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Peter Hammill - The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage CD (album) cover


Peter Hammill


Eclectic Prog

4.31 | 829 ratings

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4 stars 40 Years On: The Silent Corner

The Actor Plays His Last Elegy to the Deserted Pews

I must have been incredibly tired or maybe a bit under the influence of something on the night that I first heard The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage. I mean, I like the album now, but at the time when I first heard this, I was entranced. Never had I known something so well produced and forward-thinking to come out of the 70's. It was so immaculately played, the production could be from a modern Porcupine Tree album, and the melodies were just as stellar. This was a rare, rare find for me. It even had a great cover! Those were rare in the 70's as well.

Because, you see, I'm a modern prog man, and I always have been. I can listen back to the classics, and appreciate them for the influence on material I love or their ingenuity in creating something never made before, but I, simply put, just couldn't ever enjoy them as much as a modern album. I'm not sure whether it's bias against old sounds (likely) or the fact that music is simply better now (also likely), but for me, finding an old record that I enjoy is a milestone. After time, I have learnt to appreciate Selling England by the Pound and Thick as a Brick, basically all the lauded prog records with the exception of anything by Yes (who have always evaded me). But to find a record that clicked as fast as The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage is a rare thing. The only other ones I can honestly think of would be In the Court of the Crimson King and Misplaced Childhood.

But I fear I did jump the gun a bit, as I realise every time the stunningly weird opening track of "Modern" comes on in each subsequent listen. How I was so perplexed by this jarring and seriously odd introductory track is beyond me, since I can't really find much of the glory I felt when I first heard it. It's abrasive and confusing, and contains some of the noisiest and weirdest guitar tones that were available in 1974, not to mention the oddly free-time way that the vocals are sung and that odd brass part during the bridge. It's songs like this, and a couple later on in the album, that single out The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage as a defining album in the early stages of avant-prog, coming just as Magma took off with Zeuhl and Henry Cow pioneered Rock In Opposition.

But it isn't all bad, I still thoroughly enjoy this album as I did when I first stumbled upon it, but just not to the extent. The next two tracks, both heavily reliant on Peter's piano/vocal combination, are far more to my liking, even if both have their weaknesses. What I adore about The Silent Corner as an album, and these two tracks are probably the best representation of this, is how much it feels like a lonely soul upon a stage belting his lungs out about feelings in the most theatrical and epic way imaginable. I wouldn't exactly call this a rock opera, but there are certainly huge elements of theatricality in the album, which is the reason I call it one of the most perfectly titled albums in existence (although "Modern", and most of the B-side don't entirely fit this theme). Both these track are more or less Peter smashing a piano and singing in an evidently large room with echoes raining around and the thunderous roar of the low end keys filling up every corner of the stage. It doesn't feel like a big audience production, no, it feels more like something hours after a play has finished, the stage has been cleared and it's just a solitary man with a piano, singing about his false persona or his act or his feelings or whatever any of these songs are really about.

"Wilhelmina" is more of a ballad piece than "The Lie", focusing on a simple vocal melody and some quite introspective lyrics, speaking to a child, the hope of the next generation. In my melodramatic version of how I believe these songs are portrayed, this is the epic when the actor realises that he is lost or fake or dying and needs to leave (suicide) and his child, of a lost mother, is the only thing left and he has to give her away. I love the amazing sense of cliché and melodrama in this track, yet despite knowing that, it still doesn't fail to touch you. Unfortunately, the melody introduced at the end ("don't think that I'm silly?") is probably the best in the track, and each time I hear it, I hear a massive explosive ending coming soon, but the song simply just stops dead, destroying any feeling I had.

Fortunately, "The Lie" makes up for anything that the previous track killed in its outro, although it does take a couple of minutes to build to something worthwhile. If "Wilhelmina" was the solitary actor on The Empty Stage singing an elegy to a life not yet lived, then "The Lie" is the cathedral, equally empty and containing the same enormous space as the Stage, but filled with spirituality and wonder. The central point of the song, is the statue of the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and although I am not entirely certain of the meaning behind it, some French person has written a 6000-word essay on it, so if you speak French or can tolerate google translator, you should give it a read. But musically, "The Lie" is the best here, because of the sheer emotional delivery that Peter thrusts into it ? "LIKE CHASTITY, LIKE LUCIFER, LIKE MIIIIINNNE", and the sound drains out into the sides of the cathedral, cackling all around and chilling everyone within earshot. It's not the melody or the music that makes this track so chilling, it's the intensity and raw emotion that gets you.

Side one finishes of with a third piano-focused track, "Forsaken Gardens", which is the longest of the three. But although I thoroughly enjoy parts of this song and the verse melody is one of the strongest on the record, I can't say I enjoy the chorus too much, and I feel it brings the song down a few notches in my mind. It sounds a bit more like the classic prog of Genesis and Yes than the other tracks, but the lack of uninspired instrumental wankery means I enjoy it a bit more.

Side two, however, returns back to the avant-prog stylings of "Modern", with the epic track "Red Shift", with its saxophone and chopped and layered vocals spread throughout making it one of the more progressive tracks on the album by the literal definition. The influence from this song on many avant bands to come is obvious. These odd and eclectic moments make their way onto the final track on the album, the epic-length "A Louse is Not a Home", which I honestly have to say took me a few listens to enjoy, but I now consider it one of the better tracks here. The lead motif ("cracked mirror?" melody) is one of the best, and although the song messes around with some weird effects and avant-prog-ness for unnecessary amounts of time, it has the cohesion to feel as a twelve minute track should, with a sense of direction and flow.

The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage may not be the absolute masterpiece that I thought it was when I first heard it, but I still raise it as a classic, simply because it's an album released in 1974 that still has an impact on me, forty years later in 2014. I honestly think this album should be considered more of a classic in prog than anything by Yes or Emerson, Lake & Palmer. An emotional and complex listen, and most certainly years ahead of its time.


Originally written for my Facebook page/blog:

Gallifrey | 4/5 |


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