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Peter Hammill - Chameleon In The Shadow Of The Night CD (album) cover


Peter Hammill


Eclectic Prog

4.04 | 328 ratings

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3 stars Following the landmark recording Pawn Hearts, Van der Graaf Generator was feeling the strain of being a successful band expected to tour non-stop and still have enough energy left over to write and record new material that met or exceeded the already high standard they had set for themselves. The strain eventually became too much to handle, and the group broke up. Peter Hammill, the primary voice and creator behind VdGG, took this opportunity to reinvent himself as a solo act, and this predicament turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as Hammill found the low-profile arena more conducive to his creative process, and his decision to cultivate his own self-sufficiency (recording and producing his own material) meant a new level of creative freedom he had only dreamed of before.

The first fruits of this new identity for Hammill was this album, released in 1973. It sits roughly halfway between the extremes of heart-on-sleeve singer/songwriter material and the grand bombast of Van der Graaf's recent material, making it a transitional effort that paved the way for his future direction.

The opener "German Overalls" is kind of his "Solsbury Hill" -- a personal account of the factors leading up to the band's breakup. The arrangement is performed on an aggressively strummed acoustic guitar with minimal overdubs. The lyrics are very direct, very little left open to interpretation, and they employ sharp visual imagery of the hopeless, lost feeling of finding yourself in one lonely town after another, too exhausted (and broke) to find any comfort, a "servant in the Fame Game". It's a well-worn theme in rock and roll, but as usual, Hammill's imagery is so vivid and his delivery so compelling, it's hard not to feel his pain. "Slender Threads", "What's it Worth", and "Dropping the Torch" also feature Hammill alone on acoustic guitar; intimate portraits of loneliness, distance, isolation, and identity crisis. "In the End" and "Easy to Slip Away" show Peter moving to piano, and singing in such an intense manner you can almost imagine his Van der Graaf buddies cheering him on. "Easy to Slip Away" is my pick for favorite song on the album, an open letter to his friends with whom he's lost touch as a result of his fame. Peter adds some Mellotron here for a truly eerie effect, and I think I hear David Jackson's sax way in the background too -- this song is the most direct link between this album and the more fully fleshed out Silent Corner and the Empty Stage released the following year. Excellent track.

There are also two tracks on the album which feature the other members of Van der Graaf Generator: the fierce "Rock and Role", with Hammill on a newly acquired electric guitar, bashing out sharp chords and spitting out spiteful lyrics like "I am the automated arrow, homing on the heat of pain". Jackson and Guy Evans (drums) make memorable contributions here. Finally, the album ends with the Van der Graaf leftover epic "In The Black Room / The Tower", which is sure to please fans of Pawn Hearts, though the production is clearly more simple and spartan than on that multi-layered LP. Its inclusion here feels a little out of place, though it is nice to have another full-band number to balance the solo tracks.

I'm among the Hammill fans who actually prefer his solo work to the group work. It feels a lot more personal and believable, and has a homemade quality that only seems to give his experimental urges a more enthusiastic buttress on which to blossom. This being his first solo flight following the dissolution of the band, it shows Hammill still getting his feet wet and learning how to make an album by himself, so it's no masterwork, but it's fascinating glimpse into his mind and his creative process, and prepares the listener for the even greater works ahead, including the eventual reformation of Van der Graaf itself.

HolyMoly | 3/5 |


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