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Peter Hammill - And Close As This CD (album) cover


Peter Hammill


Eclectic Prog

3.54 | 131 ratings

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TGM: Orb
Prog Reviewer
3 stars And Close As This, Peter Hammill, 1986


Hammill's solo career is a minefield; not that it's inconsistent in quality - at least, from the twenty-five or so discs I've got, I wouldn't consider any album bad, just that the range of styles is wide enough that, for any album after Nadir's Big Chance, you need to be ready to enjoy it for what it is, not for how it compares to The Silent Corner... or Godbluff. This particular gem, 1986's And Close As This is almost as close as Hammill gets to 'true solo' efforts - all songs created by one vocal take and one keyboard take - with the assistance only of Paul Ridout in synthesiser preparation, and it's both accessible and experimental. All the songs are, essentially, keys and voice; however, the single unedited takes of all the various songs are modified with pre-prepared sequencing. So, essentially, we have single-performance takes and more direct songwriting, which is, from Hammill, usually excellent. So, that's the concept of the album, now: how well does it work?

Well, a number of the songs, particularly the straight piano-and-voice Too Many Of My Yesterdays, as well as Empire Of Delight and Other Old Clichés turn out very well, and we do get some of Hammill's best clean vocals to make up for the lack of thick self-harmonising we're accustomed to from Hammill. On the other hand, this concept is used more to create perfumed piano pieces, to accent and augment basic tunes, only on Confidence is really going out to create a complete multi-instrument piece. However, all in all, And Close As This is an excellent album, and both an interesting and novel experiment and a set of mostly good songs, a worthwhile purchase for any listener, though admittedly those accustomed to Hammill's writing for keyboards and vocal stylings will perhaps get a bit more out of it; just a bit of trivia, Empire of Delight, one of the album's highlights, is a collaboration with Keith Emerson (who contributed the music), and so might be of interest to the more diehard ELP fans for that alone, much as it's really not in the style you'd anticipate.

The album opens with its hardest-hitting song, the piano-and-voice Too Many Of My Yesterdays. An arresting main theme, fluent decoration, daringly bare and jarring breaks, all underpinning a lush vocal, with subtle trembling embellishments, a developed voice as the song moves on and astounding guttural-ethereal dynamics. But this fantastic performance and composition is only half of the song's impact: the lyrics are well-written, striking and more importantly, they connect directly to a situation in my life - not wanting an old relationship to resurface... putting it to a final end.

I shelved my broken heart I put you from my mind I got up from my knees I picked up all the pieces But seeing you again Puts shakes into my soul Just when I think I'm finally over you Don't come and show me that's not true.

Heavy stuff, and, if Van Der Graaf Generator's philosophical poetry comes across as pretentious to you, I guess that solo songs like this one might connect with you more.

Faith is the first of the album's 'prepared' pieces, relying primarily on a sort of softened and slightly lighter piano voice to offer an appropriate voice for the soft positivity of the song as a whole (as mentioned in the liner notes, this is a rare affirmation of love from Hammill). An understated instrumental break offers us the first real fruits of the album's experimentation in the form of echoing flute or reed organish voices, and the introduction of a more acoustic-guitar or orchestral percussion vibes in some of the decorative 'piano' embellishments, as well as supporting sustained strings. After a little initial indecision and a couple of mild vocal twists that either don't really come off or don't feel very well-aimed, the additional voices and an increasingly beautiful vocal turn this into a sort of sweet one-man chamber piece. The lyrics again, are straight experience stuff, but while the insidious doubts of this supposed relationship of trust are brought to the surface quite interestingly, Hammill doesn't really manage to put his own stamp on the idea as he'd earlier done in Ferret And Featherbird or Child. Still, a nice song, and one that introduces the album's key idea very well, but this probably isn't the one you'll find yourself coming back to time and again.

Empire Of Delight, as mentioned previously, a collaboration between Emerson and Hammill, is a must-hear, and perhaps represents the most successful marriage of this innovation and a direct song performance. A spectral love story, explained by an incredible tentative/confident vocal, with a superb, slowly bringing out the haunting emotional power of this idea with, again, a real individual voice and development of mood. The soft surrealism of the setting is brought out by the very well-developed tune and a sort of soft acoustic-guitar-like voice for the piano's chords contrasted by its much more certain individual notes and some brooding organ as it reaches its peak at the speaker's disappearance. The lyrics are again a highlight, and all-in-all, this is a beautiful and fascinating understated piece.

Silver offers a more obvious use of the prepared sequences in a slightly longer centre-piece (and I'm pretty sure there's an effect on the voice); again, there's a piano at the base of it, but the rapacious lead is snatched by organ and hybrid voices, spiralling runs by this voice and the piano with its interesting conflicting voices merging into complimentary ones, assisted by a sort of cash-register percussive trill and some oddball synths. Silver is a continually active and challenging piece, both in its interweaving keyboard part and the dynamic, dramatic and mocking vocal with both aggressive highs and guttural lows (the majestic 'Argenteeee! Argent!' is a particular high. The lyrics are again direct, and consequently they don't really benefit from the crude references, but they fit the piece and the message is convincing: that unbridled robber baron greed is not the way forwards (at the time of writing, I've just read of fraudster Bernie Madoff's 150 year sentence - now, both the sentence and the crime seem ridiculous to me: no amount of money is worth 150 years).

Beside The One You Love is the second piano song, and also the second affirmational love song, of the album, and it proves a fairly attractive number on both counts. A sort of lullaby melody, a pleasantly drifting-away vocal, again showing the incredible beauty and power of Hammill's voice, even when he's not pushing it to its dramatic limits. Creeping piano flourishes add a pretty distraction to the entirely winning lyrical picture, this time with the individuality of Hammill's writing and perspective truly surfacing and at least my memory connects with it entirely. A gem.

Other Old Clichés is the second destructive love song, compiled, as you might well guess, of self-mocking assembly of inappropriate idioms and hollow phrases. The embellishments to the bitter, masochistic piano melody are rare, but inspired, and the sheer amount of ideas Hammill can convey with the mere way he sings a word is, as always, jaw-dropping. The deep anger and passion of the song suit his voice perfectly, and again, a human lyric prompts human emotions. On the arrangement side, dark strings are the most common alternative to the piano melodies, but towards the end a strange whistling synthesiser and a humming conclusion effectively add variety. Again, striking.

However, great though all these perfumed piano numbers are, the real fulfilment of the album's concept comes through the Faculty X styled epic of Confidence. Shiny synthesiser lines all over the place, much more strength given to the non-piano lines (though a sort of bouncy not-quite-piano sound is quite prominent), and we get some much more complex (at least in conception) multi-part melodies, with various synth sounds bouncing off an odd glockenspielalike sound. Later on, we even get some 'drums'. The vocals are, as on Silver, much more rough and attacking, though this time a selective echo effect is use, with extended notes and a development from a sort of mock pride to the uncertain fear and hope of the final 'we are not alone'. Lyrically, as well as compositionally, it's a daring effort, and comes off very well, with a mock-comic (in and of itself, an accomplishment) denouement a little reminiscent of Tapeworm, some punning to reinforce the general opinion of 'Confidence' as something of a fraud, and a final verse so perfectly uncertain in its character. Though I prefer other pieces from the album, this one is the example of what the mixture of preparatory sequencing and direct performance could achieve, and it's extremely successful in that respect.

Sleep Now, an endearing profession of paternal love, is opened with a gorgeous synthesiser background over which the ethereal lullaby piano and a beautiful, sentimental vocal. Some more sustained string-based backgrounds and some sort of twinkling piano-replacement synthesiser. The humanity of the lyrics again is a strength, and this soft, touching conclusion is a perfect contrast to the soul-stabbing opening and a gentle release from an intelligent and understated album. Just for the sake of completeness, an excerpt of the lyrics, and one of my favourite Hammill lines: 'Sleep now, one day I'll tell you how my life has been O so strange now, to think your eyes will fall on things that mine have never seen these eyes that gently flicker in some lost childhood dream'

And Close As This remains one of Peter Hammill's most interesting, mind-expanding efforts, with a unique concept, variety and exceptional songwriting all carried off with capable playing and a set of vocals that, as much as any of his acknowledged classics, show the sheer captivating power and the range of ideas and moods he can convey with his voice: this is, make no mistake, one of the best albums in the respect of vocals ever, with a very consistent approach both to using dynamics and creating real voices for the individual songs, developing ideas and not losing touch with the essence of the song. A challenging album to put into words, and challenging, even if at first it might not appear so, to appreciate as fully as I now can. The two lesser tracks, though neither of them terrible, Silver and Faith, keep this one from the fifth star, but, nevertheless, the remnant make And Close As This an interesting addition to any decent music collection.

Rating: Four Stars. 12/15. Favourite Track: Too Many Of My Yesterdays or Empire Of Delight, depending on mood.

Edit: dropped to three because I'm trying some slightly harsher ratings... still, a very good album... figured that maybe it was stuck on specialist appeal and there are some songs which, although nice, don't really compare to the gems, and that maybe didn't come across in the review or the original ratings.

TGM: Orb | 3/5 |


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