(All Album Reviews by Burgess Penguin)
Peter Hammill: Vocals, Piano, Guitar
Guy Evans: Drums, Percussion
Nic Potter: Bass
Graham Smith: Violins
Special guest appearances by David Jackson on sax
With the 1970's drawing to a rapid end and the onset of punk and synth pop beginning to take its toll on the more adventurous, Van Der Graaf (the "Generator" portion of the name had to be removed for legal reasons after Hugh Banton's departure) summoned up one last masterpiece of an album!
First off, the band's sound changed significantly, with the departure of organist Hugh Banton (currently enjoying a career building organs) and saxophonist David Jackson (first to truck driving, then teaching math in the British public school system). No longer were the songs built on the heavy sax/organ riffing. Instead, piano and violin became the predominant colors in the palette, adding a more impressionistic sheen with more emphasis on melody and shifting colors, supported by the returning Nic Potter's thick propulsive bass lines and Guy Evans just playing his heart out on his drum kit (in this writers opinion, some of his best playing is heard here).
The songs themselves are nothing less than top notch here, as Peter Hammill unleashes colorfully crafted tales of loneliness ("The Siren's Song"), longing for connection to others ("Lizard Play"), intrigue ("The Wave"), despair ("The Habit of a Broken Heart"), obsession ("Last Frame"), drugs ("Chemical World"), and shameless greed, ambition and arrogance ("The Sphynx In The Face") plus more. Not exactly happy-slappy stuff, but nonetheless very engaging.
It's hard to pick highlights, but my favorites are definitely the biting "The Sphynx In The Face" (with some particularly fierce Guy Evans drumming and more time shifts than one can count), the plaintive "Siren's Song" (could be a tearjerker) and the mysterious "The Wave". Sonically, I love the edgy and soaring violins plus the Evans/Potter rhythm section going full tilt with Hammill's assertive piano and his vocal colorings just drawing you in.
Some quibbles? Peter Hammill's real strengths are that of songwriter/vocal stylist, plus he is pretty strong on piano too. The weak part for me comes in the guitar department, he just is not a very strong or assertive 6-stringer at all. If the songs really needed guitar at all, he would've been better off to pull in a full blown guitarist to color in where needed. Have to admit too, I do miss the organ as well, but still, that in comparison to the brilliance shown here turns out to be a minor quibble.
It's not often you find a band's swan song as brilliant as this, dive in!
This Owl gives it 4.5 hoots of a possible 5.