Peter Hammill: Clutch

Peter Hammill continues to hold a unique and ridiculously unheralded place within contemporary music. No-one negotiated the treacherous terrain of progressive rock more adroitly than Hammill did with Van der Graaf Generator, and no-one, with the honourable exception of Robert Fripp, has acquitted himself with more dignity following its inevitable demise. Clutch is firm evidence that Hammill’s creative fire continues to burn as strongly as ever, 35 years after he began making music.

Clutch is as defiant and questing as any of Hammill’s forty-odd previous albums. As usual, these spirited qualities are often submerged beneath a surface of reflectiveness and melancholy. But it is never long before they break through, propelled by the ferocious roar of Hammill’s voice and the unbridled energy of the instrumentation. The songs are performed exclusively on acoustic guitar, with minimal contributions from Hammill’s long-time collaborators David Jackson (saxophone, flute) and Stuart Gordon (violin). This is the first time in his career that the guitar has been so foregrounded, but as Hammill remarks in his sleeve note this “has not turned out as any kind of folk or roots collection.” Hammill describes his guitar playing as ‘functional’, but there is far more than mere utility in the spectral half-melodies that haunt the opening ‘We Are Written’, or the chordal slash and burn of ‘Bareknuckle Trade’.

Lyrically Hammill is, as ever, preoccupied with weighty matters. There are courageous, issue-led songs about religious hatred, anorexia and paedophilia; emotional reflections on life as a father and musician; and philosophical broodings on the nature of free will and predestination. Whatever the subject, the sentiments are expressed powerfully and eloquently, and delivered with peerless authority and gravitas.

Hammill doesn’t merely sing these songs, he inhabits them with serpentine grace and fervent energy. The densely packed, argumentative lyrics tumble forth and constantly threaten to break the limits of the song. He will alight on a word or phrase and invest it with a charged, visionary significance. The guitar gathers restlessly around the voice, now darting in sparkling trails of note clusters, now exploding in bursts of angry riffing. Even at its most becalmed, this is urgent and passionate music.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 11, 2003)

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