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Van Der Graaf Generator - H To He, Who Am The Only One CD (album) cover


Van Der Graaf Generator


Eclectic Prog

4.32 | 1754 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
5 stars He's colourless, odourless, tasteless and non-toxic, but still a gas

Of all the genre heavyweights, it is perhaps VDGG who are paradoxically the worst fit for these emperors second-hand clothes as they usually inhabit a world far removed from the cramped cosmos of progdom. Are there any bands equally revered by such strange bedfellows as John Lydon, Siouxsie Sioux and Julian Cope? (Answers on a metal postcard please)

There exist on this site numerous entreaties to caution with regards paddling in the shark infested waters of Hamill & Co as if the phenomenon were something of an acquired taste for the tyro prog connoisseur. As well intentioned as such dire warnings are, they do unfortunately completely miss the mark as haplessly as that of a lifeguard who mistakes a floaty for a man-eater i.e. VDGG are NOT a progressive rock band at all and but we do stubbornly persist in measuring high performance motor vehicles in terms of horse power?.

To wit, the ensemble's output has been wedged with acquisitive ceremony into a crown that resembles a rather figure hugging piece of headgear. I am sure that Peter Hammill would be flattered to be considered in the same breathless reverence as that of Yes, ELP, Genesis, Gentle Giant et al while silently recoiling from the latent threat of 'guilt by association' manifest by the worst excesses of his peer group(s) L.A.M.F.

However, H to He Who Am the Only One represents at least two landmarks for prog i.e probably the wankiest album title EVER in a field brimming with stiff and eager competition together with the most overtly 'proggy' and accessible album the combo ever released and maybe the only one that wears such credentials without any hint of self consciousness on its gatefold sleeve.

The 'oblivion express with connecting flights to outer obscurity' as represented by the sublimely bizarre Pawn Hearts is only tenuously prefaced here, as VDGG had good cause to dilute the 'beta' version toxicity of the latter and instead, exploit more traditional structure, harmony and form. That is not to say they have sold out Man, or compromised their artistic vision, after all the poison bottle can't hurt you, it's the contents that do the dirty work.

Killer has one of those enduring riffs that hoist the song up to the rarefied heights of a 21st Century Schizoid Man or Roundabout but there the resemblance ends, as Hammill runs a much tighter ship than Fripp or Anderson and routinely punishes conformist curs with a swift walk along the gangplank. Perhaps it's the gentlemen of the 'pressgang' who are most guilty of recruiting such unwilling conscripts?. Prog Rock and VDGG part company the moment Hammill opens his mouth:

- So you live at the bottom of the sea and you kill all who come near you but you are very lonely, because all the other fish fear you .....And you crave companionship and someone to call your own; because for the whole of your life you've been living alone. -

Peter embodies a vocal personality and range that is utterly unique and were it nor for his admirable discipline and restraint, just might threaten to overpower most of the musical works to which he contributes (see Arrow). He is also an unswerving adherent to the rule of 'only write about what you know' in this case, himself and is all too aware of the charges of self-indulgence that such a path will invariably attract from unwittingly ironic critics. As deeply unpleasant and repellent as the creature is that inhabits Killer, I suspect it is really addressed to a dark and malevolent self burrowed very deep within the Hammill critter himself. Bury your treasure deep, and your refuse, deeper. BTW There is a short chordal passage that appears a couple of times before the end that naggingly recalls a Stranglers song (Something Better Change?)

A similar unpalatable depiction of the author is explored in A House with No Door, where Hammill embellishes the building analogy with the merciless eye of a self absorbed and neglectful caretaker:

- There's a house with no bell, but then nobody calls. I sometimes find it hard to tell if any are alive at all outside. There's a house with no sound; yes, it's quiet there ...there's not much point in words if there's no-one to share in time There's a house with no door and there's no living there, one day it became a wall ... well I didn't really care at the time. There's a house with no light, all the windows are sealed, overtaxed and strained now nothing is revealed but time I don't know you, you say you know me, that may be so, there's so much that I am unsure of ... You call my name, but it sounds unreal, I forget how I feel, my body's rejecting the cure .....Won't somebody help me ......? -

There can't be many better expressions of a terrifying isolation and loneliness in the entire spectrum of rock. The music here is a piano fuelled ballad both wistfully light and poignantly dark that somehow never once strays into the sentimental snare lying patiently in wait for those considerably less sure footed than Hammill and his collaborators. I also detect the calling card of some of the existentialist thinkers here e.g. Camus and Sartre who share Hammill's disavowal of any spiritual consolations for we humanoids.

If VDGG were ever invited to appear on a King Crimson tribute album they could, in a gesture which bespokes more sincerity than their hosts, offer up an original i.e. The Emperor in His War Room, which acknowledges a large debt to the spirit of early Fripp & Co with its hippy gothic facade and melodramatic lyrics that must have brought a pang of envy to Pete Sinfield. Yes, it's a tad cheesy and juvenile in places but music this stirring and dynamic wedded to Hammill's inimitable tonsilry makes it probably my favourite VDGG track ever. Blimey Guvnor !, are the darting black liquorice tongued guitar phrases towards the end those of the grounded Red Baron Fripp himself? (They are)

Despite my unease about some of the martial lyrical conceits, the following just blows Sinfield out of the paddling pool:

- Ghosts betray you, ghosts betray you, in the night they steal your eye from its socket ...and the ball hangs fallen on your cheek -

This (unnamed) tyrant/despot is haunted and ultimately suffers from the guilt that goes hand in hand with biting same.

If lovesongs are ten a penny in popular music you ain't gonna get much change out of Lost. At just over eleven minutes we have here one of the very few songs of any genre which does justice to the ineffable vagaries of the human heart. During its convoluted and tangential pathways, Hammill vocalises both the exaltation of the lover and its harrowing corollary, the unrequited adoration of the beloved. There is, like so much of Peter's art, a confrontational and implacable sense of frustration imbued in this music that leaves its indelible mark on the receptive listener, so beware serial love rats, this is not a track you will ever get laid to:

- It was far too late to contemplate the meaning of it all, You know that I need you, but somehow I don't think you see my love at all Looking out through the tears that bind me my heart bleeds that you may find me .. or at least that I can forget and be numb, but I can't stop, the words still come, I love you -

Should you think the foregoing twee and even (cough) 'soppy', and remain unmoved by the emotion in Hammill's voice on those last three time-worn words, you are without any shadow of doubt, merely a fridge magnet blessed only with sight and hearing organs.

Judging by the (dreadful) artwork and (ditto) title that adorns this album with its 'failed zero gravity satellite TV installation by scantily dressed astronaut' motif, I suspect that Hammill may have had a keen interest in contemporary science, or at least some of the more credible science fiction from authors like Poaul Anderson, Isaac Asimov et al, as there are hints of such references in Pioneers Over c (With the deliberate lower case 'c' denoting the speed of light?) Such weighty and speculative topics are way over my furry head readers, so I'm afraid I can't even begin to guess what Peter is on about on this track. Despite that, I can at least recommend some yet more spiffy and memorable music which brings this wonderful record to a satisfying conclusion.

I fear however that for some nay-sayers, something could be deemed absent. There is not a trace of humour or irony anywhere on this document. Does this matter? I mean you can admittedly have too much of a bad thang y'all so just don't go expecting this to be some sort of 'chuckle avalanche' as Peter & the Boys do at the very least, acknowledge a very hard won, misshapen and fragile joy of life.

I purchased this album in its original vinyl incarnation a long time ago and although I enjoyed it, have to admit that I was probably too immature to appreciate the depth and sophistication that is contained therein. It certainly has stood the test of time, and will reward closer scrutiny by ANYONE discerning enough to dispense with looking up a zipcode for 'No Fixed Abode'.

ExittheLemming | 5/5 |


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