PETER HAMMILL

OVERVIEW:
An utterly original and enigmatic singer-songwriter – and for my money one of the best vocalists in rock history. Peter is the front-man and main writer for Van Der Graaf Generator, but his concurrent solo career matters every bit as much. The two are even sort of interchangeable –  Peter uses members of VDGG on a lot of his solo works, and the styles were essentially the same for most of the 70s (though the solo Hammill naturally tends to showcase more stripped down arrangements and sound experiments). The man is a serious force to be reckoned with throughout the 70s and early 80s, In the late 80s he drops off in a GIANT way and ends up releasing a ton of abysmal records full of tuneless dirges with terribly dated production. He’s finally starting to come back to life, and some of his recent releases are quite excellent. To any new listener I would say start with the 70s stuff, dabble in the early 80s records, and don’t worry about 1988 – present day until you’re a huge fan.

THE ALBUMS:

Fool’s Mate
Chameleon In The Shadow Of The Night
The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage  *
In Camera *
Nadir’s Big Chance  *
Over
The Future Now
PH7
A Black Box *
Sitting Targets
Enter K *
Loops And Reels
Patience
The Love Songs
The Margin (Live)
Skin
And Close As This
In A Foreign Town
Out of Water
Room Temperature (Live)
The Fall Of The House Of Usher
Spur Of The Moment (With Guy Evans)
Fireships
The Noise
There Goes The Daylight (Live)
Roaring Forties
X My Heart
Sonix
Everyone You Hold
The Union Chapel Concert
This
Typical (Live) *
The Appointed Hour (With Roger Eno)
None of the Above
What, Now?
Unsung
Clutch
Incoherence
Singularity
Thin Air  *
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FOOL’S MATE   (1971)

B-

Peter’s first “official” solo album is essentially a follow-up to his first “unofficial” one, VDGG’s “The Aerosol Grey Machine.” This is mostly acoustic guitar based and often very dated hippie art folk, sung with melodramatic intensity and full of feeble attempts at poetic lyrical profundity. Half the album falls totally flat for me – overly mannered tracks like “Solitude” and “The Birds” and “Viking” and “Child” just bore me to tears. Luckily, though, there are some big winners on here – the opening three songs in particular! Swingin’ weirdo folk rocker “Imperial Zeppelin” kicks off the record, and it’s easily the best track. It’s also got a sense of humor and playfulness – these are qualities we must cherish as they VERY rarely appear on Hammill records!! “Candle” is the best of the introspective folk ballads – the lyrics can grate, but the vibe and melody work perfectly and (per usual) Hammill sounds great.  “Happy,” is a poppy beautiful and haunting song with a musical theater-like melody. I think “Summer Song (In The Autumn” is one of Peter’s all time greatest pieces of melancholy – it’s gorgeous and very sad, and the chorus-verse dynamics work magically. The quality songs on this album are highlights of the entire Hammill catalog, and they certainly make me remember the record with higher overall regard than it truly deserves. But in the end, it’s a tentative start for Peter the solo artist – there are too many duffer tracks and some embarrassing moments – and he’d be putting out some serious epics in no time, rendering this an inessential release. He’s even called this a “pop” album, as if to downplay its importance to him. It’s really not all THAT different from other VDGG-related projects – there’s still a ton of uber-sincere existential-crisis songs – but I can understand what he means by “pop” album nonetheless. It’s not a very ambitious record, and for all it’s positive qualities, definitely not one of the key releases from the man.
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CHAMELEON IN THE SHADOW OF THE NIGHT  (1973)

B

This was Peter’s first solo album after the initial VDGG break-up – and essentially the follow-up to “Pawn Hearts.”  If you look at it from that angle, it’s a pretty big disappointment. There are some excellent tracks here, and Peter’s singing and presence has never been more powerful. But it’s also a mess – never really settling on a sound and never gelling as a record. It feels like a scrapped together collection of outtakes more than anything else. Is it a confessional folk record? A dark art rock singer-songwriter record? Straight up prog? This album must have been very confusing from a marketing perspective. Half the tunes sound like demos, recorded with just Peter and a piano or acoustic guitar. I actually think the man should have made an entire album of that sort of material – it would certainly help separate this from his previous band’s work, and it would also put the focus squarely on his incredible and underrated voice. But the other half of the album is basically a VDGG record, with the whole (now broken up) band providing proggy muscular instrumental tracks. Those tracks sound incredibly rugged – the band quite under-rehearsed – which lends the record a dirty edge that some might find appealing. For me, it just sounds like Peter was taking a break after what must have some very intense “Pawn Hearts” sessions. Though of course to call this a “break” is a bit absurd considering the record’s depressed and tormented lyrics. But those sorts of lyrics would show up on EVERY Hammill record ’til the end of time, so who am I to know what level of existential horror constitutes a “breather” for Peter? The album opens with it’s best track by far – the acoustic “German Overalls,” which deals directly with the break up of VDGG (as do some of the other tracks here). It’s Hammill’s “Solsbury Hill,” but where the Gabriel track dealt with THAT prog exit in a more metaphorical fashion, Hammill delivers lines like: “Hugh spends  his last Mark on Coffee and Cheese” and “David takes to travelling in the van” and “or am I become a performing seal?” So it’s very direct, and very personal – and thus ushers in a new lyrical bent for the man, one that he would hang on to for many years to come and even bring to later VDGG productions. The song has an entrancing and very weird melody, and Peter’s naked voice starts low and shoots up into the sky and back down. He’s just laying it all out on record. It’s a monumental performance. I don’t think any of Peter’s prog contemporaries would have been able to pull off this sort of thing – just an acoustic guitar and their voice – and still make it so dramatic and riveting. So, in addition to that opener, there are some other bare-bones and depressed songs like the austere and piano-driven “In the End” and a wonderfully uplifting number called “Dropping The Torch” about how we humans all end up losing the spark of youth and turn into dullards seeking mainly just base security. “Easy To Slip Away” brings back the Mike and Susie characters from VDGG’s “Refugees” for a song about losing touch with old ideas and friends over time. Besides the opener the best acoustic number is probably the very pretty and simple “What’s It Worth?” OK – now for the two long “electric” songs. First, we get the almost proto-punky “Rock and Role,” with a gritty guitar sound, snarling Hammill vocals, and some heavy hitting from Guy Evans. It’s never really struck me as much of a composition – it’s sort of scattered and the melody is hard to get a handle on – but the vibe is fresh for Peter and he would eventually take that sort of arrangement style and make an entire awesome record with it. Then there’s the dark heavy prog closer “(In The) Black Room/The Tower” which was apparently written for a VDGG “Pawn Hearts” follow-up before the band broke up. I can tell. It has NOTHING to do with the rest of this album stylistically, and definitely seems like the sort of thing VDGG could have turned into an awesome epic had more work gone into the production. Most of the song feels like a rush job – and though I like a lot of the ideas (particularly the ending when the opening melody returns in a more majestic fashion), it’s sometimes a bit too over the top even for THESE guys! I think the production is it’s biggest fault though – it’s a cool and worthwhile composition. And disgustingly evil at times. So as a whole, this isn’t really a great record. But it’s a must-listen for big Hammill fans, part of a peak era where Peter couldn’t do much wrong in my book. And the good tracks are truly excellent.
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THE SILENT CORNER AND THE EMPTY STAGE  (1974)

A+

Peter’s best solo album, and easily as good as any great VDGG album, barring maybe “Pawn Hearts.” It practically IS a VDGG album, with the entire band playing on the latter half of the record and the same basic vibe as the upcoming reunion trilogy. It’s certainly one of the tightest creations in the Hammill/VDGG catalog, and it’s high points are jaw-droppingly stunning. OK, let’s not beat around the bush: the closing 12 and a half minute “A Louse Is Not A Home” is a serious contender my favorite song EVER recorded. It’s certainly one of the ultimate highlights of the prog era, and perhaps the best overall VDGG-related track. Everything about this band comes together on that song – the melodies, the angst, the playing, the atmosphere…it’s such a stunning piece of work, and Hammill sings the living SHIT out of it. Peter moves through a bunch of distinct and mesmerizing sections, and pulls them all off with utter grace and passion – the song isn’t long ENOUGH as far as I’m concerned. It’s a huge, melodramatic production – but it totally earns the climactic moment when Peter speak-sings “Maybe I should de-louse this place…maybe I should de-place this louse.” A classic. The rest of the album can hardly live up to that closer, but the fact that many of the songs come close says a lot about the quality here. Opener “Modern” has some phenomenal scary guitar tones, and creates an nightmarish atmosphere throughout – it’s also got a great weird melody and a suitably nasty and awesome vocal performance. It’s really just Peter, guitars, and a bunch of sound effects – but whereas the stripped down tracks from the previous album felt lacking and demo-ish, this one is PERFECT and I wouldn’t want any added percussion or keyboards. The other big highlight is “Red Shift,” which has some guest guitar-work from Sprit’s Randy California. That tune is one of the more straightforward proggers in the catalog, though it’s not generic or dated or anything like that. It just sports a swinging propulsive groove and some poppier-than-usual melodic ideas. The vocal production on that one is simply gorgeous – the way Peter draws out the vowel sounds of “REEEEED” and “SHIIIIIFT” adds yearning intensity to a very memorable vocal hook. Those are the three big obvious highlights, but the rest of the album ain’t no slouch either. “The Lie” is a scary in your face religious debate, and it’s got some of the most passionate singing on the album. “Wilhelmina” is initially off-putting in its lyrical simplicity – it’s Peter addressing a child directly and warning her not to grow up into a bad human the way everyone tends to do. It’s so direct and sincere – with just Peter and a bunch of baroque keyboards for an arrangement – that it threatens to teeter over into silly land. Luckily, Peter exercises a good amount of restraint, and provides a beautiful enough vocal performance and melody – the song works! “Forsaken Gardens” is my least favorite of the “band” tracks  – it’s another song about the perils of passing time, and though it’s got a good tight arrangement and a nice simple melody, it looks rather weak sitting next to monsters like “A Louse” and “Red Shift.” But overall, this is a must-have for fans of the band, and one of my favorite “singer-songwriter” records of the 70s.
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IN CAMERA  (1975)

A-

The weirdest early Hammill release by far, mainly due to it’s self-recorded nature and Peter’s discovery of some synths. We MUST begin by discussing the bizarre and off-putting album cover, which features Mr. Hammill wearing a big black cape and a shiny jewel of some sort. He’s looking out at us with something akin to a seductive expression. Had I seen this in a record store back in the 70s, I might have thought – is it a glam rock album? A soft-rock 70s singer-songwriter record? Of course not – this cover is totally inappropriate – for this is the most tortured and experimental Hammill record yet!! Guy Evans comes in to play drums on only two of the 8 tracks, but he was overdubbing on top Peter’s pre-click-track home recordings. So even when he’s there, we’re not getting anything like a poppy back-beat…if anything, his presence just increases the tense chaotic atmosphere of the songs. “Ferret and Featherbird” opens the record on a lighter note, as it’s a sad and gorgeous heartbroken ballad that dates back to Peter’s “Fool’s Mate” days. It has a very free-flowing arrangement, and some beautiful layered harmonies. Next up is my least favorite – “(No More) The Mariner” – another Peter song about growing up and losing the spark of youth, among other things. Here’s where he whips out the ARP 2600 in full force, layering the synths atop each other to create a wall of sound. But the track has always sounded lame to me – as if Peter didn’t quite know how to wield that synth yet, and overused it on a song that was already a bit overwrought (“in my youth, I played with TRAINS”). It’s one of my least favorite classic era Hammill tracks. The rest of the album is mostly awesome, though. “Tapeworm” is the first of the two tracks with actual drumming, and it’s a gross sounding snarler in the vein of “Rock and Role” and the rockers from the following album. Peter delivers one of his totally nuts screaming-in-key vocal performances, breaks out his guitar (which he doesn’t play all that well, but that lack actually HELPS this sort of song), and the whole things kicks in an angry and distorted fashion. It’s not hard to understand the punk comparisons – I can’t imagine many other major British artists sounding this pissed off and stressed out on a record in 1974.  “Again” is a short acoustic guitar number that points the way to Peter’s later break-up record “Over.” The heart of the album definitely resides in its final four tracks (well, final three as the last two tracks are almost always combined into one). First up is the weakest of the bunch – “Faint-Heart And The Sermon” – which at nearly 7 minutes meanders a bit too much for my tastes towards the end. But the good bits are fantastic, and Peter makes far better use of the ARP synth on this one. The “choruses” are truly powerful. “The Comet, The Course, The Tail” is even better – a brilliant epic existential exploration with the the best one-man-band acoustic guitar driven arrangement on the album and some classic Peter vocal melodies and performances. The song pulses along with yearning authority for it’s entire 6 minutes. The absolute BEST track on here, though, is the positively horrifying and INSANE closer “Gog/Magog.” Some press release or review once called Peter the “Hendrix of the voice.” While that’s a silly analogy, I know what the writer is getting at: more than any other rock singer I can think of, 70s Peter seemed bent on twisting his voice far past it’s natural state into realms indescribably insane. He’s seems to be SCREAMING during a lot of the mid-70s VDGG and solo records, but it’s screaming while singing complex melodies about intellectual ideas. And in key. It’s just a completely unique vocal style. And the vocal performance on “Gog” seems channeled directly from Hell. As does the entire track (it’s the other one with Guy Evans drumming). It’s so intense and claustrophobic, I can’t imagine what it looked like while Peter laid it down. A classic track from this era.  ‘Magog” follows to end the record, and it’s a very long piece of scary noise-making, Peter’s take on musique concrete. As a long respite from the pummeling ferocity of “Gog,” it keeps me riveted whenever I listen to it – even if it’s hardly a song. So this is a bit of a scattershot affair as a whole album – sort of like “Chameleon in it’s scrappiness – but the peaks are as fantastic as anything by the man and it’s well worth checking out.
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NADIR’S BIG CHANCE  (1975)

A

Ah yes, Peter’s punk album! A favorite of Johnny Rotten himself! Depending on my mood, it’s either this or “Silent Corner” for the Hammill solo win. This album is so underrated it hurts. The story behind this killer platter goes something like this: Mr. Hammill decided he wanted to lay down a more straight-forward rock album, and created an altar ego named Rikki Nadir to sing “through.” And the record is full of music industry put downs (especially funk-prog closer “Two or Three Spectres” which is just a big slamming rant against commercialism and the music business). Even though the entire VDGG lineup is playing on here, this sounds very little like anything else that would come out of this crew. The songs are shorter and there are few overtly “artsty” touches – instead we get a lot of screaming angry Peter on top of some ugly but simple rhythms and some actual chorus-type hooks (though the weirdness quotient is certainly still there). So it’s not hard to understand why some people consider this a proto-punk record, though it’s more in line with early Roxy Music or the weirder sides of Bowie. Of course, it’s a lot harsher than both of those – at it’s most violent, it’s every bit as intense and thrashing as your typically named proto-punk bands like The Stooges or MC5. It’s a bit glam rock, a bit art rock, and a lot of Hammill’s own peculiar multi-layered theatricality married to simpler rock songs. The first four songs on here kick my ass every which way. The title track opens thing up in the least friendly way imaginable – Peter is screaming his head off, the band chugs along with gross ferocity, the hooks are barely there – but the vibe is out-of-this-world fantastic. A raunchy and disgusting song, and a huge winner! Next up is my absolute favorite – “The Institute of Mental Health, Burning,” an oddball Peter Gabriel-esque art-pop song with a perfectly strange arrangement and some great vocal melodies. The next two songs are both screaming punk-art tracks in the vein of the title track, and they’re both great (“Open Your Eyes” and “Nobody’s Business”). The middle of the album is it’s only weak spot – not that any of the individual tracks fail to excite my interest. But Peter leaves behind the in-your-face rockers and we get some more standard acoustic-driven singer-songwriter fare and sad ballads pointing the way to later Hammill releases. “Been Alone So Long” is mostly gorgeous, with some amazing harmonies on the final chorus. I’m not crazy about David Jackson’s far-too-normal sax parts on that song though – they nearly cross the line into cheese territory. The album picks up again a major way at the end, with a re-make of the early VDGG single “People You Were Going To” that improves in every way imaginable on the dull Brit-pop of the original. Then there’s “Birthday Special,” maybe the best of the punky ravers – what an amazingly fierce vocal performance on that chorus!!! And as previously mentioned, the album ends with the funky “Two Or Three Spectres,” a muscular groove and some cool changes and another absurd Hammill performance. That song opens with some studio banter where the band talks about playing it “more like Stevie Wonder.” It’s a hilarious piece of conversation to keep on the record, because when the song slams in, you TOTALLY understand that they were going for a funk jam out of a 70s Stevie record. They do a damn good job too – well, at least for a bunch of proper white boy Brits. This is a must listen album for any rock fan – there are so many shittier records that continue to get reissues and re-assessments. Not enough people know about this one…but now you do and so you have no excuse not to get into it!
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OVER  (1977)

B

Peter’s break-up album, his “Blood On The Tracks” if you will. This is an incredibly hard record to “review” in a typical sense. As musical entertainment (or “pop” music), it’s mostly worthless. And speaking strictly from a musical standpoint, this may indeed by the worst Hammill-related release yet. There are no above-average melodies, the arrangements are often bare-bones and sloppy, and the songs can be so repetitive and indistinct that they some of them are barely discernible from each other. BUT…this is also a mesmerizing howl of rage and anger and misery from a recently spurned lover (as far as I can gleam from the lyrics, Pete’s 7 year girlfriend Alice had recently run off with his best friend). Peter sounds insanely out of sorts here, but lyrically he’s never been more direct and intimate. In the “confessional singer-songwriter” category, this simply has to be one of the most genuinely CONFESSIONAL of any release – the words and emotions are so raw here that I can’t imagine Hammill listening to this after he made it (Dylan said something similar about “Blood”). This is also probably the most consistently conceptual record of Peter’s career – except for one track (more on that in a minute), EVERY lyric is about his specific failed relationship. And just like the Dylan album, Peter examines all the different sides of his grief. There’s a gritty self-mocking “rocker” (“Crying Wolf”), a forlorn and lonely acoustic ballad with Peter addressing Alice directly (“Alice”), and a slow building piece of acoustic/orchestral tension during which Peter – in classic Hammill-snarl – spins his own miseries into a generally terrible view of the world (“Betrayed”). We also get the 8 minute “narrative” account of the betrayal called “Time Heals,” which is probably the heart of the record. It’s also the most VDGG-y and proggy, with some forceful Guy Evans drumming, some actual melodic creativity, and a multi-part structure. The two best tracks, for me, are the haunting and densely orchestrated ballads “Autumn” and “This Side Of The Looking Glass,” both of which ooze with sadness and pain and loss.  The first is the only non-Alice related song – instead, it has Peter taking on the voice of a depressed aging couple. The narrator describes their being emotionally abandoned by their children, and left along in an old age they don’t want…stranded at the end of a life that, looking back, didn’t seem to add up to much. It’s a PAINFUL fucking song, and the lush emotive string section adds a new dimension to Peter’s writing. “This Side Of The Looking Glass” is the saddest and more resigned Alice song – another tune with a melodramatic string section that beautifully expresses the emotional torment of the lyrics. Peter describes his lady as having escaped through the mirror, and himself left alone on the other side. It’s heart-breaking to hear him describe that lonely existence (the song opens with him staring up at a starry sky newly bereft of meaning). For anyone who has ever broken up with a romantic partner, the song will likely ring incredibly true. As will a lot of these tunes. If only Peter had come up with better actual SONGS, this might have been a classic on par with the Dylan one. But alas – it’s an emotional epic, an important record in Peter’s catalog, but just not all that great listening. Some people will tell you this is Peter’s best record. I’m definitely not one of them, and I have to assume those people are more interested in “emotionality” than “theatricality,” if that makes any sense.
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THE FUTURE NOW  (1978)

C+

This disappointing record initiates a ridiculously prolific and INCREDIBLY frustrating post-VDGG Hammill solo career. Peter strips everything down to the bare-bone on this album – it’s mainly just him and a couple instruments, with maybe a drum machine, and only an occasional guest instrumentalist. He was recording everything at home now, and it’s obvious. We’re a long way from the muscle and mania of the best VDGG songs, and at no point does this album conjure up the intensity of the best acoustic Hammill moments of the past (like “German Overalls” or “The Comet…”). Instead, Pete goes for a new wave/electronic one-man band vibe that shares similarities to the Eno/Bowie Berlin trilogy and elements of “Peter Gabriel 3.” It’s a very cold and mechanical record, without too many inviting melodies or arrangements.  Peter seems transfixed by miniatures and abstraction and minimalism at this point in his career. Give the man points for his continued experimentation – this is a very uncommercial record, ESPECIALLY considering it’s total incompatibility with the increasingly unpopular prog scene Hammill was largely associated with. I bet serious Prog fans HATED this album – there’s no instrumental prowess whatsoever, hardly any drama, and a generally understated tone that shares little in common with the bombastic epics of old. It’s the kind of album you have to try hard to like, as so little of it works as pop music. I can imagine a VDGG fan hearing it and thinking: “OK…that’s it?” It just doesn’t go for big sweeping statements, or rocking arrangements. It’s just a buncha weirdo home recording experiments. Think of it as Peter’s “McCartney” – a totally ragged and unconvincing toss-off that can’t help but emit occasional evidence of its creator’s inherent genius. And this is also the first of many Hammill albums where the lyrics seem far more useful than the music (well, I guess “Over” was the first in that line, but this is even LESS musically valuable to me). The sentiments are almost always great here – or at least ballsy or honest or unique – but it really feels like Peter didn’t put nearly as much energy into his musical backing. The albums starts out alright – “Pushing Thirty” could have been turned into a “Nadir’s Big Chance” style punker if it were given a thrashing full band arrangement. The concept of the song is fun (Peter bragging that he never sold out), but the melody is a bit rote and the tinny drum machine and piano-driven home recorded vibe doesn’t have a lot of “kick.” “Trappings” is a dark acoustic guitar-driven critique of the music industry and the perils of achieving success as an entertainer – again, riveting lyrically but lame musically. “Energy Vampires” is an ATROCIOUS, ugly song about Peter’s over-zealous fans. One of the man’s all time worst recordings. The two best tracks fall right in the middle – “If I Could” is a sad heartbroken ballad that sounds like an “Over” outtake but would actually be the most melodic song on that earlier record. And the title track has a memorable hook and a dense synth arrangement that reminds me of “In Camera.” The 2nd side of the record is largely devoted to unmemorable experimental tracks that go nowhere and hardly create interesting atmospheres (“A Motor-Bike In Afrika,” “The Cut”). Sadly, this album would initiate a series of annoying trends in Peter’s career – trends that lead him further and further away from the glory of the 70s. There is still an excellent series of records around the corner  – but this is clearly the album that precipitated Peter’s later decline into predictability.
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PH7  (1979)

C+

A small step up from “The Future Now,” though in many ways the two records can be seen as companion pieces. This one has a similar home-recorded minimalist vibe, with drum machines and electronic sounds and very little old-school VDGG bombast. But this one gets the minor edge due a really excellent opening trilogy of tunes – three songs that far outshine anything on this or its predecessor. First up is “My Favorite,” one of Peter’s most straight-forward and genuinely sweet love acoustic love songs. It’s a bit schmaltzy in the end, but also a welcome new side to the man, and it sports a pleasant melody and arrangement. Then come two herky jerky, drum machined new wave pop songs – “Careering” and “Porton Down.” The first one pumps along with menacing ferocity and Peter layers some bizarre vocal harmonies on top of his already weirdo pop melodies. The second starts off with a killer bass-synth groove – the song doesn’t live up to the opening (much like some of the Van Der Graaf “The Quiet Zone” compositions), but it creates a unique and claustrophobic atmosphere. It’s a dark and disturbing song, and I wish these records showcased more of its ilk. But unfortunately, the rest of this record is probably even WORSE than its sister (though it picks up a tad at the end). We get a decent stripped down version of “Mirror Images” from VDGG’s live album “Vital,” followed by a series of forgettable throwaways with barely any melodic interest whatsoever. Peter really sounds like he’s repeating himself on a lot of this, and his lyrics are often topical to the point of silly. Some of his melodies are growing totally annoying – on a lot of this material he seems content to negate hooks and energy altogether. In favor of what? I’m not really sure – this is pretty mellifluous stuff. The acoustic pro-disabled rally “Handicap & Equality” is the dumbest thing he’d penned yet, to my ears – I certainly can’t disagree with the sentiment, but a straightforward message song about civil rights from Peter Hammill? It doesn’t work. There’s a 2 minute unsentimental tribute to the recently deceased ex-VDGG member Keith Ellis – a nice lyric but hardly a song. Side 2 is full of off-putting and ugly songs akin to “Energy Vampires,” especially the anti-politics rant “The Old School Tie” and the completely lifeless “Imperial Walls.” The record ends with two songs referencing a “Mr. X,” and they are definitely the best part of the album after the opening trio. “Faculty X,” the closer, has a cool melody that reminds me of “The Quiet Zone” material. But neither song really makes a lasting impression, and in the end, this is just another “experiment” from Peter – maybe useful for him, but likely irrelevant to somebody seeking the high quality song-writing and passionate theater of Peter’s earlier days. It’s a bit of a throwaway – worth hearing once for some of the experimentation and the better tracks, but certainly not worthy of the man’s best work.
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A BLACK BOX  (1980)

A-

Finally, Peter comes up with a successful home-recorded experimental work! This is a a big return to form, and one of Peter’s best ever solo efforts. It loses points for me mainly in the originality department – though there a few surprises on here, we’ve basically heard these sorts of ideas before from Peter on his 70s albums. But this is also very consistent, full of interesting melodies and cool soundscapes, and there isn’t ONE underwritten social commentary acoustic guitar throwaway. It’s all good and dark, menacing and propulsive – I was worried Peter didn’t have this sort of material in him anymore. The album is divided into two distinct halves – the first half is an improved version of the minimalist new wave pop experiments of the previous two records. The second is a 20 minute extended piece in the vein of Peter’s VDGG compositions, albeit far more austere arrangement-wise. Let’s start off with the first half. We open with the two STELLAR pop songs – “Golden Promises” and “Losing Faith in Words.” The drum sounds are much thicker and impactful now (is that Peter playing an actual drumkit?). The songs themselves are hooky and unique, and neither devolves into some sort of unfocused prog mess halfway through (a la some of the tracks on “Future” and “PH7”). The other big pop number is the surprisingly straightforward and engaging rocker “The Spirit.” This album SOUNDS a lot more comfortable and confident than the last two as well. (BTW – This was Peter’s first “indie” record, as he’d recently ended his relationship with Charisma). There are two brief and interesting weirdo non-song experiments called “The Jargon King” and “The Wipe.” And then there are two hauntingly atmospheric slow songs – “Fogwalking” and “In Slow Time” – the former of which is especially hypnotizing. Then comes Side 2 and the 20 minute “Flight,” which in many ways is Peter’s closest relative to “Plague of Lighthouse Keepers.” It’s a strung-together sequence of different songs and moods all centered around a unifying theme (this one uses airplane fight metaphors to ruminate upon fate and willpower and control). Many of the passages are beautiful and powerful – there are also some rocking ones, and a knotty ugly dissonant one in the “Pawn Hearts” vein (that’s probably the weakest section as it lacks the arranging prowess of VDGG to pull it off with the proper flair). In any case, it’s one of Pete’s best long-form tracks. And this is one of his best albums, and CERTAINLY the peak of what could be considered his “experimental” trilogy. His best solo album since “Nadir,” without a doubt in my mind.
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SITTING TARGETS  (1981)

B+

And thus begins Peter’s poppiest ever run of albums! But not in a bad way, mind you. ‘Nadir’s Big Chance” was also, in a sense, a Hammill pop record, and the following group of albums could be seen as continuations of that one’s vibe (albeit in an 80s new wave context rather than a punky art-damanged 70s one). This is quite possibly the most accessible Hammill album of them all – it’s mostly hooky, and mostly upbeat, with a lot of heavy fractured rhythms and well conceived vocal melodies. It’s also quite guitar driven. And Guy Evans is back to lend some bad-assery! This is sort of a middle ground between the previous home-recorded trilogy and the upcoming “K Group” albums on which Peter would re-form nearly the entire “Van Der Graaf” ensemble from the end of the VDGG days. I was pleasantly surprised after hearing this album for the first time – who knew Peter had so many pop instincts in him? That’s not to say this is a Phil Collins record, as there are still loads of obscure and art-rocky Hammill moments (a dissonant verse here, an ugly bridge there, a seemingly random slow ruminative section there and here). But I like to think of this and the following couple albums as Van Der Graaf’s version of King Crimson’s 80s trilogy – new wave pop played with proggy instincts by classy old timers trying to stay hip. And while it was obviously recorded in the early 80s, the sonic identity here is still organic and 70s enough to allow for comfortable listening (unlike some of Peter’s later and far more dated work). This is an incredibly consistent work for a fairly erratic fella – the only track that reeks of over-intellectual under-writing is “Glue,” a monotonous tone-poem of a “song.” The rest are spastic punchy new wave rockers or pretty ballads like the gorgeous acoustic “Ophelia,” BY FAR Peter’s best and most memorable love song. It’s one of the few times in his career when the man seems totally locked into the demands of a simple pop song. Besides that tune, my absolute favorites are the grooving title track and the almost danceable stomper “My Experience,” which is one of those “could have been a hit if Peter were slightly less abrasive” songs that permeate some of these early 80s Hammill albums. But really every track on here (except “Glue”) resonates. And it’s still got some of that good ol’ venom in its blood. It’s hard to recommend any of the man’s post-70s or  material to newcomers simply because the 70s records are so phenomenal (and there are so many of them). But if you ARE interested in moving beyond into Peter’s post-peak years, this is a highly respectable pop album and a good place to start.
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ENTER K  (1982)

A-

After all those one-man-band albums, Peter must have been feeling lonely. So he formed a new band, which is simply the final Van Der Graaf line-up minus the violin with an additional guitarist (The Vibrators’ John Ellis). And David Jackson even guests on two tracks! I don’t know why this isn’t an actual Van Der Graaf album (it’s certainly closer in spirit and sound to its respective classic era than, say, the 80s Yes lineup). I imagine the boys wanted to keep the past behind them. So Peter called this the “K Group” instead, dubbed himself “K,”and gave each of the band members a fake name – “Brain” for Guy Evans, “Mozart” for Nic Potter, “Fury” for John Ellis. The band basically picks up where “The Quiet Zone” left off, but they mix the old fury with Peter’s newfound commercial new wave instincts as honed on “Sitting Targets.” The result is a tight as shit album full of great Guy Evans grooves and the most vicious Hammill performances since the good ol’ days. It’s a dark artsy new wave record that hardly sounds like the product of a leftover 70s band. It takes a little while to grow on you – there are some pushing-the-80s-ness moments, and the hooks aren’t always readily apparent. But there’s a directness and muscle to the sound here, and it’s just to great to hear an actual organic BAND behind Peter again. And probably the most “rocking” band he ever had, if we consider “rock” in the typical sense of driving rhythms and heavy guitars. VDGG was never a guitar band, but John Ellis is all over this record, coupled with the always awesome and idiosyncratic Evans’ drumming. It’s a really exciting and alive sounding record, ESPECIALLY compared to what most of Hammill’s prog and art rock peers were doing in 1982. Every song here is solid. “Paradox Drive” opens with a almost comical guitar figure before spiraling into a bunch of weirder and fractured sections. Evans is really into 80s disco-punk grooves in the K Group, sort of a continuation of his “Place To Survive” style on VDGG’s “World Record.” The most surprising track here is the catchy pop song “She Wraps It Up,” which sports one of Hammill’s all-time most audience-friendly refrains. The best two tracks are probably the last two – the 9 minute “Happy Hour” never feels overlong, but it’s also not a meandering epic in the old-school VDGG fashion. It’s a dramatic intense and melodic reading of a relatively simple song, but it remains interesting the whole way through. And then there’s the jumpy guitar-driven closer “Seven Wonders,” a funky beast with great hooks. I think my rating for this one may be a notch high – it’s not the kind of album I’m going to listen to all the time, and it ain’t gonna replace Nadir.  But I’m just floored with the level of quality and relevance this dude was able to maintain all the way into the 80s. He deserves the accolades!
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LOOPS AND REELS  (1983)

(no grade)

Not a “real” Hammill record, but rather a compilation of mostly instrumental and ambient-ish tape experiments that came from the years of home-recording experimentation in the late-70s/early 80s. The most useful track is the opener “A Ritual Mask,” which sounds like one of the abstract songs off of “A Black Box” and “PH7” – it’s Peter and percussion and a strange exotic string instrument I can’t name at the moment. The piece creates a unique and scary mood. I also enjoy the 15 minute “My Pulse,” which is like a Hammill multi-part epic sans vocals. It’s got some truly beautiful and hypnotic moments (the main theme guitar melody is quite lovely). As far as the rest…there’s a nifty alternate version of “In Slow Time” from “A Black Box,” some boring and ponderous ambient soundscapes (“A Critical Mass,” “An Endless Breath”) and a vocal experiment called “The Moebius Loop.” This is Pete’s experimental side taken to the extreme – it’s not a songwriter’s record, and certainly don’t expect any Hammill vocal pyrotechnics. But it’s an interesting listen, and could make for some cool background music.
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PATIENCE  (1983)

B+

This is the second K Group album, and it’s a clear extension of “Enter K.” It might be a tad more polished sounding, and a hair lighter in tone – but it’s ultimately coming from the exact same place. And it’s similarly tight as hell, without any filler or obviously weak moments. “K” gets the edge for me due to the novelty, but my ratings for both are essentially interchangeable depending on my mood. If you like the one, you are sure to like the other!  Once again Guy Evans proves himself a killer drummer, Peter a killer frontman, and once again it’s great to hear a heavier reliance on guitar and rockin’ grooviness. There’s so much plodding piano-driven somber crap in Peter’s later catalog, and this might be the last time he truly sounds like a bad-ass. The album opens with “Labour of Love,” which alternates between a nearly too commercial 80s pop section and a dark twisted art rock section. It’s not one of my favorite tracks here, but it’s a strong opening statement. “Film Noir” is sort of the sequel to “She Wraps It Up,” another upbeat driving edgy new wave song. The best song is undoubtedly “Jeunesse Doree,” which may even be the best K Group track overall. It’s got a knotty Crimson-like verse riff and then slams into a catchy chorus with some great Evans synth pop drum parts. Side 2 has my other favorite – “Now More Than Ever,” a snarling twisted rocker that’s PRETTY much a prog rock song. The title track seems to be a fan favorite, and though it’s got some awesome lyrics and never bores me, it’s also got one of the weakest melodies on the record and never really hit me the way some of these others do. But not to worry! This is a strong, fierce, and respectable album from a guy who seriously had nothing left to prove at this point. But he shows no signs of mellowing out or washing up yet, save for the occasional lapse in sonic taste (but what with the dreaded 80s production values just about to hit Peter’s catalog like a video game wave, I can certainly live with the weaker choices on here)…
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THE LOVE SONGS  (1984)

(no grade)

What the FUCK is with that album cover? Who was Peter trying to fool here? Did he think he could become the sad man’s Phil Collins? This is a compilation of some of Pete’s “loveliest” ditties, most of which have been re-done and/or remixed to sound considerably more 80s and commercial. Not to mention worse. I can’t imagine Mr Difficult himself found this an attractive idea – my guess is that it came from a record label friend (“You know, Pete, you’ve got all these great tender songs strewn throughout your knotty career. We should make sure people KNOW that side of you!”)…or maybe came from one or more lady-friends (“Peter, you really oughta track one for the gals – leave the art nerds behind for a spell. I mean jeez, it IS 1984 – everybody’s doing it!”). I don’t really know. It just seems incredibly un-Hammill to go back to some of the slightest material in his catalog and re-produce it in glossy arrangements. This is the first Peter record to really show signs of serious 80s production issues like corny synths and over-processed drum sounds. And granted, it’s not a REAL Hammill album – it’s just a retrospective. But do we really need to hear old songs like “Vision” and “The Birds” and “Again” and “Been Alone So Long” in this context? They worked SO much better as part of art rock albums – like breaths of fresh air. HERE, they all sound like cheese. “Vision” in particular sounds like a demo for a bad Broadway musical. “Ophelia” was perfectly nice a couple years ago – why the need to 80s-ify it? So…do any of the songs improve upon their original recordings? The closest is “If I Could.” which actually sounded awkward slotted in among the obtuse experiments of “The Future Now.” Here, it’s strength as a sad love ballad really shows through. “This Side Of The Looking Glass” ends the record on a powerful note – that really SHOULD have been the last song in its original home,”Over.” At least the sax solo I always hated on “Been Alone So Long” makes more sense on this album. More shitty sense. YUCK!
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THE MARGIN (LIVE)  (1985)

(no grade)

This was the K-Group’s live album release. I was expecting a real ferocious affair, and some awesome new readings of the lackluster late-70s solo material. But the K Group (as represented on this live album) rocked WAY harder in the studio! So I’m disappointed. This is all solo Hammill except for a mediocre rendition of Van Der Graaf’s “The Sphinx in the Face.” I’m not a big fan of most live Hammill recordings – and there is hardly enough variety in the arrangements here to warrant a serious listen. There’s a large quotient of songs from the home-recorded trilogy, but only “The Future Now” seemed useful to me (it does indeed rock harder than the album version). The recording quality here leaves a lot to be desired, and Peter has started to overuse his corny electric piano (which is going to be a major problem around the corner). There’s a full version of “Flight,” and some of the sections there work better with a full rock ensemble backing them…but some work WORSE, as we lose the vocal overdubs and intimate atmosphere of the “Black Box” version. As far as the K Group songs, “Labour of Love” sounded good here, it’s shifts from pretty to evil even more striking than on the album version. For some odd reason, there’s nothing from “Enter K” (Peter would eventually release an expanded version of this album with a bunch of “Enter K” tunes). Needless to say, a giant live album of solo Hammill recordings from the 80s is a fans only affair. Peter has mentioned in interviews that he never really saw the purpose of live albums – hence the lack of an official one during the classic-era VDGG days. So I have no idea why Peter insisted on releasing some incredibly overstuffed solo ones in the 80s and 90s — perhaps he needed the money? Or maybe he just changed his mind. Anyway, this exhausting and irrelevant record certainly makes a case for his original theory.
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SKIN  (1986)

C+

Peter’s first cheesy adult pop album. The ballsy K Group sound has met its maker. This was one of two “new” style Peter records to be released in 1986, and it’s the relatively commercial one. It is still clearly a thoughtful art rock work, and there are hardly any genuine commercial prospects in the Phil Collins mold. But there’s no denying that Peter is going for a softer and lamer “pop” sound on nearly this entire record.That opening drum sound does NOT bode well for the sonic identity of this album, or Peter’s reputation as a bad-ass. It just screams “80s pop time!!” I guess it happened to pretty much all of the 60s-70s greats eventually. But Peter had held out so long, I figured he wouldn’t be taken in by the evil claws of 80s production. The electronic instrumentation here is usually skirting JUST on the right side of the line that divides “incredibly dated and corny” from “acceptable losses in production due to 1986.” But there are all sorts of embarrassing moments – the synth sound in Painting by Numbers is the dumbest sounding thing I’ve heard in a long time. And the organic live-band vibe of the K Group has been totally swept away in favor of overly processed…EVERYTHING. Now, that would all be a monumental problem (and it eventually will be) if Peter’s writing was slipping as well. Luckily, he’s still got the touch at this point. The actual compositions here aren’t going to make me forget the 70s era or even the K Group, but they are all at the very least interesting and some are even hooky and energetic. Peter hasn’t yet landed in the rut of lifeless meandering barely melodic drivel that would start to stuff his increasingly overstuffed catalog. There are definitely melodies here, even if some of them of sound like discarded demos from Broadway musicals (especially “Four Pails,” which has a positively Sondheim-y melody). The two obvious “pop” hits are the previously mentioned cheese-fest “Painting By Numbers,” which is actually a vicious condemnation of commercialism in art. So maybe the corny arrangement is meant to be ironic. Anyway, the song has a memorable chorus, even if it’s a completely stupid kind of memorability. I don’t really want to hear Peter sounding like this, to be honest – he sounds like he’s had his evil balls cut off and replaced with the little furry dice you hang on your rearview mirror. But it’s not a bad song. “All Said And Done” is the other one – it’s driven by acoustic guitars, and sounds like 80s Bowie. The big concluding 9 minute track is called “Now Lover,” but it’s really just another two or three synth pop songs strung together into something approximating an old VDGG epic. There’s a decent main chorus hook to that one, but it’s off-putting hearing what’s essentially a classic-era Hammill formula presented with ugly 80s pop sounds. My favorite track is here is definitely “Shell,” which sports another musical-esque melody, but it’s a GOOD melody. And the production fits the composition on that one – everything is a bit more subtle and moody. It’s the only tune I can imagine myself returning to from this record. Some other gripes – when Guy Evans DOES appear on here, he’s mixed far too low. Plus, it hasn’t quite happened yet, but it’s obvious that Peter’s melodic sense is moving in a hard-to-define “new age” direction, where the atmosphere and synth washes become more important than big dynamics or intriguing changes. There’s crap on its way, folks, and it’s foreshadowed by some of the weaker moments here. Still, this isn’t a bad release – it’s just far too dorky sounding to recommend to anybody.
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AND CLOSE AS THIS   (1986)

C+

This was Peter’s second 1986 release, and it presents a start contrast to the yucky processed synth pop of “Skin.” Instead, it’s a totally stripped down and austere album of deeply emotional art pop songs, with every track merely consisting of Peter’s voice and one or two instruments (mainly keyboards). The ones with actual pianos sound alright, but unfortunately Peter had become totally taken with samples and lame soft rock electric piano sounds, and he uses those on some of these tracks as well. The album cover is a picture of Peter’s closed eye, and that’s a good visual representative of the vibe of this piece – there are some moments of drama and anguish and vocal prowess, but it’s mostly somber and low key ruminations on love and children and memory. So how are the “songs?” Certainly not pop songs, not particularly memorable or exciting, but mostly very pretty and full of defined melodies. There are some duds, like the insufferably positive and corny “Faith” and the totally underwritten hymn to Peter’s daughter “Sleep Now.” The latter is moving in its sentiment, and Peter sings with his standard expressive yearning, but it’s just not enough of a musical composition to warrant inclusion on an album proper. There are some winners, too: opener “Too Many Of My Yesterdays” is probably the best overall, with it’s acoustic piano sound and haunting melody. It’s like a leftover from “Over.” And “Empire of Delight” reminds me of an old “In Camera”-era track – if only the keyboards didn’t sound like cottage cheese! Never before had Peter put out an album that distanced him this severely from his proggy youth, but in other ways this is more Hammill-like than some of his recent releases. It’s got that uber-serious “little man searching for answers” tone, and Peter seems very invested in these vocal performances. I’m not sure why he decided to leave the songs so unadorned – but I’m sure glad he did, because he ended up saving this album from completely dated 80s oblivion. Still, the musical-theater demo feeling hasn’t gone away, and I wish he had provided these interesting tunes with some more organic instrumentation. Worth hearing for big fans, but newcomers would be advised to stick with the 70s.
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IN A FOREIGN TOWN  (1988)

D-

NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Easily the worst VDGG or Hammill release yet. Peter has now completely immersed himself in a giant shit-pool of dated samples, corny keyboards, ugly horn patches, lame adult-pop changes, and basically every other bad 80s production cliche you can imagine. This is one of the worst sounding albums I’ve ever HEARD. And that would still suck if this album had some good songs. But instead it’s full of atrocious ones, and so the production crimes are rendered even MORE heinous. Seriously, though, this is such a giant drop in quality and charisma and energy and guts from Peter that I’m convinced he was replaced by a body snatcher. Except that the man has an unmistakable voice – that’s Peter alright –  and so I guess I just have to come to terms with the fact that he’s is human after all. Man, that was sure an incredible run of quality records, Mr. Hammill. But this is your first absolute disaster. The ONLY song on here with a remotely listenable hook is the re-write of the old Van Der Graaf song “Sci-Finance.” Now, the tune sounds like my Grandma’s veiny legs, but at least it doesn’t make me want to throw the album into the toilet and go number 2 all over it. Let’s talk about some of the album’s other “songs,” shall we? Opener “Hemlock” has Peter singing a set of ham-fisted political lyrics against what sounds like the “blues” demo on your Casio. “Invisible Ink” and “Vote Brand X” are both ugly messy pop songs with hideous melodies. They’re so uninteresting from a melodic standpoint, I’d just prefer to say they have NO melodies. And the latter may be the worst song Peter ever wrote. I believe that’s the singer directly referencing Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” at the end of the atrocious “Sun City Night Life” – weird! “This Book” is a putrid adult-contomporary song with the kind of obvious 80s schmaltz-pop chorus I try to avoid at all costs (“This Book Has Ended And I Put it Down…”). There are terrible synth choices all over this thing, plus really bad sounding electronic drums. AND Peter’s vocals are basically irrelevant here – if you told me this guy was one of the greatest vocalists of the rock era and then played me this record, I would laugh in your face. Did he even try on this one? There’s even a COVER! It’s called “Smile” and, incidentally, it’s probably one of the more “listenable” tracks on the record. But it’s hardly in the same territory as “good.” This album is a joke, and an embarrassment, and I assume it put a dent in the man’s reputation for those still paying attention in 1988.  Luckily he had already made a ton of genius albums, and he was going to just keep on popping new albums out, rendering any particular dud irrelevant in the context of his five billion other records.  One more interesting note about this: Peter has since gone back and nearly disowned the record HIMSELF – on his website he has very few nice things to say about his work here. Everybody has bad days, I guess. Let’s just keep them out of our stereos.
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SPUR OF THE MOMENT (WITH GUY EVANS)  (1988)

(no grade)

This is a mostly improvised instrumental collaboration between Peter and ex-VDGG and K Group drummer Guy Evans. I’m a huge fan of both of these men, but this is a worthless and boring and dated record. Peter is still going hog-wild with his stupid sequencing and pathetic keyboard patches. Evans isn’t at all in his beefy funky jazz mode, and instead provides a bunch of programmed sounding hand percussion or free pitter-patter improv-sounding stuff behind the lame Hammill electronic textures. It’s really quite extraordinary how bad Hammill was during this period. He used to be the saving grace of a record – now he’s a huge liability. This does NOT sound the work of two legendary art rock/avant-garde figures. It sounds like the soundtrack to bad 80s movie. I don’t even know how to single out any tracks,  because it’s all the same annoying early 90s instrumental garbage. Nothing sticks out – nothing has a discernible identity. The tones are often so cheesy that I can’t even listen to them without wincing in agony. The album title clues me into the fact that this was probably a quickie, done for fun and in good improvisational spirits. It initiates an over-releasing trend on Peter’s part – he would soon effectively become the art rock Robert Pollard (but worse than Bob). So while this might have been enjoyable for Guy and Peter, it’s not fair that old VDGG have to listen to it (because that’s certain to be it’s main purchasing audience). It’s not  worth hearing even if you’re the biggest VDGG fan on Earth, and it would be best left disregarded along with the rest of Pete’s miserable late-80s material.
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OUT OF WATER  (1990)

C-

This is sort of a sister album to “In A Foreign Town,” with the same instrumentation from the bowels of 80s MIDI hell and the same disappointing sense that Peter has run out of ideas on every front. His vocals have now grown positively old and deep – or at least, he’s singing in that style throughout this record. There’s an overwhelming lack of humor and “rock” energy on this – it’s really ultra-serious and depressing. He’s so far away from his raging prog-punk roots at this point that he’s essentially a different artist entirely. I think this is a much better record than “Foreign Town,” even if I can hardly claim to “like” it. First of all, it’s got one beautiful track called “No Moon On The Water,” which easily the best thing on the previous two albums. The song has a gorgeous intoxicating chorus melody, and Peter’s layered vocals create an ethereal group choir effect that really sells the hook. Minus the lame instrumentation (which actually doesn’t seem too bad on that one), it would be a keeper even in the context of Peter’s vast catalog. Nothing else on here is that good, but nothing really sinks to the depths of “Vote Brand X” either. This is sort of a mix (vibe-wise) of the quiet stripped down “And Close As This” and the ugly pop of “Foreign Town.” It’s probably the least distinct Hammill album yet, in that  it showcases no defining characteristics and doesn’t really present anything unique to the catalog. There are only 8 tracks here, and the last two are both over 7 minutes long and really bad.  “On The Surface” is a lengthy a-melodic minor key MIDI dirge – Peter lays down a crappy sounding repeated rhythmic pattern and proceeds to moan over it for 8 minutes (the “keep breathing” layered vocal is the driving “hook,” but it’s hardly a good one). And “A Way Out” ends the album with a completely contrived melodic verse repeated endlessly, and some corny adult-contemporary guitar solos. The opening track is called “Evidently Goldfish,” and it’s a dire dirge-y sorta non-song, with possibly the most laughable vocal hook of Peter’s career (“We’re evidently goldfish in the mental SPHEERE!”). Elsewhere, “Our Oyster” and “Not The Man” are both moderately listenable, the latter sporting a decent vocal melodies that could have been made even better with a K Group arrangement . And the former sounds like an “And Close As This” holdover – it’s got dumb electric piano sounds, but it’s kinda pretty I suppose. Now…I guess I should be glad that Peter hadn’t gotten WORSE after “Foreign Town.” But this album doesn’t seem to point the way to any sort of general upswing – it’s just a minor improvement on total garbage is all, and I can hardly recommend to it anyone but huge fans.
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ROOM TEMPERATURE  (LIVE)  (1990)

(no grade)

A huge double album of solo Peter from the early 90s. There’s no drummer – mostly just Peter and he’s occasionally accompanied by Nic Potter on bass and Stuart Gordon on violin. Look…I’m not going to lie…I haven’t listened to this entire thing. Each “disc” runs over 70 minutes, and it’s full of the meandering adult-pop material of the previous run of albums. I just have no patience for it, and I highly doubt all but the most devoted fans would want to hear this. To make matters worse, Peter employs a lot of the gross keyboard sounds from the previous two records. Shit, even Peter’s GUITARS sound canned for some reason. The best thing about the record: he dips back into the masterpiece era couple times (there’s an awesome version of “Modern” and he also does “The Comet, The Course, The Tail”). When you hear Peter singing those old classics, it’s hard not to realize how far his power has slipped at this point. And it’s also hard not to marvel at the man’s retention of his voice – with all the screaming on the 70s records, I would have thought he’d have lost SOMETHING by now!!! But he sounds basically the same as ever. Another positive quality of this: we get to hear some bare-bones versions of tunes from the previous few records. Without the stupid 80s production. “Hemlock” is far better as a bluesy acoustic stomper, for example. But anyway…this isn’t really worth anybody’s time unless you have a gigantic late-80s Hammill fetish. And I believe that only one person in the world has a late-80s Hammill fetish. And that person is….
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THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER  (1991)

(no grade)

Oh my goodness. This is perhaps the worst release I’ve ever heard from an artist I can simultaneously say I adore. Based on the famous Edgar Allen Poe play, this was an “opera” conceived by Peter and his old early VDGG mate and friend Chris Judge Smith. Smith wrote the libretto and Peter wrote the music – apparently they’d been working on the piece since the 70s. There are some additional singers here – but Peter plays both Usher AND the house itself. Now, before I get into my thoughts about this album, let me preface them by saying that I love musical theater and listen to theater scores nearly as much as I do rock music proper. So I have absolutely no prejudices against this sort of operatic storytelling approach to rock music – I actually prefer it in many cases. And Peter is one of the few classic rockers who seems naturally suited to the form (folks like Townshend and Davies always seemed like they were out of their elements, even if I do indeed love their rock operas). But this is a TOTAL PIECE OF SHIT. I simply can’t believe how bad this is. Firstly, it’s all programmed via Peter’s ugly early MIDI software – so it’s got the same terrible dated synths and drum sounds as “Foreign Town” and “Out Of Water.” It’s incredibly canned and corny sounding – it basically just sounds like awful demos to an amateurish musical that should never be produced. Or like one of those cheapo Halloween music albums. The additional vocalists are completely dull and add nothing to the proceedings, whereas Peter is singing in this baritone operatic voice that sounds COMPLETELY AND UTTERLY RIDICULOUS. I can barely listen to him on here – it makes me squirm. How about the material? Well, it’s mostly tuneless drivel, with awkward phrasing and far too much recitative for my tastes. I suppose this was intended as an “opera,” but if it’s going to sound like MIDI adult-contemporary music instead of orchestral Puccini, then I can also argue for more songs and less meandering speak-singing bullshit. Toward the end of the record things get a little more song-y, with the “Foreign Town”-sounding 80s pop song “Beating Of The Heart.” I think my favorite tracks overall (and since this is a through-sung piece, it’s a bit silly to break it down) would have to be the nearly 7 minute “She Is Dead,” which showcases one of the album’s only slightly interesting melodies, and the experimental acappella track “Architecture.” The latter at least uses Peter’s vocals to express the gothic atmospherics of the tale, as opposed to primitive MIDI samples. Peter apparently went back years later and “re-constructed” this album to sound more up to date and less laughable (he re-recorded a bunch of his vocals too). I haven’t heard that version – but unless he re-wrote every song and changed the entire vibe, I would rather get a root canal than listen to this material again. The late-80/early 90s were NOT a good period for this man. Avoid at all costs.
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FIRESHIPS  (1992)

D

With this boring and lifeless album, Peter is showing me no evidence that he will EVER regain his edge or his powers. I don’t think I’ve ever loved an artist’s early work and despised his or her later work as much as I do with Hammill. All the old passion and ferocity has gone out of Peter’s style, and it’s been replaced by bunch of new age-y MIDI-infused overlong and unmemorable pieces of crap. Peter now sings in a whispery musical theater baritone that has basically nothing to do with rock music. His voice used to be a freak of nature, but I can’t stand his newfound delivery. It’s so humorless and one-dimensional…it’s almost unbearable for me. This is some of the worst music I’ve ever had the displeasure of listening to, and it’s even more disheartening to realize that Peter wasn’t going for radio or trying to keep up with trends. This is still “art” music, but his art has just run in such a counter direction to his dynamic younger work that I can’t imagine most of his old fans following him into these pastures. This is mood” music, not pop music – it’s all atmosphere and generally hook-less, and there’s not a moment of brevity or spontaneity on the entire thing. It’s a slog, a dirge, a deadly affair. This was intended as the first part of a series in which Peter would release a “quiet” album followed by a “loud” one. This was the “quiet” one, or “Number 1 in the BeCalm series,” whereas next year’s album would be “Number 1 in the ALoud series.” So this album collects all the ballads and less rocking numbers from Peter’s recent writing sessions and flings them at us like big pile of turds. There are exactly two decent songs here. “Curtains” is an old-school stripped down Hammill story ballad with vocals, a piano, and some OK sounding string samples mixed with real string players. It’s not a great song, but it sounds in line with older tracks like “Wilhemina” and “Autumn” and it’s sonically acceptable. Then there’s the best track by far – album closer “Gaia,” which has some gorgeous layered vocals, and a haunting melody. It reminds me of “No Moon On The Water” from “Out of Water.” Now, Peter clearly wanted to make a chamber-orchestrated ballads album here, and emphasize the beauty in his work. He gets close with those two tracks, but the rest of this album is a disaster. It opens with “I Will Find You,” a corny adult-contemporary song with a bad 90s back-beat and a seriously annoying and derivative melody. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to hear on the radio in a Dentist’s office.Then there are some completely dirge-y and dull and repetitive “texture” songs like “Oasis” and “Incomplete Surrender” and the title track. The miserable “His Best Girl” uses another awful soft-rock electric piano sound. Some of these songs are nearly 7 minutes long, and they go nowhere. I’m sorry to be so negative about Peter’s work, as I truly respect and appreciate the man. But this is a piss-poor record. I want to just take my hand and wipe all of Hammill’s late-80s/early-90s work off the face of the Earth!!!!
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THE NOISE  (1993)

C

Well, thank the Lord of rock, Peter finally takes a small step away from utter garbage and finds his way into the warm embrace of mediocrity. This was originally intended as the first in the “A Loud” series – the “rock” albums that were the arrive in between the “ballad” records as represented by excruciating “Fireships.” I’m very happy to report that this is indeed the most energetic and band-oriented Hammill record since the K-Group days – and it even contains most of that era’s players (minus crucial drummer Guy Evans). Sonically, we’re still dealing with a whole slew of bad early 90s drum sounds, weak MIDI samples, corny electric piano sounds, and generally inorganic band interplay. But LESS of that stuff than before, and the guys are actually trying to rock here. And Peter actually wrote some genuine hooks instead of a bunch of boring minor key dirges. Even better: there is an honest to god GOOD song on this album – a composition that could stand up to the man’s early days. That song is the lively and melodic “Like A Shot, The Entertainer,” which almost sounds like the spot where VDGG and Bruce Springsteen converge (if you can believe that). It’s probably the only  track in the entire 90s Hammill discography that I would feel comfortable playing to a friend as an example of the man’s talents. The opening tune – “A Kiss To Kill The Kiss” – is nearly as strong, though it has a bit of “old-man rock” attitude to it (with some corny blues guitar licks and a lame drum part). But at least it has a chorus, and Peter sings it in something approximating his old Nadir snarl. There’s one other acceptable tune here – the catchy “The Great European Department Store,” which unfortunately sounds awful and contains some silly out of touch lyrics –  but it actually has an engaging hook! I didn’t think Peter could even come up with genuine melodies anymore, but this album has a couple of ’em. The rest of the material ranges from listenable but weak (“Planet Coventry,” the wannabe vicious title track) to really ugly and horrible (“Celebrity Kissing” and “Where the Mouth Is”). Then there’s 8 and half minute closer “Primo on the Parapet,” which is one of those meandering minor-key tuneless concoctions that pepper Peter’s entire last 20 years of recording. It’s a bit better than it’s brethren though, mainly due to a socially charged lyric and some real dynamics. Whatever – no use harping on the bad here, because AT LEAST this album sounds like a mediocre past-his-prime Hammill as opposed to a totally different artist altogether.
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THERE GOES THE DAYLIGHT  (LIVE)  (1993)

(no grade)

A rock-oriented live album with “The Noise” band. One thing is very clear from listening to this: Guy Evans is a great drummer. Of course, he’s not the drummer on THIS record. Here we have a guy named Manny Elias, who played on “The Noise” and would play on some more Hammill releases in the future. He was the original Tears For Fears skin-slapper. Well, kids, Manny isn’t floating my boat. The drumming on this album couldn’t be more boring and lifeless. It’s particularly obvious on the older tracks that used to be driven by Evans – there are a couple Van Der Graaf tracks on here, and neither of them even come close to the ferocity of the “Quiet Zone” or “Vital” versions. The album also contains the mediocre “Lost and Found” from Peter’s “Over,” two of the weaker songs from “The Noise” (“Planet Coventry” and “Primo on the Parapet”), the cheesy “I Will Find You” from “Fireships,” and for some odd and welcome reason THREE “Sitting Targets” songs!  The closing version of “Central Hotel” is probably the best and most ripping number on the record. But stuff like the big jam in the middle of “Primo On the Parapet” would barely past muster at an amateur rock bar, and these guys are supposed to be art rock legends! That songs’ middle-Eastern sounding guitar riff has some potential – I wish it were married to a better overall composition. Anyway, I’d certainly rather listen to electrified band-oriented live 90s Hammill than solo schmaltz piano 90s Hammill, but I don’t really want to listen to either. A useless and dull release, and not even the best 90s Hammill live album (that would come later with “Typical”).
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ROARING FORTIES  (1994)

C

Continuing from the (very) minor rebound that was “The Noise,” Peter drops his soft/loud concept altogether and just makes a “classic” Peter Hammill style album. This was pegged as a big return to form by some of Peter’s fans at the time, but I’m guessing that’s mainly due to the inclusion of a “Flight” style epic called “A Headlong Stretch.” Prog fans tend to love 20 minute tracks, and also to assume they make a record more artistic. But we’re dealing with basically the same exact sound as the more reserved tracks on “The Noise,” and the big epic doesn’t really fool me – the song fragments don’t even come closer to cohering as a complete unit. But some of them are quite nice – like the acoustic opening one called “Up Ahead.” Peter even attempts some old-school VDGG dissonant thrashiness on parts of this extended suite, but it’s pretty obvious those days are far behind him at this point. The violent parts here sound more ugly and tossed off than genuinely frightening or spontaneous. The canned sounding production hasn’t entirely gone away here, but at least things seem more 90s rock canned than “sampled from a 1989 floppy disc” canned.  So if you’re really curious about Peter’s 90s records, this is probably the ideal starting point  – it showcases many his ideas from that decade without making me want to vomit like some of the others. So…aside from the 20 minute suite, we get a first half largely comprised of bluesy rockers in the vein of the previous record. The opener “Sharply Unclear” very obviously lifts the arpeggio guitar line and vibe from “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” though Peter is such a weird dude that for all I know he never even heard “Abbey Road.” A very straight-forward and generic song for Pete, but at least it’s got a pulse. There are two more similar “old man” rockers – both with bluesier bents than usual – and “The Gift Of Fire (Talk Turkey)” has some VDGG-esque horn lines from David Jackson. I don’t have much to say about any of these songs – they’re too long, too formulaic, and too obvious, but they aren’t particularly BAD. The album ends with it’s best track – an uplifting ballad called “Your Tall Ship.” Good vocal performance and some nice harmonies, a sort of pretty melody, and a swell palate cleanser after the big suite. This is hardly a return to form – you’d be better off never listening to it unless you REALLY love the early stuff. For big Hammill fans, it’s worth a listen or two.
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X MY HEART   (1996)

C

If you removed the two terrible and ugly “experimental” songs that clutter up this album’s first half, you would be left with the poppiest and most accessible Hammill record of the decade. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best of the decade – that reward would probably go to “Roaring Forties” or ” The Noise.” But it’s another merely mediocre entry in a catalog increasingly full of totally awful entries, and so it’s relatively a winner. The album is bookended by the same song with two different arrangements – the melodic and hopeful sounding “A Better Time.” It firstly appears acapella, secondly in a typically lame adult-contemporary fashion. The acapella one is much more interesting and tasteful. The song sports a memorable vocal melody, but it’s also somewhat obvious and musical-theatery (in a bad way) –  so while I can hardly recommend the song outside the context of Hammil-ville, I CAN call it one of the better “tunes” to show up in his catalog in quite a while. 2nd song “Amnesiac” is an acoustic guitar driven folk-rocker with a semi-interesting hook. Peter sings it with a little grit, which is nice, and I love hearing an organic rocking acoustic guitar sound coming from the newly dubbed Mr. MIDI. But the verses are too meandering and the song never really quite takes off the way I wish it would. The first two songs here, then, are both decent and respectable – and I was anticipating the best Hammill record in years. But then we are dropped headfirst into 11 minutes of total garbage, as represented by “Ram Origami” and “A Forest of Pronouns,” both of which occupy the same repetitive tedious ugly underwritten hookless unpleasant territory of the worst of “Fireships” and “In A Foreign Town.” Yuck. Those are the only two such numbers, though, and things pick up for the rest of the platter. There’s a borderline lame but very pretty ballad called “Earthbound,” and my favorite track – “Narcissus (Bar & Grill)” – an acoustic rocker that gets PRETTY close to sounding like something off of, say, “Sitting Targets.” It falls apart in the middle with a bunch of unnecessary changes, but it’s mostly driving and melodic and it’s got some fun mean-spirited lyrics. “Material Possession” has a Celtic music inspired instrumental section, and Peter sings with passion throughout the track. It’s not much of a song, but at least it’s a bit unique in the catalog. Peter has made far worse and FAR better albums than this one, and this isn’t going to change anybody’s life. But I think it’s safe to say he’s at least back on “track” with this release. Whether that track will ever lead him to glory again, I can’t say.
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SONIX  (experimental, sonix series)  (1996)

(no grade)

A mostly instrumental and highly experimental record in the vein of Peter’s earlier “Loops and Reels.” He didn’t consider this an album “proper,” and actually started calling his sub-releases of experimental workshop material the “Sonix” series. At this miserable point in his career, I would way rather listen to this ambient stuff than more moaning MIDI new age dirges. This has some cool moments, and just like “Loops,” this could make for some decent background music.. The best piece is the 9 minute “Four On The Floor,” and the orchestral themes that bookend the record are quite pretty. But be warned – there’s a 26 minute track on here called “Labyrinthine Dreams” and it very well be the most tedious piece of music in an increasingly tedious late-period Hammill catalog. It’s mainly just solo piano noodling – it’s the only track with a vocal melody, but it’s not a good one and Peter sings in his old-man annoying low register. I can’t believe anyone would want to listen to that utterly boring “epic” more than once. And I don’t imagine I’ll ever listen to this record again. But it certainly doesn’t assault me with awfulness like some of these other 90s albums, and so I guess you might call it one of Peter’s only interesting releases all decade. What a sad state of affairs.
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EVERYONE YOU HOLD  (1997)

C-

This is quite possibly the most boring album of Peter’s career, though it’s not the WORST.The album’s cover has a close-up of a very pensive, white-haired Hammill with his hand resting upon his cheek – “This a deep thinking intellectual poet’s album, not some immature rock thing,” is the message I’m gathering from that image. And while one must not always judge a book by its cover, you’d be safe in doing so here: this is the sleepiest and least rousing Hammill record yet. Even the solo keyboard record “And Close As This” had more energy and entertainment value. This is just a handful of long meandering ruminations – with barely any pop instincts on display, minimal instrumentation, no vocal pyrotechnics, and very little ties to his 70s style, There are only a few drum tracks. There are some layered Frippy electric guitar moments that perk my ears up a bit. But I can’t imagine this was a huge favorite among the man’s fans – it’s leagues and leagues away from what made Peter such an appealing artist for so many years. That being said, if we are to accept this new style for what it is (which is only fair – the man IS an artist, for heaven’s sake)…there’s an atmospheric beauty to parts of this record that sound like major improvements to the overly cloying but similar songs on “Fireships.” Peter has found a new gorgeous choral vocal layering technique that utilizes his skills at vocal overdubbing to great effect (I believe he’s got his daughters voices worked in there somewhere as well). Hugh Banton even showed up on this record to lend some organ and production ideas, and I have a feeling Mr. Banton was part of the impetus behind the sound here. This is probably the least awkward sounding Hammill record since the K Group days – which isn’t to say it doesn’t have it’s share of bad keyboard patches. Peter is also obviously going for a less song-based and more relaxed free-flowing song cycle vibe here, so it’s a little easier to forgive the lack of proper melodies or energy. The opening title track is probably my favorite thing on here- subtle and mysterious, and one of the most confident sounding Hammill vocals in quite a while. The only other song that really sticks out as such is the pleasant ballad “Phosphorescence.” The rest runs together in my head like mush, with little moments sticking out in my memory rather than full compositions (like Banton’s big church organ entrance on the otherwise turgid “Bubble”). The album concludes with a miserable piece of adult-contemporary crap called “Tenderness,” but anyone who makes it that far is probably someone already willing to forgive Peter his trespasses. I don’t think I’ll EVER listen to this album again, but in the late-period Hammill cesspool, it’s somewhere in the middle of the mush and could be worse.
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THE UNION CHAPEL CONCERT  (LIVE – WITH GUY EVANS AND OTHERS) (1997)

(no grade)

Beyond any shadow of a doubt, I find this to be the coolest and most inspired Hammill recording of the decade. Granted, it’s essentially a VDGG live album. The story behind it goes a little like this: Guy Evans was granted permission to put together a performance at London’s Union Chapel. As as I understand it, he was given total carte blanche. So he called in his old friend Peter Hammill, who as we all know was currently in the middle of a series of crimes related to his increasingly pathetic solo career. The two of them conspired to play an evening of old Hammill solo songs from some of his best albums (“Silent Corner,” “Enter K”). They started bringing in guests, and in addition to some of Peter’s recent cohorts (like drummer Manny Elias and string player Stuart Gordon),  they pulled good ol’ Hugh Banton and crazy ol’ David Jackson out of musical retirement! And so we have essentially a full-fledged VDGG reunion – the boys knew it too, and end their set with a climactic (and awesome) version of “Lemmings” from “Pawn Hearts.” Peter sounds positively CHARGED on here, and as usual, Guy Evans proves he’s an amazing drummer. The boys really go for it on some of these numbers – K Group winners “Accidents” and “Seven Wonders” are as rip-roaring as anything Peter has performed is SO many years, and the “Lemmings” performance shoots for the moon (Hugh and David even bring back all their old fuzz tones and evilness). There’s a lot of filler on here, as this was a lengthy evening that meandered all over the place stylistically (so there’s a 10 minute Hugh Banton solo organ rendition of “Adagio for Strings,” a couple long experimental instrumentals, etc.) But as a whole, this is a very exciting document of what must have been a great concert for longtime fans lucky enough to get tickets. The only sad thing about this set is the incontrovertible evidence that Peter still had his old energy in him somewhere, but just wasn’t interested or able to make this kind of music anymore on his solo records. In any case, a wonderful and creative and inspiring night of oldies from a once great band (and ten years later VDGG actually WOULD reform, but that’s fodder for the VDGG review page)…
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THIS  (1998)

D

Yuck yuck yuck. A big fat ugly snooze-fest. This may very well be the least essential album in Hammill’s entire monumental catalog. “In a Foreign Town” was the worst album, but at least it was uniquely placed – historically speaking, it was the first really bad product from the world of VDGG. So there was a bit of gross novelty when I heard it (I’ve been listening to these records in chronological order, of course). But this is just a miserable tuneless bore in a sea of similar but slightly better bores. I’m certainly no fan of “Everyone You Hold,” but it DID have some defining characteristics. It was consistent in its dullness, but consistent nonetheless. This album shoots for more of an eclectic sort of track-listing, even if everything still manages to feel and sound quite similarly dreary. But the album has NO identity, and to make matters worse, there isn’t one decent track on here. And I can’t remember anything about any of them unless I go back to the album and play them. There’s a bit more rock edge here than on the previous record, but it’s that 90s Hammill wannabe-dark riffy stuff that doesn’t hold a candle to the Nadir days. And the rough vibe is mostly confined to two tracks – “Unrehearsed” and “Always Is Next.” The first of these moves from one of those now typical annoying drawn out adult-contemporary/musical-theatery songs into a disconnected ugly prog section (which just sounds like the same disgusting and unmusical crud Peter was self-imitating already on parts of “Roaring Forties”).  Whereas Peter used to scare me with his dissonant side, now he just sounds like he’s trying too hard. “Always Is Next” is the closest thing on here to a “rock” song, but it’s similarly tuneless and limp. There are four long tracks in the middle of this record that do absolutely nothing for me and go on seemingly FOREVER. They’re flaccid melodically, rhythmically, and atmospherically. There are a handful of little “fragments” to connect the compositions on the album and put them in some sort of framework. A nice idea, perhaps, but they sound quite like pointless throwaways to me. The concluding track is a 14 minute ethereal and almost ambient song (though it’s got melodies and vocals throughout) called “The Light Continent.” It may be the best thing on here, even if it’s boring – at least it’s Peter taking his quiet somber minimalism to a total extreme, and it feels a bit more inspired. But I certainly don’t want to hear it again. Damn – I don’t know how many more bad things I can say about this guy anymore. I’m convinced his early work is among the best and most passionate rock music I’ve ever heard, but albums like this are so bad I could never recommend them to ANYBODY. I wish he would just take a BREAK and re-think things!!!
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TYPICAL (LIVE)  (1999)

(no grade)

A live solo piano album from a 1992 tour. So this is obviously very similar to “Room Temperature.” And when I first became aware of it, I thought: “FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! Another fucking 2 disc live album!” I couldn’t even make it through one listen of “Room Temperature,” and so I nearly just left this one for dead.  But the track-listing intrigued me (a lot of old intense classics), and so I started playing it…and from the first bars of “My Room,” I was moderately hooked. Peter sounds a LOT better to me than on that previous 2 disc live solo effort. And the keyboard sounds are generally tasteful and limited to a normal stage piano tone. He plays an electric guitar on some tunes (though he uses a rather ineffective chorus effect). His vocals are particularly impressive here –  he seems to have lost none of his youthful range! You can tell he’s older, but not in a bad way. It’s just his tone is a bit darker and rounder. But the notes are all there, and the grit and ferociousness too. And THAT is really quite incredible considering the sheer amount of throat-ripping screaming the guy used to do on those 70s records. Peter hits a rather disconcerting amount of wrong piano notes on this album, though that shouldn’t really take away your enjoyment of these compositions. The singing is TOTALLY great throughout this thing, with all sorts of insane screams and over-extended scary notes. This is perhaps the only recording he’s got for about a 15 year period where he does his “possessed by the devil” voice for long stretches of songs. And that’s a good thing! Another good thing: here we get some definitive performances of songs that were totally destroyed by corny MIDI productions on studio albums. This is especially true of both “Our Oyster” and “A Way Out,” two songs from Peter’s “Out Of Water” that are immensely proved here and even sit in quite nicely with the classic material (even they aren’t as good). I also really enjoy this version of “Too Many Of My Yesterdays,” the opening track of “And Close As This” – it’s a top-notch Hammill composition and this is a more inspired recording than the album one. “Fireships” drivel “Given Time” and “I Will Find You” can’t really be saved by the tasteful presentation, but at least they don’t sound canned and new age-y here. The best overall track for me is a ripping version of “The Future Now,” that destroys the album version. At the end of the record there are bunch of cool bonus tracks, including a version of “Afterwards” from the very first VDGG record!!! This is the all-time best solo Hammill live record, and a good document of his power. Oddly, it was recorded in 1992,  during one of the weakest periods of his career if not THE weakest. I guess he never lost his ability to rip my brain apart with that voice! He just lost his ability to write a song that doesn’t make me want to gauge my eyes out with a fork!!
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THE APPOINTED HOUR (WITH ROGER ENO)  (1999)

(no grade)

This is an instrumental, improvisational collaboration between Hammill and Brian Eno’s brother Roger. It’s very much a “process” album, where the story behind it ends up far more interesting than the actual music. Peter and Roger agreed to pick a specific hour of a specific day during which they would each, in their separate isolated studios, improvise for the entire hour. When finished, they pieced together and layered their work without much editing. The result is a relaxed, meditative ambient album full of bad keyboard sounds. I don’t really have much use for ambient music – lacking both the patience of understanding of the genre, I can’t make a truly educated comment about the outcome of this collaboration. All I can say is that, to MY ears, this could never be anything more than background music. The boys rarely center around an attractive musical idea, instead just meandering aimlessly in a bowl of milky goo for an hour. I can understand a person creating their own sounds, and using them to produce unique tone poems and audio pictures. But when most of the sounds derive from samples and keyboard patches, the “ambient” music just sounds like a stoned guy futzing around with a pedal at Guitar Center. Not for me, then, this here record.
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NONE OF THE ABOVE  (2000)

C

A step up, and another quieter “ballads” album in the “Everyone You Hold” vein. Though I think this is a considerable improvement on that record, especially in the sonic department. This is the best sounding Hammill record in some time, with some beautiful angelic vocal arrangements and barely any overtly obnoxious MIDI or soft rock keyboard intrusions (until the very end). I would say the man has made the biggest progression in the vocal department here than on any recent record – there are a handful of unique and previously unheard Hammill layering ideas (like the Middle Eastern sounding acappella moments of “In A Bottle”). There’s a breezier atmosphere than the last two records, and the record as a whole is shorter and more accessible. It’s still a bit of a dour slog, but it’s less a dour slog than I was expecting. There’s a more classic melodic quality to some of these songs, and I don’t mind listening to a lot of them. “Tango For One” is probably the best one – there’s definitely a little old-school epic Hammill in that melody.  “How Far I Fell” has some really neat vocal production ideas (I like when Hammill keeps it acapella! It signals no corny electric pianos!). There’s another “commercial” sounding love song in the “I Will Find You” vein. This one is called “Somebody Bad Enough,” and though it’s undeniably corny, it’s also quite pretty with a nice vocal arrangement (Peter’s daughters sing on this one too). Now, let’s not jump to any conclusions — I’m sort of searching for positive things to say here. This is MOSTLY utterly predictable sounding. It adds nothing to the Hammill legacy. Peter is now firmly lodged in his late period style. The melodies are thin, and the tones mostly uninteresting. We get the Fripp-y guitars, the chorused guitars, the canned pianos, the meandering verses, the “atmospherics,” the super serious philosophical lyrics. When drums do appear (as on the mediocre “Like Veronica”,  the only “rocker” on the album), they are the same stiff and ugly Manny Elias drums from the 90s records. The other REALLY bad thing about this record is it’s concluding track – a total disaster of soft-rock R&B schmaltz called “Astart.” It uses the same keyboard sound as “A Whole New World” from “Aladdin.” It’s got a completely lame adult-pop melody. But even on that horrendous track, there are some neat vocals. So I’d say this is the best Peter record since “X My Heart.” If that means something to you, than by all means pick this one up. Put it on, enjoy it! The rest of us will be in the next room listening to some Zeppelin.
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WHAT, NOW?  (2001)

C

Best opening track on a Hammill record since the early 80s! For real, folks – “Here Come The Talkies” is a nearly 10 minute suite with an genuinely convincing guitar-riff heavy section in the middle of a classy ballad. The ballad section of the song is hardly surprising – but it’s well performed, sounds organic and melodic, and there are no annoying production issues. But it’s the middle of the song that really perks me up – it’s certainly the most Nadir-like passage in Peter’s catalog since ‘Patience.” As a whole, it’s just the most successful single track from Peter in a long time. So how about the rest of the record? Is it a comeback, huh, is it, is it?! Can we call it comeback or what??!! Tell me, tell me, tell me please! (THE WRITER MAKES THE SOUND OF A GIANT FART). No, it’s not a comeback. It’s actually quite awful after that opening track, with only one more winner for the rest of it’s 40-some minutes. That’s the closing track, “Enough,” another one of the better Hammill tracks of late. It’s an ethereal percussion-less stripped down thing with a really great vocal and a solid melody. Nothing new or surprising about it, just a well-written example of a song in that generally unappealing style Peter’s been working with for years now. The rest of the album sucks. Immediately after the classy opening epic, we drop down into a series of typical late-Peter duds. There’s the directionless drone of “Far Flung,” the lame electric piano musical theater-isms of “The American Girl,” and a piano-driven story song with a barely discernible melody called “Wendy & The Lost Boy.” Then we get three more lengthy tracks in a row. The 8 minute “Lunatic in Knots” is one of those ugly meandering minor key non-songs akin to “Ram Origami” or “A Forest of Pronouns” from “X My Heart.” “Fed To The Wolves” is basically just anti-Church poetry recitation atop a mock-scary ambient instrumental (“The unholy priest’s an Earthly sod with his cock thrust casually through his vestments”). It’s fairly embarrassing and way over-the-top. “Edge of the Road” is the most interesting of the bad epics. It’s 10 minutes long, but it has an OK melody and some intricate arrangement ideas. Unfortunately, it’s also totally destroyed by Peter’s awful production choices – most obviously the dire keyboard sounds and David Jackson’s corny straight-forward tenor sax parts. For those of you keeping score, this is the TENTH mediocre-to-bad Hammill studio album in a row. Yikes.
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UNSUNG  (experimental, Sonix series)  (2001)

(no grade)

The glut of sub-par records continues, as Peter dishes out yet another all-instrumental experimental work in the vein of “Sonix,” “The Appointed Hour,” and ‘Loops and Reels.” Oh, and “Spur of the Moment.” This one may be the best of all, however – in addition to the expectedly boring new age ambient electronic stuff, there are a few weirder and more jagged sounding tracks that harken back to the oddball moments on Peter’s late-70s home-recorded records. “Eyebrows” is my favorite piece on any of the Sonix albums – strange quirky pop with a neat string arrangement and a Fripp-y guitar breakdown in the middle. “The Printer Port” is another neat one, and very much lives up to its title with a blippy beepy goofy electronic arrangement.  “1 Meg Loop” is a pretty repeated guitar melody. There are a lot of guitar loops passing for compositions here, but again – I don’t really know my ambient music. To me, the song is always more important than the sound, and this is a musical genre that tends to emphasize the latter at the total expense of the former. I’m pretty sure that a lot of these tracks represent mediocre or bad ambient music – “Gateless” is quite corny and canned, and sounds like the incidental music for an after school drama. I’m glad Peter never lost his drive to experiment, and I suppose I’d rather him release this sort of stuff than more mediocre song records. A GOOD song record wouldn’t hurt my feelings though!
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CLUTCH  (2002)

D+

Before we discuss this crappy album, let’s pause for a moment to consider once again the miracle that is Peter Hammill’s old-man voice. The man’s vocal prowess is basically unchanged after all these years, and he’s been constantly performing and recording and screaming since the late 60s . Compare that to someone like Dylan. who sounds like a dying cow in his old age. It’s Peter’s good fortune (or skill) that allowed for an surprisingly respectable VDGG reunion a couple years after this record. I mention that voice particularly in reference to this album, because there are moments here when he’s clearly shooting for an old “German Overalls” vibe. And there are indeed a few songs here where he sounds as young and vibrant vocally as he did on the early acoustic solo tracks. This is a pointed return to the organic world of acoustic guitars – no keyboards in sight as far as I can tell, save for maybe an occasional synth pad under the acoustics. David Jackson and Stuart Gordon are on hand to flesh out the arrangements a bit with horns and strings, but this is mostly Peter and his acoustic. So style-wise it’s the closest thing to a “roots album” as we might expect from Hammill at this point. I must say though: even though this is rootsier than all the 90s albums combined, Peter STILL had to use (I’m guessing) new strings on his axe and a too bright guitar sound that makes even that humble instrument sound a bit too clean and canned. Even so, the fans seem to hear this is as return to form. For the first two songs, I actually thought that it had a fighting chance. “We Are Written” is a simple song about predestination, delivered in a very old-school fashion. I don’t think it’s a very GOOD song (some of those changes are just ugly to my ears), but the stripped down and folky presentation is certainly welcome. “Crossed Wires” is the best thing on here, and the closest thing to “Chameleon”-era Hammill to grace one his records since the late-70s. The only other decent thing on here is the final track, “Bareknuckle Trade,” which is impassioned and pretty even if I can’t recall a thing about it. The rest of this is the same boring crap we’ve now heard a million times before from Peter. There are some absolutely miserable songs on here, especially in the lyrics department. “Once You Called Me,” is an insufferably corny song about kids growing up too fast. The complete version of the title phrase is: “Once You Called Me Daddy.”  All I know is that if I were Peter’s daughter, I would be pretty unhappy with such a tuneless piece of pap written in my honor. Here’s a new title for you, Hammill: “Once You Weren’t Such A Pussy.” Next up is the unintentionally hilarious “Just A Child,” which is directed at pedophiles. How do I know that for sure? Because the lyrics are as dopey and obvious as any Peter has ever written, with lines like: “In remorse you’re meek and mild but the girl was just a child and you can’t restore the treasure, the flower you defiled.” If the song were remotely interesting from a musical perspective, the awkwardly direct lyrics might be forgivable. But since it’s another forgettable and ugly non-song, the whole thing is just a giant debacle. How about a similar dirge with similarly direct lyrics about anorexia? You got it: “Skinny,” with whoppers like “every glossy fashion shot reminds her of all the pretty girls she’s not.” How about a 7 minute melody-less treatise on the way a true and spiritual God has been increasingly neglected in organized religion? “I don’t believe in God but, with all respect to those who do, surely no purpose could be served under heaven if there’s no mercy in this place we’re passing through?” Interesting thought, Peter, maybe you can come over for dinner and we’ll break open our theology books over a bottle of Chianti. But I just bought your record for 15 dollars, and I’d like an actual song, please, thank you very much. Always a charmer, Peter tells us in the liner notes that, even though is an acoustic guitar album, it’s “not a folk album.” First of all, is that really up to Peter to decide? And second of all, NO SHIT, BRO – folk music is usually composed in such a way that people actually want to listen to it. This is a disappointing and depressing dud.
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INCOHERENCE  (2004)

C+

REJOICE! The re-emergence of Peter Hammill, rock God, begins! This is the best Hammill album since “And Close As This!” Many of the old problems still persist here, but there’s a big difference this time around. Instead of 8 or 9 unrelated and overlong dirges, this is a 41 minute continuous song cycle all centered around ideas regarding speech and language. So it’s the first Peter record in over a decade that feels PURPOSEFUL, with a real album structure and a unique lyrical schematic, and as a result it harkens back to the VDGG days. Without going into too much detail, this is still full of the bad sampled sounds and corny electric piano choices. But they don’t seem quite as obnoxious here – the material is never too new-agey or sentimental, or overly preachy. It’s got a lot of the bite and menace of top-drawer Peter. And since it’s so insular and intellectual, the fake sounding tones ALMOST work. Like they could work on a completely electronic record. There’s very little subtlety to this piece, and some of the lyrics can get get incredibly ungraceful and obvious…but it’s genuinely entertaining throughout. Which is quite surprising. It’s certainly not going to win any points in the melody department – there are basically NO melodies here – but the concept and focus won me over in the end (though they hardly sent me over the moon). It’s all Peter and David Jackson (horns) and Stuart Gordon (strings), with no percussion and very little guitar (if any). The only memorable piece of vocal music is a melodic “theme” that pops up three or four times, most notably at the beginning and end of the piece. In between, Peter takes us on a schizophrenic meditation regarding all things linguistic. We get the weird evil riff-play of “Cretans Always Lie” and “Logodaedalus,” the calms before the storm “Babel” and “The Meaning Changed,” and the warped instrumental “Converse.” This isn’t a really a song record, but my favorite individual track is “Call That A Conversation,” which sports a cool staccato string arrangement and a nicely venomous vocal take. My least favorite is the 6 minute “Gone Ahead,” which is the only extended tune and the closest in tone and design to one of those boring meandering plods on some of Peter’s previous records. But overall this is definitely worth a listen for fans, if they can get over Peter’s bad keyboard choices (how could such an intelligent dude really not understand how corny that soft rock electric piano patch sounds in 2004? Did he just not care?) This was the last Hammill solo album to be released before Peter suffered a serious heart attack, re-bounded, and re-formed VDGG. I think it represents for Peter the beginning of a much needed late-career renaissance, akin to the re-birth of old Bob Dylan after decades of sub-par work. That re-birth might never take full-bloom (and how could it?),  but there’s definitely some old brilliance starting to poke through the gauze here.
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VERACIOUS (LIVE WITH STUART GORDON)  (2006)

(no grade)

This is yet another lengthy live album with no percussion. It’s just Peter on keys or guitar and his now longtime string player Stuart Gordon complimenting the man’s raw vocals and sloppy solo instrumentation. Like “Room Temperature,” I really don’t have the patience to give this a full listen. I mean, for crying out loud, this is the THIRD epic stripped down solo affair released by Peter’s label. Doesn’t he have any sympathy for his fans and the small amount of time they have left on this rock!? I can sort of understand the artistic need to produce new studio material at whatever pace your muse demands, but there’s really no comparable instinct that encourages over-releasing official “bootlegs.” I can only imagine it’s a monetary impulse, though perhaps the man has a core of true believers who really WANT this document in their lives. Anyway, I previewed some of the tracks and they sound predictably Peter (the track-list is mostly made up of Hammill’s late-90s/early 00s work). There’s still a lot of energy and violence in his vocal delivery, Gordon is a good player and the two men are very much in tune with each other. I’d love to see these guys play sometime before Peter finally retires to either a private life or another world (it has to happen SOME day right?). But I’m just not going to listen to another 80 minute solo record from the guy unless it’s a live album of all new compositions. I feel I’ve put in my time with the man’s work, and I can’t see what else this is going to add. I imagine many of his fans feel the same way after five billion mediocre records.
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SINGULARITY  (2006)

B

Sometimes a near death experience is the best thing that can happen to an aging artist. I’m drawing this conclusion from two examples: Bob Dylan’s sudden resurgence as a song-writing force in the late 90s, and now Peter’s insanely surprising bounce back to near glory in the late 2000s after a major heart attack. It was hard for me to believe at first – but after a giant glut of mediocre albums, Peter finally put out not only a worthy product, but a really SOLID record. A record that can actually stand up to his great work. And this immediately following the similarly worthy Van Der Graaf Generator reunion a year before. Hearing this album, I wanted to just lump all of the man’s 1988-2003 work into a little ball and throw it into the trash. I wouldn’t call this a masterpiece, or a perfect record. But it’s weird, and idiosyncratic, and twisted, and it sounds cool, and the material is consistently probing and creative. There’s very little of those pesky adult-pop keyboard sounds (though they do still creep through occasionally – it wouldn’t be until the next record that Peter finally did away with those tones). The vocal and guitar layering is consistently beautiful. This is probably the first Peter album in YEARS where I find myself soaking in the atmosphere instead of forcefully tuning it out to get to the writing. Let’s not beat around the bush- Peter sounds older here, and he’s not providing us with any grand “Louse is Not A Home” vocal pyrotechnics. But he sounds like an old guy who still understands the cutting edge – at no point does he seem out of touch. Even the album cover makes a statement – compare it to similar close-up shots of Peter on previous duds like “Everyone You Hold” or “None of the Above.” Those earlier records shows a meditative Peter, staring off in the distance, complete with Photoshopped text and a general lack of interest. This one’s got the stark contrast–y image of a weathered looking Peter staring us RIGHT IN THE FACE, with his name and the title scrawled in the old 70s Hammill handwriting. It’s harder edged, and more focused, and the record follows suit. Peter hasn’t really made any major changes to his style, and the material here is generally the same serious and stark singer-songwriter stuff that fill up all his 90s records. And that’s the most amazing thing about the rebound – he’s not reaching back into prog rock, or switching gears entirely. He’s just taking his own tired style and shocking it back to life – there are genuine melodies (!), the sounds are better, the singing is better, there’s more dynamics, the lyrics are more moving and possessed (and very directly concerned with his own recent experience and death in general), He makes every moment count. The album starts off with a fantastic one-two punch – “Our Eyes Give It Shape,” is a near-pop song about his near-death experience, and it’s got a very memorable guitar hook. “Event Horizon” is my favorite overall track, a hauntingly atmospheric acoustic guitar driven mini-epic that reminds me of early classics like “Modern” and “German Overalls.” It’s just beautiful. Other favorites: the vicious “Vainglorious Boy,” a self-mocking gritty rocker, and the sad and gorgeous “Friday Afternoon,” about the senseless death of Peter’s piano tuner. That latter track uses some bad keyboard sounds, but with a difference: it’s got a great melody! There isn’t one song on here that fails to move me in some way, and Peter doesn’t let things drag out beyond standard album length as his wont became in the 90s. This is succinct, and tight, and powerful…and just friggin’ good. Great to have you back, dude.
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THIN AIR   (2009)

A-

Did Peter sell his soul to the devil or something? Or maybe he came back from the precipice as a re-born Superman, like in the lyrics for one of those old VDGG epics? But in any case, his renaissance continues, and he just keeps getting better. “Singularity” was a serious return to form, but this is easily the best Hammill record since the early 80s. This is probably the closest he’s EVER come to producing a simple conceptual song cycle with total clarity. “Over” and “Incoherence” and of course “House of Usher” all used conceptual frameworks to make their points, but none did it with the subtlety and power of this record. All of these songs deal with loss and grief and the fragility of existence. Disappearance, as in thin air. Get it? Well, Peter doesn’t hammer it into my brain like he did the linguistic theme on “Incoherence.” He lets the theme play out naturally, and the ideas cohere into a poetic statement rather than an overtly intellectual one….and he does so with his best set of songs in ages. Though my aural taste-buds do prefer young fiery Peter to old reflective Peter, I’m fairly certain that from a more objective standpoint, this is one of his all time most accomplished records. There are two key pieces here that reference the album title and serve as tent-poles around which the other songs coalesce: “Ghosts of Planes” and “The Top Of The World Club.” Both songs deal rather directly with images of 9/11, though the images are abstract enough that one could take the lyrics as general ruminations upon the “here and gone.” They are the most haunting and sparse pieces here, with repeated chants of “The Air is Thin, The Air Is Thin,” and lots of eerie atmospherics. The dark rhythms of the former is maybe the closest Hammill has ever come to Gabriel, in the Peter department, and the latter moves through a series of stark sections and unique melodies, and closes the album with grace. My favorite track here, and my favorite Hammill tune in decades, is the absolutely GORGEOUS piano ballad “Undone,” which sports as wonderful a melody as the man has ever written. Peter’s melodic sense has really come back in a major way on this record – the multi-part opener “The Mercy” showcases this immediately, and there isn’t a track here that doesn’t sport an interesting vocal melody. Nor is there a weak track in general. And this is certainly the best sounding Hammill album in so long – no cheesy keyboard patches, no ugly drum sounds – just haunting pianos and layered vocals and menacing Fripp-y guitars. Everything has an “experimental” air that harkens back to the late-70s albums – as if the recordings here were a result of the same spirit of organic adventurousness that drove Peter in his youth. But he sounds more patient and professional now, and wiser – and this is really exactly the sort of record I’d expect from an intelligent aging art rocker. It’s the sort of tone and vibe guys like John Cale and Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel and David Byrne shoot for all the time – but I don’t think anyone has landed it quite like Peter does here. This is an assured and lovingly made gem of an album – coupled with VDGG’s more rockin’ “A Grounding in Numbers,”  I think it’s safe to say Mr. Hammill has got his mojo back.

    • Olafur Auðunsson
    • May 20th, 2012

    Have you seen any consert by the man.?

  1. I am a fan, but completely out with this evaluation.

    • Gimber
    • July 30th, 2016

    Yes. I agree..almost totally. The rise and fall of Peter is well explained here. I was a huge fan from “silent corner” to “patience”, then I lost interest for your same reasons. I could’nt agree more. I tried “skin” ,”out of water”, “fireships” and “usher” (“she’s dead” is the only song worth saving there) to see if the man was getting any better….but no way.After reading your comments on the “post-heart attack” records perhaps i’ll give ’em a try. My favourites are: “silent”,”over”, “future” ,”targets”,”loops” and “patience”. And enjoy only a half of “chameleon”,”camera”,”nadir”, “ph7″and ” box”. Congrats you did and exaustive and analitic job.

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