Music Reviews

Artist: Eyeless in Gaza (@)
Title: Summer Salt & Subway Sun (Boxed Set)
Format: 2 x CD (double CD)
Label: Beta-lactam Ring Records (@)
Distributor: Beta-lactam Ring Records
Rated: *****
I have to admit, I’m one of those people who was more familiar with the name of Eyeless in Gaza than their material. They seemed to be one of those seminal bands who influenced a lot more artists who became popular than achieving widespread popularity themselves. Perhaps it was their ever-changing musical directions that made me view them as a whirling playground roundabout; already set in motion spinning and I just never felt motivated to jump aboard. So I treated myself to a crash course on the group’s history via their rather comprehensive website to play catch-up, and was rather impressed with what I found.

I knew Martyn Bates was involved with Eyeless but my exposure was limited to his "Murder Ballads" project with M.J. Harris (Scorn) which I really enjoyed. I was not familiar with the other half, Peter Becker. I also didn’t know that Eyeless in Gaza began as an industrial/experimental outfit (Antagonistic Music/Dissonance) releasing tapes as early as 1980. What with their various genre explorations from avant-folk to pop, funk, improvisational, experimental, isolationist, and so many other sonic permutations, the band has a rich and varied musical history, not only within the confine of their own project, but also in conjunction with other artists that include Anne Clark, Deirdre Rutkowski (This Mortal Coil), Lol Coxhill, Bill Laswell, Mick Harris, Genesis P. Orridge, In Embrace, and numerous others.

If Eyeless in Gaza was divided to a simple equation (practically impossible I imagine), Martyn Bates would seem to be the pop-folky half of the band, while Peter Becker, seemingly the more avant-garde element. But the superficial assessment is merely that; it is the combination of the two that makes Eyeless in Gaza the eclectic entity it really is. The juxtaposition of Bates’ vocal style (warm and soulful Brit folk-pop) with often uncategorizable musical arrangements is indeed quite a contrast. The atmosphere and ambience shares equal importance with the melodic and lyrical content. Improvisation is as important as structure. Minimal passages are as weighty as cascading sheets of thick sonic substance. There is really no separating the elements here, even if one composition seems to favor a certain set of elements more than another.

I get the impressions that SUMMER SALT & SUBWAY SUN is meant to be taken as a whole work, and not separate tracks, or even separate albums. While by no means a restrospective, it would seem to sum up a good portion of what Eyeless in Gaza is all about, perhaps even more important, what they’re about NOW. The 2 CD set was originally released in 2006 on another label, limited to 1000 copies. Between then and now, the only other Eyeless in Gaza releases were previous albums remastered and a book of lyrics. I don’t know how the original release of SUMMER SALT & SUBWAY SUN was packaged, but this one comes in a nice heavy duty glossy colorful box with two heavy duty glossy colorful cardboard sleeves and a glossy yellow lyric and instrumental credit booklet. (It helps if you favor the color yellow, particularly "golden yellow" on your color chart as that is the predominant color throughout.) I would have liked to have the initial limited release with the extra CD, "Wildcat Fights" to review, but there were only 400 copies of those and they’re probably long gone. Besides, that would be more like telling you what you can’t have, rather than what you can.

Rather than dissecting tracks, I’d rather give an overall impression of SUMMER SALT & SUBWAY SUN. Although not present on every track, I think it’s important to really enjoy Martyn’s vocal style to appreciate music of the music on these CDs. If you’re unfamiliar with it and you don’t care for a sweet, pure emotional, often delicate, nearly commercial voice, you would be best to spend your money elsewhere. You would be missing a lot of interesting music, but the Bates vox is part and parcel of the package. In the music there are shoegazing elements, post-punk elements, semi-psychedelic, ambient folk, industrial beats, gentle folk pop, cinematic soundscapes, Eastern motifs, and more. It’s really quite an eclectic pastiche. One comparison that comes to mind in terms of an artist who mixes an accessible vocal style with an experimental format is David Sylvian. Although the bulk of Sylvian’s output keeps closer the commercial song format, there are parallels in mixing an emotional vocal style with musical improvisation and unusual ambiences. SUMMER SALT & SUBWAY SUN exhibits a wide diversity of sound palettes and there are numerous passages on the CDs that may seem more like anything BUT what you might associate with Eyeless in Gaza. Then again, the unexpected is what they built a career on. These are two very moody, atmospheric CDs that provide a challenging, yet rewarding listen. Every track may not resonate with you, but there is enough excellent material here to call this an essential Eyeless in Gaza purchase, especially if there is a lack of their albums in your collection.

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