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Peter Hammill - The Storm  (Before The Calm) CD (album) cover

THE STORM (BEFORE THE CALM)

Peter Hammill

 

Eclectic Prog

3.29 | 12 ratings

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Neu!mann
Prog Reviewer
3 stars It's hard to explain the enduring appeal of Peter Hammill's music, but maybe it has some connection to the fact that his career has always run on a parallel track somewhere removed from the main sequence of Progressive Rock fashions. At a time when musicians were renowned for their virtuoso chops, Hammill was the notable exception. He was hardly an Emerson or Wakeman on the piano, and to his credit never aspired to such. He couldn't play electric guitar (actually he played it a lot, but by his own admission loudly rather than well). And when he performed his own drumming on some of his solo albums the results had to be camouflaged behind a polite veil of studio cosmetics.

Which may be why, unlike many of his Prog contemporaries, he was so little affected by the Punk Rock revolution (foretold, by the way, in the old VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR song "Scorched Earth"?). Hammill was never a rock star; he was a singer/songwriter, plain and simple. In other circumstances he might even have been a great folk singer, if there hadn't always been a dark and complicated corner of his psyche needing constant attention.

The darkness may have mellowed over the years, but there will always be a shade of punk to his poetry. And in typically long-winded fashion that leads me to this compilation CD, one of a series released in the early 1990s by Virgin-Universal for various groups ranging from Lindisfarne to Captain Beefheart to Devo. VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR earned one (the excellent "I Prophesy Disaster"), but it required two separate discs and 35 total tracks to even hint at the breadth and scope of Hammill's solo career.

The complimentary twin disc idea is attractive: this one, as suggested by its title, concentrates on his louder, guitar-driven workouts, while the companion volume "The Calm (After the Storm)" focuses on his quieter, more reflective efforts. Both cover what would now have to be called his early period (although a lot of it still seems fresh to my memory) from 1970 through 1986, a span of 16 years during which he released 15 (count 'em) studio albums-not to mention the entire VDGG discography.

That's a lot of territory, but this half of the collection is a bit lopsided. Out of a generous total of 17 tracks here, 10 are taken from only three albums: "Nadir's Big Chance" (of course), "Sitting Targets", and "Skin", one of the under-achievements of Hammill's 1980s catalogue. You can expect some gaping holes in the chronology: where, for example, is the song "Modern", from "The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage"? Or the lively "Mr. X. / Faculty X" medley from "PH7"?

I suspect any dedicated fan (and there's no such thing as a merely casual Peter Hammill fan) could easily compile their own version of this CD, with better results. But it's nice to hear so many of his foot-stompers gathered together under the same umbrella, and despite the entirely random organization the songs flow well from one track to the next.

But the highlight of the collection is Hammill's own notes in the CD booklet, briefly introducing each selection. Not unlike his lyrics, the writing shines with unsentimental self-analysis and sometimes wry, deprecating humor ("what a silly song", he says about "Birthday Special", off the "Nadir" album). There's also more than one verbal snapshot of the creative process in action: he claims you can hear him re-tuning his electric guitar, in mid-solo (!), during the song "Lost and Found", and tells how the tape experiment "Energy Vampires" was recorded in midwinter in an unheated rented house, with the singer wearing as many sweaters as his bony frame would support...hardly your typical high-flying rock 'n' roll studio session.

Of course, he can crank up the Stratocaster all he wants, but as any real Peter Hammill connoisseur will tell you it's the man's voice alone that makes (or calms) the musical storm. Was it his pal Bob Fripp who compared Hammill's singing to Hendrix playing guitar? Pete and Jimi; now that would have been a duet to remember.

Neu!mann | 3/5 |

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