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Peter Hammill - In Camera CD (album) cover


Peter Hammill


Eclectic Prog

4.14 | 452 ratings

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TGM: Orb
Prog Reviewer
5 stars Peter Hammill's solo career takes a new twist with every album, and I've yet to hear anything of a standard which isn't at least good. However, for the more general progressive rock fans, the gold is his 73-4 output, three absolute masterpieces. In Camera is certainly the most diverse of these, with everything from idiosyncratic ballads to the hellish progressive rock masterpieces of Gog and (No More) The Submariner to a piece of daring musique concrete, all complemented with some of the finest lyrics out there. While a general description doesn't do it justice, the big developments from the previous album come in the density of synthesizer and guitar overdubs, representing, for the first time, an entire album of really full and fleshed out solo compositions from Hammill, and his ever-present sense of melody is out in force.

The range of material and its new depth and complexity, however, isn't the only thing to admire. Every piece here is effortlessly experimental, and simply doesn't really relate to anything else, and they come together to produce an album that, if a little disorienting, is nonetheless surprisingly cohesive mainly because of this attitude. Lastly, and it needs to be mentioned, Hammill's voice is  really at its peak in this sort of general time frame, and here every vocal (well, except Magog, but that's completely something else) is both dazzingly beautiful and intelligently thought out, particularly (No More) The Submariner comes off as one of his best. So, essentially essential: maybe the album to try if you want a real Peter Hammill solo album that isn't singer-songwriter based or, largely, in the style of Van Der Graaf Generator (though, to be fair, Guy Evans has the performance of his career on this one). And, in addition to all the experimental, intellectual and diversity-based respect this one gets from me, it's also simply a great album without one fragile song.

The curious and affectionate Ferret And Featherbird emerges from a slowly converging mesh of acoustic and twelve-string guitars and a tenderly wandering piano, while the tender electric thrums off some inquisitive calls. The hauntingly beautiful two-part vocal, with its expansive and yet very immediate lines, tells the story of two lovers becoming parted and then reconciled by the distance between them, to the picaresque backdrop or idea of these two playful, affectionate creatures  discovering about themselves through their tentative interactions with the other. A very sweet-natured and disarming piece, as charming as it is accomplished. For the sake of completeness, probably worth mentioning this one was originally one of the highlights of VDGG's The Aerosol Grey Machine, but the reworking here is very different and, also somewhat better.

(No More) The Submariner is completely different. No more charm, not even an effort to bring the listener on side, just a man singing his soul out, tearing mockingly into his childhood dreams and his current existence, backed by tearing, menacing synth lines, which swirl headily around with every change of mood, and incisive bass and piano parts rumbling beneath this near-primordial synthesised void. The stern confidence in the composition and the performance is reflected by Hammill's vocal control, he is immediately comfortable with both the superbly produced watery effect on his voice and his natural vocals, and filling these up with idyllic choral overdubs. No less solid is his control of the mood, he can put uncertainty into as little as a single word ('fireglow') even with that menacing effect on his voice, and the darker range of moods, fear, resentment, mockery and self-pity, are interspersed with moments of hope, of regret and introspection, and the slowly ascending choral section is strikingly well-arranged, with its shimmering mist of voices reflecting the internal voices of youth driving onto the largely concealed personality of adulthood. Rightly regarded as one of Hammill's finest hours, and a seminal progressive rock track, both for what it was pioneering and its overwhelming quality.

The thundering rocker, Tapeworm, rollicks magnificently with the elephantine Guy Evans throwing in overspilling fills to the thumping piano riff and some whirling, at­-the-man guitar and bass. An acapella-styled break in the middle features some of the distinctly musical humour Hammill was capable of in the midst of all that wordiness, and also how sophisticated his compositions were becoming.  I mean, this break, the fills, the number of different guitar ideas and the cohesion of the whole piece... it's a four and a half minute piece that feels like a ten minute one (only at the time of writing have I taken a look at the running lengths - I swear I thought this piece was 7 or 8 minutes long) - really, really rich content, and despite the slightly self-parodic (though certainly meaningful) lyrics, the lines Hammill comes up with here are absolutely astounding and the rhyme scheme is equally madly inspired, 'Feed me honey and watch me rise, to the bait lying on your knife/If you let me I can hypnotise your life!' Took me a while to really appreciate just how good this one is, but now, I think it's a classic.

Again, later reworked by the K Group for a superb group number, is a somewhat 'simple' ballad, based around a simple, mournful acoustic or electro-acoustic, empowered with a subtle reverb, and supplemented by a mournful bass part and a crisp, almost Elisabethan (in feel) piano part, albeit with some very unconventional and understated composition in the mid-section. Hammill's vocal again shines, rich, creative, fluent and positively gorgeous, and his lyrics are equally touching and, while they never lose touch with their basic emotional idea, this is lost love song which creates clichés rather than using them, and without a wasted word, 'I see your picture, as though it were a mirror, but there's no part of you outside the frame'. And, what's more, it features a menacing electronic conclusion, with the sort of feel of wiping out memories - maybe tearing them out. Pretty unique, non?

Faint-heart and the Sermon is an interesting one. I have to admit, at first listen, I didn't like it all too much, I didn't understand what it was trying to achieve, and it seemed almost out of place (more like an archetypal prog-rock song) on an album of such obviously individual pieces. However, now I get what he's doing, it's just as amazing as the rest of album's songs. First off, that synthesised cello, or bass pretending to be cello is pretty astoundingly neat, and the rest of the largely synthesised instrumentation is very well thought out and interesting. Second, the vocal tracking-the-instruments, the overwhelming, overspilling lines and shimmering mellotron crests are again in the psychology-reflects-music style which Van Der Graaf Generator would later become even more sophisticated in pulling off, the feeling of being trapped in a wave of religious euphoria and yet not quite agreeing with or understanding it, of replying in one's own voice to this universal voice. And besides, everyone loves the mellotron. Well, except Harry, but everyone loves the mellotron. Yes, I've completely changed my view on this one, and though it's probably still my least favourite number on the album, it's very memorable, the vocal lines and vocals are great, the instrumentation is very interesting and it's still something I really look forwards to whenever the album goes in for a listen.

Now, here's something you don't see a lot of in prog. A guitar quartet (bass, acoustic, twelve-string, electric). The Comet, The Course, The Tail supplements this rather unusual set of instrumentation with a suitably intelligent and interesting philosophical metaphor. Again, there are some masterful vocal self-harmonies, which do nothing to obscure the basic strength of the individual vocals - exploring both Hammill's gorgeous clean vocals and his more eclectic stylings. The melodies are extremely memorable, and the thick bass part, admittedly somewhat styled on Modern from his previous album, is particularly satisfying. A very hard one to pin down, with the tails of the various parts weaving together and floating apart effortlessly, and, though not on the original vinyl, I guess, its somewhat self-propelled, but nonetheless dejected conclusion offers a rather interesting starting point for the visceral Gog.

Gog is not just dark, it is terrifying. The breathing, suffocating menace of the harmonium, Guy Evans' tribal, savage, untraceable drumming, thundering cymbals, primal rhythms and unstable crescendos, Hammill's spiteful, arrogant and hateful vocal, filled with disdain, mockery and violence spitting out the most hideously, overwhelmingly single-minded set of words - the scripture-like statements and spitting phrases, 'my soul is cast in crystal but unrevealed beneath the knife, all wells are dry, all bread is masked in fungus, and now disease is rife - WILL YOU NOT RUN FROM THESE and LOVE [b]ME[/b] FOR ONE MORE LIFE' in a stream of increasingly irregular and vicious vocal phrases. The instrumental break gives no relief, plunging the listener even further into this place of fire and all-surrounding harmonium and the humming chaos of the bass. And out of the end of this corridor of flame, this first ring of agony, is only desolation, emptiness and suffering. Magog is almost empty, excepting the demented chants and the scurrying fear of various percussion lines and a tortured cello, leading off one after the other into a distant nothingness, occasionally mingling and coalescing and then fading back into the background of scattered ash. No uplifting melody, not even a sign of hope, nothing except the bleak collection of fear, and concealed behind that, more fear. Truly unique.

The last two 'numbers', comprising about half the album, obviously hit very hard emotionally¸ and maybe in a way some people won't enjoy/appreciate. Despite this almost physical impact, the intellectual impression of those two pieces isn't lessened, the very idea of a God who simply doesn't care, the ever-so-precise descent into increasingly fluid and deliberately unrestrained vocal lines is something to behold, and, simply put, it doesn't sound like anything else out there. The lyric, here, is resistant to dissection and yet each individual phrase adds something, and builds on the impression of singularity, disdain and universality - a god that doesn't provide security, a god that doesn't care about your attitude to him, a god without anything except a bemused disdain for humankind. The connections between the various verses and lines are so many as to make them inseparable, and the dense fog of imagery never hinders the sense of movement, of tense, clustering fear. One of the most accomplished lyrics of all time - I wish I could write like this.

And the bonus material, if anything, is even better. Three live (BBC session) takes of (No More) The Submariner, The Emperor In His War Room and The Faint Heart And The Sermon, all produced very strongly and bringing out the real strengths of those songs, as well as showing that, even without the studio jiggery-pokery, Hammill could still pull off or effectively word around some of those out-there effects covering his ever-amazing voice.

Yes, there's no way I can give this one less than a five star rating, it resonates, it goes through to the soul, and it's fervently daring at a time when the creative verve of a lot of the main progressive rock acts was beginning to dry up. Not only a five star album, but a perfect 15/15 for me (my reasoning was: can I think of half a dozen albums I clearly prefer to this one? Nope. Can I pick out a weak track? Nope. Does the album work well as a whole? Yes. Is it something unique? Yes. That's a sneak peek into the criteria.)

Rating: 15/15, absolute masterpiece, possibly best by artist and an obvious 5 stars. Favourite Track: Gog, by a hair

TGM: Orb | 5/5 |


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