Eclipse Review: Martyn Bates - Mystery Seas (Letters Written #2) (1995)


Ori­ginal 1995 Cover

artist: Martyn Bates
release: Mys­tery Seas (Let­ters Writ­ten #2)
format: CD
year of release: 1995, 2005
label: Ambi­val­ent Scale/World Ser­pent (1995), Shayo (2005)
dur­a­tion: 58:32

detailed info: dis​cogs​.com

Martyn Bates has been act­ive as a singer, lyr­i­cist and musi­cian since the end of the 1970’s. He is most recog­nised for his work in the altern­at­ive rock group Eye­less in Gaza, and neo­folk lov­ers might know him as one half of Twelve Thou­sand Days. Even ambi­ent lov­ers might know him through his col­lab­or­a­tions with people like Mick Har­ris and Troum. No mat­ter what kind of music you are here for, chances are Bates has been doing it. Besides all this though, Bates has had an extens­ive solo career, releas­ing over ten albums and EPs over the past three dec­ades. And though it is dif­fi­cult to pick an album from this mostly excel­lent dis­co­graphy, Mys­tery Seas is def­in­itely one of his best albums, and a unique one within altern­at­ive music in gen­eral.

As is always the case, the music revolves around Bates’ mag­ni­fi­cent voice and lyr­ics, but the instru­mental back­ing dif­fers from album to album. In this case, he has stripped it down to melod­ies and waves on organ and synth, eschew­ing for example the banjo that col­oured the fol­low­ing Ima­gin­a­tion Feels Like Poison album. The res­ult is a var­ied col­lec­tion of songs, some­times relaxed and dreamy, and some­times more urgent. Examples of the lat­ter are “Ima­gin­a­tion Feels Like Poison” (not to be con­fused with the album of the same name, which con­tains - what else - a track called “Mys­tery Seas”) and “You, Look­ing to Me for a Sign”, which both are quite uptempo, with a driv­ing force com­ing from the melodic back­ing. The cli­max of this style is per­haps the excel­lent “Over the Waters”, which com­bines intense, des­per­ate vocals with an appro­pri­ate synth and piano back­ing.

2005 Reis­sue Cover

At the same time, the album has its more calm side, in many dif­fer­ent ways. At times mel­an­cholic, like on “Every­where There’s Rain”, or more dark and brood­ing, like “Calm of Dark” and “Of Night”. But per­haps best are the short, dreamy tracks “Trade Winds” and “Mid­day Com­ing Misty”. In less than three minutes each, they man­age to present most clearly the sub­lime way Martyn com­bines voice, melody and words. Des­pite pick­ing out a few tracks here, the whole album is totally con­sist­ent in its qual­ity and emo­tion, some­thing that truly makes this a great piece of work.

A large part of the lyr­ics (or rather, poems, because they truly are that) are from the early 80’s, hence the sub­title Let­ters Writ­ten #2, which refers to Bates’ EP from 1982, which con­tained other lyr­ics from the same period. In addi­tion there are a few new pieces from around the time of release of this album. All of the writ­ings share a cer­tain level of qual­ity, though. Bates’ poetry, like the music, is often mel­an­cholic, dreamy, meta­phoric, and very good.

Though I hes­it­ate call­ing this Bates’ best album, as they are often quite dif­fer­ent and dif­fi­cult to com­pare, it’s cer­tainly one of the best. It was a good choice by Shayo records to re-release this last year (with new art­work and mas­ter­ing), as per­haps it will help gain this album and artist a new audi­ence. This is surely deserved, because Martyn Bates sadly remains an under-appreciated singer and artist. Albums like this have a cer­tain time­less qual­ity about them, dif­fi­cult to cat­egor­ise, with roots in folk and altern­at­ive music. I’d like to com­pare this album to Nico’s solo works. Though both artists have a very dif­fer­ent approach and atmo­sphere, they have in com­mon that they present song in one of its purest forms, and with a dark touch to it. Mys­tery Seas is a won­der­ful album that every one of our read­ers should give a chance.

Reviewed by O.S.

Track­list:

1. You, Look­ing to Me for a Sign (5:06)
2. Shore­poem (4:19)
3. Calm of Dark (5:29)
4. Ima­gin­a­tion Feels Like Poison (5:18)
5. Trade Winds (2:32)
6. Over the Waters (4:52)
7. Every­where There’s Rain (4:51)
8. Empty Pages (4:28)
9. Mid­day Com­ing Misty (2:53)
10. On the Beach at Fontana (2:15)
11. Sky After All (4:53)
12. Frag­ment (Little Star #1) (1:37)
13. If I Could See in Every­one (3:10)
14. Of Night (5:48)
15. Gift (1:00)