Peter Hammill: The Fall of the House of Usher, The Appointed Hour

The ever prolific Peter Hammill returns with two albums of quite staggering dissimilarity. It’s galling how little attention he gets, this eccentric fifty-year-old who has been responsible for over forty albums, every one of them a Gordian tangle of weighty propositions and speculations. That some of his projects are more successful than others is due less to inconsistency than to the exacting, far-reaching nature of his enquiry, as these two releases demonstrate.

The Fall of the House of Usher is an opera (not a ‘rock opera’) based on Edgar Allan Poe’s tale of the same name. When originally released by Some Bizzare in 1991, after some eighteen years’ on-and-off work by Hammill and his librettist Chris Judge Smith (the co-founders of Van der Graaf Generator), it disappeared without trace. When the rights reverted to Hammill he began a process of revision, using advances in studio technology and rethinking certain key aspects of the piece. He re-recorded his own vocal parts, removed all drums and percussion and added lots of electric guitars.

The result is a revelation. The original version suffered from the limitations of the recording techniques available to Hammill at the time, and sounded dry and colourless. In contrast, the depth and clarity of the new version throw into sharp relief the awesome power and terror of this work.

The unlikely cast of singers includes, besides Hammill, Andy Bell of Erasure, Lene Lovich and Sarah Jane Morris. Together they act out a morbidly fascinating tale of love, friendship, madness and betrayal. The vocal performances are uniformly excellent, particularly that of Hammill himself, who in the role of the increasingly demented Usher reaches jaw-dropping heights of declamatory fervour. When read on the printed page, Smith’s libretto seems rambling and prolix; interpreted by these singers, it becomes lucid and elegant.

The rhetorical richness of the words means that the music is inevitably low on melody. Hammill has never been much of a tunesmith. Instead the guitars and keyboards surge and retreat, pulsing with grandeur and taking on a macabre chill as the drama unfolds.

The collaboration with Roger Eno is an intriguing experiment in aleatory composition which doesn’t really come off. Hammill and Eno improvised in their respective studios for exactly an hour at 1pm on 1 April 1999. The Appointed Hour combines these recordings, with no overdubs. Conceptually, the idea is impeccable; listening to the outcome, however, is less than enthralling. The pair tinkle away pleasantly on guitar and keyboard, and the parallel strands occasionally coalesce to produce moments of stimulation. But for the most part this is inoffensive background music, devoid of the vitality which Hammill normally brings to his work.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 7, 2000)

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