Originally released back in 1995 (but sounding like it could have been recorded at any point in the past thirty or so years), Mystery Seas (Letters Written #2) has been attributed by some to be one of the forerunners in the whole “freak folk” movement that has grown more and more popular in the past couple years with artists like Devendra Banhart and others. Bates inhabits an entirely different world, though, and it’s truly difficult to find similar artists with which to compare his work. In combination with highly-charged vocals of Bates, the instrumentation comprised largely of organs, keyboards, and some sparse flutes makes for a downright mystical (and sometimes almost exorcism-esque) effort.
Considering the album runs almost an hour in length, the lack of variety (and percussion, for that matter) tends to make Mystery Seas (Letters Written #2) feel a bit long in places, but when Bates locks into things just right, the effect is mesmerizing. “You Looking To Me For A Sign” opens the release and presents a nice introduction to his sound, with pulsing layers of synths and his dramatic vocals, but the second track “Shorepoem” is one of the true kickers on the disc. Blending wheezy organ and melodion along with multi-part vocal harmonies and flutters of flutes, the song is downright hypnotic, lyrically touching on hazy forgotten memories that melt into the instrumentation itself. The same goes for the dream-like “Trade Winds,” which finds Bates soaring his vocals over dense washes of synths in a way that’s absolutely stunning.
It’s easy to tell from the song titles along that Bates is influenced (vocally, and musically as well, given the sea-shanty feel of several pieces) by the unpredictability and beauty of nature and weather. His songs are filled with references to the sea and atmospheric conditions, and as mentioned above, his sometimes downright spectral music fits alongside the words perfectly. The five-minute “Everywhere There’s Rain” is a perfect example, drawing out chords to mini-drones while Bates sings his self-critical lament. Because of the unique instrumentation, this isn’t an album that will likely grab on first listen, but it’s one that I’ve found myself (sometimes almost inexplicably) going back to sometimes. As mentioned above, the lack of variety (and somewhat long running length) drag it down a bit, but there’s still some great songs to be heard.