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Peter Hammill - The Future Now CD (album) cover

THE FUTURE NOW

Peter Hammill

 

Eclectic Prog

3.45 | 133 ratings

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TGM: Orb
Prog Reviewer
3 stars The Future Now, Peter Hammill, 1978

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The Future Now is maybe a moment in Peter Hammill's career when that improvisational edge is lost (only for a moment and only in part and only maybe... it's rather that the improvisation is expressed in ways other than the vocals... though vocal material from the same year by him is as out there as anything); every song seems clearly thought out, down to the vocal, down to the guest soloists' tone, and there are no vestiges of the hell-raising Van Der Graaf Generator compositions or the quaintly philosophical acoustic pieces here. Everything is direct. The lyrics, for one, are angry; with critics, musicians, the music business, fans, the world, politicians, apartheid, religion, science and himself. Unremitting, recalcitrant anger underpins a lot of seemingly careless songs and this undercurrent gives a unique edge to the album which makes up for occasionally cheap imagery and much blunter comparisons.

Musically, it's not consistent in quality, neither over the album itself, nor over various listens... one time I'll find myself enraptured in the mocking imagery of something like Energy Vampires, the next I'll wonder why I'm listening to it. I think, most of the time, everything from If I Could onwards is strong to stunning, and that's also where the most bizarre material seems to be concentrated. Hammill's instrumental talents extent to a newly independent bass, guitar (both acoustic and electric) and more extensively orchestrated synthesiser, with a piano thrown in once or twice... I think the drums are programmed rather than played, but they're not especially common anyway. Guest performances from David Jaxon and Graham Smith (especially) offer strong confident contrast to this songwriter's effort, and you have another element of contrast between the two broad categories of song -artistically embellished songs and songfully embellished art tracks. Lastly, a word for the vocals; the new thing about them seems to be both a masterfully captured resigned tone in a few of the songs as well as a much expanded range of mass and harmonised vocals; there's also a general trend of deeper and more real vocals. Less acrobatics and drama, more backbone; it's a trade-off, certainly, and it threw me at first, but once you get into this new voice, it is as beautiful and individual as the old one (and, for the sake of completeness, some live pieces from '78 on the unofficially released Skeletons of Songs bootleg have the best vocals I have ever heard... it's not that he can't pull off those unrestrained dramatic pieces, but rather that he's trying something new for the new studio material).

The near-casual rocker Pushing Thirty fits on a border between smugness and mockery so casually and cleverly that that alone is almost winning. Big thick bass and jagged odd-sounding guitars with a sort of jumpy piano are the focus, while the caricaturing vocal is followed by a strained Jaxon sax sound and a laidback drum part. All in all, clever lyrics and an interesting mood redeem a slightly disappointing opener. And I don't particularly like that sax sound... I really get the sleazy vibe I think it's going for, but that doesn't quite make me like it. The defiance, the fun and the satire all come across superbly, but I don't think it does justice to the album that follows it. As always, with this album, it's an impression over two or three particular listens -on others it's been good, exceptional, flaccid and adequate.

The finger of The Second Hand is now pointed firmly at rock musicians, and with a much better Jaxon performance gracing it, the tone being a little more graceful and with a lot more intricacy and contrast. A drum pattern, basic yet oddly appropriate and occasionally varied, underpins it. The downcast, non-prominent acoustic is supported by a more prioritised bass and some non-commital e-bow or synthesiser work. The instrumentation feels more like a detail than a key element, and other than Jaxon, all the attraction is Hammill's sort of spoken-sung vocal, with a quiet brain-bleeding-out-slowly vibe and alternating neglect and concern. Very hard to express or examine, but when it gets through, it does work its way in. The lyrics are a double-edged sword, with metaphor occasionally falling flat and occasionally augmenting the piece, but other than that slight slip, it isn't a take I've seen elsewhere before and the direct statement is superb. Another piece that isn't really remarkable in its own right, but it's interesting enough not to drag the album down. Note that when I first tried to write the review for this one, I was very complimentary of it -the album has different things for different moods, it just doesn't often all come together at the right time.

Trappings is a marked step-up, in my view, with some incredible shrill, disappearing and distorted mob vocals contrasting a flat and snide basic vocal and its companions, more floral and low, all fitting together into one really unique overall voice. Well, the vocals are one of the real highlights. The lyrics (four legs good, music biz bad) are also a step up, not because the words on paper are of themselves stunning, but because they fit the music and the vocal stylings perfectly... lines like 'he's a prisoner, in a gilded cage' or 'he's a man of the people, as long as the people don't talk back!' work not only because they're basically good, but because they're delivered cohesively and with an entertainment value that doesn't detract from the basic point of the song. And the instrumentation has also pulled together; all the pieces feel like they're needed... the gradually cohering acoustic with a neat melody, the snarling electric (and a great individual tone... yes, Hammill's not the cleanest electric guitarist, but by Over and certainly by The Future Now, he can express himself on electrics better than most), decorative piano, and most of all an immediate and punctuating bass part with a brief solo... it's all one song with a top notch bit of arranging and it succeeds in the way that both the previous two didn't.

And Mousetrap (Caught In) doesn't let up on this; if anything, it's even better arranged, with that gorgeously ethereal operatic-sounding synth, a very clean piano base with perfectly measured lines, ghostly echo coming off it, and a stronger ARP that contrasts and compliments those piano melodies. And the lyrics, now introspective, are Hammill in his element. Emotional, direct and individual (admittedly, 'all the world's a stage' is not new -but there's certainly a direct meaning and interpretation of that which another song using that idea hasn't quite got. 'Every time... that I go to turn the pages of the calendar, I can see that I'm not really going anywhere.' That hits home (even if I'm still young enough not to deserve the right to think that yet). The vocals are just perfect here... clean, with a mood developing through the song, and achieving an emotionally overwrought state through very neat vibrato, attention to detail and a strong melody... the live recordings I've heard are darker, more aggressive and barer, and both angles fit the content and the idea so strongly that it's difficult to choose between them. This might catch it, if only for the tasteful synthesiser. From strength to strength.

Energy Vampires was something I loathed at first. Weird sounds, all over the place, comic vocal parts, ridiculous lyrics ('excuse me while I suck your blood, excuse me when I phone you, I got every one of your records, man, doesn't that mean that I own you?' -I mean, I kind of like the overall sound, but the content is both serious and ludicrous at the same time and it initially makes for very odd listening'). However, I've gotten over that, and the main riff, acoustic with a reverb detailed echoey contrast floating into a thudding bass is just fantastic. The song also includes an astounding high-pace performance with some incredible yodelling solos from Graham Smith (who coined the title, coincidentally), who contributes some amazingly beautiful, haunting sounds in an incredibly versatile moment in the middle of the song and also a substantiation of the basic theme with a thicker violin sound. Musically, one of my favourite pieces on the album. Lyrically, I've now got to the point of happily ignoring most of it. Vocally, again, very good, with more of the mass vocals and one astoundingly vulnerable lonely outcry contrasts all the previous mockery and multiple-part deadpan delivery. Coincidentally¸ this song's bass work appears to me sort of as a forerunner for later bass-heavy songs like Last Frame, and yet I have altogether no idea what to make of it. The violin performance is killer, though, and any fan of progressive violin work would be crazy to miss this one.

If I Could is one of those songs that stands out for its sincerity as much as its content; the simple plea and explanation is its own declaration, and though everything else is wonderful, it's this idea that carries it. A gorgeous, sliding Graham Smith violin adds exoticism and bearing to a wonderful-sounding acoustic part (the production as much as the part is very enjoyable). Another clean vocal and another set of mass choral harmonies, this time mostly in a low to mid register, making the higher vocal harmonies and the incredible sustained notes at the end even more intense... various live attempts to substitute for that harmonic attack are always interesting, but can't quite match the way the original just works. One of those songs I can't really judge or criticise, and I wouldn't want to, even if I could.

The Future Now is the second absolutely solo piece, a riveting anthem with a majestic guitar over a dignified piano (at one point it feels like it's taking the sort of role you'd expect from Tubular Bells), clustered synths offering a sort of hymnal significance to a roaring protest song. An incredibly pretty piano and an incredibly edgy guitar come together to make a dark interlude, a screaming, stabbing guitar and bass emphasise the vocal break, gorgeous choral vocal harmonies back significant parts of the song. I mean, Hammill himself has said that this is the sort of sound he was aiming for and even if it takes a while to sink in, this is not a cheap pop song, it is serious business and when it sinks in it is just about perfect. And that's just the music and production: the vocals, equally grand, but with a hint of underlying darkness, roaring and confident and intense, no holds barred, hitting indignance and aspiration with no excess or embellishment. It's exact but has a spontaneous edge and it works perfectly. And the lyrics: 'O blind, blinded, blinding hatred of sex, race, religion, colour, country and creed They scream from the pages of everything I read You just bring me oppression and torture, apartheid, corruption and plague You just bring me the rape of the planet and joke world rights at the Hague' I mean, how many 'prog' songs are this direct, meaningful and real? For all the pretension Hammill's poetry is occasionally accused of, it's hard to argue that he didn't have ideas. All in all, The Future Now is a song I completely didn't musically understand at first (though the solid version with The K Group on The Margin was much easier to appreciate) but with a little thought and time to adjust I've grown to appreciate its power. Great electrics, coincidentally.

Still In The Dark is perhaps par for the course, nothing awkward or abject, but really, other than the insightful and individual lyric and an expressive vocal, it doesn't excel. A piano song, the piano filling the breaks in the voice as much as the reverse. Additional e-bow and synthesiser offer an instrumental and sonic originality to a piece that is compositionally accomplished but not compositionally thrilling. The message:

And if that fairly conventional number seems at the time of its arrival as a sort of representation of the things the second side is going for, this is turned on its head as dramatically as possible. Mediaevil cuts in, with the angry choirboy's revenge (not my phrase *click. Click. Click... the sound of the search function*... thanks to Refugee for that one). The mass harmonies are now shrill, mocking, and sarcastically Gregorian (well, perhaps not exactly but it captures that mood), encircling a lone, bitter and stabbing lead vocal. The lyrics take a surprising double twist from a very sharp, if rather normal (compared to things like Still Life or Gog) mockery of organised religion and embezzlement with a medieval backdrop and texture, and then it moves on bitingly to the media with the same destructive glare: technology glorified, sex devalued, individuality still suppressed by mass deception, nuclear weapons prolific... the message, that we need to wake up and do something about it is powerful and direct, and there is a real originality to the comparison (well, perhaps the comparison is not entirely new... and I've seen and read similar things; but I haven't heard that sort of comparison conveyed as a lyric... it's just not done) and the musical style (it's mock-medieval, but with as unmedieval a lead vocal as you can get and some brilliantly warped harmony choruses). A real message, managed intelligently, enjoyably and artistically: is there anything else a song needs to do?

And those who are strange Are still locked in asylums And a sterile pope proscribes the pill And those who are rich Are still getting richer And those who are poor still foot the bill

(lyrics moment here... seems true as ever today)

A Motor-Bike In Africa is even stranger. A rhythmic mess, with a roaring motorbike doubling as thick layers of tribal percussion (such a clever rhythm), an increasing layering of twisted production, percussion, vocals and harmony vocals under a low and menacing lead voice. Again, meaningful lyrics: just because you're messing around with sound, you don't need to sing about Sun Gods to make it work... this time attacking apartheid and colonialism. Another aspect of Hammill's originality... like the later work of Peter Gabriel, though even more eclectically, he's able to move into relatively type-cast genres in a fashion other artists wouldn't think of... move to World Prog?

The Cut is a song that is nothing like a song. I don't think I've got much more to say. There's a melody underlying the vocals, which are intentionally disinterested. There's an acoustic part, guitar 'soloing' (really, it's working with the sounds guitars can produce. On the other hand, the melodies cut off and jump around unexpectedly, the sounds vary maddeningly and a conclusion meets with a completely noise-based reopening that seems somehow to continue the song. Truly crazy but it does work brilliantly before it segues into Palinurus, creating a sort of weird kinship between the two.

Palinurus is another song that does manage to resemble a song most of the time. A sonic whirr is met by a longing harmonica (also Hammill, and perfect for its content) and a smooth piano melody with matching accents and counterpointing synth whirrs. The vocal and the lyrics, despite the reference to the Aeneid (overrated commercial dross; the synth-pop of the Augustus' time), are some of the most passionate and disarming on the album, with a full demonstration of Hammill's range. The essential four components of the song: synth, piano, harmonica, voice fit together so well and neatly that at the first listen you almost don't notice it. Another triumph, and a great note to end on.

Completely solo takes of If I Could and The Mousetrap (Caught In) from the Skeletons of Songs bootleg more than match up to the studio material (I think they, though different from the studio material, benefit more by not needing comparison with it), with an incredible passion in the vocals, some of Hammill's unique grating growl and strong, clear vibrato. The stripped back versions also really display of just how pretty those acoustic and piano parts are and the basic strength of the lyrics sung. These stripped down versions reveal a lot about the songs and offer an emotion and vocal variety that is simply astonishing. A real bonus addition, though slightly incongruous with the end of the album proper.

Obviously, I speak from the point of view of an enthusiast. I've got about twenty of his albums (including live ones), I've heard bootleg and live material, I'm kicking myself for missing the VDGG tour early this year. Consequently, it's somewhat difficult for me to say how essential a disc like this is... people who aren't fans of the earlier and more accessibly extreme solo efforts possibly won't understand this, and even I don't particularly like the first two tracks. A strong solo effort that is a worthwhile purchase for any serious progressive rock fan (how many good, well-known and clearly progressive albums are kicking around in '78 anyway?) and one of the more obvious directions for the Hammill fan to branch out in. Two top notch violin performances add another area of specialist interest, as does the use of production as a real tool in its own right. Rating is consequently a bit of a problem: I'm offering a complimentary three star in the same way as I did to the excellent Nadir's Big Chance -I might enjoy these two more than a number of acknowledged classics which I've possibly rated higher, but the appeal is maybe not one for the site in general and there are some weaknesses on both which are just about enough to bring the albums down a notch.

I stress again, despite a 'low' rating, this is thoroughly worth getting.

Favourite Track: ask me four weeks ago and I'd have had a decisive candidate on any given listen... now, say, maybe The Future Now, If I Could or The Mousetrap (Caught In). It's just not one of those albums with just one song I think 'this is it!' to... there are four or five with very different merits, and choosing one isn't something I'd do. A nod to the Skeletons of Songs take of Mousetrap as well... just incredible.

Rating: three stars on the 'hesitate downwards' rule... four for the general Hammill fan and me personally. Would probably have been four if I didn't want to recommend another fifteen Hammill albums highly as well, so some sort of discrimination is probably worth trying. An 11/15 seems about right.

TGM: Orb | 3/5 |

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