Eyeless But Mindful

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Eyeless In Gaza
Orange Ice & Wax Crayons
POLAND CATSUN CAT9 CD (2012)

Odds n’sods compilations are often regarded as ‘fan-only’ affairs, full of half-baked ideas and wild goose chases that never found their way onto albums proper. In this respect, my first exposure to Eyeless in Gaza – invisible on my radar until now – is something of a baptism of fire. That said, and with certain qualifications, I can report that my first encounter has yielded many episodes of interest and intrigue. In fact, for an ostensible set of offcuts and (potentially) offal, this is a curiously cohesive collection of non-canonical cuts realised in various stages of development, covering 1981 – 1985, and (thematically) tracing EiG’s development into the shinier alt-pop duo that brought us ‘Back from the Rains’ in 1986. Recording fidelity varies throughout, and songs range from scribbled (yet sincere) sketches to polished pop pieces, though I suspect Sound Projector readers would consider this an asset, especially as enthusiastic and illuminating directorial commentary is provided in the sleevenotes by both members, Martyn Bates and Pete Becker, who personally picked every piece from their archives.

Admirers of ‘80s art-pop will quickly warm to the first four cuts, which comprise a suite of upbeat but moody, technicolor synth-pop numbers similarly veined to early Talk Talk. ‘Hours Grow’ and ‘What I Want to Know’ (the latter Becker’s hypothetical choice for single, ‘if only someone could have heard it’) find EiG full in flight and body: reflective yet resolved, held high by a rubbery bass and as many hooks as Prince’s wardrobe, the latter aspect diminishing as the CD progresses. By ‘Ways of Rachel’ and the wintery ‘Street Lamps N’ Snow’ the mood is more mournful, the high vocals have deepened and bear traces of folk singing, which return (by degrees) in later songs; the setting is sparser and more spacious, having stretched to accommodate a smattering of exotic percussion and wind instruments. In fact, it is EIG’s taste for foreign flavours that leads them on some of their most satisfying journeys.

The best evidence of this is to be found in the collection’s many instrumentals, beginning with the windy seascape interlude of ‘P.S. For Michel’, and culminating with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop ‘tribute’ piece, ‘Music For Playgrounds’, a light-hearted jingle, of the same genealogy as Plaid and Stereolab. Other interesting entries include the haunting, O.Rang-esque ‘Formerly At Midnight’, with its programmed percussion, keening vocal refrain and sombre flute phrases. In ‘Egg Box Mask’, a wavering electronic bleat pierces a ghost-ship greyness that calls to mind the bleak, sepia netherworld of The Caretaker; the nautical theme resumes in a more majestic light in ‘Great Ocean Liner’, which makes grander entry, and offers more spacious quarters to its layers of keyboards, scraped guitar and violin, as they gradually cohere into a dense, driven mass. Of a different warmth is ‘Old Lime Quarry’, which sports a slowly-rolling harmonium that fades to admit a shower of resigned twitters and twinkles. Included perhaps to throw listeners off the scent altogether, the seven jagged, guitar-jangling minutes of ‘Red Letter Day’ are more redolent of some New York garret than the studio of one of the UK’s longest serving alt-pop units.

The rest of the album maintains this appetite for adventure, while ensuring explored ideas are realised as fully as apparently necessary. Some earlier locations are revisited, such as on the expeditious synth-pop reprise, ‘Stay’, which might have been better situated in the first part of the album than amidst a dirge of earthy instrumentals near the end. Of these – and cited as Bates’ reason for embarking on this compilation – ‘Dogs Bark’, fan-recorded live in Den Haag, is an earth-toned, Irish-folk take on Terry Riley. The purgatorial fairground feeling of ‘Fear Clutches’ also features strong vocals (though of a more lugubrious species), along with a funereal turn on the organ.

On the whole, the diversity and inspiration evident in these fifteen cuts offer convincing confirmation of Eyeless in Gaza’s putative status as overlooked talent, presumably a consequence of their long-term inability to cultivate a reputation in the ‘mainstream’ arena in the way that Talk Talk managed to. In any event, fans not already in possession of this collection will likely enjoy its manifold angles of EiG during their four or five years. Those unfamiliar with Martyn Bates’ vocals may find them to be an acquired taste – something like a higher-register Mark Hollis singing with a mouth full of orange juice. But to these listeners, the album’s bounty of intriguing instrumentals will be welcome indeed.

Distributed by Monotype Records

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