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


Van Der Graaf Generator


Eclectic Prog

4.42 | 1971 ratings

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RIO/Avant/Zeuhl Team
4 stars First of all, a word of caution to all those newcomers to the word of prog who hear this album mentioned as a masterpiece, or even as essential listening - for it has nothing to share with the soothing, pastoral soundscapes of Genesis, the soaring cathedrals of sound of Yes, or the bombastic, over-the-top brilliance of ELP (to name but three bands). "Pawn Hearts", Van Der Graaf Generator's fourth album, is a monument of dark, brooding, Gothic intensity, the ideal soundtrack to one of Edgar Allan Poe's disturbing tales of mystery and madness. Although its three tracks (excluding the bonus tracks included in the remastered edition) undoubtedly rank among the milestones of prog, they do not certainly make for comfortable listening. It could safely be said that, even more than Gentle Giant, VDGG are an acquired taste - either you love them or you hate them. In any case, they are not a band to leave people indifferent.

In their heyday, VDGG commanded a strong cult following, though they were never the hot property ELP or even Yes were at the time. Strangely enough, they were hugely successful in my homeland of Italy, one the pioneering countries for prog of any description - probably due to the inherent dramatic quality of their music and lyrics, which in some ways appealed to the Latin temperament. The liner notes emphasise how, in the early Seventies, Italians took to VDGG with an enthusiasm that was only second to what they had shown towards such a completely different band as Genesis. Though not in the same way as ELP, VDGG were indeed excessive: highly idiosyncratic instrumentation (no bass and almost no guitar, heavy use of saxophone, rythmic keyboard patterns); impenetrable, sometimes controversial cover art (the inner sleeve of "Pawn Hearts" suggests a sort of Fascist rally, with the black-shirted band members saluting in the so-called "Roman" way); intense, intellectual lyrics occasionally verging on the overwrought; and, of course, Peter Hammill's inimitably theatrical vocals, the perfect vehicle for the above-mentioned lyrical content.

Nowhere are these elements on better display than on "Pawn Hearts", which can boast of one of the best album openers ever. "Lemmings" packs a wallop that will grip the listener at once, with its frantic sax- and organ-driven riff, wildly careening between melody and atonal, harsh moments which complement the brutal, despairing lyrics quite perfectly. The following "Man-Erg" begins in a deceptively quiet mood, with almost mellow piano and Hammill's heartfelt vocal delivery - before a dissonant, aggressive middle section shatters the apparent calm. What better way to convey lyrical content through the music? Hammill's voice turns to a screech, echoing the frenzied tones of sax and guitar (courtesy of KC mastermind Robert Fripp - an old hand at creating dark, disturbing soundscapes) - then, at the end, the two different strains merge to further suggest the tragedy of a split personality.

However, the album's pièce de resistance is the 23-minute-plus epic "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers", a monumental achievement suggesting bleak landscapes of deserted islands in the middle of a cruel sea - by turns wistfully melodic (especially at the beginning, with the immortal words "Still waiting for my saviour..."), ear-shatteringly dissonant (the maelstrom of sound in the middle section), and majestic, almost triumphant at the end, which suggests some sort of reconciliation. Blaring brasses imitate a ship's horn, while Hammill's voice dominates the proceedings, its all-out intensity sometimes bordering on the unbearable - unless one can see the gifted singer beneath the vocal acrobatics. Not for the faint-hearted, but gripping stuff indeed.

The bonus tracks on the remastered CD include a killer version of George Martin's "Theme One", with David Jackson's sax in particular evidence, and four rather avant-garde tracks which make for a rather demanding, even uncomfortable listening experience. The last three of these tracks are actually solo efforts by Guy Evans, Hugh Banton and David Jackson, and as such have mainly historical value.

Although I'm aware of the depths of both unconditional love and equally unconditional loathing that VDGG command from prog fans, I do not hesitate to recommend everyone to give "Pawn Hearts" a careful, unbiased listen. I cannot honestly say that it is an album I listen to frequently, or that I would rank it among my all-time favourites. Still, its raw, harsh, uncompromising beauty is undeniable, as well as its ground-breaking status as a sort of missing link between prog and punk. Four solid stars (plus a virtual half one) for its historical and musical merit.

Raff | 4/5 |


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