Summer Salt And Subway Sun is fresh and vital, as good as anything they’ve done before. A mix of drifting ambiance, churning guitars and layered sonics, it ranges from the sparse piano and voice of ‘Mixed Choir’ to the dark edged instrumental ‘Whitening Rays’. According to Bates, this album represents a conscious sideways move to prevent them being lumped in with any of the new folk fads. But let’s also hope that it doesn’t estrange them further from the attention they so obviously deserve.

Review 2

by Jeff Penczak (Terrascope, November 2006)

EYELESS IN GAZA – ‘PLAGUE OF YEARS’ (CD on Sub Rosa 149-151 avenue Ducpétiaux 1060 Bruxelles, Belgium)

Named after their collection of lyrics published by Stride in 2000 (and originally an obscure B-side on their 1981 ‘Invisibility’ 7” EP), the latest EiG compilation is housed in an elaborate quadrifold digipak and presents about as complete a career retrospective as can be shoehorned into a single disk. This one focuses primarily on their early years, with nearly half the 22 tracks emanating from 1980-82. Marty Bates and Peter Becker began their post-punk career together back in 1980 and released numerous singles, EPs, albums and cassettes before dissolving in 1987. Around 1993, the pair started working together again, releasing several more albums before once again heading off to concentrate on solo careers and other collaborations. With selections ranging  from 1980’s ‘John of Patmos’ (from their ‘Photographs As Memories’ debut LP) through last year’s ‘Mixed Choir’, an ominous, piano-driven stalker with stabbing guitars, this may be the first EiG compilation that also features their oft-overlooked instrumental compositions. Bates’ chanting and Becker’s pump organ on the near liturgical instrumental “Mock Sun” (from 1994’s limited edition “Saw You In Reminding Pictures”) opens the set, which does suffer from the frustrating lack of instrumental credits, important info for newcomers like myself, particularly in light of the myriad instruments the pair have incorporated into their music over the decades. Second, and perhaps more egregious is the sequencing of the set is not chronological, robbing both fans and newcomers the opportunity to trace the band’s development.

But those missteps aside, this is a perfect starting point for newbies to discover this unfairly neglected band. From 1981’s ‘Caught in Flux,’ we get Bates’ vein-popping emotional outbursts on ‘Every Which Way,’ which, along with ‘Drumming the Beating Heart’’s ‘One By One’ illustrated how much their early work sounded like contemporaries, Orchestral Manoeuvers in The Dark. But EiG’s work is darker and lacked OMD’s melodic pop sheen, which probably cost them the latter’s commercial success. Perhaps it was also down to the minimalist deconstruction of a song down to its barest essentials that failed to click with audiences, as on 1981’s ‘Fever Pitch and Bite’ (from the compilation of previously unreleased, early 80’s tracks, ‘Orange Ice & Wax Crayons’).

The duo’s playful side is represented by the music box tinklings of the oft-recorded (and renamed, as ‘Street Lamps ‘n Snow,’ ‘November’ and ‘Silver & Dark’) ‘Before December.’ There’s an almost religious, Dead Can Dance aura to ‘History Book’ (from the 1995 ‘Streets I Ran’ EP), while the insane, syncopated, Beefheartian sax blasts on the aforementioned ‘John of Patmos’ – with Bates’ anguished wailing vocals and its cacophonous video arcade backing all adding up to one of the most disturbed tracks in their catalogue. Their appears to be a distinct Public Image Limited influence on the band here – imagine Coltrane-meets-PIL, produced by Zappa!

There is also a number of tracks that illustrate how far ahead of their time the lads were. For example, the case could be made that current flavour of the month, Anthony & The Johnsons’ modus operandi could be traced back to ‘The Lovely Wanton’ (off 2001’s ‘Song of the Beautiful Wanton’), with Bates’ dramatic lyric reading coming over like a cross between Boy George and Anthony Newley. And then there’s the haunting, avant electronics and effects of 1984’s three-part improvisation, bookending instrumentals ‘To Steven’ and ‘To Elizabeth S.’ around ‘Sun-Like-Gold’ (from the Sub Rosa ‘Myths. Instructions. 1.’ EP) that may have been an early signpost to today’s more avant garde wyrdfolkers, Stone Breath, In Gowan Ring, Kemialliset Ystävät, et. al. Folk fans will also enjoy the elaborate flute trimmings of the latter piece, a spooky, atmospheric soundtrack that is best not listened to alone in the dark.

The a capella rendition of the traditional Irish tune ‘She Moves Thru The Fair’ (from 1985’s ‘Back From The Rains’) anticipates Bates more recent solo work and surely deserved to be on one of 4AD’s This Mortal Coil compilations (I’m thinking ‘Filigree & Shadow’). It’s a heartfelt reading that falls just this side of parody, although occasionally it did come across like one of those pre-game manglings of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ by (insert favorite pin-up-cum-singer). But overall, this is a welcome overview of a band who’ve been living on the fringes of modern psych/folk for over 20 years.

Review 3

by Céline Rémy (Les inrockuptibles, 22 janvier 2007)

Alors que, dans le folk cosmique, il est aujourd’hui de bon ton de citer sans relâche l’influence de Talk Talk, Robert Wyatt ou The Legendary Pink Dots, on a l’impression que le nom épineux d’Eyeless In Gaza continue d’érafler les grandes bouches, de filer entre les doigts des encyclopédistes et blogueurs. Une ahurissante hérésie que tentera de combler cette anthologie de plus de vingt-cinq années de carrière discrète mais déterminante.

Car ils étaient peu nombreux, dans l’agitation post-punk, ceux capables d’ouvrir des ponts vers le folk psychédélique, d’oser des chansons aussi désertes et arides – et pourtant habitées d’un lyrisme foudroyant – que celles d’albums-jalons, comme Photographs as Memories. Il y avait du Nico dans ces chants d’éther, cette mélancolie autoritaire, ces morceaux aux formes fuyantes, évasives, plus incantations que chansons. Et les morceaux ‘John of Patmos’ ou ‘Rose Petal Knot’ pourraient toujours, un quart de siècle plus tard, enseigner un peu de beauté et de liberté à beaucoup de jeunes chercheurs du free-folk.

Review 4

by Paolo Bertoni (Blow Up # 104) (Italian)