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Van Der Graaf Generator - H To He, Who Am The Only One CD (album) cover


Van Der Graaf Generator


Eclectic Prog

4.31 | 1481 ratings

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TGM: Orb
Prog Reviewer
5 stars Review 62, H to He, Who Am The Only One, Van Der Graaf Generator, 1970


The hardest-hitting, perhaps the greatest, prog albums have an essence of their own, a certain SellingEnglandbythepoundness or Brainsaladsurgeryness (Plato can do it, so can I ;) ), rather than being a collection of song ideas with or without an underlying theme, by the same artist, in the same year. Htohewhoamtheonlyoneness is an oddity. Despite the fluent theme of loneliness, the songs are thoroughly different, with fiery dissonance and calm beauty coexisting within the album, and initially, the album, and indeed some of the songs. Nevertheless, regardless of the range, the elusive feel of the album is there, and impacts more powerfully every time. For me, such an album is without doubt a masterpiece.

That waffle aside, H To He Who Am The Only One is a superior effort to its perfectly good predecessor in several ways. First, the lyrics have really fallen into place, and have moved on from simply interesting and well-constructed to incredible emotional journeys with enigmas and clever wordplay incorporated in them. This album in particular is lyrically one of the two or three strongest that I own. Second, Hammill's vocals, which were previously exquisite and superb, have begun to flex themselves inquisitively, trying out new ideas constantly rather than going for a sound/tone and sticking to it for a song. Finally, the songs are slightly more distinctive to my ears, which is merely a personal preference issue.

Where we get to the really interesting features of the album, though, are the production and the album's basic 'features'. The production is clear and appropriate, with a very clear drum and bass sound leaving no mess or unhelpful material in the background to interfere with Bantom's crystalline organ chords, yet no feeling that there should be something else there when the organ or piano drops out. There's the space for the two leads to intertwine over the top of the organ and bass, while Hammill can display his incredible range, and the under-appreciated Guy Evans can use his classic rolling percussion sound with intense fills to full effect. And while all this goes on, there's no feeling of crowding, and nonetheless the feeling of loneliness, loss, rage, rejection and, finally, escape goes straight from the speakers to the soul. Van Der Graaf Generator at one of their many finest moments, and an incredible experience if you can really immerse yourself in it.

Killer opens the album with style, moodiness and a thick organ-sax-piano riff that manages to, with supple variations, hold up the piece perfectly. The parable of the fish (coincidentally, this makes the album lyrically presenting loneliness in sea-break-land-break-space progression), representing men isolating themselves through alienating those around them, is delivered with a dark, almost watery, vocal, and the entire presentation gives a unique dark-sea feel (as opposed to the sweeping majesty of Echoes or Firth Of Frith). Hugh Bantom's organ-work is viciously choppy, using swelling jabs and swipes to full effect as a counterpart to the smoother (at least, outside of the solo) sax, while the first really Van Der Graaf Generator piano makes its appearance (as do brief, but brilliant acoustic swirls that appear and then are gone with no grating whatsoever), directing the mood intensifying without melodrama, and substantiating the background for some of the zany soloist parts on occasion. Guy Evans gives a phenomenally strong performance, keeping up a consistently interesting and mobile background percussion performance with his characteristic second-long intrusions on the lead. However, no description of the song would be complete without an acknowledgement of the three mindblowing solos, a swirling, aggressive, grinding noise, probably from Bantom's general direction, Jackson's chaotic sax whirlwind and his later gorgeous, smoother solo. Of interest, too, is the ending. Where it appears to be scaling up to the classic bluesy crescendo, the band have the restraint and taste to conclude it quite decisively without bowing to that convention. This leaves a smooth segue to...

The beautiful and harrowing A House With No Door. Very much softer than its predecessor, but no less moving. Beautiful piano melodies take the lead, substantiated and backed by a more prominent and directional bass, and Evans' drumming and percussion taking an equally impressive and prominent role in a soft song (another reason I consider the man so overlooked. There aren't many percussionists who can really do that for a soft song). Hammill, however, remains the main focus, with his mournful, steadily unsteady, almost self-deprecating (in feel) vocal and perfect lyrics ('There's a house with no light/All the windows are sealed/Overtaxed and strained, now nothing is revealed...inside'). His voice manages to include majesty and, in the final verse, this incredible switching between his fairly high male voice and a (perhaps falsetto is the right word, but I doubt it) near-female, equally high, yet distinctly different sound flawlessly. An unforgettable vocal and lyrical performance, which is only made sweeter by the quality of the rest of the piece's components. Jaxon contributes a lush flute melody, with the unusual backing of an odd organ setting as well as the piece's basic components, and then heightening the feel with the addition of saxes (I think it could be the two-saxophones-at-once trick). Soft organ adds a touch of tasteful depth to the piece's conclusion, which is reached by a lush piano-bass duet. So different from the opener, but equally perfect.

The Emperor In His War Room is a third style again, with a more earthly vocal from Hammill, emphasising the sharp edges of the imagery-thick, cleverly constructed and menacing lyrics about the fall and isolation of a dictator. Musically, the piece is very much augmented by the presence of the far-famed Robert Fripp, first on delightfully vicious acoustics, and then in a bizarre, winding solo running parallel to the solid work of the band. Another chief feature is the presence of the flute (complete with a couple of effects) as a lead instrument, and some very solid bass and organ-lines contrasting with its airy, escapist feel. Menace and tension ooze from the piece, but also a genuine pity for the subject. Evans extensive militaristic percussion provides another burst of intensity. Here lie both the tense atmospheres that would make A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers and the more conventional features of H To He. The use of contrast is very strongly and subtly done, and the piece slows and thins very carefully to alter the listener's emotions.

Lost is a very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very special piece to me. In addition to being one of at most five musical pieces that have reduced me to tears, it is so utterly, perfectly romantic. Hammill takes one of the most conventional, generic topics of rock and writes about it poetically, intelligently and with feeling. The delivery matches, stretching with desperation, almost-weeping with loss, and moving to majesty, anger, sadness and longing with a natural flow. The music, though at first I was somewhat taken aback by the frantic nature of the opening sax/organ line, is to match. The opening theme is often reprised much more slowly in the later parts of the song, softly echoing and remembering the perceived frantic passion of the old relationship. The playing is perfect throughout, with Jaxon's brief, emotive spins and warm, but mournful, hums making full use of the human breath resemblance of the sax. Piano and organ are both handled in much the same style, smoothly, but with a constant feeling of utter and crushing loss. Evans again contributes fantastically, never breaking the feel with his style, though even including a very subtle and low-key use of something quite like the eighties drum thwack. The bass-work is smooth, clear, and independent, giving emphasis wherever necessary. Individually, all of these components are superb, but together the scale and beauty leaves me stunned every time. The interplay between sax and organ leads, coinciding with the most exemplary of the shining organ chords earlier referenced, simply has to be heard. I wish I could describe it better, but Lost goes so far beyond words that these are insufficient. This song alone would justify an album.

Pioneers over C (both a brilliant pun, and potentially a double-scientific reference, C being Carbon and c being the speed of light) begins with a soft, restrained rhythm and a crackling swirl, feeling distant (especially in the drum part, which sounds like a bongo to me). This initial distance is then varied throughout the song for force and effect, sometimes glaring with stark bass parts and at others slipping away with soft background organ and acoustic leads. Hammill again gives an absolutely stellar (pun not intended) performance, slipping away from our consciousness and roaring back into it, proclaiming exuberantly 'We are the lost ones', before slipping back around his own vocals. Harmonies are used with attention to detail, and the brilliantly stark lyrics are furthered by the stunning delivery. Aside from a slightly wider percussion set, and a much more prominent use of acoustic rhythms than previously, Pioneers Over C also features a greater role for the bass in providing active direction. Jaxon again manages to steal the show with sax bursts, including a particularly avant-garde breathless wandering. Pianos wander from ear to ear, and the organ provides both subtle and overt additions, as well as a rocking riff towards the end. The dark-space atmosphere (like the previous dark-water and dark-earth ones) is sustained flawlessly throughout, and the band clearly has a conviction in what they are doing that overrides any resistance. I have actually ended up on one occasion staring out of my window holding up my arms to the stars, so carried away by the atmosphere.

So, in conclusion to the rather long preceding passage, Htohewhoamtheonlyoneness not only exists, but it is also utterly incredible, beautiful and tragic. In fact, it is almost unique in its effect on me. So, with it being my second favourite album of all time, I can only give it my most exaggerated score. Go forth, Htohewhoamtheonlyoneness, and prosper!

Rating: Six Stars

Favourite Track: Lost, though all are incredible.

TGM: Orb | 5/5 |


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