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

PAWN HEARTS

Van Der Graaf Generator

 

Eclectic Prog

4.42 | 1457 ratings

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greenback
Special Collaborator
Honorary Collaborator
3 stars This record is probably the only progressive classic album I have not reviewed yet. I was told it is their best album, a thing I do not not necessarily agree. I still believe however it is among the most overrated classic progressive albums ever made. I must admit that for 1971, they were pretty ahead of their time, and their uniqueness and originality are undoubtedly obvious.

Obviously, the more mellow bits are usually better, especially when Hammill does not sing. While listening to this record, I am constantly confronted to unwanted next notes or next arrangements: you think you know the next note, and when it comes, then it is exactly the opposite of what you have expected!

"Lemmings" contains very dissonant parts: the saxes and keyboards combination is often very irritating: do not get me wrong: I like dissonant music, as long as it is significant and pleasant to listen; unfortunately, it is not the case here. The organ sounds a bit like on the early Gentle Giant's albums. The organ has a very slow rhythm, and it becomes rather redundant. Peter Hammill uses an echo effect in his voice, which slightly reduces the irritating character of his voice. Past 5:00, there is an EXTREMELY annoying brief noise bit, probably made by an electric guitar: it is totally irrelevant! Past 6:00, there is a very disgraceful & dissonant part, which is very unpleasant to hear. Around 10:00, there are pleasant, delicate & peaceful flute notes, but the accompanying music is not significant enough; The real end, also containing delicate flutes, has an interesting mysterious atmosphere, but it ends too abruptly, as reveals the couples of fast closing drum strokes.

"Man Erg" starts well with a good rhythmic piano and an ethereal organ a la Led Zeppelin's "Thank You". Past 3:00, the comparison of Peter Hammill and Judas Priest' Rob Halford takes all it signification: he screams like Halford at his best in the 80's. The decreasing speed of the repetitive & alienating rhythmic pattern past 4:00 is completely ridiculous and useless! The melodic sax lament past 6:00 is not bad at all, although the drums are just really too fast for this mellow part of the track. Past the 8th minute, Hammill's voice combined with the music is more catchy, solemn and poignant: it is funny to notice that around 9:30, Hammill sings like the singers on some of the Phillip Glass' albums!

"A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers" lasts around 23 minutes: it REALLY starts well, with a catchy & mellow part full of delicate flutes, until only after 2 minutes, Hammill arrives with his usual disgraceful voice. The part where the saxes emulate ships horns is interesting, but you have to admit it is totally empty of music, or even a decent moving ambience: this is what we call experimental music. This long track has more bland bits than interesting ones. It could have been a very good track if VDGG took more care of the coherence between each bits, because irrelevance happens too often in this track. The organ crescendo around 5:00 is interesting, but I don't like the way it is changed to an ordinary rhythmic part. I rather like the good synchronization between all the instruments and Hammill's voice, starting around 11:00. The VERY dissonant bit at 12:15 is very unpleasant to listen. At the 14th and 15th minutes, Hammill has a better voice than usual, and the air seems catchy, except that there is an unpleasant & unexpected note & arrangement that partly kills the promising catchy character of this passage. Past the 16:00, the circus ambience passage is interesting, so that one can notice all the instruments participate to a fully synchronized progressive exploration: this allows the instruments to go into the same direction! I still do not understand however the inelegant change of it to a piano ballad: let's be honest: the transition clearly lacks elegance: before the piano enters around 19:15, the music cadency and repetition take a foolish proportion! And what a bad ending of this epic track: notice the last few seconds, when the catchy chant is sustained: the dissonant voice, fading, followed by some unclear sissy piano notes.

The problem is that Peter Hammill often sings in unison with the instruments, so that his bad voice kills the rest of the music. VDGG are rarely able to create pleasant atmospheres, because they lack fluidity in their music: although the ambient organ is more fluid, the other instruments are clearly not fluid at all here, and this does not help to produce pleasant, catchy & addictive music.

The album is VERY unequal: some bits are really very good, while some are really too aggressive and dissonant for nothing: actually, aggressiveness does not fit well with VDGG. I'm sure that if there were a better singer, then I would like this band much more.

I think the band is made of really excellent musicians; however, I feel most of the music goes nowhere, and that the band does not concentrate enough on the melody and on the harmony. There is something wrong between the excessively scattered drums and the relatively slow rhythm: indeed the bass is too slow and too unrefined for the complex and restless drums: this causes a severe unbalance. I listen to the music and the abrupt changes sound so odd to me.

A very strong point of this record are the graceful mellow flute parts.

As a good comparison, Jethro Tull's "Passion Play" is much more structured, so that the instruments are constantly synchronized each other, going into one definite direction. And regarding the mellow bits on "Passion Play", they are much more catchy, ethereal, pleasant to hear and refined.

greenback | 3/5 |

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