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Van Der Graaf Generator - Pawn Hearts CD (album) cover


Van Der Graaf Generator


Eclectic Prog

4.42 | 2037 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
5 stars Finally, VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR do what they were capable of. 'Pawn Hearts' is an all-time progressive classic, one of those few albums that is progressive both in its sound (it sounds like classic prog) and in its intention (it progresses the band). What a tragedy, then, that the band couldn't afford to keep going after this release. What might we have been given in those four silent years? HAMMILL's solo works are only a hint.

PETER HAMMILL kicks the chocks away from his voice and lets it flow in full theatrical mode. The band back him with two operettas and one full-blown opera, each of which have everything the prog listener wants, muscle, melody and sophistication, albeit arranged in a lo-fi, awkward fashion. I don't know if this was a deliberate choice: I suspect it was a matter of money. But in this case it adds to the charm. The subject matter picks up from the previous album, but this album deals with the subject in a much more effective manner. 'Lemmings' relies on a strong vocal motif: 'We have looked upon the heroes/and they are found wanting'. The phrasing is deliberately awkward, syllables not fitting the meter, reminding listeners they are not listening to standard rock music. The motif is underscored by JACKSON's sax work and a guitar so understated as to almost remain unnoticed. The central section - the lemmings analogy transferred to humanity - is one of the most discordant, powerful and truly frightening moment in music. 'Cogs tearing bones, cogs tearing bones.' The song fades away with the hope for the future deliberately undermined by the weakening music.

'Man-Erg' is another scary train-wreck of a track. It explores the muddy waters of self-realisation and self-disclosure: 'The killer lives inside of me/I can feel him move'. Man is somewhere between an angel and a killer. Fair enough. But of course this track is all about the incredible shrill instrumental and vocal attack at about the 3-minute mark. The shock arrival of blarting sax and pounding rhythm in the midst of a reflective ballad is disconcerting, to say the least - as it is intended to be. For the second song in a row we are assaulted by genius. Wave this in front of those snobs who mock the ingenue of popular music. The final climax ties an affirming end into a reprise of the discordant middle section in a triumph of composition.

I do not find the full opera, 'A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers', as compelling as the operettas. Like many epics, it overstays its welcome, the instrumental sections not tied as tightly to the lyrical force of the track as they might have been. This is the problem: when lyrics are as sharp and well-written as these, the music had better follow suit. Part ii (Pictures/Lighthouse), for example, might better have been integrated rather than separated, and the subtitles suggest the band knew it, as they feel they have to tell us what is happening (eddies/rocks/ships/collision/remorse). However, that's all I can find fault with. The lyrical concept and the rather disjointed sections of this song make it hard to assimilate, but if it is treated as a sort of 'Supper's Ready', a tale of chaos and (possible) resolution, it makes more sense. ('The Clot Thickens' is VDGG's 'Willow Farm', etc).

It goes without saying that an album ranked with the best prog albums of all time ought to be in your collection. There are good reasons it is rated so highly. Even for someone like myself, who appreciates melody rather than cacophony, this album is compulsive listening.

russellk | 5/5 |


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