Archives for posts with tag: Peter Hammill

The organ is the strongest instrument on Still Life, dominating large sections of most of the tracks. Interestingly, the opening track, Pilgrims, is lyrically of a piece with the closing epic, Childhood Faith In Childhood’s End. While the latter takes its theme most obviously from the Arthur C. Clarke novel to which its title refers, the former, with lyrics such as ‘The time has come, the tide has almost run / and drained the deep: I rise from lifelong sleep’ does as well. Pilgrims ends beautifully without a resolution and the title track picks up with a gentle vocal backed by simple organ chords which are maintained until the third verse when the rock and roll kicks in. Lyrically Still Life extends a metaphor of marriage to encompass death, decay, and despair. I guess it’s a little late to suggest that Hammill’s poetry is not of the light and fluffy variety. (Here’s a live version from 2011.)

vdgg-slThat said, but this album has a much greater pop sensibility than its predecessors. It helps that two of the five songs clock in at less than 8 minutes and two more at less than ten. Yes, I’m stretching the definition of ‘pop’, I know.

La Rossa is the most distinctly metal song on the album, though the musical styling seems very much at odds with the lyrical content (yeah, I know, what else is new) in which the narrator tries to harness his desire for an object, but knows he must succumb.

My Room (Waiting For Wonderland) opens side two with soprano sax, drums, and vocals. However, the gentleness of the delivery belies the harshness of the lyrics which describe (perhaps, as always with this band) a person succumbing to depression, loneliness, and anxiety. Possibly the most cohesively beautiful thing they’ve done to date.

 

 

vdgg-h2hwThe opener, Killer seems to be about both sharks and love, is to be the most straight up rocker of the album, and has a really nice piano break. Here’s a slightly distorted 1972 version from French TV. And here’s a very clean live version from 2005. Crazy double saxophone playing! This is the first indication of what I’ve missed not having gotten into them earlier. I really wish I’d been at that show.
Fripp shows up on The Emperor In His War Room, though his playing isn’t that distinctive. (Was it so on early KC? Good question – the style we’re all familiar with may have come later.)
Lost and Pioneers in c have that great theatrical feel of contemporary dramas (think Bowie’s Cygnet Committee and Width of a Circle or Genesis’ The Knife and The Musical Box). The first, in two parts, reminds me a bit of Refugees from the previous album, but extended and generally weirder. The latter, which closed the original album is kinda sci-fi. Note the distinct lack of fade-out. The 2005 reissue on Spotify goes right into Squid/Octopus, a crazy jam recorded for the following album, Pawn Hearts. (It sort of makes sense to include it, given the shark theme of Killer.) The 2005 version closes with another version of the Emperor In His War Room, but I’m not sure what the differences are. The alternate seems a little gentler.
H To He was engineered by Robin Cable who worked on several Queen albums and produced the first two Dickies albums. (Yeah, check those out – back from the golden age of punk harmonizing.)

The horn sound on this album moves VDGG closer to what King Crimson were doing during the Lizard/Islands period while the classical keyboards pull the sound towards early Genesis (with whom they toured the following year). I love the confluence of gorgeous vocals and rhythm guitar work that goes head to head with free-jazz saxophone on tracks like What Ever Would Robert Have Said? Hammill had a lovely voice (and possibly still does) and he uses it to great effect, from a croon to a growl and often in the same song.

vdgg-tlwcd2After the deluge of Darkness (11/11), Refugees is a beautiful interlude with some nice harmonies before White Hammer, another example of proper early prog histrionics. Lyrically the latter owes too much to its source material (the 15th century treatise on witchcraft, Malleus Maleficarum). That said, the interplay of the sax and keyboards can occasionally make you forget the words. I hope I can find a live version, because the fadeout (given that this song closes side A) is annoying. Honestly not sure where I got my hatred for the fade, but in general I think the shows that the producer was sleeping on the job.

Side B starts with Whatever Would Robert Have Said? For being only about six minutes long, it goes through several sections, some with vocals, some without. The opening wailing saxophone shows off some interesting production – the sax in the left channel is different than the sax in the right. They definitely knew what stereo was for.
Out Of My Book is another musically gentle track. Primarily flute-driven, it’s another first-person not-quite-love-song.
After The Flood has a section with some great flute/drum interplay. Lyrically it’s half biblical flood and half apocalypse. The horn work in the middle of the song has the free jazz feel of contemporaneous King Crimson. I like the Dalek effect on the word ‘annihilation’. Alas, the refrain of And when the water falls again / All is dead and nobody lives doesn’t really do justice to the majesty of the music.

The version on Spotify is the 2005 remaster with two extra tracks: The Boat of Millions of Years and the single version of Refugees. Wikipedia says that these are the B and A sides of single released two months after the LP. The latter still isn’t exactly radio friendly at 5 minutes 18 (versus the 6:25 of the album version), but radio was a different beast in 1970.

Having finished A Dylan A Day a few weeks ago, there was a request to take on A Van Der Graaf Generator A Day.

Here’s the first: AVDGGAD 01 – The Aeresol Grey Machine (1969)

Main man Peter Hammill made much of his reputation as a guitarist, so it’s a little odd that this first VDGG album is so keyboard heavy.

Lyrically, the whole album is something of a mindfuck. Here’s an almost but not quite track-by-track…

Orthenian St. is ostensibly about an averted accident on an icy road. Part I closes with a nice Neu-like repetition (yes – I know that Neu! came later) before slipping back into folk-prog. The same motorik feel comes back around at the end of part II

Running Back has some nice flute going on and studio echo that reminds me of what Jonathan King did on some of the tracks on the first Genesis recordings. Its lyrics seem to be about a relationship the narrator has returned to after trying to leave.

The much harder Into A Game has the narrator pushing a partner away who is trying to return (Now we’re into a game / And it’s all a bit strange / But familiar too / The rules never change / I know it, but do you?). Its closing features some nicely improvised jazz piano.

Now this is the place where listening to a continuous medium such as a CD (or single track video) shows up how different it was to listen to a recording with two sides. Side B opens with the title track, a 47-second music-hall takeoff reminiscent of I Want To Marry A Lighthouse Keeper (used in A Clockwork Orange, but probably not an influence on the later VDGG track A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers). It just sounds really weird coming after Into A Game. The jarring is similar to that produced by Sergeant Peppers’ side 2 inner groove and the alarm at that follows The Wanderer on U2’s Zooropa.

vdgg-agmSide two is otherwise dedicated to the kind of lyrical mythology that prog and sub-par fantasy novels became famous/infamous for. Aquarians and Necromancer both have silliness like ‘My form is mystic, but my heart is pure / You’d better believe what I say / I am the Necromancer’, but particularly on the latter, the drumming and synth work are quite intriguing.
Octopus is a little less like that, but is still an interesting example of early prog rock.
The version of the album I found on Vevo is taken (I think) from the German reissue which closes with The People You Were Going To and Firebrand. The first of these is an odd address to another person much like Running Back. It’s more of a straight up folk rock piece than what otherwise populated side two. On the other hand, Firebrand is most definitely another one of those heavy keyboard, heavy mythology pieces of fantasy rock. The vocals are histrionic and the lyrics…well, the chorus goes like so:
“I ride an icy stallion, fire at each end
and poison at the centre;
you won’t hear my words as I scream into the darkness:
his plans are like a firebrand,
his plans are like a firebrand.”

The closing of the song makes reference to a couple of folks named Njal and Hildiglum. I had to look them up – they come out of an 10th century Icelandic saga. Much like Peter Gabriel did with The Fountain of Salmacis a couple of years later, Hammill seems to have lifted the lyrics nearly wholesale from the older text.

All in all, quite a satisfying album, though I think I’d prefer to have heard just the album either as it was released or as it was sequenced by the band. I give it ****.