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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

4.31 | 1570 ratings

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5 stars 1970 was a watershed year for progressive rock. That year saw the newly-born musical form -- in the shape of bands like Genesis, Yes, Jethro Tull, and Gentle Giant -- gain strength and conviction, consciously exploring and exploding the "limits" of rock, with a spirit of pure unfettered experimentation. Two pioneering bands who had been key progressive rock players from the genre's emergence each recorded their third albums late that year: King Crimson's eclectic LIZARD added overt jazz flavours to the mix, and Van Der Graaf Generator's oddly-titled H TO HE, WHO AM THE ONLY ONE (the first part of the title refers to the thermonuclear fusion of hydrogen to helium in the sun) further expanded the boundaries of progressive in the form of an oftimes dark, and sometimes disturbing masterpiece.

The two albums have more than a passing resemblance: Like LIZARD, "H TO HE" has strong jazz influences, largely expressed through the dynamic sax of David Jackson. In addition, Crimson's Robert Fripp puts in a guest appearance on the Van Der Graaf album, adding his trademark electric guitar to "The Emperor in His War Room." Furthermore, both LIZARD and "H TO HE" are prime examples of "difficult" albums that can be initially challenging, but ultimately very rewarding auditory experiences. I was a latecomer to the music of Van Der Graaf Generator, and I admit that it took several listens before this disc really began to "sink its hooks" into me. Yet I soon found that I was no longer playing the disc out of a sense of duty for reviewing purposes, but as a source of musical pleasure. I use the word "pleasure" guardedly, however, because founder and lead singer Peter Hammill's introspective lyrics are often illustrative of the axiom that "some of the best art arises from pain."

On the disquieting, almost menacing opener "Killer," Hammill sings of a monster fish born "on a black day, in a black month, at the black bottom of the sea" that, though "very lonely," kills all that draw near, then muses that "I'm really rather like you, for I've killed all the love I ever had." Death, loneliness, and the need for love are recurring themes on this brooding work. "House With no Door," aided by Hugh Banton's melancholy piano and Jackson's flute, offers an effective, sadly beautiful portrait of the artist as a tortured man, imprisoned in the cavern of his skull, whose self-made "walls" have shut out the love that he so desperately needs and craves. The aforementioned "Emperor in His War Room" deals, through gruesome imagery, with the wages of a misspent life: "Begging for your life, as the impartial knife sinks in your screaming flesh.... You must pay the price of hate, and that price is your soul." The next song, "Lost," is perhaps the album's strongest (with the final track, it also contains many of the disc's more up-tempo, heavier moments), and finds Hammill, with a voice that favourably compares to that of Gabriel in its embittered and impassioned delivery, addressing the spectre of a lost love.

Throughout the disc, Hammill's singing is very strong. Sometimes he almost whispers, sometime he nearly screams and spits out his lines, while at other moments he affects a falsetto that may well have helped shape the later vocal acrobatics of Gentle Giant. Peter Hammill is certainly no boring or undistinguished vocalist! At several junctures, his singing reminds me of Bowie's during his MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD era, and the final track, the bizarre, science-fictional "Pioneers Over C" has a theme which is reminiscent of Bowie's "Space Oddity" -- that of a lost and lonely spaceman.

As with LIZARD, I wouldn't want to listen to this CD too much; hearing Hammill's searing depictions of inner pain, self-loathing and regret can be cathartic (he's likely worse off than you!), but also disturbing. Still, H TO HE, WHO AM THE ONLY ONE, is a classic recording that is a must for Van der Graaf fans, and essential listening for all who would discover just how wildly experimental, powerful and moving progressive rock could be in its infancy!

Peter | 5/5 |


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