Greg Northrup    5-November-2001 Overview

Peter Hammill

Peter Hammill's solo work and with prog legends Van Der Graaf Generator has been like a revelation to me. He is probably my favorite lyricist and singer of all time. The existentialist fascinations he explored in Van Der Graaf are carried over into many of his solo works. His obsession with lost love, lost faith, time, space and existence itself are the cornerstones of both his work with the band and his solo albums. His highly emotional and overwrought vocals have the capability of expressing all levels of pain, anger, frustration and love and his expressive and scathing lyrics are among the most poetic and beautiful I have ever heard. The solo albums made between VDGG reunions are top-notch, and tend to streamline VDGG's sound into a more vocally oriented and intimate, yet no less harrowing, musical portrait.

Hammill is one of the most strongly visionary and uncompromising artists of our time. His varied discography is titanic and nearly impossible to track down in its entirety. Though his albums are of varying quality and/or interest to the progressive rock listener, there's no doubt that Hammill always pursued his musical ambition with the fullest dedication and integrity. However, his earlier (and best) albums are still readily available for the most part.

Greg Northrup

Fools Mate (1971)

Peter Hammill's solo debut is also one of his weaker albums, made up of short, poppy ditties that were an intentional departure from his work with Van Der Graaf Generator. That said, many fans enjoy this album because of it's somewhat irreverent charm and the fact that it really doesn't take itself to seriously, unlike the solemn and foreboding work of Hammill's main band. One gets the feeling that this album is definitely just "for fun" and for that reason that album lacks the artistic and emotional power of Hammill's later works.

All the instrumentation is handled by committee, and every member of Van Der Graaf Generator guests at some point on the album. Also of note is the presence of King Crimson's guitar god Robert Fripp, who also plays on VDGG's H to He... and Pawn Hearts albums. Despite all the instrumental virtuosity possessed by the album's players, the songs rarely allow for much interesting interplay at all, and after some verse/chorus/verse structuring, wrap themselves up without any experimental pretense. The tracks are all quite enjoyable, "Imperial Zeppelin" is raucous fun and I thoroughly enjoy "Sunshine", which has an insanely catchy refrain. The best songs however, are the ballads, which really show of Hammill's voice and pack the most emotional punch. "Solitude", "Vision" and "Child" are all especially beautiful.

The album as a whole is not representative of either Peter Hammill or Van Der Graaf Generator, and I sort of see it as strictly a point of interest for established fans. Hammill would release a string of absolutely mind-blowing works after this one until the close of the decade, both solo and with VDGG.

- Greg Northrup

Chameleon in the Shadow of Night (1973)

The first of a classic trilogy in progressive rock history, Chameleon... and its companion pieces The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage and In Camera, are as good if not better than many of the Van Der Graaf Generator albums. Chameleon... is one of the more simplistically arranged albums that Hammill was involved in up to that point. Most of the songs are merely Hammill's powerful, darkly haunting lyricism accompanied by acoustic guitar, piano, or minimal orchestration, thereby making this one of the most intimate and emotional progressive rock albums. Adorers of Hammill's voice will love this album.

"German Overalls" and "Slender Threads" begin the album in this manner, with the simple arrangement of voice and guitar. Both are strong tracks if a little off-putting. I found the minimalism difficult to get used to, especially in light of his previous work with Van Der Graaf. "Rock & Role" features a full band and is one of Hammill's best tracks, a haunting and venomous track with a throbbing rhythmic base, yet still quite understated. "In the End" is a beautiful track that introduces classical piano as the primary backing instrument, and is tremendously effective. It is only at the end of the album, on "In the Black Room" and "The Tower", two tracks designed to flow together as one, that the full band kicks in a rages with an intensity akin to Van Der Graaf Generator's best moments. These songs are positively incredible, and sound like they could be among the finest and most intense Van Der Graaf Generator songs, as they are recorded with the classic VDGG lineup. A timeless album, though Silent Corner... or prime VDGG such as Pawn Hearts or Godbluff would be a better place to start exploring Hammill's extraordinary body of work. A must-have for initiates.

- Greg Northrup

The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage (1973)

Ahhhhhhhh... This is one of my favorite albums of all time. This album and its follow-up, the masterful In Camera, show Peter Hammill at his absolute creative peak. The songs are focused and melodic yet undeniably dark and foreboding. The sense of gothic atmosphere is overwhelming, and Peter Hammill's voice is at its demonic best. "Modern" opens the album in classic fashion, a monstrous track centered around Hammill's tortured vocals, apparently mourning the loss of mankind's spirit as he is continuously civilized. "Wilhemina" is one of the weaker tracks, a simple ballad the serves a brief respite before the powerful "Lie (Bernini's Saint Theresa)", an introspective account of Hammill's bout with organized religion, a theme that would be revisited throughout his career, especially on the next album, In Camera. "Forsaken Gardens" is one of my single favorite tracks of all time, featuring absolutely gorgeous melodies that build up to grandiose emotional climaxes, Hammill emotes like few others on this one. "Red Shift" and "Rubicon" are both decent tracks, but the real monster on the latter half of the album is the epic "A Louse Is Not a Home", which, like "The Black Room/The Tower" from Chameleon... functions as one of the most intense Van Der Graaf Generator not recorded under their name. This track is simply indescribable, and it wouldn't be going too far as to say that this one of the best progressive rock songs ever recorded, quite simply a tour-de-force of power and emotion. The song can be so introspective and haunting and moments, only to switch on the afterburners and kick to full-on rage and explosive throttle.

Four out of the seven songs on this album are classics, the other three are OK, but not on the same level. Still, these four tracks are utterly unbelievable. "Forsaken Gardens" and "A Louse Is Not a Home" are songs I enjoy with, and at times even above, any of the best single tracks from Van Der Graaf Generator. This album is a dark and emotional progressive rock classic. My highest recommendation.

- Greg Northrup

In Camera (1974)

The introspective power of the two previous albums is upheld on In Camera, Hammill's fourth solo release. Another classic that at least matches the grandeur, power and gothic textures of the previous platter, The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage. Both albums rank as two of my favorite albums ever, as well as two of the most indispensable recordings I own. This one contains all the Hammill trademarks, the ability to shift from heart wrenching balladry to scathing, almost demonic bellows, not to mention some of the finest compositions and lyrics he's ever created.

"(No More) The Sub-Mariner" is an early highlight, with aggressive vocals over a straining and hypnotic keyboard riff that builds with fury throughout its course. Next up is the rollicking "Tapeworm" which explodes with utter ferocity before moving into the sensitive and restrained ballad, "Again", which chronicles the fascination with faded love that Hammill would later explore more in depth on Over and VDGG's Still Life.

The true gems of the album lie on the latter half. "Faint-Heart and the Sermon" is a beautifully introspective and emotional tune in which Hammill at once entertains and indicts the notions of religion and spirituality. "Comet, the Course, the Tail" continues in the same vein, with more existentialist lyrics at its core as well as an intense musical backdrop. The masterpiece of this album, and one of the finest moments of Hammill's career, is the brilliant "Gog Magog (In Bromine Chambers)". Although the track clocks in at around sixteen minutes total, it really is only occupied by some eight minutes, before the fading out into ambient soundscapes for the remainder of the album. However, these eight minutes encompass what are possibly Hammill's darkest moments. His voice is at its absolute best, taking on a totally demonic and venomous character over the twisted and chaotic musical arrangement. Guy Evans's pounding drums build with intensity as Hammill's voice and impossibly dark lyrics lead us through one of the most evil-sounding songs I've ever heard.

This album and Silent Corner... are the best of his solo career, and I rank them both with VDGG masterpieces like Godbluff and Pawn Hearts. A must-have for those into dark progressive rock or Van Der Graaf Generator.

- Greg Northrup

Nadir's Big Chance (1975)

The artistic momentum of Hammill's three previous solo works is sustained on Nadir's Big Chance, though it features a departure from the sound that made those albums so incredible. Instead, this album is more of a straight-ahead rock album which actually prefaces the punk rock movement that would follow some two years later. From what I've heard, punk icon Johnny Rotten even cited this album as a point of inspiration. Personally I don't particularly care for punk rock or even Johnny Rotten's band, the Sex Pistols, and for that matter don't really care what kind of "indie credibility" the album has. Apparently it's a point of interest though, so I thought I'd mention it.

The album is definitely much more stripped down than previous albums, and is notable on this point being that it comes from one the progressive rock icons of the time period. I was expecting an extremely raw, almost punk album, and actually held off on getting this one for awhile. However, though it definitely has moments of simplified rock music, it also has a number of slower ballad-like songs and a few progressive twists and turns. I actually find it to be an excellent album whose punk rock significance is somewhat overstated. This is with the exception of some of the lyrical motifs, especially on the first song.

The heavier moments, like in the opening title track, are intense and enjoyable, Hammill's vocals suite the style extremely well. However, the middle part of the album goes into some very somber and beautifully emotive tracks, like "Shingle". Also featured is any enjoyable remake of the Van Der Graaf song "People You Were Going To", which is another album highlight. Overall, the album is extremely solid, taking some of the best aspects of punk and hard rock and melding it with Hammill's personal eccentricities. Different than anything else in his catalogue, but still recommended for initiated fans.

- Greg Northrup

Over (1977)

Apparently Peter must have been going through some tough times in his love life during the late 70s, as both his 1977 solo album, Over, and the album recorded with the recently reunified Van Der Graaf Generator, 1975's Still Life, were typically overwrought and emotional albums that dealt heavily in love, passion and rejection. Though it might have been a tough time for him personally, the rest of us should be thankful for the release of two classic albums. At least something good came out of it.

This is the first Peter Hammill solo album after the reunification of Van Der Graaf Generator, and lyrical themes that were explored throughout the Still Life album, most explicitly on the classic track "La Rossa", are given more intimate and detailed attention on this, one of Hammill's finest solo efforts. The album as a whole seems to chronicle the disintegration of a particular relationship in which Hammill was involved, and as a result features some of the saddest, most introspective lyrics and music of his career. The scathing rage of his earlier albums is put aside in favor of a mournful, solemn and bitter tone, with the exception of the ferocious "Betrayed", where Hammill lashes out uncontrollably at those who have wronged him. There is a brief sidestep from this album concept in the track "Autumn", which doesn't, on the surface, seem to have much to do with the other songs. This track describes the perceptions of an aging couple and their inability to cope with their children having grown up and left home.

"Crying Wolf" opens with a simple hard rock riff that develops into one of the more upbeat songs on the album "Time Heals" is a phenomenal track that features a plaintive melody that really seems to be where the album concept proper begins. Subsequent tracks like "Alice (Letting Go)" and "(This Side of) The Looking Glass" are beautifully morose tracks backed by Graham Smith's sweeping violin. The aforementioned "Betrayed" is definitely one of my favorite Peter Hammill tracks, where he seemingly tears out his heart as well as his acoustic guitar. Graham Smith places piercing violin shrieks throughout that absolutely send chills up my spine. "Lost and Found" closes out the album with some sort of personal revelation and even reprises the verse theme from Van Der Graaf Generator's "La Rossa". A fitting end to a harrowing and emotional album. Could be too overwrought for some, but I thoroughly enjoy this album.

- Greg Northrup

A Black Box (1983)

Another powerful album from Peter Hammill that is ranked by many up with his classic 70s work. The album is often linked with previous albums The Future Now (1978) and PH7 (1979) because of stylistic similarities, and in fact A Black Box effectively closes out that particular chapter in his discography. Hammill's darkly philosophical lyrics and powerful voice are still present, making the raging "Golden Promises" and the ethereal "Fogwalking" winner tracks. One drawback to this album is the infusion of new technologies that Hammill has seen fit to incorporate at the expense of live instrumentalists. Most noticeable are the seemingly synthetic drums, which drain the life out of some otherwise exciting compositions. The techno/synthesizer abortion "Jargon King" revels in utilizing gimmicky sounds to the fullest extent possible, and is a low point on the album. Another high point comes later, however, in the extended composition "Flight", which is highly emotional and moves through a variety of moods and atmospheres throughout its nineteen plus minutes. However, it too could have benefited from a more exciting rhythmic base.

Overall a great album that is representative of this portion of Hammill's career. Doesn't quite live up to his previous masterpieces, nor is it particularly "progressive" outside of "Flight", which actually simply pastes a number of intriguing passages together sequentially. A Black Box is still solid buy for fans of Peter Hammill.

- Greg Northrup

Roaring Forties (1994)

Throughout the 80s and 90s Peter Hammill has released a huge number of albums of varying quality, with streaks of mediocrity sparked by creative resurgences. Which albums function as those creative reawakening depends completely, of course, on who you ask. I'd heard mixed things about Roaring Forties, and frankly I was a little disappointed in the end. The last studio reference I have for Hammill is 1983's A Black Box, so their is admittedly a huge gap of creative development I'm missing. However, in comparison to the high standards I have for Hammill's work, this album doesn't really stack up. The best song is the opener, "Sharply Unclear", which visits similar territory to A Black Box. "Gift of Fire" and "You Can't Want What You Always Get" are for the most part unimpressive, and sound like they're from the 80s (though this was recorded in 1994). "A Headlong Stretch" was the most highly touted portion of the album, and is pretty good, being an extended track that drifts over six movements over a number of mildly interesting themes and emotions. Overall, the attempt to revive the sidelong epic of yesteryear is unsuccessful in that it just doesn't pack the same punch that it should for a song of such length. The closing ballad "Your Tall Ship" is again, acceptable if not particularly overwhelming. An OK album with a few good moments, but I could do without it.

- Greg Northrup

Sjef Oellers 10-March-2001 Overall

Peter Hammill was the main composer and creative font of Van der Graaf Generator. From the early 70s on, Peter Hammill has been releasing solo albums often accompanied by all or several of the other Van der Graaf Generator members. One way to label Peter Hammill as a solo artist could be a "progressive singer/songwriter". A lot of his songs are built around Hammill's voice and either piano/keyboard arrangements or electric/acoustic guitar melodies. So the arrangements on his solo albums are in general more sparse than on the Van der Graaf Generator albums. The backing of a full band is employed where appropriate. The compositions usually have a more "traditional" song length than the Van der Graaf Generator epics, but the compositions are certainly more sophisticated than your average singer/songwriter. Surprising bridges, unusual song structures and inventive interludes abound on his 70's output.

On his first album, Fools Mate, he stays closest to the traditional song format (usually 2-4 minutes). This is a great collection of moody songs with beautiful melodies, but not yet as brilliant or mature as the works still to come. The second album Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night, is his first solo masterpiece. Excellent compositions, where inventiveness and beauty go hand in hand. The next album The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage perfects the style of Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night and is one of the pinnacles of his solo output in my opinion. An intense album which combines splendidly the sparser arrangements of Hammill as progressive singer/songwriter and the complexity of his Van der Graaf Generator work. Let's discuss The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage more detail. The album starts with a catchy melody on acoustic guitar, which is soon joined by a lead on electric guitar with a psych edge and Hammill's vocals. This track (called "Modern") has a spacey psychedelic atmosphere which is almost completely built around various guitars, fuzz bass and some great mellotron. The next track,"Wilhelmina, is a beautiful ballad centered around piano, harmonium, some mellotron and Hammill's voice. Both tracks show Hammill's ability to create inventive, diverse compositions with minimal instrumentation concentrated either around guitars ("Modern") or keyboards ("Wilhemina"). Later on, the compositions become more elaborate: saxophone, drums, bass guitar, and the complete keyboard and guitar arsenal are employed. With this instrumental line-up, we are basically listening to Van der Graaf Generator. It is difficult to point out favorites, but the spacey, dramatic "Red Shift" is a fantastic continuation on the Van der Graaf Generator sound. Another highlight is the 12 minute "A Louse is Not Home", which already hints at the sound that would become Van der Graaf Generator Mark 2 (see albums like Godbluff and Still Life).

Another classic is the follow up album In Camera, where Hammill departs more from the Van der Graaf Generator sound and he presents a somewhat different style of songwriting. The arrangements on most songs are even more sober than before, Hammill's voice is mainly accompanied by either guitar or keyboards. The mood is decidedly dejected. The album ends with a two-part experimental suite. The first part, "Gog," starts with (church?) organ foreboding disaster (it seems). A very dramatic piece with mesmerizing organ playing, menacing vocals and some great, frantic drumming by Guy Evans. The first part eventually ends in delirium and then segues into the second part, "Magog," which is really out there. It sounds like collage of mutated voices, cosmic Krautrock weirdness (a bit like early Cluster), industrial noises and random percussive sounds.

The next album, Nadir's Big Chance, is a bit schizophrenic in nature; half of the album shows Hammill in a heavy rock mode (a bit like the heavier Roxy Music tracks on their first album), but some of his most beautiful ballads (especially "Shingle") can be found here as well. After Nadir's Big Chance, the masterful Over was released. The album is the dramatic account of a relationship about to end. Musically, it continues on the style presented on In Camera. Mostly a very downcast and angry album, but nevertheless a fantastic achievement only shortly spoiled by the over-sentimental, orchestrated song, "This Side of the Looking Glass." Skip this track and a masterpiece remains. The following albums, PH7, The Future Now, Black Box, and Sitting Targets are all excellent Peter Hammill albums containing several of his signature songs, but I personally find them not as compelling as some of the albums mentioned above. Altogether, it is downright amazing what a consistent, high quality output Peter Hammill produced in the 70s.

The 80s show an obvious change in direction. His music has undergone new wave influences, and although albums like Enter K and Patience contain several great compositions, I find these albums less appealing than his 70s output (if only for my personal preferences). For me the biggest difference is the way the songs are arranged. I don't like this particular 80's sterile style of producing. However vague this may sound, his 70's albums have a more "organic" feel to them. And yet, Enter K and Patience are great albums, well worth a listen.

In the mid 80's, Hammill recorded another interesting album called "And Close as This" with beautiful piano/ keyboards compositions only accompanied by Hammill's vocals. I find all of his other 80's and 90's output to be patchy works, where Hammill sometimes goes completely off-track with diversions into digital synth pop emptiness, new age, plain rock, etc. Most of the albums contain a few interesting compositions but overall these are uneven or predictable albums. Hammill seems to write, play and arrange the music completely by himself even more than before. The most irritating features, which spoil about all his albums after 1984 are the overkill on digital synth equipment and the sterile way of arranging the songs. None of these albums would be a good place to start exploring his discography. Hammill also released several live albums in the 80's and 90's, which are a lot more interesting than his studio work of that time. Although these live albums might not be a bad introduction to his work, his (early) 70's output is the place to start.

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