Peter Hammill: None of the Above

None of the Above is Peter Hammill’s first collection of new songs since 1998’s This. That was Hammill’s fortieth album, released in his fiftieth year, and this remarkable alignment produced an album of eloquent meditations on age and the passing of time. Refusing as ever to fall into habit and routine, Hammill has this time produced “a number of tales of people in earthy and/or earthly circumstances”. This concern with the outwardly mundane and quotidian is reflected in the title None of the Above, which is to be read as meaning “there is nothing of a spiritual/otherworldly nature here”, as well as punning on the difficulty of categorising Hammill’s music.

As we have come to expect from Hammill, this album contains several fine examples of what makes him rock’s finest, most literate songwriter. The opening ‘Touch and Go’ sees his darkly resonant vocals giving voice to urgent threads of melody, sustained by swelling, grandiose piano chords. ‘Tango for One’ is another, starker arrangement for piano and voice, illustrating why Hammill’s recent work is such artfully uneasy listening. Refusing conventional song structure, he makes listeners work hard for their rewards by forcing them to follow the undulant patterns of the text.

The promised attention to earthly detail is manifested in the subject matter, some of which is unusually explicit for Hammill: a violent husband, a demented stalker, a rose-grower mourning the death of his wife. These are vivid domestic dramas in which Hammill’s gift for idiomatic phrasing is matched by settings that range from the sombre to the pulsating, yet always foregrounding the elegance and mutability of the voice.

Most of the instruments are played by Hammill himself, with occasional contributions from violinist Stuart Gordon. The soundscape is endlessly vital and fascinating: shape-shifting changes of mood and timbre; instrumental colouring by turns delicate and brutal; the juxtaposition of the tightly arranged and the purely improvised. The final song is the blissful ‘Astart’, a grand finale of transcendent emotion that is as lyrical and beautiful as anything he has written: a wondrous end to another intensely rewarding Hammill album.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 8, 2000)

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)

Ether column, November 2006

November is a good month in Vienna for fans of literate male singer-songwriters, with two of the finest in the world playing here within the space of three days. First up is Peter Hammill, best known as the leader of 70s avant-prog rockers Van der Graaf Generator. VdGG reformed last year for a new album and a series of triumphant concerts, but they are now on hold again while Hammill continues his remarkable solo career, during which he has released upwards of 30 albums of spiky, uncompromising art rock.

This thin, greying man of 58 is one of the unheralded legends of music – a man whose singing voice modulates from an achingly sad caress to a blood-curdling shriek, often within the same song. His songs are dense, knotty propositions, reflecting with rare lyrical eloquence on the nature of love, the passing of time, free will and predestination. Accompanying himself on guitar and electric piano, he will be joined by his regular collaborator, violinist Stuart Gordon.

Hammill plays in Vienna on 11 November, the date in 1968 on which one of VdGG’s most celebrated songs, “Darkness (11/11)”, was written. He may or may not play that song on the night, but his dark subject matter and anguished, expressionist delivery will in any event be offset by a genuine onstage warmth and a wholehearted commitment to the physicality of live performance.

From the intimacy of the Szene to the grand space of the Konzerthaus, where Nick Cave gives what is billed as a solo performance on 13 November. ‘Solo’ in this context means without Cave’s long-term backing band, the Bad Seeds, although in fact three of them – violinist Warren Ellis, bassist Martyn Casey and drummer Jim Sclavunos – will also be onstage, adding colour and depth to Cave’s finely wrought meditations on love, redemption and the power of myth.

Cave has left his formative 80s years with the Birthday Party, Australia’s foremost goth-punk ranters, far behind, and is now settled into a life of domestic bliss with his wife and children in England. He is also something of a renaissance man, having written an acclaimed novel (And The Ass Saw The Angel) and film script (The Proposition). But his remarkable gift for self-expression, in language that ranges from the potent to the delirious, is undoubtedly heard to best effect in his songs.

Cave’s most recent album, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, shows him at the height of his powers. He writes and sings about love with exceptional tenderness and beauty, yet he also delivers rousing anthems that achieve an extraordinary blend of rumbustiousness and articulacy. The splendid acoustic of the Konzerthaus will be an ideal setting for Cave’s elegant croon and gorgeous piano playing, and with ticket prices ranging from €45 to a wallet-sapping €125, the audience will no doubt be hanging on every note.

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)

Van der Graaf Generator, Nuremberg Hirsch, 1 April 2007

Back from a trip to Nuremberg to see the debut performance by the new trio line-up (Hammill, Banton, Evans) of Van der Graaf Generator.

It was a spectacular evening. Wow, this band is loud. The venue helped, being a slightly tatty rock club in an unprepossessing part of town, in the middle of an industrial estate. This was a band that was planning to take care of business in no uncertain terms, and so they did. There was less of the quiet-loud dynamics of the 2005 reunion and more of a full-on aural assault, which was absolutely fine by me.

Clearly, they had to revisit the songs in order to fill the gaps left by the absent saxophonist. To my ears they mostly accomplished this by giving Hugh Banton a lot more to do. And he was more than up to it – his organ was utterly transcendent. The other revelation was Hammill’s guitar work. It was incredible. I wouldn’t be so bold as to suggest that he’s been practising, but there was a fluidity and an angularity to his playing that I had never heard before. I’ve never understood why he has given up the electric in favour of the acoustic in recent solo shows, but he’s more than making it up for it now. Evans, of course, was an immense presence on the drums, his playing an extraordinary mix of aggression and complexity.

This band not only rocks, it also grooves. There was an irresistible pull towards movement and swing. Devastating.

Peter Hammill, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 4 October 2006

Back from a flying visit to London to see my all-time no.1 musical hero Peter Hammill at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. My first solo (as opposed to VdGG) PH concert for some time, I think. As ever, he was an extraordinarily compelling live presence, filling the hall with his unique voice and stretching every vein and sinew to near breaking point with the dark, tragic intensity of his songs.

Old hands like me complain about the predictability of Hammill’s live set these days, but it’s salutary to remember that the man had a near-fatal heart attack just a few years ago, and that we are privileged to see him on the stage at all. He’s spectacular, incomparable, the greatest and most moving genius of song in the world.