Peter Hammill: Typical

Peter Hammill has regularly complemented his prodigious studio output with a series of finely recorded live albums. His existence as a performer is in a constant state of flux; although generally working with a regular pool of trusted musicians, he frequently changes the configuration of his band in order to avoid slipping into familiarity and routine.

When speaking about his live work, Hammill emphasises the uniqueness of each performance. Whereas the Prog rock bands, with whom Hammill’s former unit, Van der Graaf Generator, were usually and inaccurately bracketed, were concerned with putting on the same show every night, VdGG’s concerts contained major elements of randomness and fragmentation. The results, as might be expected, ranged from the inspired to the chaotic.

Hammill has carried and extended this aesthetic of uniqueness into his work of the 1980s and 1990s, and it is this that makes his live performances such fiercely attractive propositions. This immaculately recorded 2CD set fills an obvious gap in the discography, being the first official record of Hammill’s most angular and discordant take on the live – alone with keyboard or guitar. In such a setting, these songs – most of which were originally recorded with full band treatments – take on the haunted, skeletal form of Giacometti sculptures. Hammill’s sonorous voice swoops manically above his tense, knotted playing, which occasionally lurches to a halt and modulates into something much more soothing and pastoral.

Hammill’s piano playing is often accused of being clumsy. Certainly there is nothing very considered to it, and the number of wrong notes is extraordinary given the frequency with which the songs have been played. But the lack of finesse is a function of the performances themselves. These songs are the vehicles of their own impulses, and both Hammill’s voice and his playing are apt to strain and crack as the emotions that he is struggling to express hit him faster than he is able to articulate them.

Few performers can approach the eloquence of Hammill’s lyrics, or the ferocious beauty of his full-throated vocal attack. This valuable release, complete with lengthy sleeve notes by the man himself, merits your full attention.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 6, 1999)

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