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

PAWN HEARTS

Van Der Graaf Generator

 

Eclectic Prog

4.42 | 1438 ratings

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Peter
Special Collaborator
Honorary Collaborator
5 stars PAWN HEARTS, from 1971, is Van Der Graaf Generator's fourth release, and the product of a trail-blazing progressive rock band in top form. As with its also top-notch predecessor H TO HE, WHO AM THE ONLY ONE, the album represents truly avant garde, demanding, and occasionally difficult, yet highly gratifying listening. The classic Van der Graaf elements are all here: from front man Peter Hammill's searing, introspective lyrics and dynamic vocals (Hammill is a master-contortionist of the voice); to Banton's accomplished piano, organ, mellotron and synths; to Evans' precise drumming (with almost militaristic snare); to Jackson's unique sax (an essential component of the band's sound) and occasional flute. To further sweeten the mix, Robert Fripp again serves as guest guitarist, adding his deft, inimitable touch to the musical "canvas."

PAWN HEARTS displays a maturity and ease of execution which seems to reach its rarefied heights of artistry without trying as overtly hard to be "clever" as H TO HE did, and thereby succeeds all the more resoundingly. Yet, while there is ample power and beauty to be found here, we are made to pay for our pleasure with occasional "pain" in the form of some decidedly jarring passages. As in life, however, such moments only serve to make the rewards to be found within all the sweeter by contrast, just as the lingering, bitter cold of winter renders the fleeting warmth of spring and summer all the more welcome, and death imparts poignancy, urgency and importance to life. This is serious music, and not for the merely "casual," or faint-hearted listener!

The lyrical content is fully as deep as the music. The near twelve-minute opener "Lemmings," deals with the fallibility and oftimes corrupt nature of leaders, and the folly of blindly following them, lemming-like, to our destruction. Written during the dark days of the Vietnam War and the Cold War (which made nuclear apocalypse an all-too-real possibility), the lyrics advocate the questioning of authority, and the choosing of one's own path. While the imagery is oftimes disturbing, the song is ultimately a message of hope: individual action can yet overcome the "greasy machinery (that) slides on the rails, young minds and bodies on steel spikes impaled," and thus secure a better future for our children -- a sentiment and rallying cry that rings as immediate and relevant today as ever.

The next song, "Man-Erg," (which can be sampled here) is one of Van der Graaf's best, with poetic, sensitive and insightful lyrics movingly delivered by Hammill. The theme is perhaps the most perennial in all of art: that of the dichotomy (or duality) of human nature, and the fragility of identity. Intellect and instinct, reason and passion, vie for control within us all. Hammill sings that "the killer lives inside me," in uneasy company with "angels" then screams in anguish: "How can I be free -- how can I get out? Am I really me -- am I someone else?" This is a song that could easily lend itself to analysis in university literature or philosophy courses, as a very effective portrait of the universal human capacity to do good or evil.

The closing track is an acknowledged VDGG masterpiece, and one that many fans cite as the band's crowning achievement. Running some twenty-three minutes in length, "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers" predates Genesis' "Supper's Ready" by a year, and is thus among the first "full-side" songs in progressive rock. The music and words are by turns dark and brooding, powerful and infectious, cathartic and uplifting, eminently memorable, and the distilled essence of early progressive. Hammill casts himself as a lonely lighthouse keeper, who looks out upon the night-dark waters from his sea-girt stronghold, full of regret for the failure of past relationships, and craving human company. He ponders the nature of freedom of choice, wonders "what is my role in the pageantry," before suicide/death finally brings peace: "I think the end is the start. Begin to feel very glad now. All things are apart -- all things are a part." As Fripp's blistering guitar and a mellotron-swept "choir" seem to signal deliverance and possible ascension to a heavenly afterlife, we are left to conclude that we have relived one of the genre's defining masterworks.

PAWN HEARTS is a brilliant achievement. By no means an "easy" album, it is nonetheless rewarding and required listening for serious fans of classic progressive rock!

Peter | 5/5 |

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