Named for Aldous Huxley’s ode to pacifist integrity, England’s Eyeless in Gaza consisted of guitarist Martyn Bates and bassist/keyboardist Peter Becker, both credited with voice and instrumentation on the first album, a better- than-decent stab at hook-filled spareness. The tasteful music is marred only occasionally by overly anguished vocals. Caught in Flux has a more delicate flavor at first, then rapidly devolves into humpbacked squalor. This one-and-a-half-disc (LP/EP) set shows a hint of progress, with the vocals held in tighter rein. Caught in flux, indeed.
Pale Hands, released only in Norway, is fairly dissolute — a meandering, largely improvisational attempt to make music out of aimless doodles. Drumming the Beating Heart (also included in its entirety on the cassette of Back From the Rains) finds the duo streamlining their sound to good effect, relying on church organ leads and spontaneous rhythm approaches. If the vocals could be relieved of their melodrama, these fellows might have something here.
Back From the Rains has a charming, Aztec Camera- like beat-pop sound; Bates’ vocals aren’t quite up to it, but the duo (aided by a drummer and a female backing singer) shows a real facility for shimmering studio arrangements. Just shy of being commercial, this is nonetheless a delight.
After that record, Becker left the group and Bates began a solo career, an idea he had first tested with a pre-Gaza cassette and 1982’s 10-inch Letters Written. Using strings and a rhythm section on The Return of the Quiet, Bates pushes crudely towards airy soul and catchy techno-bop, but the arrangements have an unfinished quality and his unsubtle singing rarely gets in emotional synch with the material. And while the cover of Bacharach/David’s “Look of Love” is a nice idea, his execution is agonizing.
Bates’ latest effort, handsomely produced by Paul Sampson (who is best known for his work in and with the Primitives but was actually once Bates’ bandmate in the Reluctant Stereotypes), manages to make his voice — showing better control than in the past — more palatable than ever before. With the star handling guitar, harmonica and banjo, a skilled trio (bass, drums, clarinet) helps him realize the songs on the utterly presentable Letters to a Scattered Family as textured, shimmering pop and rock full of nuance and character. (The CD adds the entire contents of The Return of the Quiet.)
Kodak Ghosts Run Amok, a 1980-’86 singles (and more) compilation, chronicles Eyeless in Gaza’s development from idiosyncratic home-brew experimentation through ragged melodicism to full-blown pop. This is really for fans; newcomers are instead recommended to the later, easier-to- like albums. (The double-play cassette appends Caught in Flux.) Transience Blues is a collection of Eyeless rarities.