Eyeless In Gaza - Mythic Language - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Eyeless In Gaza - Mythic Language

by Jeff Penczak Rating:10 Release Date:2015-01-05

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 Martin’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.

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