From vanished lands
An event: The great Eyeless In Gaza played their only concert in Germany at the Quasimodo
Berliner Zeitung, 258, Monday 3rd November 2008
by Jens Balzer, translated from German by Thomas Köhler
It was a precious, rare evening: for two hours the rooms of the Quasimodo, the small, narrow jazz cellar on Kantstrasse, broadened and became a cathedral; people humbly lowered their heads for a service of thanksgiving. For 30 years now, Eyeless In Gaza sing their songs of consolation. But it has taken a quarter of a century to see Martyn Bates and Peter Becker again in Berlin on Saturday, together with Elizabeth S., their old companion, on banjo and vocals.
Eyeless In Gaza, named after a novel by Aldous Huxley, come from the English midlands. They started their musical career in the late 70s, in the times of industrial music and post punk. They released their first albums on the London-based Cherry Red label, which also featured bands like Felt, The Monochrome Set or Everything But The Girl. Although typical for the time they had an interest in sound collages and dehumanized sounds, Eyeless In Gaza as well showed an early fascination for vanishing human life itself, for the music of the folk tradition, for instance the songs and ballads collected by the ethnologist Alan Lomax in the 50s and 60s in the English and Scottish hinterland. Using acoustic guitars and banjos, but also synthesizers, drum computers and crisp, thin-sounding e-guitars – later adapted by Johnny Marr for The Smiths – they created a hymnal, radiant art of songwriting from this musical heritage, not least due to Martyn Bates’ wonderful, soft falsetto voice. On the band’s hitherto most commercially successful album, Back from the Rains from 1986, the synthesizer finally became the dominant element. The rejoicing title track, telling of painful resurrection, was played as an encore at the Quasimodo, much to the audience’s delight.
Considering their combination of industrial and folk, of “urban” new wave and rural song tradition, Eyeless In Gaza might appear similar to Current 93. However, there are no Gothic reminiscenses in their music: despite all the spiritual interest, all the fascination for stark, remote landscapes and ways of living, there is no darkness here, only light. Even if Martyn Bates sometimes sings of frightening things in rural laments from barren areas, ballads of suffering and lost lovers: his music is never depressing, but uplifting for the listener; it doesn’t moan or wail, but speaks of trust.
In the last decades, Bates has also pursued several interesting solo projects. He worked with free jazz saxophonist Lol Coxhill and has recorded an album of Murder Ballads with Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris. But his most impressive work remains with Eyeless In Gaza. His talent for mirroring human feelings in poetical images of landscapes and for transforming musical nostalgia into reminders of the illusionary nature of memory is as reflected as it is heart-tearing. And even after thirty years his voice has lost nothing of its confidence, its warmth, its shimmering softness. Martyn Bates is radiant when he sings, and he sings so beautifully. It’s been a long time since a reunion with old friends sent us into the night as inspired and as little nostalgic.