Eclipse Review: M.J. Harris & Martyn Bates - Murder Ballads (1994−1998)


artist: M.J. Har­ris & Martyn Bates
release: Murder Bal­lads (Drift, Pas­sages, Incest Songs)
format: 3x CD
year of release: 1994 (Drift), 1997 (Pas­sages), 1998 (Incest Songs), 1998 (The Com­plete Col­lec­tion)
label: Musica Max­ima Mag­net­ica, Invis­ible
dur­a­tion: 63:24, 55:30, 59:07

detailed info: dis​cogs​.com [Drift, Pas­sages, Incest Songs, The Com­plete Col­lec­tion]

Some sub­lime works of art just pass under the radar for no appar­ent reason, while for oth­ers, it’s pretty obvi­ous why they never reached a wide audi­ence. The Murder Bal­lads tri­logy put together by Mick Har­ris (Scorn, Lull, Nap­alm Death) and Martyn Bates (Eye­less in Gaza) is, at least to me, an example of the lat­ter cat­egory. Who would want to listen to grue­some folk songs, their words pon­der­ously sang by Bates and stretched to their dur­a­tional limit, accom­pan­ied by the darker than black isol­a­tion­ist ambi­ent sound­scapes laid down by Har­ris? Twelve such bal­lads are presen­ted in quar­tets, tak­ing almost fif­teen minutes on aver­age each, for a total of nearly three hours of, well, utterly unset­tling and gloomy music.

The first part of the series was released in 1994, and entitled Drift. Like each album, it con­tains four sep­ar­ate bal­lads, the first of which is “The Death of Polly”, in which a man named Willy leads astray Polly with the prom­ise of mar­riage, and some “fun” before. In actu­al­ity he leads her to a freshly dug grave and stabs her to death, leav­ing only the “wild birds to moan”. In the second bal­lad, “The Fowler”, a young man acci­dent­ally shoots his true love in the guise of a swan while out hunt­ing. “Lucy Wan” is a hor­ri­fy­ing tale of an inces­tu­ous rela­tion­ship (or rape) that leads to a brother killing his sis­ter Lucy, and sub­sequently leav­ing home, pre­sum­ably to com­mit sui­cide:

O what will you do when your father comes to know
O my son, come tell to me
O I will set foot in a bot­tom­less boat
and I will sail the sea

And when will you come back again
O my son, come tell to me
When the sun and the moon dance on yon­der hill
and that may never be

The last track is “Long Lankin”, an oft-sung clas­sic about Long Lankin and the False Nurse, who con­spire to kill a lady and her child while the lord is away from his house.

Through­out all this, Bates sticks to his own set­ting of the tra­di­tional melod­ies, delivered some­times softly, some­times at full volume, with his power­ful and unmis­tak­able high emotive voice. Har­ris’ ambi­ent back­ing subtly rein­forces the cadence of the song with deep, slowly pulsat­ing drones, and fills in the gaps between verses with melodic accents and effects. Ample time is taken to draw out each verse and melody, which gives all of the music a pon­der­ous and slow passing. Though it might take some time to settle into this rhythm, ulti­mately it allows the listener to take in both the nar­rat­ive of the bal­lads and the del­ic­ately layered instru­mental and vocal melod­ies, which are unique for each song.

This mode con­tin­ues through­out the second album Pas­sages, and the final one, Incest Songs. Num­ber two con­tains “The Bramble Briar”, about two broth­ers who kill the lover of their sis­ter because he is a ser­vant; “The Cruel Mother”, who kills her two unwanted babies in the forest, only to find them returned later to the porch of a church, where she is cursed by them; “The Banks of Fordie” tells of three sis­ters ambushed by a rob­ber, who asks each of them to be his bride or die. He kills two of the sis­ters, but the third one reminds him of the dam­na­tion in store for him, and he takes his own life instead; “The Murder of Maria Marten” closes the second album, a par­tic­u­larly graphic story sim­ilar to that of “The Death of Polly”. Incest Songs, as the title indic­ates, is the only album with a uni­fy­ing theme apart from murder, and all four songs have the for­bid­den love between brother and sis­ter as its theme, a situ­ation where both par­ents and chil­dren often end up at the wrong end of a knife.

As I stated earlier, the them­at­ics of these tra­di­tional folk songs are not that easy to swal­low, espe­cially when com­pared to the rel­at­ively flighty and upbeat themes of most of today’s pop­u­lar music. How­ever, stu­dents of these tra­di­tions and sim­ilar ones like folk­tales, fairytales and urban legends, will real­ise that they serve the unique pur­pose of thrill­ing the listener and warn­ing of pos­sible hos­tile inten­tions of oth­ers, and of the pos­sible tragedy lurk­ing behind some cases of murder. A touch­ing example is that of “The Bonny Hind”, where the inces­tu­ous brother and sis­ter at the time do not know they are related. Only later do they dis­cover this, with dis­astrous res­ults.

The coup­ling of these themes with a slow and delib­er­ate recount­ing, and quite oppress­ive (though beau­ti­fully com­posed) dark ambi­ent music - instead of the tra­di­tional a capella or acoustic-instrument rendi­tions - makes this album series a unique piece of art, and one that des­pite the dif­fer­ing ori­gins of its two musical modes comes out of the wood­work per­fectly. Rather than feel­ing as a ran­dom com­bin­a­tion, this pair­ing sounds as nat­ural as a tra­di­tional inter­pret­a­tion of bal­lads might. To me, this is what makes folk so excit­ing: artists infus­ing tra­di­tional mater­ial into their own vis­ion, giv­ing birth to some­thing new. In the case of Har­ris and Bates’ Murder Bal­lads, the res­ult is an utterly unique and essen­tial work that appears to have been under-appreciated dur­ing the roughly 15 years it has been out there. I gave some reas­ons in the begin­ning for why this is under­stand­able, but here is a heart­felt call to all read­ers to dive in and (re)discover this mas­ter­piece. There are infin­itely worse ways to spend a rainy after­noon.

Reviewed by O.S.

Track­list:

Drift
1. The Death Of Polly (14:09)
2. The Fowler (18:32)
3. Lucy Wan (14:39)
4. Long Lankin (16:05)

Pas­sages
1. The Bramble Briar (13:27)
2. The Cruel Mother (11:24)
3. The Banks Of Fordie (13:07)
4. The Murder Of Maria Marten (17:33)

Incest Songs
1. The Bonny Hind (12:11)
2. Sheaf And Knife (12:07)
3. The Two Broth­ers (17:09)
4. Edward (17:41)