The two masterminds behind Eyeless In Gaza, Martyn Bates and Peter Becker, have made a career of releasing idiosyncratic music that is at times intriguing and frustrating; beguiling in its wistfulness. About the only constant is Bates’ voice—oft dramatic, occasionally challenging, at times off-putting. The music? Beyond categorization. Holding no devotion to one sound, Eyeless In Gaza’s rather prolific release schedule offered up a smorgasbord of melodies in a sound that could only be called their own.The first phase of the duo’s career lasted from 1981 to 1986. During this time, they were one of the flagship bands for nascent independent label Cherry Red and the sheer mountain of material the duo released during this time serves as a testament to the label’s devotion to art over commerce. The latest in their Original Albums Collection series focuses on the band’s first four albums—all of which appeared in a breathtaking span of just two years.
For those of you whose knowledge of Eyeless In Gaza starts with their later years, 1981’s debut album Photographs as Memories is jarring. Kicking off with a post-punk guitar that sounds like Factory circa 1980, “Seven Years” draws the listener in, and then Bates’ singing kicks the listener straight in the crotch. It’s not the nuanced storyteller of later years; it’s brash, rough, and off-putting, sounding like a more demented Marc Almond, a take on new wave/New Romantic pop coming straight from the pits of Hell. Yet in its bizarre vocals, weird blips, tape loops, and wandering synthesizer lines, somehow, this ramshackle sound works. “Knives Replace Air,” a six minute epic not unlike Section 25, pulls the listener in, and for those patient enough to give it a chance, a rewarding take on pop music is revealed. “Faceless” sounds like The Cure’s “A Forest” as if performed by two people who just met each other an hour before. The concluding number, “No Noise,” is, for all of the preceding weirdness, a relatively straightforward pop number, and even though Bates sounds like a madman, it compels the listener to return to it again and again. Photographs As Memories is rough, raw, and requires patience on the listener’s part.
Caught In Flux, also released in 1981, is a much more satisfying affair. The jagged edges found on the debut occasionally cut the listener here, but for the most part, they’ve quickly matured, refining their recordings to a point where Caught In Flux feels much more contemporary with the post-punk British scene. The Factory Records-like vibe is still present, no more so than on “The Decoration,” which borrows so liberally from “Love Will Tear Us Apart” that you might initially think they were covering it, while “Soul On Thin Ice,” “Half-Light,” and “Point You” feel like they’re simply waiting for Martin Hannett or Be Music to coat them with their magical production acumen. Ironically, it’s the albums first song, “Sixth Sense,” that hints at what is to come next for the band. It’s a soft, mournful piano ballad, tempered lightly with grey atmospheric accompaniment that isn’t explored again until the final number, “Every Which Way.” Those disappointed that the sounds of the album’s bookends weren’t explored further will be happy to hear their third major release of 1981, the EP The Eyes of Beautiful Losers. It’s a mostly atmospheric record; the first two songs, the title track and “Still Air,” are heavy, gray synth compositions that are heavy on the melancholy, though the A Certain Ratio funk of “Out From The Day To Day” feels quite incongruous.
The duo’s third album, Drumming the Beating Heart, was released in 19822, and shows the band refining their rawness, offering up some uniquely beautiful music in its wake. By now, Bates’ songwriting is definitely more pop-oriented; his singing, restrained and focused. Several numbers, like “Lights of April” and “One By One,” are sublime pop, and easily among the duo’s best work. “Veil Like Calm,” all one-hundred and thirteen seconds of it, might seem like a throwaway number, but oddly this brief little synth pop ditty was released as a single, and, bizarrely, was a minor hit. The album is a transitional one, showing how quickly the band had become a serious contender on the music scene, as well as a band feeling its oats in terms of exploring darker, melancholic sounds at the same time tempering them with pop sensibilities.
Their fourth album, Pale Hands I Loved So Well, however, is the band’s great leap forward. As had been the case with their previous albums, the standout track from its predecessor, “Dreaming At Rain,” points the direction to what their next album would sound like. Primarily instrumental, Pale Hands is a dark, moody, introspective affair; had Ivo Watts-Russell slapped a 4AD label on it, it would be a welcome addition to the label’s roster. The moments where Bates does sing, “Blue Distance” and “Light Sliding,” are made even more striking, standing alone and vulnerable as they drift through the dark, mournful, electronic seas that comprise the rest of the album.
This collection is rounded up with a bonus disc, entitled Recollections and Rarities. These selections are culled from the duo’s first singles and early compilation appearances, and offers many delectable rare jewels. The frantic pace of electronic numbers “Three Kittens” and “China Blue Vision” is tempered with the nascent pop sensibilities of “Kodak Ghosts Run Amok” and “Invisibility,” which are dripping with an innocent charm that holds up quite well thirty-two years on.
Two more albums would appear, both shifting gears dramatically from what had come before them, both records having a smoother pop edge that had only seemed like untapped potential on these four albums. Both records would trouble the charts, and in 1987, the duo would go on a six year hiatus, with Bates exploring numerous melodic avenues. They would reunite in 1993, and have been a steady-moving project ever since; their most recent album, Mania Sour, was released in September. This collection is a worthy addition to the Cherry Red catalog, and does a superb job of capturing the fleeting essence of one of Britain’s most unique groups.