(All Album Reviews by Chuck AzEee!)
A cult band even within a genre of vagabonds to the "rock" world, Van der Graaf Generator had their music scorned by critics and even most progressive rock lovers find them a difficult pill to swallow.
A band often cited for their lack of cohesion (no permanent lead guitar presence, abstract lyrics, music that rambles apart from each other), Van der Graaf's (Generator) Pawn Hearts is a frustrating as it gets when it comes to not only the band, but to the progressive rock genre as well.
Off the heals of the superb H To He album, which the band finally records an album that is pleasant and plays to each members talents, the band records an album that could frustrate even the most patient of listeners. For those who have never heard Van Der Graaf Generator and are planning this particular album as your first purchase, I would seriously advise H To He before this album.
I bought Pawn Hearts a few years ago, and it is only till recently that I actually got into it. Maybe it was finally having access to the album's lyrics, but the album sounds like a breath of fresh air now, or it could be that I have everything else by the band and this album was the only at the time that I could not listen to.
Released in 1971, Van Der Graaf Generator should have been on the top of the world, but this album, to some real scornful "so called" fans of VDGG, consider this the band's worst album. The first few listens, I was in agreement with those statements, and I was ready to send this to garbage bin, but groups like Can, Velvet Underground, early experimental Pink Floyd had the same troubled sound to their music, and I love those bands, so I figured what is out their that is similar to this particular avant-sound? VDGG's Pawn Hearts!
I printed out the lyrics and read many reviews on this album (both good and bad) and after giving it a few spins in the CD player, I finally see why some patient fans see in this album.
Pawn Hearts is one of those albums whose genius is hidden behind shabby engineering and its tendency to lose a devoted listener with the nonsensical fadeouts/quiet spaces. Such things nuances could have easily been edited out providing one the ability to enjoy the rest of the music on the album.
Beginning with the first track "Lemmings", this track could have easily been edited a couple of minutes. The sorry re-issue on Caroline's Blue Plate doesn't help the cause by not re-mastering Pawn Hearts.
"Man-Erg" is what most find to be the most accessible song on Pawn Hearts, the song at time can be disturbing (in a good way) with Hammill's mocking chant laughing towards the end of the song.
The last song on the album "A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers", is a juxtapose of songs in suite form that to even some die-hard VDGG fans find unbearable. This song which Peter Hammill said in an interview, was about his fear and attraction to the ocean. There are many other explanations and theories to this song, but I would have to let the listener decide on that. One of the highlights of this song is that Robert Fripp (whom plays in spots throughout the album, but is poor recorded) ends the song with one of his greatest all time solos. I also read that this song had a profound influence on label mates Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett. Hmmm?
In my review, I have said a number of negative things about Pawn Hearts, but on the contrary, it is actually a great album that would have and should have been greater had it not been for the sloppy recording engineers that manage to screw up Genesis's Trespass and Nusery Cryme as well. All three songs are as great as any of the recordings of its time, but like many of their peers, such songs did not need to ramble on as well to make a statement.
Album rating: Four and half stars. (bad engineering keeps it from being a "Classic" album)
(A note to first time listeners to VDGG, Pawn Hearts should be listened to after require VDGG prior albums.)
(All Album Reviews by Ayin +)
This was my second VDGG album. I often read it's an acquired taste, but just as with Godbluff, the first I bought, I was hooked from the first gentle notes.
"Lemmings"..... what a monster riff, even more gigantic when that dissonant organ note kicks in. But balance is the main quality that Hammill/VDGG possesses, it's tension and release all the time, building up into an insane crescendo with the middle piece Cog. I go simply NUTS whenever I hear that demented organ and sax wailing, only to be pulled back again to a very soft and gentle piece, and WHAM again. As you can see, these are not the sentiments of an intellectual who has acquired the taste, these are superintense ROCK'N'ROLL kicks. Weird r'n'r, yes, original, breaking rules, setting standards, clever and all that, but basically a bomb.
I don't listen to symph stuff anymore, but I once used too, and my indie/punk/guitarrock friends hated that. But their reaction to VDGG was similar to mine : "Holy Crap, what the hell was that?", while leaving the imprint of their backs and heads into the couch they were sitting when I exposed them to this thermonuclear explosion. It's a good thing the piece slowly ebbs out, so one can catch ones breath.
"Man-Erg" is the hit single, the most accessible. It's the only one I skip sometimes, not because it's a bad song at all, but it's played a bit tame to me (except for the brutal middle piece). Also, the recording quality of the album isn't very good, and that's a real shame. The version on Maida Vale shows how good a song this really is.
Then the big one : the ultimate "chaotic/controlled, tempest/calm thing which was our aim and raison d'être" , as Hammill describes VDGG. From very fragile and delicate to more brutal than most metal bands, back and forth. It's like being thrown from one twister to another, occasionaly resting in the eye. The piece always brought feelings of ebb and flow to me, now I read above this that it is about Hammill's feelings for the sea, I'd say the man knows how to bring his feelings across. That's a true artist. And really, he was still very much a boy then, his true great lyrics would come only later.
Well throught ebb and flow, despair and mayhem, this piece arrives at another beautiful and grand finale, speaking of hope, just as the other pieces. The fantastic Fripp solo at the end is in fact Mr Banton on his 'Farfisa From Hell'.
When I've listened to this album, I'm so charged with power and emotion, I can stand tall, chest forwards, arms and legs akimbo, and shout with booming voice at the starry sky : Universe, get out off my way!
And it ain't even my fave VDGG album!
(All Album Reviews by Braggadocchio)
Van der Graaf Generator's third album has a messy quality, rich excess of colour and texture unparalleled by the band's later efforts. One might verbalise the same impression more negatively as "unfocusedness"; indeed, an ethos of experimentality, almost anarchism - something which would later surface quite often, if in not as intensive a form, in Hammill's solo output - pervades the album, filling gaps of a skeleton of more traditional 'songwriting'.
Much of the unique 'horror vacui' of this album can also be attributed to large amounts of reverberation, much more modest on e.g. Godbluff.