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


Van Der Graaf Generator


Eclectic Prog

4.42 | 1962 ratings

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5 stars They threw away the mould after VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR was formed. Not a band for everyone, with music that is moody and often strident, and with Peter Hammill often shouting or almost speaking rather than singing. I think he has a terrible voice, really, and yet, in some of the quiet parts with sax or keyboards backing, he sounds almost angelic. And his angry, often gruff voice fits the mood of the music perfectly. I first heard this album a year or two after the LP was released and was instantly hooked, initially by the unforgettable sax riff in 'Lemmings (Including Cog)' but then by the diversity and atonality of some of the music, and by the sheer power of the delivery. Don't get me wrong: there are melodic parts in here, but if you're looking for lush melodies or something to tap your foot to then you've come to the wrong place. This is sombre stuff, with plenty of heavy sax and some dark keyboards (Hammond, Farfisa, Mellotron, ARP synthesizer, and piano).

The almost 12-minute 'Lemmings (Including Cog)' starts off so quietly with Hammill's acoustic guitar and Hammill's singing, and builds into that killer riff and on into a bleak-sounding track. The sounds coaxed out of the guitars, keyboards and sax are disturbing and amazing at times, and you get the full effect when wearing headphones. Sometimes they are all playing in unison and at other times in a melee. The lyrics are very good; depressing yet finally with a glimmer of optimism: "There's other ways than screaming in the mob: that makes us merely cogs of hatred. Look to the why and where we are, look to yourselves and the stars, yes, and in the end what choice is there left but to live in the hope of saving our children's children's little ones?"

'Man-Erg' is also an excellent track, which I take to be Hammill's introspective musing on the dichotomy and paradox that is Man, with Hammill crooning "The killer lives inside me; yes, I can feel him move" and later "The angels live inside me, I can feel them smile; their presence strokes and soothes the tempest in my mind." The sax seagull sounds and heavy, stabbing keyboards and sax part way through this track are amazing and Hammill almost screams: "How can I be free? How can I get help? Am I really me? Am I someone else?" Then things calm again and Hammill ends with the realisation: "I'm just a man, and killers, angels, all are these: dictators, saviours, refugees in war and peace as long as Man lives..."

The 23-minute 'A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers' also starts sedately, but there are such a variety of sounds and moods in this LP side-long track. The sax is even used to sound like foghorns, and the synthesizer to sound like an engine room or steam train, creating a very atmospheric piece. There is an almost jazzy part around halfway through but that turns into an atonal synthesizer cacophony with pounding keyboards that would drive anyone nuts, only to become a lovely piece with Hammill singing over piano, breathy sax and some rat-a-tat-tat drumming from Evans (who's drumming is excellent throughout, by the way) and Banton's ecclesiastical-sounding Hammond. Then it whoops up into another atonal jamboree, complete with simulated waves and distorted synthesizer, which again seems designed to drive you onto the rocks. But 'the clouds break' and Hammill sings over piano: "Oceans drifting sideways, I am pulled into the spell, I feel you around me, I know you well. Stars slice horizons where the lines stand much too stark; I feel I am drowning - hands stretch in the dark." And Fripp's distorted guitar and Banton's Mellotron play majestically to the end of the album (and peter out, really).

To me this is most certainly a masterpiece of the genre. Hammill's lyrics may be melodramatic, but they are also interesting and strike a chord. Jackson's sax and Banton's keyboards are simply amazing, Evans' drumming and other percussion perfect, Hammill's piano precisely hits the right mood and his slide guitar disturbingly. disturbing. And Fripp's guitar. well, it fits perfectly too. I do recognise that this music is not for everyone, so would recommend that you listen to a sample before buying the album. Aren't you lucky to have a track here on ProgArchives?! If you do take the plunge and buy this album, put headphones on and be prepared for an amazing 45 minutes. No wonder Hammill seemed so pleased in interviews just after this album was released.

As an aside, I caught the band live at The Roundhouse, London in 1976. I cannot for the life of me remember the set, but I have a vivid memory of Jackson's heavily amplified sax nearly blowing out my eardrums!

Fitzcarraldo | 5/5 |


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