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Main Category: Singer-Songwriters
Also applicable: Prog Rock
Starting Period: The Artsy/Rootsy Years
Also active in: The Interim Years, The Punk/New Wave Years,

The Divided Eighties, From Grunge To The Present Day



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While Peter Hammill was indeed a pretty autocratic leader for Van Der Graaf Generator, one of the 'primary' prog bands of its epoch, many people consider his solo career and his VDGG rulership two separate things, and after some listening I am inclined to agree with them. Sure, VDGG itself seemed to go through two epochs (out of which the 'reborn' period of 1975-76 is the closest to Peter's solo career), on one hand, and on the other hand, VDGG members frequently used to contribute their playing skills for Peter's solo records, but these are still secondary details as compared to the main differences between the band and the guy.

Do not be mad at me if I formulate the main difference as such: Hammill's solo career is NOT about the MUSIC. Van Der Graaf Generator almost succeeded in inventing an absolutely new kind of musical texture, with organs and saxes replacing guitars and all kinds of weird time signatures and style mixtures. This music could at times be successful, and at times be totally nutty in the bad sense of the word, but it was still a band product, with Hammill's dark romantic personality only one of its vital elements. Hammill solo, on the other hand, naturally places the entire emphasis on himself and his personality - with sharper, more concise lyrics, usually sparse arrangements and mind-blowing vocal performances. To put it briefly, VDGG is prog-rock with a light touch of the singer-songwriter shade; Hammill solo is a singer-songwriter with a somewhat stronger touch of prog-rock.

I've actually met prog fans who declare Hammill's solo output to be better than VDGG, and I can relate. The 'glam-prog' of the band was innovative and exciting (at times), but quite often, it would verge on total absurdness, with Hammill caught so deeply in theatricality that albums like Pawn Hearts came out looking like grossly overdone monsters, complex and enthralling on the outside but totally devoid of emotionality on the inside. Solo, Hammill rarely fell into the same trap - quite often, I get the feeling that with VDGG products, he was just going for relatively cheap shots at the public conscience, but with his solo albums, he really disclosed his personal feelings, throwing off the weird cabbalistic mask and 'going for the heart'. The bad news is that Peter never really gave a damn about melody as such, even less so than in the VDGG periods - you can easily feel the contrast between his first album, Fools Mate, comprised of early-written - and often catchy - art-rock tunes, and pretty much everything else in his catalog. He's obviously not a fan of choruses, and I'd say he's not even a fan of verses: occasionally, his lyrics are sung or declamated without any structure in sight whatsoever, and the time and tempo signatures in his songs change without warning whenever he probably feels the moment to be right.

The good news is that when you manage to concentrate on the guy's personality alone, his lyrics and vocal intonations, taking the musical background as something secondary that's there for atmospheric backup (much like Dylan, you know), he comes out better equipped than anybody else in the business. When he's not spooking you off with 'ghost helmsmen' (Pawn Hearts again), the lyrics are a gas - most of them are meaningful, dedicated to his beloved themes of sci-fi hell, mundane evil and escapism, opposing the world with its perils and temptations and pain and suffering to the inner peace and quiet to be attained, etc., etc. And, of course, his vocals are outstanding... just recently I met the following definition for Peter: 'Jimi Hendrix of the vocal', and I pretty much agree with the definition. So, my advice is not to take his music like songs, but take it instead as a series of plays/performances - humming or memorizing these albums is essentially useless, but enjoying them is definitely not out of the question.



Year Of Release: 1971
Overall rating =

Short songs become him, but weave them together and the Generator is born on the spot.

Best song: SUNSHINE

Track listing: 1) Imperial Zeppelin; 2) Candle; 3) Happy; 4) Solitude; 5) Vision; 6) Re-awakening; 7) Sunshine; 8) Child; 9) Summer Song (In The Autumn); 10) Viking; 11) The Birds; 12) I Once Wrote Some Poems.

Hammill's first solo album was released four months prior to the VdGG "masterpiece" - Pawn Hearts. Ironically, the two couldn't be more different in structure (if not necessarily spirit) even if they were recorded by two completely unrelated artists. Where Pawn Hearts reflected the "state-of-the-art" VdGG and was looking ever more resolutely to the future, Fool's Mate was an obvious "blast from the past". Unlike any other Hammill solo or Van der Graaf album, it consists entirely of songs that he had composed over different periods of his life and had left hanging behind, probably thinking them too naive and starry-eyed even for the starry-eyedness-level of VdGG. He had his good reasons for that, too, as we shall see.

Now, however, comes the time for the Great Purge: before plunging into the future, Peter had decided to let go of the past. In his and his name only, despite the fact that all of the band members are actually playing on the record with him. My timid guess is that he was afraid of associating the band's name with this early stuff, not only because much of it had been composed with no Generators on the horizon whatsoever, but also because, if panned and crucified by the critics for not being true to the band's spirit, it wouldn't be cool for their established reputation. But that's just me speculating. Now let me welcome you back aboard our little Canoe of Facts and get on with the program. The songs on Fool's Mate are [a] generally, quite short; [b] typically, catchier and simpler in structure than your average Hammill composition; and [c] more often than not, viewed with a certain condescension by the fanbase - and, actually, Peter himself. I do not need to tell you, of course, that [a]+[b] ==> [c], and hey, I don't mind a little condescension myself from time to time. But then sometimes the object of condescension can look cooler than the object of worship.

Fool's Mate. Easy-going, heavy-burden-free songs. Consistently listenable all the way through. (Yeah yeah yeah we're off the canoe again, I'm back to infiltrating your minds with judgemental stuff again, so get on your guard before you're really foolmated). And, as it happens with beginning songwriters ready to try anything, it also got to be seriously diverse in style - we all know Peter's loyal dedication to piano balladry and twisted acoustic "modern-folk" epics, but you will also see him fiddling around with a little R'n'B, a little music hall, and some stuff that definitely belongs to the 'psychedelic' era rather than the 'progressive' one. Not surprisingly, since the one year I see most often associated with this stuff is 1967.

The songs aren't united by any wickety-wackety concept. They're simply there, all over the place like strawberry jam on a little kid's pants. And what is perhaps the most defining thing is that overall, the album does not come across as "gloomy" at all - something truly novel for an art piece associated with Hammill. Oh, there's plenty of darkness in isolated tunes, of course, but there's also optimism, exhortation, gentle (if a bit cliched - excusable for 1967) love sentiments, and even a decidedly rose-coloured look on the Viking motive. Come to think of it, so was the overall mood of VdGG's debut album; it's not until the decade boundary hopped along that Peter started viewing the world predominantly through the tiny shithouse window. All the more grateful I am for his deciding to share that early view with the world one last time, despite the "maturation".

And in true accordance with the album's spirit, I will hail 'Sunshine', the most accessible piece, as best song. Lovers of complexity may still console themselves by noticing there's an intricate wah-wah guitar part running throughout the song even if no-one in particular seems to have invited it, and do I smell kazoos? Wah-wah guitar = desperation, kazoo = carnival; now there's one way to express one's mixed emotions. In essence, it's music hall, good old music hall from top to bottom; in details, it's individuality on the roam, starting with the kazoos and ending with lines like 'the fact that you may be owed to someone else can't entirely tight your trap' - see, old motives starting to get wrapped in proto-hammillisms. Of course, when Peter intones "so smile, spread sunshine all around", you're not quite sure what to do, since, after all, the guy can't sing in anything but stern command tone. But that's part of the charm, innit?

There also used to be a time when a young, energized Peter Hammill could write a song that'd make you stand and actually want to do something, rather than morosely list through the undertakers' numbers in the yellow pages. Youthful radiating exuberance and whatnot. Steppenwolf could lure you into taking a 'Magic Carpet Ride'; Hammill, on his part, had more of a penchant for proto-sci-fi, so here you have your 'Imperial Zeppelin', where the overriding motto is: 'Doesn't that sound simply super, Zeppelin visions of the future?' The track, although piano-dominated, rocks fast and relentlessly, with superb drum patterns and tricky signatures, before going into the - somehow expected - chaotic trippy mid-section. Nowhere else will you see the guy in such a positive uproar, shouting 'Imperial Zeppelin, Imperial Zeppelin!' as if said object just crashed from the sky right in front of him. Of course, with the song having been written in 1967, yet released in 1971, I can't help but wonder if people (especially those unaware of the word's original meaning) were taking this for some sort of subtle ode to the world's first heavy metal band.

Or take 'Re-awakening'. If you're only familiar with the stereotypical Hammill image, the song files under the 'blasphemy' section. How's that for a starter: 'If you catch me running along by the sea, with bare feet in the sand, then you'll know I am dreaming my life out in a way you won't understand'? Not only that, but the accompanying piano melody wouldn't be out of place on one of these late-Sixties hello sunshine type Nicky Hopkins-involving instrumental compositions; and when the song goes into the "chorus" section, the solemn, but friendly church organ conducts you to the heavenly gates rather than the VdGG-mark hellish furnaces. It's true that the lyrical matter isn't nearly as user-friendly: 're-awakening isn't easy when you're tired', says Pete, but at least it's not too much of a drag to be left asleep, either. In a way, it's his equivalent of 'I'm Only Sleeping', only a bit more convoluted.

Pain and pessimism do rear their head on some of the ballads, most notably 'Candle', a song lamenting the passing of a lover, where each verse climaxes with a stately, slightly theatrically detached, but still touching 'How long will you be gone?'. 'Solitude', 'Vision', and 'The Birds' are also in the same vein, and in classic VdGG fashion Hammill seems to be caring more for the emotional punch in his delivery than for pure memorability. But that's okay; there's hardly one person in prog-rock - heck, in rock altogether - that would be more suitable for bridging the gap between pop ballad and opera aria than dear Pete, and as long as he's not mucking around by stretching out the song length for complexity's sake, and as long as he's giving his verses some kind of semi-accessible structure, I'm willing to embrace them. I do have to stress, though, that these are early songs, and their earliness shines through most openly in the lyrics - in places. Places like 'I feel as though I had died some time ago, now I'll wander with the clouds through eternal space', for instance. Not good lyrics, if you ask me - the "eternal space" bit annoying me most of all.

The silliest bit, of course, comes with Pete openly stating his Germanic sympathies. 'Viking' is surprisingly shy and timid for a real viking epic - seems like a song written by somebody (a little kid?) who has only recently become enthralled with Norse thematics and wants to express his dedication to the subject at all costs right now on the spot. (I can almost see the happy kiddie gleam in his eye when he's reciting them names: 'Aslak of Langadale, Einar Thorgeirsson...'). Although, well, I guess you could say those harmonica and flute parts do sound a bit 'snowy'. But overall, the song hardly registers on the barometer; I wouldn't be surprised to learn it was the first Hammill tune ever recorded or something.

Other isolated distinctive musical bits would include the strange "jumping" keyboard riff on 'Happy', somewhat dissonant in relation to the vocals - which, upon closer inspection, appears to be borrowed from the Moody Blues' early composition "Stop" (talk about your big influences!); and the eerie, unexpected flute outbursts in the quiet, creepy, acoustic-dominated 'Child'. That's about all I can say, though. Sources indicate that two Lindisfarne members actually played on some of the tracks, providing, among other things, mandolin support, and that Fripp lended a hand as well, but my attention span turned to attention spam once I started investigating, so you'll have to go through this one on your own. (Is there any electric guitar on the album? Oh, okay, 'Sunshine').

So, my main gripe with the album? Hmm, let me think. Couldn't be pretentiousness or even lack of hooks. Nah, that'd probably have to be the stupid electronic bleep at the beginning and in the end of the album. It's nasty. It makes me sick, Ma. It makes me forget the pretty pretty music and wish for it to just go away. Shoo, you nasty bleep! Go sulk on a Faust or Kraftwerk record instead.



Year Of Release: 1973

'This is not music', I might say, and in a certain sense it certainly is not. There is no immediate entertainment value here at all; only after memorizing it second by second, which should take half of your lifetime, you could actually enjoy it in a personal manner for the other half of your life. By far the only memorable musical moment on it is the gruff punkish riff of 'Rock And Role' which wasn't even invented by Hammill. And the general feeling about it is that Hammill just took some freshly written lyrics, sang them and put them to a sonic background.

But remember that this is - from now on - typical Hammill, it's his chosen path and you have to take it or leave it. As is the regular thing for me, lack of memorable melody forces to pay attention to the lyrics, the way they are delivered, and the actual message of the given song or album. And this is where Hammill truly has no equal: Roger Waters' efforts, pretty similar in overall nature, seem like the scribblings of a child next to either this album or anything that follows. The lyrics here are among the absolutely best lyrics ever written by a 'rock poet'; they qualify as solid poetry indeed, and demonstrate both a complete mastery of the form and enough attention being paid to the actual substance. Throw on Peter's 'declamation' worthy of a Roman orator indeed, and you'll begin to understand the essence and reasons for the actual existence of what is known as 'the Hammill cult'.

Let me just remind you, in a few words, the basic Hammill ideology. It puts points on individualism and escapism; the world is essentially a stinkin' rotten place full of dangers and threats, where your basic average intellectual sensitive guy like Peter Hammill gets ravaged by the grinding cogs of society and feeling himself lonely and helpless before the Leviathan of the mob and, might I say so, his own karma. (Actually, I don't see any Buddhist references in Hammill's works, but his ideas are often so close to the basics of Hinayana I really wonder about that). The only way to escape this is, well, either just going deep inside oneself or, better still, simply living life as it is, kinda like following the karma-yoga route of Krishnaism. (I know, I know, this sounds muddled up, but Hammill doesn't write songs for the average bloke, so I have to co-operate). The first part of this ideology, then, is responsible for the dark 'n' bleak side of Peter's music; the second is responsible for those 'rays of light' that occasionally make their way through the gloom.

Chameleon has no rays of light, though. It's depressing as hell, closely following in the steps of Pawn Hearts but much more introspective, meaningful and, dare I say it, accessible. We begin our journey in 'German Overalls', as Peter walks through the lifeless and stern European cities complaining about the lack of purpose and direction: 'The Big Wheel never fails to grind around, it drags me up it drags me down, seven senses wonder 'can this be real, or have I become a performing seal'?' The lengthy church organ interlude supposedly illustrates the greyness and monstruosity of life even more - 'cathedrals spiral skywards, I think I'm getting vertigo, I think I don't know what's real'.

'Slender Threads' carries the disappointment and disillusionment into personal sphere; a song lamenting the loss of purity and kindness as the protagonist's beloved one is seduced by the pettiness of show-biz... a usual topic, but expressed oh so well. 'I'm an author and actor too, you're a model in the zoo... I'm just thinking on which side of the bars I'm looking through', he sadly concludes - another facet of the Hammill philosophy, the relativity of things. Is it the sensitive isolated hero who's the prisoner of this world or is it vice versa?

'Rock And Role' is a bit obscure for me, except that it's replete with references to cameras and mirrors, Hammill's usual metaphors, and it's also one of the angriest songs on the album, featuring the already mentioned punkish riff. Then there's 'In The End', a witty reflection on suicide, or maybe even wider, a reflection on the validity of active existence in this world. It's just Pete sitting at his piano, nonchalantly making the isolated, incoherent piano phrases escape his fingers as he muses upon matters of war and peace in a rather playful manner: 'I promise you, I won't leave a clue, no tell-tale remark, no print from my shoe...'. And then he switches from piano to guitar and ruminates upon less suicidal, but no less vital manners - 'What's it worth to be safe? What's it worth to be sane? I can throw myself at the garden on my hands, prune the lawn and mow the roses, but I never understand how to go to be free, in the end I only want to be me'.

The "big epic" of the album is '(In The) Black Room', which isn't one of my favourites. It's perhaps the most Pawn Hearts-ish track of the lot, with VDGG-ish sax jams occupying a large part of the scenery. The lyrics are first-rate as usual, but they don't add much to the seven tracks before it, and the music is pretty boring - the funny thing is, some of the keyboard rhythm tracks seem to borrow the chord pattern from 'Killer'!!! But in an inferior and unmemorable manner. Fortunately, on subsequent albums these straightahead links with the duller moments of the VDGG team would get fewer and fewer. This is why the album's rating is relatively low: it doesn't have the solo Hammill formula worked out to perfection, and the elements that prevent it from perfection are pretty rotten themselves. But lyrically at least, this is a definite five out of five (as is the case with most Hammill albums).



Year Of Release: 1974

Same as the one before - even the lengthy convoluted titles are similar in style - but I'd say better than the one before as well. Put it this way: Silent Corner is the same Chameleon, BUT with added darkness and, most importantly, with a better grasp of atmospherics. Still no distinctive melodies to speak of, apart from a couple classy basslines, but this time around, it's actually listenable all the way through even if you do not spread the lyrics sheet on your knees beforehand. And each of the tracks is pretty distinctive at that - of course, the traditional "Hammill ideology" unites everything on here, but you couldn't really say that Hammill just took the same basic idea and splurged it all over the place.

It opens with a classic of the apocalyptic genre, the creepy 'Modern', a tale of Satanic chaos that rules in the big cities - and it doesn't really matter that for his illustrative material, Peter turns to 'oldies' like Babylon, Jericho (note that there's plenty of Biblical and religious imagery in the album) and Atlantis, because it's obvious that the horror and downfall of these centers of mundane profanity and suppressed individualism is projected onto the modern world... why do you think the track is called 'Modern'? 'Atlantis is strange, the explosion of an age; no one really knows what to do, and the city is a cage. It traps in ashen hours and concrete towers, imprisons in the social order; the city's lost its way, madness takes hold today... I can't live under water!'. The mid-section sounds almost like King Crimson (and although I'm not sure, I'm almost positively sure it's Bobby Fripp blazing away on his larks-tongues-in-aspic-guitar right there) and therefore sounds hot, heavy and full of HELLFIRE. The track really cooks!

And then it is followed right away by 'Wilhelmina', a soft and (on the surface) toothless ballad presented in the form of a father instructing his young daughter. Its lyrics, in contrast to whatever precedes or follows, are almost overwhelmingly simple, but this is adequate... would a real father really instruct his little daughter in post-modern terminology? But anyway, the message? 'You've come into a cruel world; little girls can lose their way in the growing night'. Compare this to 'life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans' of Mr Lennon's and feel the difference. I challenge you to memorize this ballad as well, I can't remember a line of it on the fifth listen. But I dig the message.

Then the album's second BIGGIE, the rambling ravaging anti-religion rant of 'The Lie (Bernini's Saint Theresa)'. Taking one of the most prized and valued symbols of devoted Christian faith, Peter turns it into a starting point for throwing some of the harshest anti-church lines ever heard... all the more miraculous since Peter was actually brought up in a Catholic family. 'You took me, gave me reasons for saints and missals, vigils, all the more holy martyrs - I'd embrace you and walk through the one-way door... I'd embrace you, but it would be just another lie!'. The church organ accompanying the song is, of course, most appropriate, and while I again lament the lack of melody, the final rumbling note of the song as the "Catholic myth" crumbles away almost makes up for it.

However, ransacking the Church doesn't mean turning away from basic Christian values! 'Forsaken Gardens', strictly following the path of one soft ballad after one ravaging epic and so on (although 'Gardens' actually picks up steam towards the middle), reminds us that the world has actually been made a desecrated place mainly through egoism and greed, and the protagonist is actually just as egotistic as all of his friends, and as paradoxal as it seems, this direct isolationism from people merely leads to them constructing an identically grey and devastated 'garden' of their own.

'Red Shift' returns us to the apocalypse - 'red shift' is supposed to denote the gradual aging of the stars as they redden, and thus, the passing of all things. To me, it's unquestionably the second best track on the album: energetic and powerful, with actually something like a chorus as Peter slowly and majestically recites the incantation: 'Red Shift, all moving away from me'... The mid-section this time sounds more vaguely psychedelic in the 'astral' mode of the Sixties than Crimsonian, and rightly so, as the guest star on lead guitar here is none other than Spirit's Randy California.

'Rubycon' is a short acoustic breather with predominantly love thematics, and then comes the Magnum Opus, 'A Louse Is Not A Home'. Again, I think this twelve minute monster is somewhat close to the classic VDGG Pawn Hearts-type sound, and thus is somewhat of a letdown, but the lyrics alone are worth a fortune - just download them from the Web and enjoy them as reading. It is also the most personal track on the album - all the others had universalist connotations (urbanistic nightmare, religious fraud, apocalypse, etc., etc.), this one just deals with Peter and his loneliness. It just seems to be rather overlong to me, and placing it as the final number limits my patience. Probably will limit yours as well. But in any case, Hammill's lyrical maturation is complete on Silent Stage; I have not a single complaint whatsoever, and even Hammill's use of cliches is well justified, as he simply demonstrates himself WAY too intellectually versatile to be capable to subconsciously use a trite cliche. Excellent performance too.


IN CAMERA ***1/2

Year Of Release: 1974

Okay, I seriously don't like this one as much as its predecessor, but I can't deny there's some sonic progression here, and I seriously dislike just one song. On 'Faint Heart And The Sermon' I feel that Peter really overdoes the trick. There's some atmospherics, sure, but the lyrics are way too convoluted and way too self-pitying. 'Like paraplegic dancers in formation team my understanding seems hidebound in its movements?' Whatever. Crucify me if you wish, but there's a goddamn border between poetry and physiology, and this seems to be more of the latter than the former. Normally I don't feel the need to tear through the lyrics with scissors and a chisel; here, it seems like all Peter wanted was to insert as many Latin roots as possible. Shucks.

But at least the first side here all consists of relatively short numbers, and most of the others do their job nicely. This time, we start off with a mild lamentation over the separation of two infatuated... er, sorry, just a, eh, uh, cry of sorrow because the protagonist and his spouse/girlfriend/concubine/whore whatever don't feel as good as they used to in the past. Features a paradox in that the song begins with 'time has come between us, in the passing months I've felt you slip away' and ends with 'nothing ever shatters, you know what happens: time and distance make a love secure'. You, oh gentle listener, are thus invited to gape with awe at the incredible depths of the paradoxal mind of one witty genius, P. Hammill.

The best song on the album is 'No More (The Submariner)'. This one's really classy - Peter turns to his childhood, and drawing upon the innocent wargames of his youth, illustrates the idea that while in your childhood you don't have that much freedom, your inner world is naturally much more free and at ease than when you grow up: 'it's a hallmark of adulthood that our options diminish as our faculties for choice increase, till we choose everything and nothing, too late, at the finish'. All the time, there's this creepy, almost Gothic synthesizer background that he must have copped from Tangerine Dream or the like, and at times the bubbles and blurps actually form themselves into riffs and melodic lines, particularly during the chorus (like in 'oh! to be the captain of a ship of war!') where the overdubbed synths give the whole proceedings an air of majesty and statelihood unsurpassed.

There's also 'Tapeworm', which rocks pretty good, but once again I think Peter gets a bit entangled in his sheer attempts to paint a self-portrait of extreme ugliness and self-despisal. The accappella mid-section is pretty funny, I must say, but if the song is gonna rock I wish it'd at least live up to the promise of the opening piano riff, but it really doesn't. 'Again' is, well, again about the loss of love, an excellent, if a bit too minimalistic, acoustic ballad with a beautiful and passionate vocal performance - check out Hammill in the gentle mood here - and at least 'The Comet, The Course, The Tail' finishes the set of relatively short songs on a solid lyrical note. Peter's reflections on fate, predetermination and free choice may take some getting used to, but I might as well set you thinking on this one with a little lyrical preview: 'They say that no man is an island but then they say our castles are our homes; it's felt the choice is ours between peace and violence - oh yes, we choose, alone?'. The musical background is pretty meek, albeit the multiple guitar overdubs make up for some nice ear-pleasing textures.

It all comes together into one big question mark on side two, with Hammill's lengthiest solo composition so far - one of the most pretentious and overblown comps ever recorded, where the title alone says it all - 'Gog Magog (In Bromine Chambers)'. At seventeen minutes, it is divided into two subsections, only one of which is actually a 'song'. I was a bit undecisive about the number at first, but at last I said 'what the heck' and gave right in. Yes it's overlong, but it also rules. It's one of the best pictures of Hell ever painted musically, in fact. The musical background here is a chaotic organ jam with furious drumming all over the place; it's pretty static, more ambient than actually developing, but Hammill's vocal performance is certainly able to drive you into a trance as he sings something like his own, supercomplex and over-intellectualized version of 'Sympathy For The Devil'. You'll need the lyrics sheet for clarity, of course, but even the lyrics sheet is hardly necessary at the end of each verse, when with a devilish grin on his face (hey, I'm imagining things, but what the heck) Hammill roars out 'will you not come to me and LOVE ME FOR ONE MORE NIGHT?' The second part of the song, then, is PURE New Age stuff, kinda similar to the 'Waiting Room' noisefest on The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway that came out the same year, by the way... I don't know if Brian Eno was involved here in any way, but he might as well be, seeing as how Gabriel and Hammill have always been close colleagues, too. It's gruesomely overlong, unfortunately. I would forgive it were it three or four minutes, because, well, if you're singing about the devil, you might as well make some evil-sounding analog of Bosch's paintings, but don't overdo it - this goes on for, like, TEN minutes! A bleeding TEN minutes of nothing but hellish noise! Not for me, thanks.

So as you see, In Camera is seriously flawed - at times, lyrically, at times, in terms of sonic texture. But then again, it IS Hammill, and it IS Hammill at his conceptual peak, and it IS also 1974, when there were Tales From Topographic Oceans and stuff like that. And whatever be, it is nothing short of amazing that Peter was actually able to make the transition from this pompous apocalyptic mood into the shoes of Rikki Nadir so smoothly and so immediately.



Year Of Release: 1975

Now this, you could write a novel about this album and still something would be left unsaid, but I'll try to restrict myself. Maybe if taken on its own, it won't really impress you that much, but in perspective, it's one of - and a worthy candidate for - the most unpredictable albums ever released. After three VDGG and three solo albums of highly convoluted, mind-bogglingly complex 'progressive detachment', replete with lengthy epics, hardly comprehensible lyrics and all kinds of manic sonic manipulation, Hammill suddenly radically changes pace and, perhaps spurred on by the laurels of David Bowie and Peter Gabriel, presents himself as an alter ego, under the guise of Rikki Nadir, a wannabe rock/glam/punk star, clad in black leather and determined to bring the world to its knees.

Here's a lyrical tease for you, from the opening title track: "Now's my big break - let me up on the stage, I'll show you what it's all about; enough of the fake, bang your feet in a rage, tear down the walls and let us out! We're more than mere morons, perpetually conned, so come on everybody, smash the system with the song!" It's little wonder that Nadir's Big Chance happened to impress the punk generation, and of all people, Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols fame has quoted this as a major source of inspiration. Assessing all odds, it's simply impossible to believe that one of the most pretentious, overblown and snobby prog-rockers ever would have the guts to come up with something like this... and yet, he did.

Now, of course, I don't really want to get carried away and, together with some critics, call this Hammill's take on punk rock. Punk rock as such wasn't yet created (one year before the Ramones, two before the Pistols), and the heavier tracks on here actually sound more like glam - loud metallic guitar riffs with multiple wall of sound overdubs, theatric vocals, etc. Of course, one needn't forget that glam was a major source for punk as well. Also, only a few tracks on here really rock; most still capture Hammill in ballad mode or 'soft-rocking' to a certain degree. And the Rikki Nadir line is only observed in a few songs as well. But the very fact that only one song on here goes a little over six minutes (and that's after 'Gog Magog'!!) is nothing short of amazing. The correct take on the whole situation, of course, is that Hammill is playing his part with irony - he's clearly impersonating somebody else on here, not reveling in his own sincere role, again, more or less like David Bowie in Diamond Dogs (another inspiration for punkers!). But it's a clever impersonation, and an understanding one.

And the songs rule. A review I've read accused Hammill of demonstrating himself incapable of mastering the short song form (although praising him otherwise). This is certainly true if one refers to a three-minute song as a compact hook-filled unity; some of the songs on here lack hooks indeed, not all, though. But like I already said, Hammill is above all a theatrical performer, and his performance on all of these songs is magnificent. The rocking songs may not have particularly memorable riffs, but they're so incredibly dirty-soundin', with distorted guitars and saxes and these gruff demonic vocals, that they'll get you anyway. The ballads only need a slightly untrivial vocal twist to set things in motion as well. And, as usual, there's continuity - which means that even if some of the songs don't do anything for you at all, their environment will.

The very first opening notes are cool - one-note guitar riff, one-note bassline and... uh... one note sax pattern? A pre-Ramones-ish 'one-two-three-four' and then we go into hard-glam territory as Peter/Rikki promises that he's 'gonna scream gonna shout gonna play my guitar', and the guitar plays a weird aggressive solo. 'Smash the system with a song!' But then the album immediately changes pace, and goes off into slower, moodier territory with the incredibly cool 'Institute Of Mental Health, Burning' - a hypnotic, mantraic rhythm of acoustic guitars and synth loops accompanied by a martial drum pattern and snippets of backwards played guitar leads, while Hammill sings his lamentation - or celebration? - of the tragic demise of the proverbial ASYLUM. Come to think of it, definitely celebration, considering the final lines: 'my chains began to rust as the Institute was burning'. Beautiful song.

'Open Your Eyes' opens with paranoid musical chaos and then proceeds into a mid-tempo rocker with David Jackson's soaring sax again the major highlight (by the way, the entire old line-up of VDGG was assembled for this album), although the lyrical message is not quite clear... it does have to do with male-female relations, but what exactly is up to interpretation. Then another major highlight - the album's heaviest track in the monster 'Nobody's Business'. It's pretty cute that Nadir was the first of Peter's albums for which he didn't include the lyrics, insisting on pure aural interpretation of the music. It works on this track pretty well, because the only thing one can discern is the chorus, where in his most evil intonation Peter grumbles 'oh, you're nobody's business!', and so the track can be taken as an anthem to alienation and teen angst, when in reality it is just a sort of a reflexation on a broken love affair. It rules anyway!

The album kinda settles in a more pensive mood from then on, which doesn't mean it becomes worse - Chris Judge-Smith's 'Been Alone So Long' is a lovely acoustic ballad with a beautiful falsetto part, 'Pompeii' is Hammill's poetic tribute to the once proud city, 'Shingle' is more of that acoustic gorgeousness, 'Airport' has got a real hook in the chorus... ah well, to cut it short, I've only cut the rating down a bit because of the final track, which goes on for somewhat too long - it's important for the concept, with some of the most biting anti-music-industry lyrics this side of Ray Davies, but musically it gets a bit samey in a while. Oh, just in case, one of the other tracks is a re-recording of the early VDGG track, 'People You Were Going To' - it doesn't have anything to do with the concept, but I guess Peter just wanted to do something to stress his 'going back to the roots'. Or maybe just to please the old VDGG team.

In any case, while this record occasionally (predictably) gets a bad rap among diehard Hammill fans, one thing it certainly demonstrates is Hammill's openness to new musical ideas - let's just face it, not too many proggers could have the guts to reinvent themselves as Rikki Nadir around 1975. Only Peter Gabriel came a bit close as Rael (and Rael's image certainly was a huge influence on this album; I could even say Hammill might have recorded this out of envy for Gabriel's reinvention of himself on The Lamb), and, well, we all know Gabriel and Hammill are close pals, no? Oh, and another thing, in case I didn't say it already: this is one of Peter's best ever albums, but don't buy it before his earlier ones and don't buy it if you actively hate his earlier ones, because it MUST be taken in perspective - otherwise, half of the fun is massacred.


OVER ***

Year Of Release: 1977

This is occasionally extolled as Pete's best album ever, but it's not, not if you like Hammill for what he's done earlier, at least. This is a typical case of equalling "best" with "understandable", in fact. Over had been recorded as a memento to Hammill's breakup with a longtime girlfriend, and captures him in a particularly 'emotionally extreme' state, veering from red-hot anger to thoroughly depressed nostalgia on the spur of the moment. And while the lyrics are essentially as well composed as before, they are notably simpler to understand. Thus, the more 'elitist' critics gasped with awe that their favourite 'serious boy' finally wrote something slightly less esoteric than before, and lavished him with praises, and occasionally do it still.

Well... for me this is a serious disappointment, and not only in comparison to Nadir, but also in comparison to Hammill's 1973-74 period. There have always been two good sides to Pete's story: (a) the lyrical/vocal side and (b) the atmospherics. Both sides seriously suffer on here. Hammill seems so concentrated on penning acute, psychologically captivating lyrics, that he almost neglects the performing side, and the songs, even if they aren't all that long, quickly become boring upon the second minute. And the atmospherics... this album is so barebones it hurts. The angrier songs just have some gruff electric guitar, the softer songs just have some acoustic and/or some piano. The only significant innovation is the introduction of strings arrangements on a couple of tracks - but in the long run, an orchestrated soft ballad is really nothing new. There's virtually no trace of the former VDGG stylistics on here, and none of those tricky synthesizer effects that Peter used in such a cool manner previously. I can't but remember, too, that this album came out in the same year that Hammill embarked on the 'Van Der Graaf' project, releasing what must have been the absolutely weakest album under that name (The Quiet Dome/The Pleasure Zone), so it's safe to assume that he was, er, um, sonically drained at the time. Eh?

The message here is thus simple: we have to follow the lyrics. If you can relate - for instance, if you've been trumped by your gal just like Pete - this has the potential of becoming dear to you. If you cannot relate, this is going to bore the pants off you in no time, and I just can't relate no matter how I try. This is not to say that there's no worth at all in this album; the lyrical imagery alone deserves a whole point, and some songs do have some independent musical merit, but really, let's just assume that I'm in a good mood today, plus I don't really want to spoil the impression of such a great record as Nadir's Big Chance by immediately following it up with a looooow rating.

'Crying Wolf' is a relative highlight, the 'heaviest' track on the album which opens it with some impressive riffage and one of Hammill's most soul-penetrating lyrical portraits ever - in the song he addresses the phony hypocrites who simulate emotion and pretend to be 'sensitive' in times of need when they're really just a bunch of soulless bastards. It's unclear if this is, in part, also self-critical, but given the circumstances, it might as well be. 'You thought you were a wolfman, but you're really just a sheep', Peter concludes. Oh, there's actually a nice guitar solo in the song as well, a rare find on a Hammill record.

From then on, it ventures into mostly melodyless territory and stuff that's so dang subjective and untangible, I can't grasp it without sounding pretentious and smug. Heck, if I even try praising these songs, this would mean I can associate and relate, but I can't. 'Autumn' is a quiet melancholy tune, piano and strings, sung from the perspective of an old couple whose children have grown up and left them and now they're so alone and cannot adapt to the strange new life. Can you relate? I guess some people can. 'Time Heals' is the main "anti-girlfriend" anthem on here, the longest and also the most boring song, with a very stupid Banks-ish synthesizer backing that just gets on your nerves, although the fast mid-section is kinda weird. 'Alice (Letting Go)' is just Peter and his guitar, repetitive to the extreme and nice to hear once or twice but not more. 'This Side Of The Looking Glass' at least has a truly gorgeous sung part - and somehow Peter manages to conjure a backing orchestral track without falling into Hollywoodish cliches. Ah well...

I'm not even going to continue because it's useless. This is Hammill's total analogy of Roger Waters' The Final Cut, a record that has no musical merit whatsoever because it doesn't even try to be musical. It's a sincere confession set to rudimentary instrumentation. It's absolutely useless to even try to assess it seriously unless you feel deep down in your heart the very things Hammill is singing about. Unlike, say, Dylan's Blood On The Tracks, which easily gets by on the strength of its atmospherics and musical background, and thus helps you bridge the distance between yourself and the Zimmerman senses, Over has no such bridges. Therefore, I seriously doubt that it will be of much practical use for those who haven't experienced the breakup of a love affair themselves, or aren't on the verge of such a breakup. I applaud Peter for singing his heart out and impressing the critics with his sincerity, but sorry, just doesn't do that much for meself. Oh, and it also betrays Hammill's uniqueness - I mean, how many songs had been written about breaking up for God's sake? Gimme 'German Overalls' any time of day!



Year Of Release: 1978

Wow. This is different. Actually, this sounds like an amalgamation of all of Peter's previous styles - the bombastic pomp of the early Seventies, the raw anger of Nadir's Big Chance, the quiet confessionalism of Over - but it also goes further than that, expanding on these styles and adding others. There's some serious electronic experimentation going on here, too, presaging some of his most machine-dependent Eighties' work, and actually, parts of Future Now can be seen as fulfilling the same "electrono-apocalyptic" function that Peter Gabriel would be fulfilling a couple years later on his third album. Except that Gabriel was able to make that function understandable to the general music-listening public and Peter couldn't.

For a good reason, too - in order to be appreciated, this record has to be taken at strict performance level, because it probably steps away from the conventional understanding of 'melody' even further than any previous Hammill album. What an irony, eh - to make up an album of short, compact, and pretty diverse three to five minute compositions and make sure that not a single of them has anything even remotely similar to a memorable melody. Ha! Too bad, or the rating would have been even higher: as far as performance goes, though, this is one magnificent sample.

The Future Now is, as you might have guessed, a very personal record... well, all of Peter's records are pretty personal, but this one certainly continues the line of Over in that Hammill tries to evade universalist motives and unreasonable bombast. This time, he tackles everything that seems to matter to him personally: the problem of aging, the problem of commercial success, the problem of intimate relationship, even the problem of his being admired by the fans. And this vast palette of feelings is naturally compensated by stylistic diversity - there are some 'poppy' songs, some that rock out, some ballads, and some weird electronic experiments and maybe something else that I haven't noticed. No country, though. Too bad. A Gram Parsons impersonation wouldn't be out of place here!

Still, all the diversity, all the lyrical wit, all the sincerity and the conviction really make up for lack of clever melodies (not the lack of clever arrangements, though - I have a feeling most of the actual notes here have been thought out in about a couple minutes' work, but the effects, synth tones, echoes and stuff really should have taken months to add up). A couple of pathetic, not-too-good piano ballads that sound like leftOvers - what can I do? I know it's a stupid pun, but it came out so natural - like 'If I Could' can go to hell cuz they're really nothing new to me, but the rest is really top-notch material.

Let's see, off we go with 'Pushing Thirty' which is a direct Nadir-style guitar-'n'sax rocker where Hammill muses over his approaching the age threshold and how he's managed to preserve his artistic reputation and how 'I still can be Nadir' even if everybody else has already sold out. It's so deliciously braggard that I can't help but discern some actual notes of self-irony, just like it was for 'Crying Wolf'! You'd better be self-ironic, Mr Hammill! You never know what can happen next! Next happens 'The Second Hand', with one really spooky bassline, that tells us about the misfortunes of the aging rebel and actually discloses Hammill's life philosophy in one simple sentence: 'this boy's a fool, this fool's a man, all men are ruled by a second hand'.

'Trappings' is a grim, morose acoustic ballad with unusually transparent lyrics about the artist's degradation through commercial success - bordering on occasional cliches ('prisoner in a gilded cage'? oh, c'mon now, Mr Hammill, why are you stooping so low?), but always saved by the moody strumming and the poisonous electric guitar solo that cuts in through the middle and adds further devilous atmosphere to the song. But perhaps the best number on here is 'Energy Vampires', a very angry anti-fan rant in which Hammill compares those who deify him with rabid bloodsuckers ('This guy says he wrote all of my songs, this girl says she's had my baby... excuse me while I suck your blood, excuse me when I phone you... I got every one of your own records man, doesn't that mean I own you?'). The lyrics would be nothing, though, without the positively MAD backing track - with dissonant echoey acoustic guitars, ugly synth grunts, an atmosphere of total panic and desperation, and all that at some pretty minimalistic expense, it's not like he spent a million bucks recording those patterns.

Yeah, and that's less than half of the album! And moving on, you find a bitter anti-progress rant (title track), another anti-religion sendup ('Mediaevil', with hilarious chorale vocals), a wildly experimental anti-apartheid declaration backed by nothing but several drum machine patterns dueling between each other ('A Motorbike In Africa'), and some more mind-blowing cuts at the end of the album that are so esoteric I won't even start discussing 'em. So basically, that's the whole point - there's just so many different things happening all over the place you won't really have time to get bored. Experimentalism, diversity, and direct and well-hit lyrical and performer goals... we'll just have to forgive the lack of melodies, I'm afraid. It's one of THOSE cases.


pH7 ***

Year Of Release: 1979

A rather weak immediate follow-up to Future Now. First of all, what the heck is the title supposed to mean? Is it 'Peter Hammill's seventh'? Could very well be, except that it's actually Peter Hammill's eighth, unless he wanted to count out Fool's Mate (immature crap!) or Nadir's Big Chance (that's not me, that's Rikki!) Then again, it could be something... else. You don't wanna know.

What I do wanna know is why the lyrics again seem to go off into unfocused insanity. You know, occasionally I get the impression of Hammill as a perfectly reasonable and intelligent chap who is, however, often suffering from a whole bunch of various psychological neuroses and stuff leading to occasional brain damage, deconcentration and dissipation of thought. Some of the lyrical imagery of this album is perfectly all right, and some, particularly in the second part ('Mr X' and the like) again go back to the apocalyptic babble of Pawn Hearts-style. In fact, while I was quite delighted with the few first tracks on here, later on it started getting worse and worse and worse, and when the final songs arrived - the ones that arguably deserve the most attention to be at least 'accepted' into your inner system - I was already spent. In other words, prepare yourself for yet another conundrum on the part of Mr Frustration itself, Peter Hammill.

The thing that worries me most, actually, even more than the disconcerting lyrics, is that the album betrays very little of the intriguing experimentation and diversity of its predecessor. Nothing on here rocks as hard as 'Pushing Thirty', and nothing on here is as musically weird as 'A Motorbike In Africa'. In fact, about half of the album is occupied by Hammill's philosophical ruminations against a bunch of the usual disconnected piano and acoustic chords, and the other half is... uhm... well, I guess it could be called experimental, but it adds nothing to what we have heard already.

Like I said, the album starts off nice and cool, though. 'My Favourite', for instance, is pretty much the best Hammill love song of that entire late Seventies period, based on a simple, but seductive acoustic rhythm (a bit Dylanish in nature, almost sounds like something off Pat Garrett). featuring some luvverly orchestration and some unpretentious and beautifully sung lyrics. 'Careering' then takes us into a whole new different dimension, with weirdly echoing acoustic chords and equally weird synthesized drum beat as Hammill further decries his inner torture and his precipitation into the abyss and stuff like that. (As if you weren't aware of that already - I betcha anything some sharp-tongued critics of the day couldn't help mocking Mr Hammill and wondering when he's actually gonna hit the bottom of that precipice instead of torturing us with the details of his slow and painful fall for a decade already!). The track climaxes with a few insane electronically treated guitar and sax solos, too, which is... uhh... attractive, I guess?

The best song, though, is unquestionably 'Porton Down', a suddenly realistic track where Hammill chains his apocalyptic instincts to the description of a top secret underground biological warfare lab. This song is genuinely frightening, and you really gotta wonder at how marvelously precise Hammill is in choosing the right tone and 'treatment' for each of the instruments involved - these guitars are totally MAD, and the solos are otherworldly. 'The ultimate madness', Peter screams, and you almost believe him, 'just one shattered test-tube to wipe out the world...'.

From then on, however, it's all downhill for me. Nothing matches the energetic punch of 'Careering' and 'Porton Down', nor the unbridled beauty of 'My Favourite'. 'Mirror Images' is yet another of Hammill's mirror-related philosophical treaties that doesn't go anywhere and features ridiculous synth tones. 'Handicap And Equality' suddenly displays his compassion for the disadvantaged, which naturally deserves respect, but the song is just a pseudo-acoustic ballad that passes out of your mind the minute it ends (or the minute it starts - I can't get concentrated on it at all!). 'The Old School Tie' is an anti-political rant and that's that. 'Imperial Walls', for some reason credited to 'anonymous 8th century Saxon', is too complex for its own sake, and those last two ugly disconnected rants are just too full of Pawn Hearts-like echoes to be appreciated.

There will be some Hammill fans over here, I'm sure, puzzled about how this album can be rated lower than its predecessor when they're so similar, but there's the rub: they're similar, but this one simply gathers the chaff left over from Future Now. Don't worry, it's not the first time Hammill actually went overboard with an over-the-top album after a 'normal' album, and definitely not the last.



Year Of Release: 1980

Total shit, with a few minor exceptions. (Disclaimer: I said "shit" because I wanted a way to express a very serious negative emotional/conscientious reaction to the album, not because I am equalling these songs or Peter Hammill himself to shit. I hope I have in this way saved myself from the indignant flames on the part of those people who are willing to defend each movement of Peter Hammill, the little shit).

This is basically just the second issue of ph7, only less interesting because the "novel" ideas of the album had already been explored once, or more, and the melodies are pretty much non-existent. And not only that, the performances aren't really inspiring. And more than that, the lyrics are again of a megalomaniac character, jumping off every cliff in sight. And more than that: the entire second side is dedicated to a nineteen-minute-long suite. Associations with Pawn Hearts, anyone? I certainly got them, and a lot of them.

'Flight' is, simply put, the worst lengthy suite that Hammill has ever penned. How the Lord allowed this penchant for lengthy songs coincide with the heyday of Peter's electronic experiments I will never know; but the result is that 'Flight' is tremendously underproduced, with nothing but a bunch of drums and synths and a very occasional processed guitar or saxophone part added. If anything, 'Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers' at least had some atmosphere, but this monster simply has nothing to it. I also confess to understanding nothing about the lyrics, so kill me. It's about flying, so it seems, and flying probably symbolizes breaking out and escapism (it's Peter Hammill, what else can we be talking about?), or maybe not. I doubt I would like the suite more had the lyrics been as transparent as Britney Spears' urine-drenched clothes on the morn of the dreadful incident, though. It just doesn't cut it. And when Hammill pompously goes 'this is the e-e-e-e-nd' at the, well, end, I come to think of Jim Morrison and can't help saying "fuck you, Jim, this is what your lengthy ramblings have resulted in".

Fortunately, the first side at least has some half-decent material - all short songs, fully in the vein of the two preceding albums. 'The Spirit', I'd say, is a rather powerful little thing, with classic lyrics like 'the body becomes a constant traitor, but the spirit can't be denied' and suchlike. A very rough production style on that one, with abnormally loud pumpin' drums, but gimme anything that stands out, anything, even the abnormally loud drums will do. 'Fogwalking' is extremely impressive too, I'd say the only track really worth salvaging. Judging from the lyrics, it tells a sci-fi story about the protagonist walking the empty lifeless streets of London after some kind of global catastrophe (nuclear? aliens? whatever). It's one of the most successful results of Hammill's tampering with electronics: robotic synthesized drums introduce the song, and the entire melody is carried forward by a set of overdubbed gurgling proto-industrial synths that give a much sharper sense of doom and horror than any amount of forced screaming on 'Flight'.

And actually, the funny thing is, whenever Hammill is in experimental overdrive, he succeeds. Just look at the short instrumental 'The Wipe', mostly just drum machines and more synths slumped onto each other. The results are cool! It really sounds like a chaotic, nightmarish, abysmal "grinding" mechanism, devouring and "wiping out" everything that stands in its way. Too bad it only has a minute and a half to develop. It's a little less successful in 'Jargon King', but still the frantic lightning-speed drum machine pattern (which actually has to carry the melody because there are no other instruments apart from a dissonant guitar solo) works there. When Hammill gets futuristic, he gets good.

Too bad he only really gets futuristic on these few tracks. Everywhere else, it's a pathetic return to the most boring elements that used to constitute the Hammill of old. Pretentious, off-the-edge lyrical imagery set to chords that substitute complexity for structure and resonance, ridiculously extended songs (song, actually) and overall, an almost startling lack of progression. Yeah, we know Hammill can be like that already. We, well, I, actually, I hate him when he's like that. To me, it means he's purely doing a throwaway, and I have enough trouble interpreting Hammill's significant works. I don't have neither time nor the strength to interpret any of his obvious gaffes.


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