Album reviews – Eyeless In Gaza: ‘Bitter Apples’ (“an autumnal album in the most inspiring way”)

30 Nov

Eyeless In Gaza: 'Bitter Apples'

Eyeless In Gaza: ‘Bitter Apples’

After seventeen years on the wildest, furthest reaches of contemporary music, Eyeless In Gaza’s time may finally have come. With the British music scene proclaiming itself as boundary-free, cross-pollination of styles is the name of the game. Experimentation is the byword. Ears are open to new sounds.

Eyeless, of course, have been doing it for ages – from industrial electronics through early-80’s sparse electronic punk, bedsit acoustic folk, a stab at a big pop sound and experiments with mechanistic ambience. Then a seven-year abeyance followed by a shock return with the modern dance-pop of ‘Fabulous Library’ and by ‘Saw You In Reminding Pictures’ (an album of improvised, cinematic, ambient songs and atmospheres). Yet all, thanks to Martyn Bates’ distinctive, expressive voice and Peter Becker’s endlessly inventive musical collages, recognisably Eyeless In Gaza.

Much of Europe has been in on their greatness for years. Now that they have returned it is time that Britain listened in; particularly as, since Eyeless reformed, their career has been no nostalgic re-run of past styles, but a body of work that has engaged with the best of them in the camp marked “pre-millennial boundary-breaking zeitgeist experimentation”. Or something.


 
Following the head-expanding soundscape world of ‘Saw You In Reminding Pictures’, ‘Bitter Apples’ comes announced as a return to song structures and a live folk feel (acoustic guitars, bass, drums). The matured Eyeless In Gaza are now reinventing the brand of avant-folk song first heard on their Drumming The Beating Heart album over a decade ago. Lyrics such as those on Bushes And Briars immediately announce the folk influence – “through bushes and through briars / I lately made my way / all for to hear the young birds sing / and the lambs to skip and play.”

But any hint of preciousness about such a style is dispelled by the ghostly a-capella treatment of Bates’ voice, treated with vocal effects that make him sound like a possessed changeling, wrapped in his own tingling harmonies. Martyn Bates’ voice is unique – expressive in hushing to a sense of menace, or delicate and weary, or surging with the power to hit the rafters. He occasionally retains a slight rasp, an edge, to his voice from the first punk-inflected vocals of early Eyeless. A comparison? Impossible.


 
Year Dot demonstrates how Eyeless In Gaza can produce powerfully rhythmic, surging music from the basis of harsh acoustic riffs, Martyn letting his voice roam over the melodies with unfettered power. But technology is not anathema to such natural surroundings, though – the track closes in a sharp crescendo of electronic interference. Contemporary experimentation mixes it further with avant-folk on Jump To Glory Jane – zither passages are built upon bursts of white noise, klaxons, and improvised wordless vocal harmonies as just another instrument in the delicate construction. It’s a perfect demonstration of the duo’s implicit feel for building such atmospheres, and sets the tone for much of the rest of the album.

Perhaps the central track, though, is To Listen Across The Sands: powerful and urgent, built upon a crashing electronic drum pattern remorselessly pushing the rhythm forward and echoing the lyrical theme of listening to “all the mad, crashing waves.” The song would seem to be an allegory for a journey through a stormy life – “listen across the sands / to the waves drifting where you stand / and all their voices swallowing your life.” A theme that is returned to, lyrically and musically, on the title track. To an up-tempo soundtrack of syncopated guitar and percussion (plus a star appearance from a keyboard relic in Peter Becker’s armoury of sounds – the Wasp), nature’s imagery is once again summoned to describe the unpleasant aspects of life we sometimes have to wade through. “Such a bitter harvest, such a windfall falling that I can’t move… / all that I taste wastes me away – all that I’m succoured by and living on… / bitter apples…”

This is an autumnal album in the most inspiring way – new invigorating cooler winds provoking the falling leaves and scudding clouds. And Eyeless in Gaza are long-overdue for rediscovery, yet still ripe. Pluck.

(review by Vaughan Simons)

Eyeless In Gaza: ‘Bitter Apples’
Ambivalent Scale Recording, A‑SCALE 020 (5021958453026)
CD‑only album
Released: autumn 1995

Get it from:
(2018 update) original CD best obtained second-hand. There was a 2011 reissue on Hand/Eye Records which might be easier to find.

Eyeless In Gaza online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Soundcloud Tumblr Last FM

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