ALBUM REVIEW: PETER HAMMILL – From The Trees (FiE) – Is it possible to be too Peter Hammill? Surely no one else could get away with all this? All these metaphors, all this whispering through megaphones, all these public faces he’s prepared to wear? What else would be squandered other than time?
There’s always beauty to be found in Peter Hammill, even at his edgiest during his pioneering proto-punk days there was beauty to be found. This is a quiet album, almost delicate, fragile, but then again never fragile, and a first listen to any Peter Hammill album is not going to reveal anywhere near everything. He isn’t sounding fragile, well he’s always sounded fragile, but that voice is still sounding powerful, those words and lines of deceleration? Slowing inperceptively? No time squandered, for better or for worse, a lost apostrophe and a suspended sentence, a one trick pony with all the gift or the gab? No never that, not the slightest doubt, a tent still pitched perfect and no, it really isn’t anything other than just right however hard we find it to breathe…
“There are ten songs, all of them on the short end of things and generally conventional – or as close to conventional as I get – in form” so said Peter.
He sings about himself, incredibly introspective, all about himself yet it all still remains so generous unselfish, all about him but never “me me me”, you feel the sharing, like sitting with a friend who understands.
From The Trees isn’t an easy listen and nor would you ever want it to be, and no it really isn’t that “conventional” but then again there aren’t any half hour Van Der Graaf plagues or anything like that on here, just a man with his guitar, some restrained backing and some of his very best intentions.
From The Trees is a beautiful album, beautiful tones and textures, clever colours, when he sings he does it from somewhere inside your head. Fragile things that will last long, he never imposes, he never feels cold or unfriendly, he feels uniquely Peter Hammill and you can’t help but love his every word, his every simple note, over and over and over again (however short the straw drawn). No one else could get away with being Peter Hammill, no one else could do all this or sing all this or write all this and get away with it so mant times – he’s never got anywhere near selling his soul, he’s never underplayed, every bit of energy there keeping alive that vital spark and maybe some things are best left unsaid but has anyone else been this consistently rewarding for so so long?
You might experience slight discomfort, this isn’t an easy album, it may be a simple album but then it is as layered and complex as ever and you can’t help but worry about him, what does he mean there? If there is a better singer or songwriter then I don’t know of him or her, and you do worry and you want his to go for ever when you secretly worry that every album will be his last. And I really could just cut and paste from another time, another place, well from our Thin Air album review from back in 2009 actually – “this isn’t an album that needs over-analysis, this is an album that should be very personal to each and every listener, you don’t need us telling you what we think he’s on about, that’s for you to explore and interpret – find your own things, take what you want from it”, and once again From The Trees has so much in terms of words and (unintended) consequences, and nothing gone to that seed he talks of yet, where did all; that future go?
Look, at this point a review of a new Peter Hammill album is almost impossible, I confess I love the man to bits, it isn’t something to write about, this is deep, personal, almost private, a love of a man’s music that has continued to thrill for several decades now (and never once have I been let down). All that can really be said here is that From The Trees, a difficult as it may be at times, is as good as anything – he still has it, the magic is there, these simple songs are as powerful as any plague or killer lurking deep down in the dark see, he maybe charming now but you don’t get far on your charm alone. From The Trees is intimate, it takes you in, he bares his soul, his doubt, his weakness, his paper house, his words are meant for your ears alone – in action, in motive, no, it isn’t possible to be too Peter Hammill, of course it isn’t. He’s special, there’s so much left to find, thee’s more ot be found here, unique… it sounds like I’m just being a fan once more and I’ve tried and failed to write something about this album so many times in the last month (“some things are probably best left unsaid”), but this is latest album is right up there with his very best and every time I go back there’s more to be found, all the milk that’s been spilt along the way…. The vital spark is maintained, there on open display… No, it would never be possible to be too Peter Hammill and I do rather suspect it would be impossible for Peter Hammill to make a bad album, this, now I’ve had it here for month and unwrapped more and more of it, is one of his very best albums, thanks once more Peter, thank you. (SW)
From The Trees is released on November 3rd 2017, Peter Hammill’s website is at www.sofasound.com
And on the otherside of that Organ header, a plague of more recent (well relatively so), Peter Hammill or Van Der Graaf Generator reviews for old paper Organs and such….
|30th JAN 2010: Tomorrow Peter Hammill plays in London, Peter Hammill doesn’t play often, don’t know how many more times there will be, either solo or with his band, almost certainly the finest band ever, Van Der Graaf Generator. I’m excited, thin air excitement, a feeling that mostly takes second place… Below is an excerpt from Peter’s latest News Letter posted at his website.
“Thin Air had just been released at the time the last newsletter was delivered. I was still uncertain of where it stood in relation to past work and, indeed, of what its value and vibrancy might be. I’ve appreciated many supportive comments which have come in about the recordings since then and, gradually, have been able to come to my own considered conclusions. For my money, this is something of a high point in terms of recent solo recordings. That’s not to say that any set of songs is ever in competition with what’s gone before, what’s yet to come. As I’ve often stated, I go into each project only with the raw material that falls into my hands, only with such skills as are presently available to me, only and always with the wish to do as well as I can with what’s right in front of me. But, with the distance of a number of months between now and then, it does seem to me that Thin Air occupies a musical and lyrical territory which is quite far from any norm, yet which is absolute in its familiarity. And for what it;s worth that is, I suppose, what I aim for in this (I assume) last stretch of a working life in recorded music”.
The disc didn’t receive that much public exposure, which is a matter of some regret but little surprise. There’s no fault or blame involved in this; I’m lucky to get as much coverage in mainstream (or even sub-stream) media as I do in view of limited review/interview slots and the ever-increasing numbers of acts trying to hit those slots. But I confess to a certain frustration that work which does, actually, seem to have a true modern relevance unconnected to i) Progtastic-ness or ii) Punk approval-ness or iii) aged white-hair-value gets, er, ignored because the pigeon-hole can’t quite be matched to it…. On the other hand, better to be ignored, I suppose, than applauded for dull retreads of known territory. It’s out there. I think it;ll stand the test of time more than most. And, if so, that’ll partly be because the gestation period for the content was long. It’s self-evident that the pieces which relate to 9/11 took a long time to surface, to demand that they be written. (From time to time I do attempt sensationalism but it’s generally toward the literary rather than tabloid end of things…so I wasn’t in a rush to get out the fragments which had hit my memory.) Even stranger in terms of time-is-rightness was the song “Your face on the street”. I was less than forthcoming in my previous notes on the origin of this piece. It’s true that I used elements of invention in arriving at the final form, but the song (and a couple of the original couplets) sprang from, I’m afraid, very much the real world. Thirteen years ago a young girl called Melanie Hall disappeared without trace from Walcot Street in Bath. From the outset foul play was suspected; it was her case which originally fired this set of lyrics, which, in nascent form, have been with me ever since.
|And so here we are now in 2010….
In a matter of days I’ll be setting off for what counts as a considerable solo tour in Europe. Three weeks to show what I can do alone on a stage – provided Will and I can get to the shows in the face of what look like pretty extreme winter conditions! The solo show remains one end of the touchstone for live performance and it’s been some time since I’ve done any of them over here. Particularly since I’m currently more or less in training for it it really seemed incumbent on me to do a tour in the one-man-alone format once again. The repertoire has expanded a bit, particularly as a result of doing piano-only shows and I think I;m working from an “available” song list of more than seventy tunes. I should say something about choice of songs here. My assumption is that the majority of those reading this will be “diehards”, more or less. And that the majority of those at any individual show will not fall into that category. So the question of what songs I play on any given night – granted that I change the setlist each time – becomes quite complicated. Perhaps for those who read this or who contribute to the various forums available in that Land of Web there might exist a fantasy setlist of arcane tunes to be heard once and once only which might constitute an Ideal. I don’t hold with that premise, particularly since it would preclude the presence of the “favourites” (yeah, Hits, if only!). When – and it’s still the case that it’s only on the day, though now maybe a bit more than an hour before showtime – I write out the 15 or 16 songs for the night I’ve got to balance what’s exciting/challenging for me, what;s new/old for any given audience, what;s a decent emotional/musical trajectory, what I played yesterday, the day before and so on, what;s A Performance. And whatever it is will necessarily mean that other tunes are absent and of course that the final selection will be somewhat random. I mean to say, I;ll do my best to be absolutely present when I get on stage. Some of that presence means that I have to find a place/space to be comfortable. But I also hope, of course, to have an element of edge…there;ll be no point in doing it unless there’s still that. But of course I am now a 60+ chap and utterly reckless abandon would be a stupid waste of such knowledge and experience as I;ve achieved over the years. Discerning readers will have gathered over the course of recent newsletters that I count myself extraordinarily fortunate still to be in the position of getting onto a stage, be it with VdGG or solo. An underlying subtext of that good fortune is the certain knowledge that at some point I’m not going to be able carry on enjoying it, whether because the audience or my own strength has dwindled to unsustainable quantity. At some point or another, for many, many years, I’ve wondered to myself, mid-tour, on every tour, “just how long can I carry on?” And yet I carry on; and precisely because each show may be the last I will continue to try to make each one elegiac, celebratory, unique; but above all true.
Peter Hammill’s newsletters and more can be found on his website at www.sofasound.com
AND HERE COME’S A SELECTION OF MORE RECENT ORGAN REVIEWS…
|8th JUNE ’09: ALBUM REVIEW: PETER HAMMILL � Thin Air (FIE) – Well he does seem to be everlasting, never finished, that overused term national treasure and all that, each time you make a resolution… Who knows what lies in his intent this time, more circular decent? I have no idea how many albums Peter Hammill has been involved in now, solo as well as those he’s made as frontman of probably the greatest band ever – Van Der Graaf Generator – how many have there been now? Dozens? Thirty? Forty? Has he made fifty albums now? Lost count ages ago, but what I do know, is that I really quite honestly have never ever heard a bad one… Thin Air is as good a starting point as the most recent Van Der Graaf album Triceptor or any of the others, band or solo, that stretch back to the late 60’s of Manchester…
Don’t swim out too far, Don’t swim out too far, Don;t swim out too far for Christ sake, don’t go in the bar… You let down your guard, You let down your guard…. This could be no one else but Peter Hammill and yes I am a frothing fan, I can’t help it, if you want a “proper” chin-stroking review then this is not the place, and after all this time and all the things with all those people we’ve encountered, all the let downs, all the bands, all the interviews, gigs, reviews, when it comes to Mr Hammill, I’m still a frothing hopeless helpless teenage fan with (no) damage collaterally done. Here in our own footprints, and not once has he let us down and it may be less by design and more by random occurrence….
We’ve told the tale before, about how we once went to an intimate solo show in a theatre in Euston somewhere in the early 90’s and there in the small politely-seated audience of around two hundred, all there taking notes and learning from their acknowledged master, were Bowie, Lydon, Bruce Dickenson and that arch magpie Fish (a man who built a whole career on being Peter – Cat’s Eyes, Yellow Fever and such).
Alright, so maybe Peter isn’t the greatest guitarist ever and we could maybe do without that three minute instrumental track Wrong Way Round in the middle of the album there… but that’s the thing, that he still does it, that he still tries when he knows, and that fragile fact that he attempts it, and sometimes those lyrical lines he comes out with have you wondering… Oh come on Peter, you’re making fun of us now. “This is not exactly comfortable or comforting sonic territory” reads his press release, “It’s also a long way away from any VdGG – past, present or future” – well true in both cases, but then how can it not sound like that unique dark beauty of Van Der Graaf when you have that voice? Let’s face it here, Peter could sing the phonebook, without instrumentation, and it will still sound like no one but VdGG – that voice and that phrasing could belong to no one else but the voice of Van Der Graaf… VdGG and Peter solo are different beasts though, there is a difference, there needs to be… And no it isn’t comfortable, it almost never is with Mr Hammill’s solo work – and what with more recent events, the heart attack and such, Peter is looking rather fragile these days, this is the sound of a man thinking that any of those goodbyes could be the last one. Homesick even though he’s there at home, nostalgic for that future. Peter Hammill solo albums are never comfortable, they’re never sunlight, flowers and happiness, and you hope there are high days and holidays somewhere in the reality of those envelopes he pushes against.. that lifetime spent in pursuit of common sense and the waiting on that final clue. Oh there must be high days, nothing is this bleak, surely? Only just got away with what he’s done?
Oh look, a new Peter Hammill album, and even by his standards, some of this is really dark and bleak, it is uncomfortable, this is not easy listening, this is absorbing, this is beautiful, up here in the thin air, as emotional as ever, more so… This isn’t an album that needs over-analysis, this is an album that should be very personal to each and every listener, you don;t need us telling you what we think he’s on about, that’s for you to explore and interpret – find your own things, take what you want from it… All that really needs to be said is that Thin Air is as good as anything the man has ever done and if this should be your first toe in his water then it is as fine a place as any to go wade waist-deep in to it all as any. If on the other hand you’re one of those people who dropped everything and flew in from all points around the globe in an ecstatic state of disbelief when Van Der Graaf returned in 2006 then you will be as absorbed and satisfied as ever. I don’t really care if this all comes over a frothing fandom, way past the point of caring what you think of this Organgrinding thing we do these days, and if we can’t get excited about new music and we can’t grab you by the collar and say hey, you have to check this out then what’s the point? Music still moves us and I really don’t know why those self-appointed mainstream alternative music sites who claim to be so in touch with everything aren;t all over this? The man is right up there with Scott Walker (or Bowie or Morrissey if you will) or anyone else you care to namedrop, he really is that national treasure and Thin Ice will more than explain why those of us who know wait for these new albums and how once again we haven’t been let down… Need to put this away now, he;s as intense as ever, need to leave those dark clouds for a couple of days…
Thin Ice is out today of Peter Hammill’s own label FIE – find out more via his website www.sofasound.com or explore some VdGG/PH treasure via the download page at www.vandergraafgenerator.co.uk
|A FIRST TIME VIEWJULY 4th 2009: LIVE REVIEW: VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR � Regent Theatre, Arlington, Massachusetts, 23rd June
Encouraged, maybe even exhorted, by Organ to go discover Van der Graaf Generator for some time now, it seems fitting to explore them for the first time in this very intimate, experimental theatre just a stone’s throw from the equally experimental People;s Republic of Cambridge. This third gig of their first proper U.S. tour is set in the comfortable, spare venue, far smaller than some living rooms and many NYC lofts. Fine acoustics, not a bad seat in the house, and I’m one of perhaps five women here, maybe six, in a sea of mostly older prog rockers who know how every note will go in a Van der Graaf Generator concert.
New eyes and new ears present, and I know I’m supposed to be listening for intensity and despair, but I keep finding humour and hope. Is this a propensity of the XX chromosome? This stripped down trio (no saxophonist this tour) deliver rich, complicated, multiple layers of precise darkness. With holes of light. I wasn;t told about that. Intensity? I wasn’t prepared for the taurine ferocity of Guy Evans, a tenacious drummer and contents under pressure here, converted into a raw energy that is at once diesel fuel propelling big skyscrapers of sound forward, as well as a sheer pleasure to watch. I could listen to him pulverize the drum kit for hours straight. Hugh Barton is as dependable as the Thames, pure constancy on dual keyboards and foot pedals and understated accuracy. Peter Hammill on both keyboards and guitar is everything I’ve been promised, but it;s his voice that he uses as a fifth instrument that is physically compelling. It;s good to be seated perhaps only one hundred feet away to experience big swaths of sound at a cellular level. This pale slender English frame houses an enormous voice, that rips out of his lungs at enormous speed and wrenches his body and mouth.
It;s the lyrics that are most defibrillating, in a positive way. Yes, I;m hearing actual fine poetry, full of literary device that burns emotions into my brain, actual free verse and form that most “poets” have forgotten or never learned to write – real form that acts as safe and sane bondage so that deep questions and deeper responses can be safely contained, something I’ve pontificated about for years. I imagine that he has learned to love the questions, as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote. “What cause is there left but to die?” Answered by “What cause is there left but to live?” and to try, there’s the intensity of hope. Good to hear “Lemmings” for the first time live.
There are silences between songs, but none feel awkward, just lots of gentle self-deprecating humour to wash down great big slices of sometimes otherworldly prog rock. I love someone who can play with and to an audience; we’re definitely not here to be played at. There are shouts of requests as Hammill steps forward and tunes his guitar for an age. An unperturbed Hammill answers, “Tune-age is very important on this stage”. A moment of what appears to be a lost playlist, and then, “Guys, guys, we’ve spent hours working this out” as Hammill holds up a set list. Humour only exists when two or more levels of reality co-exist; how appropriate for unique experimental prog that explores multiple time signatures, various snarls of tonal scales and meanings of lyrics. Lots of realities and spaces threaded in this room tonight.
There’s much from the latest album “Trisector” tonight. “Over the Hill” and “(We are) Not Here” are particularly good. “Man-Erg” is the redoubtable finale; it’s fragile and anthemic, smoother than the recording tonight and more vulnerable. I don’t hear the loneliness, but I do hear the music and lyrics penetrate the alone-ness, and having done so, the alone-ness disappears. A musical nirvana, or a Zen koan, that alone-ness cannot last once it is universalized in such a piercing way. Not comfortable listening, but a match of lyrics and music that make a third delicate spiky reality full of darkness – with those holes of light. But then again, black is never black, is it? It’s an emulsion of all colours, and you just might find indigo or green or purple or even red in the cat’s fur.
Go find these, and explore Van der Graaf Generator at www.vandergraafgenerator.com or www.sofasound.com. Now touring in North America through to 10th July. (Lilith Payne)
|LIVE:VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR – Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, April 3rd, 2008 – Stripped-down to a trio (drummer Guy Evans, organist Hugh Banton and singer/guitarist/keyboard player Peter Hammill), Van Der Graaf Generator spent 2007 making their new album, Trisector. Never one to shy away from mortality as subject matter, Hammill’s writing for this work positively obsesses on decay, death and the big question – from, as always, the personal, human standpoint – in a way that makes previous lyrics seem hesitant. Hammill’s heart attack a few years ago may well have been grist for that mill, but he’s taking on the whole idea of getting old with, as ever, that utterly unflinching gaze. Kind of amusing, then, that this veteran outfit, formed in 1967, should appear to be so immune to the aging process. The new material (even without distinctive saxophonist) sounds so right that it could almost be like it came from the same sessions that made The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other or Pawn Hearts. From the deeply comfy seats of the recently reinvigorated Queen Elizabeth Hall, they look younger (or at least healthier) than many a band down the Bull & Gate. There’s no hint of compromise or flabbyness in the new numbers: its proper Van Der Graaf Generator, and live, they stand up better a lot of their later first period output.
The stage is set up stark and simple, with just right lighting. It’s just Hammill, Banton and Evans (not long ago, sightings of Hugh Banton were treated as Fortean phenomena). The between-song repartee is pretty stark and simple too (slightly awkward? Very awkward). Great big awkward silences, but that’s ok because we’re used to Hammill’s extreme lack of rock star posturing, and it goes with the extreme honesty of this band. After all these years of performing he still seems very, very nervous, insecure even – until a song starts and he lets rip with that humungous voice. Then the three of them lock in as if making unique, very very English, very strange music is the most natural thing in the world. Guy Evans is many people’s favourite drummer of all time, flowing, expressive yet hard-edged; Hugh Banton might not have brought one of his souped-up, dangerously overdriven Hammonds with him this time but he’s getting enough power out of the substitutes. No soddin Wakeman, but the soaring darkness of plainsong and harsh medieval avant garde. When they get to the snarling madness in the middle of Man-Erg or the highlight that is Over The Hill, the real home of this trio is not these nice comfortable halls with polite devotees and perplexed wives/husbands but a smaller room crammed to the gills with people who listen to Godspeed! You Black Emperor or Fantomas or Liars, at an ATP festival probably, the audience hanging over the monitors, a moshpit and the band in each other’s faces, cranking out Lemmings. That’d sort out Peter’s nerves.
Tonight, though, we connect with Van der Graaf’s gloriously bleak/uplifting vision by sinking into each song. I can’t tell, after years of listening and getting them, how much of an acquired taste they are. They don’t have any reference points to compare to (except maybe Scott Walker) – it just makes its own sense, a very personal combination of talent and personality and the Sixties/Seventies it evolved in. For all of us here used to them, it was a great gig: even the lack of distinctive saxophonist Jackson is a gap that seems to bring out more from the others. Filled by more guitar and organ, the sound is fused into a tighter entity. The previous triumphant return of Van der Graaf Generator at the Royal Festival Hall was great; the following gig at Shepherds Bush happened the day after 7/7, and kind of strange. Tonight was all about the music, going deeper. A return to the dark heart of the thing that Van der Graaf Generator is: a unique beast, very much alive and powerful forty years on, the trappings of fashion and music business now long shrugged off – free and healthy in a climate that suits it very well. They’re as vital as ever.
|ORGAN #245> FEB 28th ’08 – ALBUM OF THE WEEK
VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR – Trisector (Virgin) – When Van Der Graaf made that comeback a couple of years ago with those unexpected shows and the Present album people refused to believe it was going to happen until they were actually stood there in front of us singing of black days at the bottom of the blackest sea.The euphoria, the disbelief and the celebration is behind us now, one of the finest bands ever are properly back and the second album from this new period of Van Der Graaf life is here. Stripped down to a trio of original 1968 members now – Hugh Banton, Peter Hammill and Guy Evans – the first thing to say about Trisector is that there is material on here to stand up next the best from any period of the band’s many lives. Peter Hammill is on top form with his extremely personal lyrics – inward looking, unflinching as ever as age takes hold; the melancholy, that wonderfully distinctive voice, that clock that’s always ticking and a lifetime spent unlearning all that he knows. The twelve and a half minutes of Over The Hill is classic Van Der Graaf Generator with all those breathtaking rollercoaster rides and stabs of jarring drama that lead us to that euphoric grandness. We Are Not Now is seriously progressively challenging rock – Van Der Graff are not the kind of band who you expect to just rehash things, they don’t here! There are moments on Trisector that are genuinely pushing at musical edges – and if you want emotion that Peter Hammill is still the (Emo? This is the real stuff). The best moments more than make up for the risks that don’t really pay off – the album opens with a rather uneventful four minute instrumental that really did lower my expectations and had me fearing the worst. Start your first listen with the opening moments of Interference Patterns lose yourself in more ceremonial quicksand… Another very fine album from probably the greatest English band ever.
Trisector is out March 17th, you can catch them on tour in early April, taste some classic VdGG downloads at www.vandergraafgenerator.co.uk
|ORGAN #118 > MAY 12th 2005VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR – Live Royal Festival Hall London – May 6th 2005 – There have been many bands who have aspired to strangeness, who claim to be unique, who wear token eccentricity as a badge. And then there is Van Der Graaf Generator. Ah, how glorious to be placing them in the present tense! Van Der Graaf Generator, born in 1967, last performed in 1978. That entity kind of vanished, Pioneers Over C style, airbrushed out of easily accessible rock history to be discovered only via the purest word-of-mouth. For me, it was at a huddle of fellow teenagers around a record player in the mid 80s, marvelling at the 25-minute excess of A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers. After that, you don’t go back. It sounded extraordinary to us then; it sounded extraordinary to the trickle of new recruits in the intervening years, and the tacit acceptance that us youngsters would never experience this band live was part of the romance, in a way. We had the voice and wordsmith and much of the thought processes of VDGG in the shape of Peter Hammill, prolific with his own work, often performing. We had glimpses of incomparable drummer Guy Evans, and Jackson’s distinctive twin sax attack. But somewhere out there was the man who, legend has it, souped-up his Hammond so much its low frequencies caused injuries to buildings and human flesh, taking out the ceiling of at least one venue during some cataclysmic tour in the 70s… No, Van Der Graaf Generator would never regroup, and that was that. Didn’t even register on the radar. Too mysterious, too fragile, too legendary…. days after the Royal Festival Hall mentioned this gig it was sold out. Exclamation marks flew across the web. Slightly hysterical phone calls. Flights booked from across the globe, high prices on ebay….
They enter a simple, black-backdropped stage, and the roar and standing ovation is truly something. It’s like the United Nations in here, and I might as well mention the near-equal proportion of sexes. I’m sitting next to a wonderful Romanian woman who lends me her opera glasses, and around are American and Italian and Geordie accents. There’s a guy in his twenties behind us who’s going to sing every damn word. But… but… its great coming out en masse like this, but what if they’re.. y’know…
We were not disappointed.
There really, truly isn’t a band even slightly resembling Van Der Graaf Generator. They are what they are. A combination of utterly unique voice, unique super-expressive drumming, unique saxes, unique keyboards. The four of them together is evidence of the strangeness of the world: who else could match the quality of Peter Hammill’s vocal and lyrical personality and not be subsumed by it, but these particular musicians? Hammill has the rare ability to write a lyric and make you hear every word. He has the fabulous enunciation of a nearly lost age, an English character actor of a voice that snarls and soars and sometimes sobs. While The Voice holds not a smidgen of doubt – or fakery – Hammill’s stage presence is enduringly awkward, more so than at his solo gigs. Away from keyboard or guitar, he stalks up and down at the back of the stage, unable to contain some unbearable inner energy but not ready to let go with some clichéd rawk shape at the front. They begin with the sprawling introspections of Undercover Man and Scorched Earth, both typical later Van Der Graaf – digging and delving into the human psyche, driven by stuttering drums, the bass coming from swirling, monolithic organ and mournful, birdlike sax, brooding and resolving. Don’t expect an easy, driving rock-out with Van Der Graaf Generator (though they have their moments, particularly in their earlier albums) – this music is about thoughts, struggles, atmospheres, anxiety, individuality, sometimes flowing, often awkward in a very human way… and ultimately, hopeful resolution. By the end, I felt I’d been wondering around inside Hammill’s head for a while… Deeply emotional, never cloying: the tear-jerking, timeless Refugees appearing early in the set…. How long has it been since these four people played together? Twenty-five years? They perform Lemmings and stunning new number Every Bloody Emperor with equal authority, and the sound is flawless, the best live sound I’ve heard in all my gig-going years. And having encountered a few re-formed, re-heated band reunions, this was – is – without doubt the most right one. They sounded great, they looked cool, they compromised nothing. This was beyond expectations… OK, I wouldn’t have minded ‘Plague’ as an encore, ha ha… but after a standing ovation of some minutes they finish with Killer and finally, touchingly introduced by Peter as the most appropriate, a perfect, extended performance of Wondering, leaving in a haze of blinding lights.
Without fanfare or hyperbole, Van Der Graaf Generator nonchalantly walked out of the shadows, sat down, and were their strange, impossible selves. Do not miss the chance to experience this.
Roll on the next gig…. – www.vandergraafgenerator.co.uk/mp3.htm
|ORGAN #116 > APR 28th 2005
ALBUM OF THE WEEK
VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR – Present (Virgin) Hey, it you already know about Van Der Graaf you don’t need a review, all you need to know is YES!
You’ll know half way through the double standards of propaganda and our faith never needing to diminish as we get close to the finish, we may be serfs and slaves but when it’s as good as the opening piece called Every Bloody Emperor it’s worth every moment of the itching of the hair shirt. This is Van Der Graaf Generator at their best, that’s all you need to know. There’s Jackson’s ghostly shimmering sax (how can it be so distinctive, how can his sax playing sound so unique?), ah yes, if you know already then all we need to tell you is, YES!, this is Van Der Graaf back and sounding as deliciously dark and organic and in their own dark complex world of the other self and abandoned ships and pounding on beach (but not the one we should be on and the wrong sand beneath our feet) as we need them to be. The Hammill penned Every Bloody Emperor is followed by a Jackson creation called Baleas Panic – a brooding free flowing organically classic VDGG instrumental thing that sounds part Theme One going slow and part as straight as any Arrow – by the second track we know that Van Der Graaf Generator have delivered and we’re happy happy happy (as happy as you can be in Peter’s world)
You see, I’m already a fan, a worshiper, a total worshipper, for me (an others around here) Van Der Graaf Generator are the ultimate band, you regular readers know this – your musical life will not be complete until you’ve lost yourself in A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers. We once saw front man Peter Hammill doing a solo show in an intimate theatre in Euston, sitting in front of us in total awe and ecstasy was David Bowie, to his left, John Lydon, over there was Fish watching the real master, behind us a transfixed Bruce Dickinson. Van Der Graaf Generator may well be one of the mysteries, a strange cult band out there on the edges – but those who know, know that it just doesn’t get any better (and this is why the recently announced reformation gig at the rather big Queen Elizabeth Hall in London – the first in years – sold out in under an hour with no advertising and tickers are now selling for over a hundred pound a go, people are selling their souls for them – has anyone got a spare one please!!! PLEASE!!!).
Let’s get lost in the dark, take another step, another move another fall between the cracks, exit the wrong gothic manuscript. You see I can’t listen to Bowie albums, they just sound like watered down Peter Hammill, Gabriel albums are for when you don’t need to be quite so involved and dragged in and taken way up there, King Crimson can get you near, so can Cardiacs or Gentle Giant (or in a slightly different way Voivod, but then they’re just self-confessed fanatics who’s sound and structure is half based on the Van Der blueprint). There’s nothing like the unique dark complex contradicting epic unique unique sound of the Generator (don’t be fooled in to thinking they’re just another 70’s prog rock band, oh no, far far more than that way more) – all I’m telling you here is you need Van Der Graaf Generator in your life – ask Bowie, ask Lydon, ask Voivod. Ask those Suns of The Tundra, there are so many of your favourites you can ask..
Hang on though, they don’t always get it right, this is not blind frothing fan-dom, Van Der Graaf takes risks and they do make bad albums, they do fall on their faces – both as a band and solo. So we weren’t sure, after all this time, if we really wanted a new set of pieces, I was half tempted to just not go there, I was half expecting to be disappointed – surely they can’t still do it? So many bands who reform just shouldn’t. Is that a Van Der Graaf surf song? Come on, surf’s up! (smile!). Fear not, this is dark twisted forward looking, epic, cutting, progressive (in the real sense) classic, proper, real Van Der Graaf Generator – Banton, Evans, Jackson and Hammill creating the dark magic again and doing it so so right – this is GOOD Van Der Graaf Generator.
You actually get two CDs here – the first featuring six tracks including the instrumental – classic Van Der Graaf Generator pieces/songs/journeys – not Van Der Graaf on auto-pilot, no no no, that would not do, we demand and we indeed get far more than that. The second CD consists of focused lean instrumental progressive jazz flavoured jams that could only be Van Der Graaf, it’s good, it’s there to be explored later, for now we’re exploring the first six fine and exciting pieces and finding out where the many selves of Peter have been this time an if that wave they’re surfing is indeed the last apocalyptic wave that takes down the city. But then fishes can swim,.. yes indeed, if you know Van Der Graaf then all you need to know is YES. If you haven’t discovered their dark beauty then this is a fine place to start. YES YES YES! – www.sofasound.com
|PETER HAMMILL Live, Hammersmith Lyric Theatre, June 2002 – After days of rain, the heat is here. Blazing yellow sunshine, Saturday afternoon in Hammersmith, and every third person wears or waves the flag of St George. Walking down the main shopping drag a happy football song to the tune of ‘Hey Jude’ rolls from a smart pub across the road. There’s a lull of happiness in the air for England have Got Through, on a sunny weekend morning. I’m killing time until the interval in the hope that someone will have a Peter Hammill ticket for me, so have a look around the cheesy seventies shopping centre the Lyric Theatre is part of. Scan the music press in WH Smiths for something interesting, but nothing grabs; New Scientist is more entertaining. Look for the bicycle shop but it has been replaced by mobile phone outlets. London has developed a hint of decay in its economic miracle like milk just on the turn: the shelves are shiny and the coffee franchises full, families shop together, outside the flower bed reeks of something worse than dogshit and staggering beggars take deft dodging. I wondered how many of the throng passing in the steaming golden sunshine had visited the Lyric Theatre – or noticed it was there. Through the quiet lobby, up the stairs, everything beautifully clean and cool in a super-bland, early eighties non-decor way, to a fine cafe bar selling delicious and relatively cheap (subsidised?) food, a wide outdoor terrace overlooking the street – virtually empty until the Hammill fans emerge from the first act. Ahh, the spare ticket, and quite a few old friends. This afternoon, Peter Hammill is half way through a performance (without repeat) of fifty songs spanning his solo career and that of Van Der Graaf Generator – one performance yesterday evening, two today. A Peter Hammill audience is not what you might think – something this word-of-mouth spans a couple of generations: the Joy Division t-shirts outnumbered the Yes badges. A few are first timers, and they’re very happy…
Too much talking, dash down the narrow corridor for act two, sit down – look around in shock. This is like entering Narnia. Nesting inside this bland shopping mall and style-less eighties wrapper is a large, sumptuous Victorian music hall in the grand manner, immaculately restored, all baroque curls and red swags, a moodily lit womb of cool air and calm. I was expecting something like a comprehensive school hall. The lights go down immediately: onto a stage bare but for grand piano and black backdrop, into the spotlights come Peter Hammill and a violinist. Hammill is frighteningly velociraptor-thin, with a thick shock of silver hair, and the violinist has a broad face and wide, blissed smile; from the first note they are mesmerising. I’ve not seen Hammill perform for a long time, but this may be the most compelling, most perfect way of hearing these songs – just guitar, a violin that flows and ebbs around every word and phrase, loving and understanding each one in a way that makes you forget the rest of the orchestra isn’t here yet. And then, there is of course The Voice… I’m not sure I want to know where The Voice came from in the first place – what pacts in blood had to be signed, what sacrifices – but you can be assured that plenty of others thought of as unique publicly bow to it as their source of inspiration. Yes, you, Mr. Bowie with your Meltdown, forget did we or was it too close to the bone? I’d like to think that messers Almond, Hannon and Lydon paid double to attend the evening performances… But back to describing The Voice, and I suppose it’s the voice that’s utterly true to itself, an English voice that doesn’t cower or apologise or hide behind some rock n’roll accent, and has a power that carries in a way that makes you feel you’re only getting one tenth of what it’s capable of: that more would be dangerous for the audience (how
ironic that Van Der Graaf Generator’s most famous moment was an instrumental, used as the intro to the Friday Rock Show for umpteen years). This is the man who once sang a fourth encore to ?j12a large theatre with his microphone behind his back, and was still loud in the rear circle. By turns hard, self-deprecating, snarling, tender, analytical, questioning, lost – the voice and the lyrics always honest, unafraid, (too much?) to dissect feelings, relationships. On some past albums the self-dissection could be too unrelenting, but today’s selection of songs have more variety, go to outer places as well as inner. ‘Your Tall Ship’ is wonderful, a setting free of emotions – how many of Hammill’s best songs have the sea in them? ‘Edge Of The Road’ could be a description of his own career. All the songs today – ‘Like Veronica’, ‘Been Alone So Long’, even the abstractions of ‘Faculty X’ – have the sense of narrative, of storytelling on several levels. For a set consisting mainly of songs I was unfamiliar with, I was still hooked into the tales. It’s hard to imagine that these songs have been heard in a better context, with this breathtaking sensitivity to the work from the violin, excellent sound, the plush silence for the most delicate moments and total attentiveness of the audience. A standing ovation, and too soon we were back through the wardrobe. Feeling sorry for all the people around who didn’t know about that other world a few feet away… (MARINA)
|PETER HAMMILL Cadogan Hall, London, Jan 31st 2010 Peter Hammill deals in truth. His voice cuts like a sword, never less than clear and sharp, his thought processes irrisistably drawn, trapped, even, to slicing down to the bones of reality – the really, really tough questions, the ones about time, mortality. His recent album, Thin Air, has a stark beauty, an overall elegance – as does the Cadogan Hall, entirely the perfect venue for a solo gig from the Van Der Graaf Generator frontman. Hammill accompanies himself with piano and guitar, his powerful, unmistakable voice carrying to every corner of the room. Dressed in white, he cuts an ascetic figure as usual, his demeanor seems more relaxed and quietly engaging than it has as at any of his previous solo shows.
Hammill’s lyrics were revolving around time and mortality even in the early days of Van Der Graaf Generator, so the subjects of much of tonight’s set is not entirely to do with the serious heart attack he recently recovered from – it spans his long career. There’s little really morbid about his vision, somehow it’s not resigned or depressed; however dark it gets, it always seems to be driven by an insatiable curiosity about life. Oh, and love – Hammill writes a great deal about love, and doesn’t balk at describing how it falls apart, whether through human failings or, again, the workings of time. His sharpest words are always for himself.
There’s the contradiction between being a romantic and possessing awful clarity of vision. And he always hopes – his voice has always had an apocalyptic, doomsayer’s edge to it, yet there’s always a sense that humanity, in every sense of the word, will come through – or at least try. A healthy proportion of tonight’s set comes from the new album, a collection of songs and compositions that contains many of the best elements and feel from right across a career spanning over four decades. Including the introspective twists and turns of Faculty X and new one Stumbled. Tonight, especially, he seems to carry that sense of hope in his voice, an extra spark of warmth that makes Undone (a looking-back-at life ballad, another from the new album and maybe that album’s best track) deeply emotional and surprisingly uplifting. For all its valedictory lyrics, however, it just makes Hammill seem younger than a lot of his peers, his creative energy undiminished, even sharpening as the years go on. An encore is demanded – appropriately enough, A Better Time, from the X My Heart album – as he declares his outlook to not be as dark as some would have it, he tells us he’s somewhere near the middle ground… This is the life and we’ve only time to be alive right now.. Peter leaves us feeling rather good about everything as he thanks the standing ovation that follows with a simple smile and leaves the sparse perfectly lit stage… (Marina)
Peter Hammill’s website is at www.sofasound.com