(All Album Reviews by Octavio Trimmingham)
Band personnel –
Guy Evans – Drums, Tympani, percussion
Hugh Banton – Hammond and Farfisa organs, piano, oscillator, vocals
Peter Hammill – Vocals, acoustic guitar
David Jackson – Alto, tenor & baritone sax, flute, devices and vocals
Robert Fripp – guitar on “Emperor”
Nic Potter – bass on “Killer”, “Emperor” and “Lost”
One of the best kept secrets in progressive rock goes by the name of Van der Graaf Generator. Formed in 1967, their ominous mix of free jazz, classical, hard rock, lyrical imagery and pandemonium created a unique sound that few other groups of the time could be compared with.
By 1970, they had released their third album, H to He Who am the Only One. A title based on the elements of the periodic table. But it is implied in a human way, rather than a scientific way. On the inside cover it is explained; “The fusion of hydrogen nuclei to form Helium nuclei is the basic exothermic reaction in the sun and stars, and hence is the prime energy source in the universe”. This relates to the album’s underlying theme of alienation, loneliness and seclusion.
A difficult band to describe musically, but if I had to sum it up in a sentence…A spiralling, throbbing enigma of growling organs, distressed saxophones, metronomical drums and emotionally raging vocals. This unique sound is one they had been developing over their first two releases and had finally perfected on this release.
The album starts with “Killer”, a dark and beautiful abstract exposing the goings-on in the mind of a killer. Hammill’s vocal’s add so much emotion and conviction to these pieces, you’d think he was confessing actual events from his own life and experience. “House with no Door” begins with a beautiful piano melody, complimented by a thick resonating bass line and drums. The most musically laid back track to be found on the album, it is also the most emotionally desperate and revealing to the character in the song. It almost makes you wonder if he ever made it out of his inner turmoil or if he finally just gave up and cashed in his chips. “The Emperor in his War Room” contains some of the most “visual” lyrics I have ever heard. E.g. ”…ghosts betray you, in the night they steal your eye from its socket…and the ball hangs fallen on your cheek”. Combined with the frenzied playing of the rest of the band, and Robert Fripp’s distinct guitar contributions, this is one of the most stellar tracks in VdGG’s discography. “Lost” is an emotional and melancholy tale of a love lost due to the lack of openness and communication shown by the song’s main character. He seems to be having a rough time getting over it…to put it lightly. “Pioneers over c” finishes the album. With it’s opening spacey organ and thud-like drumming. It describes a journey made by desperate inhabitants of an unnamed, dying planet in an attempt to find another planet to migrate to before they all die. The song also features a nice, spacey instrumental section to help the listener imagine the surroundings of our travelers.
Many refer to VdGG’s next album Pawn Hearts as their best work, but I prefer this one over them all as the pinnacle of the band’s total output. But, either one of these titles is a good starting point for anyone looking to discover what Van der Graaf Generator have to offer.
Fishes can’t fly and neither can I.
Peter Hammill - “Killer”
H to He Who Am the Only One. OK. Huh? What? "H to He," simply enough, is fusion, the elemental reaction by which the great stellar furnaces of the galaxies roar, lighting worlds, warming planets and birthing life. Fair enough: a wonder, a mystery, because it could be otherwise – a dead, frigid cosmos. "Who Am the Only One." Hmmmmm. Who's "Who"? And why is this "Who" the "Only One"? Is this Yahweh, the Creator, the "I am that which I am."? Is it Popeye the Sailor-Man, with his refrain, "I yam what I yam and that's
all that I yam."? Tough exegesis here. The astronomical physics is at least decipherable, but the Solitary Presence of the title's latter portion: Huh? What? Help is needed, a magus or a theologian perhaps. Maybe a philosopher, one full of angst and piss and vinegar and genius lamentation. Maybe ...
Peter Hammill. Yes, he'll do. (Well, he invented the title, didn't he?) Nietzschean alienation out of a pseudo-Bowie throat. The voice of one alone in the wilderness of progressive rock lyricism. Existentialist par excellence, out-Kierkegaarding Soren K., and out-Camusing Camus. But Mr. Hammill provides no solid evidence in his words or in the liner notes as to the relation between nuclear ignition and that "Only One." None. A glance at the cover art ... nothing. Hmmmmm. A bizarre title. Random. Deceptive (connected non-connections). Vague. Ah, but there's the recording itself!
In any event – a backward step, but the music is forthcoming. Maybe the English subtitle for the near-foreign language true title (Is it just a bad transliteration out of the Japanese? Finnish? Basque?) Could be The Dangers of an Unraveling Psyche. Yes, all that winds does indeed unravel. Ask any divorce lawyer. Van der Graaf Generator's 1970 release – its third – is a sonic statement about the morbid, stagnating effect of too much solitude and too much desire for the alleviation of that solitude ... and the splintering of a personality through the sheer force of that oppressiveness. But there is art out of sorrow, always, and as Aeschylus tells us in his verse: "All wisdom comes through suffering."
Track 1: "Killer." The sound engineer (Robin Cable) and producer (John Anthony) presiding over these sessions are to be warmly commended for the perfect mix and clarity of the takes. Every instrument is heard and heard well, as is a balanced group dynamic. The absence of electric guitar in "Killer" is noteworthy and fitting, granting the song an ominous softness and a quiet ferocity. Much like the sea, the home of this fictional killer and its mother. The sea. The unconscious, in dreams and the Tarot. The killer within us all, hidden in the recesses of repression and cultural mores, waiting, brooding, eager. A squid, or some tentacled thing: ruthless, determined, amoral. And only the greatest killer could hunger for the greatest amount of love and affection. It is the yin and the yang: hate and destroy that which you most require. Creepy. Eerie poetry, eerie musical tones. The power of PH's trill at the end of the verses is booming, nearly orgasmic, or murderous, and is arguably the single most striking vocal evocation from the heyday of art rock. A sing-song bridge, and fishes that can't/won't ever fly. Would the killer kill, could the killer sprout wings, and hold aloft out of the cold, maritime brine? Hugh Banton's organ solo comes in harsh steel-grey waves breaking on the shore of the killer's shattered ego. Drumming, courtesy of Guy Evans, to rival Michael Giles. David Jackson's disharmonic saxophone fill: the tension that abounds when the relentless need for love nonetheless disdains any offer of affection, to its own peril. Vocals that haunt and convey the wounds of dissociation and disenfranchisement. Unsettling.
"House with No Door" is the second track. Peter Hammill is the prog Ziggy, grounded and devoid of companionship, and now down out of the stars' shine. Weary resignation, and how could it otherwise be? The futility – understood – of the killer's rage, and loneliness without aggressive protest, somehow sadder still. The gentleness of candles in the night and dim recollection. Ennui. "Won't somebody help me?" Flutes, and a touch of Sinfield's wind that never listens.
Mars. Ares. Tyr. "The Emperor in His War-Room." The album moves into extreme complexity with this track (and the following two). The opening woodwind and the crystal clear guitar arpeggios lend a Crimson air to the song's start, a combination of brightness and brown timbre. Nic Potter's bass line is fat and filling, and as the lyrics begin a tale of greed, lust, domination, and power strivings. Van der Graaf Generator promotes its own vision of the War Pigs. The acoustic guitar work is tasteful and to the point, and the sax/flute interplay increases the tune's dynamic tenseness. The groove of "Part 2: The Room," is driving and undeniable, and with Jackson's flute shadowing guest guitarist Robert Fripp's manic electric guitar lightning-fills, which touch down here and there, and burn, there is a hint of KC's "Sailor's Tale." How can pure, hateful aggression also be melodic, harmonic, touching?
"Lost" is the love song of H to He…, or, rather, the unrequited love song. Again, the lyrics are refined and original (no overly repeated feel-good choruses, sorry), and the Philip Glass-like looping flutes in the introduction lead into a classic bit of vocal phrasing, which annoys slightly but finally resolves. Another tricky enterprise: the album abounds with an artful swagger and daring. Portions of "Part 2: The Dance in the Forest" are reminiscent of Passion Play-era Tull, especially the repetitive sax riff buoyant over a fluid rhythm. A touch of Vegas crooning which doesn't exactly satisfy, and then frenetic drumming – Keith Moon melds with the aforementioned Giles – into a cacophonous closing.
Finally there is "Pioneers Over c." The best soundtrack to Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" imaginable, even if it never was. "I'm afraid I can't do that, Dave." The desolate expanses of the universe. The void. Abandonment. Forsaken soul. The hand percussion and organ introduction gives it away, though not too soon, at all (and here, as elsewhere, there is a mild rumor of The Doors). Drifting, floating, aimless, unhinged. Hugh Banton's Farfisa organ and "Blue Jay Way" after very bad acid. Mr. Banton, yet again, with the best bass line of the recording: propulsive, thick, and forceful. "We are the lost ones." The sax solos, and all instruments fade out: alone, alone, alone. Every squeak of that confined horn brings an exacerbated solitude. This is progressive rock at its pinnacle. "People around, no one to touch." That's all, really. That says it all. A shame. Silly human race...
Yes, Pawn Hearts often receives the Van der Graaf Generator-canon laurel amongst the prog illuminati. But it is merely a clone of its predecessor, H to He Who Am the Only One, a poignant, gorgeous example of structured musical form and experimentation in wedlock. Poetry and vision. Chords and chaos. One of the finest out of a fine epoch in rock music. Try it if you never have. Try it again otherwise.