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

PAWN HEARTS

Van Der Graaf Generator

 

Eclectic Prog

4.42 | 1436 ratings

From Progarchives.com, the ultimate progressive rock music website

TGM: Orb
Prog Reviewer
5 stars Review 71, Pawn Hearts, Van Der Graaf Generator, 1971

StarStarStarStarStar

If music is a form of expression, Pawn Hearts is surely a masterpiece of music. The lyrical and musical content fit together seamlessly, oozing depressive and mournful moods into the listener's mind, and Hammill's vocal delivery only further improves the intentionally convoluted lyrical ideas of the stunning A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers. Dissonant and furious tones, as well as tender, hopeful melodies, hammer in the maddening disorganisation of the world and light the all too distant beacons of the human mind. Everything about this album is expression, getting across moods and ideas. Clustered and claustrophobic production values add tension and give a slightly maddened and busy tinge even in sections where the music itself is sparse. The enormous studio experimentation and daring also tear their way in to the listener's consciousness, giving an element of unpredictability and anticipation to the three pieces included.

Of course, such an album will not appeal to everyone... it batters the human mind down rather than trying to entice it, and just as swiftly it withdraws into its shell, dark and nebulous... demanding real attention and involvement. However, if you are ready for the journey, if you are entrapped by this bleak and maddened atmosphere, there are few experiences quite as enjoyable and intense. Enjoyment might not be the obvious word for the result of so dark a piece, but it is the only word that really fits.

Lemmings, an apocalyptic psychological and philosophical piece, has the feel of the inevitable. Hammill's vocal creates uncertainty, fear and damning, sometimes mocking, condemnation equally without any restraint, and his 'what course is there left but to die... I really don't know' is indescribable in its emotional grip. A set of brilliantly written lyrics convey a life without real purpose, unable to simply happen, before giving the only answer, the only way to go about life, to live in the hope of 'saving the little ones', to seek the final meaning. Lyrically, it's basically the Still Life album in 10 minutes. The music is equally stunning, with jaunty acoustic parts creating a personal feel. Keyboards, both organ and more effects-based things, take a very prominent role in the more edgy schizophrenic sections, intertwining with savagely distorted saxophone gratings and licks. Guy Evans' percussion additions, leaving a lot of space for the leads, give a continual sense of interest and of the smaller spaces. The ending is derived from a drawn-out bit of negative atmosphere development, which is in itself quite unusual, and suggests a sense of futility and a lack of resolution. Masterful.

Man Erg is a contrast, in some ways, but so similar in others. It is more concerned with a philosophical question of free will, and Hammill's vocal, while no less personal and touching, is more grand and decisive. Lyrically, it is almost without equal ('I too live inside me/And very often don't know who I am/I know... that I'm no hero/Well I hope, that I'm not damned'. The compositional side has been a bit more fully approached, I think, with some very clever echoing of the aa-aa aa-aa aa-aa theme, a moving piano intro, and some of the overdubbing and sheer mass of contents that will characterise the second side. Organ and piano touches and melodies, sometimes attractive, other times utterly visceral, sustain a background, while Jaxon's saxes and flutes add dissonant disconnection and a soaring sense of positivity at separate times. Had I really been told before really listening this piece that a band could convey the uncertainty of free will, and a schizophrenic mind, I would probably have been of the 'pull the other one' persuasion, but Van Der Graaf Generator do manage it. And they manage it brilliantly.

A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers is only lightly describable. This twenty minute suite, with an incredible density of material in some places, but at others stripped down and almost vacant, is daring in both instrumentation and sounds, using effects constantly and effortlessly to give a mystical gravity to the piece. It pulls in and drowns, and drags about the listener, demanding in the snarling voice of Jaxon's sax or Evans' insistent and crashing drumming, before leaving them to float in the ocean of reverent organ thoughts, almost feeling like an intruder in a sacred ceremony. Multi-part melodies and twists alternate with pure instrumental atmosphere, each fulfilling its role and creating alternately intimacy and distance.

Hammill's vocal in itself, lyrics included, deserves a full five-star review. His tones of uncertainty, aggression, demanding, bleakness, loss and demented hope are all so... expressed. Unusual vocal touches are here, choices of where to place the stress, developments in force, a willingness to sound different as the song requires it. The way he sings 'would you cry, if I died?' or 'alone, alone, the ghosts all call... pinpoint me in the light/The only life I feel at all... is the presence of the night' takes is loneliness embodied, the menace in 'no paraffin for the flame/no harbour left... to gain' is palpable. The resignation of 'now I am the stranger I stay in/ah, well' or the hope of 'Oceans drifting sideways/I am pulled into the spell/I feel you around me/I know you well'. The vocals are just so expressive and connective. It is incredible.

Just touching on the musical sections briefly, the opening Eyewitness is one of the finest introductions I've ever heard for a long piece, with bleak lyrics, distant, but distinct (as opposed to blanketing mellotron or organ) keyboard sounds give the isolated feel. SHM is menacing (and a play on HMS, coincidentally), with fierce vocal delivery and a compelling saxophone groove. Presence Of The Night/Kosmos Tours features some of starkest atmosphere, with the modulation of density at its high point and a particularly wowing performance from Hammill. (Custard's) Last Stand took a while to grow on me, but it has done so, with an attractive piano expressing a sort of hopeless dejection. The Clot Thickens likewise was a grower, with Hammill making particularly obvious use of vicious overdubs and a growling backing matching it. Land's End (Sineline)/We Go Now is the cathartic release of the piece, with an incredible solo that sounds like Fripp, but could be Banton, and an uplifting points of light in the ocean of being (to steal part of a phrase from Mr. Gabriel) image. All of the fear, all of the tension, that has been built up to that point, are let out inspirationally.

So... a masterpiece of progressive rock, however reused that phrase is.

Onto the bonus material: Theme One was a band instrumental cover of a piece written by George Martin and features some nice playing, especially from Banton, but doesn't really succeed the album's atmospheres, even if it does rather suitably prepare us for an overall decent set of bonus tracks. W is much more satisfactory, with strong vocals and tinges of psychedelia, even if it's cut off a bit short. The completely chaotic Angle Of Incidents is a delight to the ears every time, with rolling playing from Evans dominating the piece, supplemented by little growls or wisps of music from Jackson and Banton. Ponker's Theme is a more typical and melodic saxophone showcase, though it is enjoyable. Banton's Diminutions is another set of dark textures, this time very keyboard-centric. All in all, a very respectable set of bonuses, and the superb Angle of Incidents would probably justify a purchase of the remaster if you really enjoy the album.

Well, love it or hate it, I can't name an album as purely given to expression as this one, and that alone makes it worthy of the masterpiece title. Adding to that, it contains a lot of very interestingly and neatly incorporated studio-based experimentation, and the all too rare, even in the classic period, complete and unpredictable control of the music's density. A final point for my 'objective' judgment is that Hammill's lyrics and vocals on this particular album are even more superb than his other performances. I'd consider this the finest ever album in that aspect. Thus, I think its status as such a prog landmark is entirely deserved, and even someone who doesn't expect to personally enjoy this sort of album should own it and engage with it. Personally, the album is an incredible experience, with almost physical pull at times. I love every moment of it. Either way, it gets a masterpiece rating from me, even if Van Der Graaf Generator's superb discography offer a couple of albums that are even more enjoyable from a personal viewpoint

Rating: Five Stars Favourite Track: A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers

TGM: Orb | 5/5 |

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