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Eyeless In Gaza / Martyn Bates - Plague of Years / Your Jeweled Footsteps

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Artist: Eyeless In Gaza / Martyn Bates

Album: Plague of Years / Your Jeweled Footsteps

Label: Sub Rosa

Review date: Feb. 16, 2007

If Martyn Bates and Eyeless In Gaza haven’t gotten their “due” yet, it might never happen. Their most interesting work is also their most esoteric. Bates can write bracing existential anthems (“One By One”) and literate avant-folk ballads that sound centuries old (“Morning Singing,” “Shorepoem”), but that’s never stopped him from putting James Joyce to music, indulging in rickety funk (“Mixed Choir”) and violent noise (“Dissonance”), or getting together with former Nappalm Death drummer M.J. Harris and setting old murder ballads in “isolationist” ambience so minimal that they almost disappear (“The Cruel Mother”). Martyn Bates is a difficult study (not to mention, by all accounts, a difficult dude), and perhaps destined to be misunderstood.

Bates formed the synth-noir outfit Eyeless In Gaza with Peter Becker in the early ‘80s. Their forte was cold keyboard music. But, like Tuxedomoon, the The, or the rest of their short list of contemporaries, they were not constrained by new wave, and developed an abundant, expansive catalog of intellectually charged out-pop and experimental mood pieces. They gave it up in ’85 or so, and although they reunite occasionally (these comps coincide with a European tour), Bates has mapped a lot of psychic territory on his own.

Gaza has already been anthologized at least twice. Plague of Years makes a point of focusing on the weirder stuff (the unsettling, oddly structured instrumentals) at the expense of the well-intentioned attempts at pure pop. (The Back From the Rains LP, the closest Gaza ever got to straight-up ear candy, gets the shaft entirely save for the unrepresentative “She Moves Thru the Fair.”) Together with Your Jeweled Footsteps, a broad yet mostly seamless collection of Bates’ solo and collaborative music post-Gaza, it provides the more comprehensive, if more initially overwhelming, overview.

Bates’ vocals may turn off some of the untapped potential audience here, though not necessarily for the right reasons. His pipes grew softer and richer over the years (compare the strained histrionics of “Every Which Way” and “One By One” with his Joyce treatments), yet he always sings big, which jibes with his high-fallutin’ ambitions. (Unless you’re immersed in this new-wave-noir stuff, and even if you are, it can be a little off-putting to hear it sung well, and with passion. A bit too evocative of Dominic Appleton’s lisping desperation, or the costume-party antics of the Projekt roster. Blame Ian Curtis, who made depressive ciphers the default vocalists for any goth-ish band with aspirations outside that sad scene.) He’s a creature of his aural and intellectual obsessions, which, while not as prohibitive as, say, Douglas Pearce’s, place him squarely outside the realm of the “accessible.” But for anyone with the patience, these discs are the best showcase to date for his dark imagination and uncompromising courage.

By Emerson Dameron

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