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

PAWN HEARTS

Van Der Graaf Generator

 

Eclectic Prog

4.43 | 1484 ratings

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AtomicCrimsonRush
Special Collaborator
Symphonic Team
5 stars Van der Graaf Generator's Pawn Hearts was my introduction to the band and It's my favourite of their repertoire for many reasons. The 3 tracks boast the unique sound of VDGG and features lyrics that are dangerously close to the edge and Peter Hammill's vocals are like no other. He can croon smoothly, almost whisper along a minimalist approach that may feature a mere Hammond Organ, or he can scream as a cacophony of sound erupts. In fact the whole album meanders from serene tranquility to atomic energy - it's an incredible achievement for the group and is hailed as a masterpiece for those who love prog rock.

The album starts off with the strange and bizarre 'Lemmings (including Cog)' and it is easy to see why this band are musical pioneers and boundary pushing visionaries. The track begins innocently enough, "I stood alone upon the highest cliff-top, looked down around and all I could see were those that I would dearly love to share with crashing on quite blindly to the sea." David Jackson's saxophone soon turns it up a notch and we are treated with the maelstrom of sound and verbal music psychosis that is VDGG.

The next track 'Man-erg' features a piano intro, a minimalist approach with Hammill's trademark quiet vocal delivery. It's an existential piece that questions who are we, the killer or the angel, or both, we are capable of great good and great evil, but ultimately "Death's Head throws his cloak into the corner of my room and I am doomed". On this delivery the track descends deeper into an abyss and VDGG really let loose with wild staccato riffs and a monstrous finale where everything just explodes into a paroxysm of uncontrolled mayhem. It's a killer track and moves from romanticism with piano elegy only to explode into a doom-laden soundwave with wild saxophones screaming over unfriendly sounds such as Hugh Banton's hammond and Guy Evan's off-kilter percussion.

The next track is the one that everyone is talking about when they discuss the peak of VDGG's musical prowess. It is all that VDGG has come to personify and more. 'A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers' was the first track I had heard from this amazing band and I knew I would be purchasing this CD immediately. It's unbelievable in every aspect, running for an awesome 23 minutes, it tells the story of an eyewitness who sees the unspeakable as he feels his body fading in a storm while voyaging on a doomed ship. It reminds one of Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner (check Iron Maiden's take on this poem). The narrator notes "I prophesy disaster and then I count the cost. I shine but shining, dying I know that I am almost lost." The piano gets faster and seems to be falling down an abyss. There is a brief interlude that reminds one of a ship floating on an endless ocean and we hear the lonely saxophone blasts that resemble bizarre fog horns. You can almost picture the image of a ghost ship sailing through fog and there's a genuinely creepy ambience. The song takes on a darker atmosphere and Hammill begins to use his patented gravel tone to sing of spectres that scratch on windows, hollowed faces, and lost mastheads that pierce the freezing dark. There are several parts that flash by until the track moves to Presence of the Night/ Kosmos Tours. The saxophone really shines in this section and a weird time signature locks in, with Hammill singing "Why can't I let me live and be free, but I die very slowly alone." A beautiful hammond sound fills the void and the tempo ignites to a frenetic pace where it spirals blissfully out of control. Then it all ends suddenly and the gorgeous piano reverberates to a melancholic contemplative Hammill who asks "Lighthouses might hold the key but can I reach the door?" It's a lovely moment after all the mayhem preceding, then the next section begins suddenly with Hammill's rasping vocals and short jagged spurts of noise from Banton and Evans, The Clot Thickens. At times the sound seems curiously off kilter, out of tune and rhythm but it all gels perfectly into the tranquil Land's End, "Stars slice horizons where the lines stand much too stark, I feel I am drowning hands stretch in the dark..." And it ends on a rather positive note in a sense where Hammill muses that "it doesn't feel so very bad now" and perhaps "the end is the start... all things are apart." You can take what you will from the potent lyrics but all is sung with absolute conviction which makes the piece all the more intriguing. It is a ballad of gothic grandeur in every sense that constantly surprises with its complex twisting structure.

The bonus tracks are quite good, though do not measure up to the 3 classic tracks mentioned. 'Theme One' is a quirky, catchy little thing that works well enough. 'W' is a bit pretentious but passable. 'Angle of Incidents' is experimental and flawed. 'Ponker's Theme' is forgettable and 'Dimunitions' as an instrumental does nothing for me, too long and based on a single idea, that is improvisational and without structure unlike VDGG's usual pieces. However, it is nice to hear these tracks as a bonus and one can simply take them or leave them as an added extra, similar to a B Side of a single: they are certainly not highlights of VDGG's repertoire.

My feeling is that the 3 tracks on the original album are the best that VDGG had to offer. Brooding, with interchanging time signatures, long and contemplative and experimental to the max, it is an album that must be heard by every serious prog rock fan. If you don't own it, TODAY is the day of salvation.

AtomicCrimsonRush | 5/5 |

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