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


Van Der Graaf Generator


Eclectic Prog

4.43 | 2181 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
5 stars ...a review of the 2005 re-mastered CD...

Why even bother adding to the pile of more than 270 reviews of this masterpiece, especially when it already boasts a near- unanimous approval rating? I can think of two reasons:

1) It's still one heck of an album, and one of the cornerstones of the Prog Rock experience, sounding no less strange and uncompromising today than it must have when first released in 1971. And:

2) The 2005 re-mastered CD has a revitalized clarity that shames any previous edition, with extensive notes, photos, lyrics and bonus tracks adding significant historical perspective to an already timeless recording.

You might not have known that the band originally hoped to release the album along with a second LP of experimental solo compositions and several live-in-the-studio recordings of older songs. The idea was scrapped before it got too far off the ground, in retrospect perhaps thankfully: a haphazard collection of new and live material would have undermined the seamless integrity of the single three-song album that was eventually released.

But after more than thirty years in limbo the surviving samples of that lost LP (five in total, four of them entirely instrumental) have been dusted off and included here as bonus tracks, giving listeners a rough idea of what one side of the aborted twin album might have sounded like. (The only remaining live performance from the same sessions has been added to the likewise recommended CD re-master of the band's 1970 effort, "H to HE Who Am the Only One".)

First up are hitherto unreleased alternate takes of the "Theme One" / "W" single (the A-side of which appeared on the US edition of "Pawn Hearts"; the B-side can be heard on the 1993 "I Prophesy Disaster" compilation). These are rough edits of what sound like live rehearsals, fascinating when heard today as works in progress but no substitution for the more polished final versions.

Next is "Angle of Incidents", from drummer Guy Evans: a five-minute cacophony of backwards percussion, slowed-down vocals, freeform saxophones, and the sound of fluorescent lighting tubes dropped down the studio stairwell. The track achieves an almost hypnotic intensity today sounding more Post Rock than Prog, as does Hugh Banton's multi-tracked organ experiment "Diminutions", an escalating series of very German space drones not dissimilar (and in some ways superior) to what TANGERINE DREAM was doing at the same time (between their early, ambient "Alpha Centauri" and "Zeit" albums).

David Jackson's brief, upbeat "Ponker's Theme" provides a lighthearted change of pace, in a jazzy, 90-second comic-relief interlude suitable for cocktails on the patio.

Taken out of context, these additional tracks can sound pretty much like what they are: discarded outtakes. But each one reveals a willingness to push the conventions of popular music right to the brink, which might explain why this was a band that survived the tests of time better than most Prog acts from the 1970s. Compare this album, for example, to such cherished time- capsule period pieces like "The Yes Album", or "Nursery Cryme" by GENESIS, both released the same year as "Pawn Hearts" but neither able to match it for ongoing relevance.

Of course the dystopian nightmares and naked self-examination of lyricist/singer PETER HAMMILL (I'm thinking here specifically of "Lemmings" and "Man-Erg") were always one step removed from the usual pastel-colored Prog Rock daydreams of the time. The darkness of a song like "Lemmings" in particular is more in tune with our own war-torn and brain-dead millennium than it ever was with the early 1970s. And do I even need to mention the 23-minute near-death experience of "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers"?

The violence and beauty of the music on this album has no match in the greater lexicon of Progressive Rock, except perhaps in the spirit of "Starless"-era KING CRIMSON or Christian Vander's MAGMA. But perhaps the final judgment should be left to Peter Hammill himself, who remembers the album (with characteristic English reserve) as "a fairly extreme musical statement". In other words, not the sort of thing ever to earn your band an appearance on Top of the Pops, but ideal for adventurous listeners even now on the lookout for music to challenge their limitations.

Neu!mann | 5/5 |


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