Memory Motel: Eyeless in Gaza's Blind Ambition
The post-punk era's odd men out.
Eyeless in Gaza: even their name sounds like the least commercially feasible band moniker ever - at least, it did until Sixpence None the Richer started doing big business in the late ‘90s. From the beginning, the British duo of Martyn Bates and Peter Becker was the ultimate anti-band. When they emerged from late-‘70s England's fertile post-punk scene, they were anti-rock-band, anti-ego, and resolutely anti-commercial. Nevertheless, they've remained together for over three decades, and are still making striking sonic statements in their own singular way to this very day.
The earliest recordings of Eyeless in Gaza -- whose name, incidentally, came from a 1936 Aldous Huxley novel -- date back to 1980, and they show a group already firmly fixed on following their own quirky path. Singer Bates sounded rather like a particularly agitated Joe Jackson taking enunciation lessons from a young Michael Stipe, but his lyrics were abstract enough that even crystal-clear diction wouldn't have put his messages across much more effectively. The minimalist frames multi-instrumentalist Becker erected around Bates' artful ululations alternated between art-school post-punk guitar jabs robbed of a rhythm section and slightly Young Marble Giants-ish tinkertoy keyboard lines bouncing off the humble pitter-patter of primitive drum-machine patterns. It was urgent, angsty, and fairly unprecedented; in other words, everything one would have wanted from a new band in that milieu.
By the time the duo got around to its second album, 1981's Caught in Flux, Eyeless In Gaza had evolved into purveyors of an angular, utterly individual electro-organic amalgam with a haunting, mysterious quality perfectly evoked by the affecting black & white photo on the front cover, which remains among the finest album-art images of its era. Like the prolific pair's first two albums, their third and fourth were released within a single year - 1982's Drumming the Beating Heart and Pale Hands I Loved So Well both expanded on the more melodic, atmospheric, keyboard-oriented pieces from Caught in Flux. Both records represented a new high point for EIG, overflowing as they were with autumnal, eerily beautiful, electro-laced art songs.
The group's next two albums moved in a direction that must have seemed unthinkable to Eyeless in Gaza's admirers at the time - commercial accessibility. The 1983 release Rust Red September edged away from the moody abstractions and spooky textures of old, toward more concise, pop-oriented songs, but for all of the album's distance from its predecessors, it turned out to be but a mere half-step. Three years later, Back From the Rains finished the job with its slick production and mainstream musical modes. It was straight-up mid-‘80s indie pop, ostensibly indistinguishable from contemporaneous efforts by the likes of The Style Council, Everything But the Girl, or Prefab Sprout - not that there's anything wrong with that, but it was neither EIG's strong suit nor anything their early fans could conceivably have wanted from them. In retrospect, they're both fine records on their own merits, but at the time they felt like the betrayal of an intimate trust.
It's not surprising that Back from the Rains spelled the end of Becker and Bates's partnership for some time. When they reunited for Fabulous Library in 1993, they seemed to have recognized their past missteps, and in the second chapter of their partnership, the duo pursued a sound increasingly more in line with their early aesthetic. Their ‘90s efforts were somewhat influenced by contemporary electronic music, but by the time the 2000s rolled around, they were making albums like Answer Song & Dance and Everyone Feels Like a Stranger, that felt much more like a logical progression from their early-‘80s triumphs than the records that actually followed those early gems. Who'd have ever expected a couple of intense, arty types like Becker and Bates to drum up a happy ending for themselves?