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Peter Hammill - Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night CD (album) cover


Peter Hammill


Eclectic Prog

4.06 | 386 ratings

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4 stars Officially this was Hammill's second solo album (his first, Fools Mate, having been released in 1971 shortly before the final first wave Van Der Graaf Generator album Pawn Hearts) but some have argued that it's actually his third, as the first VDGG album was recorded as a solo effort, and finally issued as a group album simply due to the machinations of the music biz (and, bizarrely, in the United States only where the group had precisely no fans at the time. Count them Zero!). The man himself, however, in his sleeve notes to the 2006 remastered CD, states that Chameleon was his 'first proper solo album'.


Well, what can be said without fear of contradiction is that Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night was Hammill's first release following the break up of VDGG in mid 1972. Having broken up the band (Hammill was apparently the first to say he was leaving) who did he ask to play on his solo record? His three old pals from Van Der Graaf, of course, plus part time Van man bassist Nic Potter, so from a certain perspective, Chameleon is a fully fledged VDGG reunion!

For an artist setting out on a solo career this album casts many a backward glance thematically and the 'shadow' of his former band hangs heavily across proceedings. There is at least one song written for VDGG and played live in the final phase of the band - (In the) Black Room/The Tower - and there are songs about the band and a sequel to a Van Der Graaf song. A parallel might be drawn with the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album. Both records see the artist looking back at his former band and trying to find a way forward. Interestingly, for a man so often accused of being a solipsistic misery guts, Hammill's record is the less self pitying, more outward looking and ultimately more optimistic of the two.

The songs divide into piano led, acoustic guitar led and full ensemble. The opener, German Overalls, concerns an episode when VDGG ran out of money while on tour. It's a sort of diary entry, or snapshot from the touring photo album, driven by thrashy acoustic guitar with a dash of Harmonium and some surreal sound effects. The pianistic psychodrama In The End manages to be about mortality and the end of the band simultaneously.

In fact, themes of break up run throughout the album. The gentle acoustic guitar ballad Slender Threads is a meditation on a former lover and the immensely affecting Easy to Slip Away is a sequel to the VDGG anthem Refugees. That song was about a group of friends in the late 1960s, in flight from the values of mainstream society, but bonded and made optimistic by their friendship. But now the friends have drifted apart and the only sliver of hope is that perhaps one day they will be reunited. The elegiac piano mood is enhanced by mellotron and plaintive saxophone. What's it Worth and Dropping the Torch (the latter solo acoustic guitar and the former acoustic guitar elevated by a 'mellifluteous' Jackson) are reflections on choice and responsibility.

Rock and Role is a full band effort, with PH on electric guitar for the first time in his recording career, and one of the highlights of the record. It sound less like Van Der Graaf and more like a weird jump cut to the warped beat music Hammill would be purveying in the early 80s with the K Group. The grand finale, (In the) Black Room/The Tower, is pure VDGG - epic, barnstorming, packed with incredibly exciting ensemble playing and dynamic contrasts, overflowing with emotional and psychological intensity and finally cathartic, with Hammill ending the record exclaiming ecstatically that he's 'feeling like a kid again'. He's spent the entire album trying to make sense of past experience and now he's ready to move on.

In an early interview Hammill was quoted as saying that his ambition was to become 'the Hendrix of the voice'. Quite an ambition but he certainly made a very creditable stab at it. He introduced an entirely new set of tricks and tropes to the rock vocal repertoire and is on fine, if somewhat thinly recorded form, on this platter: soaring high angelically, growling low menacingly, whispering intimately, screaming frenziedly - and very often all within the same song. Hammill turns the act of singing into a theatrical event. He doesn't so much sing these songs as become them. At this stage of his career he was, if not a non musician exactly, then certainly a primitive, and the songs are essentially created by and around his voice. For all the accomplishment of his collaborators the star instrument on this album is Peter Hammill.

Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night was the start of an intensive recording period for Hammill - four groundbreaking albums in less than two years. These records established many diverse threads, both lyrically and musically, which he has spent the last half century extrapolating. It was also important for a very specific reason as it marked the start of his home recording which was eventually to ensure the continuation of his career as a recording artist. The basic tracks were recorded on a TEAC four track tape machine Hammill had purchased and then worked on at Rockfield and Trident Studios. As Hammill notes the guitar sound throughout the album is somewhat scratchy and the whole production a tad eccentric (well he was on a learning curve, and anyway, technical perfection has never really been his raison d'Ítre).

The 2006 CD remaster includes solo live versions of Easy to Slip Away and In the End recorded in Kansas City in 1978 (taken from the bootleg album Skeleton of Songs) featuring a fully unfettered Hammill, and also a recording of a very early Hammill song, Rain 3am, made around the time of Chameleon.

So, an intensely personal album expressing the concerns of a young man (he was a mere 24) at a crossroads in his life. But, as with all of Hammill's best work, the intensely personal is transmuted into the universal. Whether you catalogue it as his second album, third or whatever number you prefer, Mr H is undoubtedly right - the real Peter Hammill solo story starts here.

Hewitt | 4/5 |


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