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Van Der Graaf Generator - Pawn Hearts CD (album) cover


Van Der Graaf Generator


Eclectic Prog

4.42 | 1971 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
5 stars For me, the only question about this album is whether it deserves 4 stars, or 5. The reason to consider this album as a 4 star album is because of the heavy use of "Sonic Dissonance" within, an effect that can leave listeners feeling a little lost, or make the music feel more disjointed.

There is no denying that this album is a fine work of progressive music that deserves much applause for it's creativity and breadth. Despite the many unusual sounds and the strange effects, this album manages to grab the listener by the ear from the beginning of Lemmings by being deceptively catchy. Peter Hammill's vocals are stunning on this disc, ranging a wide range of human emotion (if mostly sticking to the darker sides of human emotion, such as despair, hopelessness, and isolation - he can at times be brilliantly hopeful as well).

The music is aggressive and decidedly unhappy, fitting the vocals quite well. The saxophones and the keyboards work together well to create a sense of a world whose shape is not quite as friendly as we had hoped. This fits perfectly with the album, which from the opening declares it's bleak views:

"I stood alone upon the highest cliff-top, looked down, around, and all that I could see were those that I would dearly love to share with crashing on quite blindly to the sea..."

And yet, Lemmings gives us a brilliant juxtaposition, a glimmer of hope; where we are asked,

"What cause is there left but to die? ... I really don't know why ..."

The song at the end asks,

"What choice is there left but to live? to save the little ones? What choice is there left but to try?"

Perhaps not the beautiful, hopeful lyrics one would expect from a band such as Yes or The Flower Kings, and yet, given the dark, pensive mood of the song beforehand, these lyrics are strangely hopeful.

Man-Erg is another dark song, that consists of two main motifs: Hamill singing over piano about the Killer and the Angels inside his head, followed by a dissonant section where he demands to know if he is really himself. Another successful song that manipulates emotion to great effect.

The crowning achievement of this album, or the part where a listener will get lost, is A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers, the 23 minute epic at the end. This is where VDGG is their most desperate, as the protagonists isolation seems to descend into a frantic madness, as the music slowly loses coherence and grows more dissonant. In total, the song has about three sections of dissonant noise (some of which remains harmonic with dissonant backing, some of which is just plain noise that is difficult to distinguish as anything), each getting noisier and less defined than the last. These sections are admittedly difficult to listen to, and more enjoyable for how they carry the song forward than for the way that they actually sound. And yet, despite the feeling that the song is held together by a thinner and thinner strand and is near to bursting into a cacophony of noise, it somehow ends with the hauntingly beautiful "Lands End (SineLine)/We Go Now" movement, where the music reverts to Peter singing over the piano, ending on painfully hopeful lyrics:

"It doesn't feel so very bad now, I think the end is the start Begin to feel very glad now all things are a-part".

These somewhat cryptic lyrics (for it is unclear if it is meant to be apart, or a part; even in the booklet, it switches between the two as they are repeated) leave the listener puzzling over the fate of the protagonist, but somehow feeling that he has reached some form of peace.

So, I must return to my initial question; is this a 4 star album, or a 5 star album? Without the dissonance, there would be no question, yet we would have a very different album, and I must give the album props for using it in a highly effective manner. Overall, I believe that it moves the song forward and makes it that much more poignant, so I will have to grant this album the high honour of being a five star album. Even if you cannot get past the dissonance, it is an album that must be heard and felt, at least once.

TheGazzardian | 5/5 |


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