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Peter Hammill

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Peter Hammill A Black Box album cover
3.93 | 288 ratings | 19 reviews | 29% 5 stars

Excellent addition to any
prog rock music collection

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Studio Album, released in 1980

Songs / Tracks Listing

1. Golden Promises (2:56)
2. Losing Faith in Words (3:40)
3. The Jargon King (2:43)
4. Fogwalking (4:04)
5. The Spirit (2:38)
6. In Slow Time (4:07)
7. The Wipe (1:45)
8. Flight (19:38) :
- a. Flying Blind
- b. The White Cane Fandango
- c. Control
- d. Cockpit
- e. Silk-Worm Wings
- f. Nothing Is Nothing
- g. A Black Box

Total Time 41:31

Line-up / Musicians

- Peter Hammill / vocals, keyboards, guitars, drums, arranger & producer

- David Jackson / saxophones, flute (4,8-c,8-d)
- David Ferguson / synth & tambourine (4,6,7)

Releases information

Artwork: Anders "Jet" Remmer (calligraphy)

LP S-Type Records - PHS 1 (1980,UK)

CD Virgin - CDOVED 140 (1989, UK)
CD Virgin - PHSCDR 1 (2006, Europe) Remastered by Peter Hammill

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PETER HAMMILL A Black Box ratings distribution

(288 ratings)
Essential: a masterpiece of progressive rock music(29%)
Excellent addition to any prog rock music collection(42%)
Good, but non-essential (22%)
Collectors/fans only (5%)
Poor. Only for completionists (1%)

PETER HAMMILL A Black Box reviews

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Collaborators/Experts Reviews

Review by Syzygy
SPECIAL COLLABORATOR Honorary Collaborator
4 stars Van Der Graaf Generator's final album was a slightly disappointing attempt to update the band's sound in keeping with the punk and new wave styles that were emerging at the time. This was followed up a bit more successfully on the solo albums PH7 and in particular the excellent The Future Now, which was the album before this. These were largely solo recordings of short, punchy songs that were reminiscent in some ways of Nadir's Big Chance, but with extensive use of synthesisers. A Black Box saw Hammill reconcile the two different strands of his work - Side 1 was a sequence of short numbers in the style of the last 2 solo albums, while Side 2 was a 20 minute epic that was the closest thing to classic VDGG that he'd put out in years.

The short songs on side 1 are a diverse selection, featuring Hammill's guitar and piano over some very basic drumming, with sketchy synth or sax embellishments. He also sings with a raw passion that hadn't been heard to this extent since Godbluff. His delivery of songs like Losing Faith In Words would put many punk singers in the shade for sheer aggression, while on the eerie Fogwalking he shows a chilling restraint.

Flight, the 20 minute epic which takes up the second half of the album, is one for the old VDGG fans. The best parts are the sections which feature Hammill accompanying himself on the piano - no overdubs or special effects, just a superb songwriter delivering one of his best pieces straight into the microphone.

A Black Box is one of Hammill's best post VDGG solo albums, and it would be several years before he equalled it. Highly recommended.

Review by slipperman
4 stars Once again, this Hammill solo album is produced and performed mostly by Hammill, with the only help this time coming from three Davids (Lord, the ubiquitous Jackson, and Ferguson). 'A Black Box' is split between upbeat, fairly straightforward material ("Golden Promises", "Losing Faith In Words", and a song that recalls the very first Van Der Graaf Generator album, "The Spirit") and difficult experimental material that spans a wide sonic scope. These songs are probably of most interest to the majority of people frequenting this site, so let's pull those out for a closer look:

"Jargon King" is a cut-and-paste sort of pastiche, electronics spitting and sputtering, cold, robotic, strange. Clearly ahead of its time and one for Radiohead fans to ponder. Proto-'Kid A', perhaps?

"Fogwalking" conjures a creepy atmosphere, one of Hammill's darkest songs, a track frozen in paranoia and fear, with Hammill playing this character in a subtle manner, never going over-the-top with melodramatics, keeping things intensely calm, waiting in anticipation, perhaps, of what's within the fog.

"In Slow Time" is a brooding number, heavy on gliding atmosphere, majestic and somewhat exotic. It feels like the companion-piece to "Fogwalking", maintaining an even-keeled flow within its cloudy, melancholy haze.

"The Wipe". Again, I can't help but think of Radiohead's 'Kid A' or 'Amnesiac' here. Maybe I just have a narrow frame of reference for this kind of material, but this bizarre puzzle of electronics, phasing and shifting, certainly conjures the uncomfortable feeling Radiohead achieved on those two albums. Curiously, it's one of very few Hammill instrumentals.though it's certainly not an instrumental by any traditional measure.

"Flight". A massive undertaking, one you can only know after 10 or 15 close listens. Stretching from calm and beautiful to disturbing in its 20-minute span, "Flight" ranks amongst the most innovate songs Hammill has been involved with, certainly on the same elevated level as epics like "Gog Magog (In Bromine Chambers)", "(In The) Black Room/The Tower" and "A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers".

This is the last of the truly progressive Peter Hammill solo albums (that I've heard, anyway). 'A Black Box' is a mandatory listen for fans of the man's '70s work, and a bittersweet swansong before his music took on a much more conventional shape.

Review by Tom Ozric
4 stars Hammill does it again with this one !! PH is a pure genius, mastermind, virtuoso etc. and founder of the most original and unique bands in the history of music - Van Der Graaf Generator. His solo records resemble that band often, and he does utilise the talents of his band-mates on his own works. We are at 1980, a time when organs and mellotrons were ditched in favour of more compact, plastic synthesizers, which work well within the songs on this recording. Highly experimental (The Jargon King, The Wipe), dark and brooding (Fogwalking), almost pop (Golden Promises, The Spirit), almost ambient (In Slow Time), urgent/frantic (Losing Faith in Words - a bleedin' classic) and a brilliant side-long suite entitled 'Flight', which flows along in usual Hammill style, incorporating all the textures mentioned above and is a fine piece of prog that translates well into a band context (as displayed on 'The Margin' a live album with the K Group - Potter, Evans, Ellis and Hammill). A totally exciting experience, and a great starting place for musical adventurists.
Review by laplace
4 stars Another sign that Peter Hammill's name is synonymous with quality.

The album's title suggests a loose concept based on flight (as further propounded by the eponymous epic that has side B all to itself) but the music within can just as easily describe the aftermath of a disaster, or more likely (and this reviewer's personal theory is that it's about) claustrophobia; "Fogwalking", which is a languid, distorted and remorseful slow rocker, alludes to being isolated from others by city fog (although there are as many layers of metaphor at work as the haze they detail) while "Losing Faith in Words" - a piano-driven, somewhat disdainful piece which would translate well into a VdGG song - is about the problems with everyday communication. Additionally, to this reviewer, "The Jargon King" (which has an isolationist theme) and "The Wipe" represent via experimentalism the extraneous information we are confronted with and try to ignore. Mr. Hammill always seems lost or stranded in some idea, and those two words crop up frequently in his lyrics - this time he's stuck in a sea of people with no meaningful conversation. Trapped inside his own Black Box; safe and silent.

"Flight" has wonder and romance to it, fairly cosy and intimate for an epic with great thought put into the actual sound of the chosen instrumentation, and easily the most beautiful song on the album. Purists will baulk at the drum sound (and perhaps the strained analogy which eats up most of the lyric content), which at times is either compressed or synthetic, but this reviewer allows artists more freedom than that.

You won't find the VdGG sound in many places on this album (although Two Sax Jax tags along), but then that's not what you should be looking for on a Hammill solo album. Come for the intriguing theme and stay for the sincere and powerful emotion. Four stars because "The Spirit" is far too conventional a rocker to sit comfortably next to the seven great songs that make up "A Black Box" - another example of an album where the omission of one track would improve the whole. Even so, this is excellent.

Review by ZowieZiggy
3 stars I have a mixed feeling about this release.

Peter investigates more into electronic and experimental music, which I could hardly appreciate. IMO, a track as "The Jargon King" and "The Wipe" are rather useless. But Peter was maybe having fun while experiencing these "sounds". "Fogwalking" is also a difficult one. Very cold mood (like the icy atmosphere of "Low" from whom you might know).

Unfortunately, most of the first side of this album is about the same texture; I consider this one as the weakest Peter has produced so far.

The positive point of this is the side long song "Flight". These electronic attempts are abandoned and a more classic song is performed. A fine combination of a subtle and charming Peter (piano & vocals) and strong instrumentation (Jackson of course, but not only). This song gets his roots from the early VDGG repertoire. Nothing to do about it: "Plague" is not so far away.

Peter switches from melody to more complex and less accessible music exactly like in the good old times. Since I am rather nostalgic of those days, I can only be very enthusiast about such a piece of music. What a shame that side one is absolutely not on par!

"Black Box" is indeed a dark album. If you were depressed before having listened to this one, this ain't no cure. In the spirit of "Berlin" (Lou Reed). Three stars, thanks to "Flight" only.

Review by Cesar Inca
SPECIAL COLLABORATOR Honorary Collaborator
4 stars Feeling comfortable with the kind of sound delivered in his two previous albums, Peter Hammill decided to dig a bit deeper into the urgent tones of new wave for A Black Box, his farewell to the 70s album. All in all, he is still very determined to solidly retain the exprimental, uncompromising vibe that has (almost) always characterized the writing and recording processes for his discography. In few moments like this you can notice the familiy airs beween what other brilliant solo composers/performers where doing at the time: Peter Gabriel and David Bowie. Indeed, the dark aggressiveness instilled in this album's rockier pieces bears various sources of coincidence with what Gabriel delivered in his second album and what Bowie had been doing from his Low days. Yet, there is also a noticeable differential, and that's Hammill endless (so far) gusto for challenging frameworks in, at least, part of the repertoire - there are the unusual rhythm patterns of 'Losing Faith in Words', the deconstructive vibes of 'Jargon King' and 'Wipe', and last but not least, a 20- minute suite with a clever plotline and lots of various sections, very (un) fashionably proggressive, indeed. Too bad that Hammill himsef decided to keep on experimenting with his amateurish drumming techiques - arguably, his only musical experiment gone wrong. Otherwise, the rhythm section would have been as robust as it was demanded in some particular moments of the album. Well, the album starts with the powerful rocker 'Golden Promises', displaying a mixture of The Tubes and King Crimson. The aforementioned 'Losing Faith in Words' takes this vibe to a reasonably enhanced complexity in structure: the use of unusual rhythm patterns leads to climatic passages, making this song more than just a pop-related song. Then comes the reign for 'The Jargon King', another brilliant anti-song with the engineering process becoming an integral part of the instrumental input (not unlike 'A Motorbike in Afrika' from The Future Now): the Muslim-based multilayered vocalizations create a certain hynotic vibe through the tribal spirit stated by the programmed percussion. 'Fog Walking' and 'In Slow Time' make use of new wave synth ambiences with a slight Gothic mood and an overbearing menacing air of mystery (especially the latter). Between the two, 'The Spirit' is more of a protest song against the rigid moral laws that eventually punished Oscar Wilde for daring to live his passions according to his individual spirit. The lines They call that living a normal life / but normality's not standardised. / Though the body gets ever more root-bound / the spirit won't be denied are just irresistible. 'The Wipe' is a brief instrumental experimentation a-la 'Jargon King', closing the album's first half and opening the gates for the second half. 'Flight' is the first Hammill's individual tour-de-force. The grave solemnity of 'Flying Blind' sets the pace for most of the following sections; 'The White Cane Fandango' brings us back to familiar VdGG territory with its versatile vocal melodies and twisted tempo; the pairing of the last part of 'Cockpit' and the 'Silk-worm Wings' section plants the seed for the progressive climax (He say nothing is quite what it seems. / I say nothing is nothing!). The namesake section is not really musically connected to the penultimate one, but an epilogue to the whole epic: its massive keyboard bases set a testimony of pure Hammill-esque artsy approach to rock music. A Black Box fits well in any prog or prog-oriented album collection.

Review by Bonnek
SPECIAL COLLABORATOR Honorary Collaborator
3 stars Allthough this album often comes with big recommendations, there isn't very much that really convinces me.

Most of the other songs start out interestingly enough but many of them wander off at some point or another, either by the chorus, a nasty break, one of Hammill's overindulgent vocal gymnastics or the strange production choices made for this album (do we have the first 'gated' drums here?) Golden Promises can maybe clarify what I mean. It starts with a strange drum sound that feels disconnected from the rest of the music. As such it is a foretaste of worse things to come in some of Hammill's sound choices in the 80's. Once you're used to the drums however it's an enjoyable rock song.

Losing Faith in Words, The Wipe and the Jargon King are really weird. That's about all I can say about them. I don't know what to make of them. My favourites would be the brooding Fogwalking and In Slow Time. Hammill comes very close here to similar Bowie-influenced experiments in the goth rock from Siouxsie and Bauhaus from the same era. (If you want to see for yourself, check Tenant and Red Light from Siouxsie's album Kaleidoscope and check out all Bauhaus albums while you're on to it ;-)

The main trace of prog-dome is to be found in Flight of course. The last 20+ minutes track for many years to come. If I'm not wrong that is... The next one that comes to mind would be Porcupine Tree's 1995 Sky Moves Somewhere (And no, Grendle is a 17 minutes). This little historic irrelevance aside, I can enjoy the first half of it but the second half has little appeal. Too disjointed and those ugly drums again.

Hammill had better stuff ahead in the next couple of years.

Review by Mellotron Storm
4 stars "A Black Box" was released in 1980 and it sure has a different feel than the previous albums that i've heard from Hammill. More electronics and according to the liner notes Hammill himself did the drumming. Sure I wish he had his VDGG mates helping him out like on some of his past solo albums but despite all that this is still a very good album. Just different. David Jackson does add some sax and flute, while Dave Ferguson helps out with synths.The fact that Peter did this side long suite ("Flight") makes this album important enough. In his own words he talks about this track. "I'd begun writing it after "The Future Now" and the final demise of VDGG. It had been nowhere complete when the time came to record "PH7", so it had to stay at the back of the cooker for a while.This was the first time i'd attempted a long-form piece outside the environs of VDGG and I was trying to stretch my (solo) writing, playing and arranging skills to their limits".

"Golden Promises" features prominant drums and vocals. It's catchy but with attitude and aggression. "Losing faith In Words" has these almost spoken words and keyboards to start. Piano comes in around a minute.This is good. Drums after 1 1/2 minutes as it gets fuller. "Jargon King" is an experimental piece with spoken words and strange sounds. "Fogwalking" is a cool tune. Spoken words with dark, low end sounds early. Sax comes in too. This is great ! "The Spirit" has some life and energy to it. The guitar and drums are joined by vocals in this straightforward tune.

"In Slow Time" is another slower and darker track. "The Wipe" is a short experimental piece. "Flight" is the over 19 1/2 minute closer. It opens with piano as reserved vocals join in. Strummed guitar 1 1/2 minutes in. It then kicks in at 3 minutes with drums and more passionate vocals.This is intense around 6 minutes. A calm before 8 minutes with reserved vocals and piano. It's fuller after 10 minutes with sax.The tempo picks up a minute later. Guitar to the fore 15 1/2 minutes in then it calms back down a minute later with reserved vocals.

Another solid release from Hammill but then again that's what i've come to expect.

Review by Warthur
4 stars Continuing the approach of pH7, A Black Box sees Hammill adopt a sparse, dark sound which sees him playing and programming most of the instruments, but for guest appearances by David Jackson and David Ferguson. Opening with the almost conventional Golden Promises, the album charts (through songs such as Losing Faith In Words and The Jargon King) a course of disintegration into minimalistic experimentalism which recombines to form the New Wave prog of Flight, the twenty minute epic that closes the album. Challenging, and not for everyone - even by prog standards - but perhaps the purest expression of the course Hammill's music had taken in the late 1970s. Things would get more accessible with his next release of the 1980s, so this is about as far out as it gets.
Review by VanVanVan
5 stars I've become a huge Peter Hammill fan over the past year, and this album intrigued me. It's a few albums removed from what seems to be considered his "classic" era (Silent Corner, In Camera), but it was well reviewed and, to be quite honest, what really intrigued me was the 20 minute length of the final track. What can I say, I'm a sucker for epics.

Anyway, I decided to pick it up and I have to say I am not disappointed. It's true, this album could not pass for a Van der Graaf Generator album like some of his earlier solo work could, but I see this album as moving beyond that sound, pushing the boundaries farther and experimenting just a little more than I've ever heard from Peter Hammill before (and that's saying something!).

The album kicks off with "Golden Promises," a pretty straightforward rocker that really shows that Peter Hammill can write anything and do it well. There's really nothing terribly special about it, but considering what's coming on this album it's a great way to start off the album.

"Losing Faith In Words" is next, and though it's another short song I think it could have fit in perfectly with anything VdGG ever did. The composition is stellar here, and it's tracks like this that I think really highlight what a spectacular songwriter Peter Hammill is. The ambience and variance that he's able to put into a 3-minute-and-change track is really impressive.

"Jargon King" is where I think this album gets really interesting, and makes absolutely sure you know you're not listening to the Peter Hammill of the early seventies. This track sees Hammill experimenting with sound effects, a drastic departure from anything VdGG ever did but with the same expert arrangement and spirit of exploration you'd expect. It's glitchy sounding and very strange, but it's not overlong and I think it's a really excellent addition to the album.

"Fogwalking" follows, and I would say that it's probably the highlight of the first half of the album and maybe even one of my favorite short Hammill songs ever. A dark and menacing track, it's arranged in an almost minimalist way but it works perfectly and the music complements Hammill's dramatic vocals perfectly.

"The Spirit" is probably the simplest track on the album; it's primarily driven by acoustic guitar and there's not a ton of other instrumentation besides some percussion and an electric guitar. In my opinion it sounds very upbeat for a Peter Hammill track (a bit funny to say but the man does write a lot of very dark songs). Not a whole lot else to say about this one, as it's the second shortest song on the album.

"In Slow Time" is another great, dark, brooding Hammill track that makes very good uses of synths and electronics to create an almost Krautrock sounding backtrack over which Mr. Hammill sings. It leads very nicely into "The Wipe," a short instrumental piece that sounds like it uses a lot of the same techniques as "Jargon King" to create a noisy, percussion driven outro for the first half of the album.

The second half, of course, is taken up entirely by "Flight," the 20 minute track that so interested me. It begins with a beautiful piano-driven intro and from there goes through all kinds of permutations, with each section having the kind of excellent melody and arrangement that is at this point expected from Peter Hammill. This may not be "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers," but it's pretty darn good and it's a stellar closer for the album.

I've not heard anything from Peter Hammill past this album, but I've heard this is his last really great album. As I said, I have no idea if this is true, but if it is then this is a fitting final masterpiece. It may not be the compositional tour de force that some of his early solo albums were, but it's more than interesting enough to make up for it.

4.5/5, rounded up

Review by friso
3 stars Peter Hammill - A Black Box (1980)

VdGG front-man, songwriter, vocalist and keyboardist/guitar player Peter Hammill made a serious amount of albums and A Black Box is often mentioned as one of his stronger releases (albeit most will first point to the early '70 period). On this album Peter Hammill plays all instruments (keyboard, guitar, bass and drumcomputer). The sound is a bit eighties like and due to the use of drumcomputers all tracks sound a bit static. Hammill uses '80 keyboards. The album has rock, psychedelic rock and avant-garde moments, but in the end is just a typical 'Peter Hammill'-album that fans can easily recognise.

On side one we've got a couple of worthwhile tracks. The opening track 'Golden Promises' is good rock by Hammill with a nice sound, though I aint to fond of both the eighties sound and the drumcomputer. On 'Loosing Faith in Words' Hammill gives us some real treat with heavy emotional vocals and some of his recognisable theatric lyrical themes. The Jargon King is a spoken word track with really disturbing avant-garde noise drum computers. Not my favorite here. 'Fogwalking' is also dark and avant-garde like, but this time I really like the tension and the atmospheres. Really good music for a ghost house. 'The Spirit' is a simple rock tune, good but the ugly guitar solo's of Hammill (not too skilled on some aspects of the instrument in my humble opinion) don't work to well. 'In Slow Time' is another strong dark, yet simplistic track ( a bit like 'Fogwalking'). Side one is closed with the short 'The Whipe'. Another avant-garde composition with heavy distorted drumcomputers (perhaps some tape manipulation?) and mysterious keyboard sounds, but I like it.

Side two is filled with 'Flight', a long composition consisting of about six different parts. After starting of very promising with strong song-writing I must admit I can't find anything too worthwhile after eight minutes. The tracks developed toward chaotic and unlogical compositions that aren't catchy or that atmospheric. I can't help myself asking 'why this?', 'why that?' and stuff like that. For me, this is definitely not as strong as the first side.

Conclusion. With a relatively strong first side with some highlights (Golden Promises, Loosing Faith in Words, Fogwalking & In Slow Time) and a unsatisfying second side it's hard to rate this album as whole. I'll give it three stars, but still I would mainly recommend it those who are already fan of Peter Hammill and his dark, bleak and confronting style.

Latest members reviews

5 stars Every VDGG fan, listen to me now. If you love A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers and try to find some prog epic with its gloomyness, its awesomeness but can't find it at all, don't search further, it's here and under thy eyes. Flight; Forget about the first side, I've listened to it something like twic ... (read more)

Report this review (#2445208) | Posted by softandwet | Sunday, September 6, 2020 | Review Permanlink

3 stars Even the biggest heroes can err... As we all know, don't we, Peter Hammill isn't only one of prog's most prominent visionaries (and one of my all time favourites, see the hero above) but also invented punk rock. Sort of... With Jargon King and The Wipe he also invented the weird genre of Jung ... (read more)

Report this review (#1274916) | Posted by madcap68 | Friday, September 12, 2014 | Review Permanlink

3 stars I have only recently bought a copy of the remastered CD, and I am struck by the poor quality of the production which is often rather muddy. However this is still one of Peter's better solo recordings even if only because of the epic 2nd side. The electronic experimentation of side one is rat ... (read more)

Report this review (#267299) | Posted by burgersoft777 | Sunday, February 21, 2010 | Review Permanlink

5 stars A Black Box is a great effort of hammillian normality. New sounds, electronics, passion, poetry, and epic and existencialism ways. Self production. Master piece?...wello...wello.wello... perhaps The Wipe and Jargon King rest one star but the rest are ok. 80īs sound? yes but a la vdgg!!. Flight s ... (read more)

Report this review (#170744) | Posted by palinurus | Monday, May 12, 2008 | Review Permanlink

4 stars "I always forget how crazy things are" And so it goes on, after coming through unscathed from the onslaught on Punk, Peter Hammill treats us to New Wave Prog a strange almagamation of two genres that shouldn't really mix but by heck they do. The previous two albums (pH7 and The Future Now) w ... (read more)

Report this review (#94726) | Posted by Gog/Magog | Monday, October 16, 2006 | Review Permanlink

5 stars There is no safety net. Pure genius, brutal force, unbound energy. What a blast! Dark, untamed, intense with glimpses of melodical beaty shining through occasionally: "I always forget how crazy things are, but sometimes it catches me off my guards when they make sense." Go buy the record. You' ... (read more)

Report this review (#72467) | Posted by Phoneteus | Tuesday, March 21, 2006 | Review Permanlink

4 stars Work announced in 1980 "A Black Box". The noise wriggles, and a dark, brutal work.Atmosphere that the drum and the guitar deteriorate is made. It is music without saving. The second tune is a work like VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR. The sixth tune is a requiem that solemnly becomes it. ... (read more)

Report this review (#47267) | Posted by braindamage | Monday, September 19, 2005 | Review Permanlink

5 stars A great return to form from pH after a few lacklustre albums. "A Black Box" is constantly experimental and challenging, while remaining accessible. The epic "Flight" will most directly attract proggers, but there are gems also among the briefer pieces, particularly "The Jargon King" and "In Slow Tim ... (read more)

Report this review (#18084) | Posted by Silk | Friday, February 6, 2004 | Review Permanlink

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