[20 February 2007]
There’s something behind Eyeless in Gaza, the British duo of Martyn Bates and Peter Becker, that is way bigger than the music they make. That simple fact is the length for which they’ve been toiling in obscurity: 25 years. Two and a half decades is twice as long as most bands spend together with line-up changes that can’t be counted on the fingers of one hand—the re-emergence of Guns n Roses is a good case in point—and, even if the heart and soul of the band is only two members at the end of the day, their vision has sustained itself further than anyone could have hoped for, while they’ve watched many a peer go on to wider critical acclaim.
Thus, as a sort-of 25-year anniversary present to each other, the pair, whose music can best be described as “ambient post-indie-punk,” have released a 21-track, career-spanning compilation called Plague of Years – Songs and Instrumentals 1980-2006. This in itself presents a problem, as selecting material from their many, many albums provides the obvious question: where do you start? All across the 75-minute set, this is music at its most unfiltered and unassuming. And in a way it is comforting to know that whatever comes out of the speakers was formed solely by the two men’s creativity, and that certainly no big budget studio techniques have been used in shaping them up. Another winning factor is the songwriting, present in only 12 of the 21 tracks: almost poetic in its proportions, which you’d expect from any band named after a Aldous Huxley book. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a singer wrap their tongue around a wordier phrase than this:
Tangible notions of certain direction
Nestle in rose petal knot of affection
Hard in inflexible stiff lines of reason
Bound shrewd with self-defence
And shot through with poison.
It’s as complex as that at any given moment, and this unsurprisingly brings down whatever real points the songs could have made… meandering lyrics and pace don’t do any favors. The band always leans on restrained arrangements, despite all their experimental tendencies, and seem paranoid to really open up to something grander and craft something to raise any pulses. And the voice has all the life sucked out of it, Bates’ flat wail acting as modus operandum for most of it. On “John of Patmos”, his morose harmonies makes him sound more like a 14th-century monk than anyone in a rock band. “One by One” is useless; over a shrill, tinny backing and a drum machine, Bates’ enunciation is so poor you’d be hard pressed to get anything out of it besides a headache. “Ever Pitch and Bite” is done right, though, underlined by a heart-wrenching string design that doesn’t quite know how to gracefully fade out, yet is pleasant enough anyway; and the short “Lights of April” is admittedly pretty. If only these two songs could be matched!
As for the instrumentals, it’s becoming more the norm these days to throw in at least a few passages to show off your chops, and it’s something that Eyeless in Gaza have never had a problem with. However, it’s rare for an instrumental to actually take us somewhere, like Metallica’s “The Call of Ktulu” (maybe a bad example in this context, but you get the picture). On Plague of Years there are nine instrumentals, selected by unknown criteria, and you can expect them to be psychedelic affairs with plenty of subtle changes and a diehard keenness on chimes (“Before December”). “Mock Sun” holds an incredibly poor position as the starter for the album. Some time later, there are no less than three numbing cuts in a row: “To Steven”, “Sun-Like Gold” and “To Elizabeth S.”, encompassing 11 minutes all up. The problem is, the instrumentals are in the majority in that they really don’t take us anywhere, and in hindsight they’re merely mild distractions than anything of importance.
It’s difficult to know whether to recommend Plague of Years. Though it could easily pass for sonic bleeps to a majority of the population, a small number of people could be profoundly affected by it, which makes it all the more frustrating to those of us who don’t “get it.” Eyeless in Gaza have further confined themselves to cult status, that’s for sure—music like this and the mainstream are not compatible, and whatever they make after this 25-year stopgap will be the same story. So while it’s up in the air if this weird, amorphous art-rock is likely to strike a chord with you personally, it’s so much easier to just recommend to everyone who’d rather not take the chance that they check out some more well-known post-punk bands of a different variety who eventually claimed fame (Husker Du and R.E.M. do come to mind) rather than risk it on an obscure, independent “greatest hits.”