THE MU­SI­CAL BOX

On his sub­tly hued and au­tum­nal new al­bum, Peter Ham­mill turns over a new leaf, com­ing to terms with age­ing as only the Van der Graaf Gen­er­a­tor man can.

Prog - - Contents - Words: Sid Smith Illustration: Stu­art Bri­ers

We lead with Peter Ham­mill’s From The Trees, plus re­views of Daniel Cavanagh, Eloy, PFM, VUUR, Primus, ELP, Bill Bru­ford, John Car­pen­ter, Fo­cus, Tan­ger­ine Dream, ELO and more…

PS­tarkly sim­ple, be­fit­ting an al­bum named af­ter an eter­nal sym­bol of age­ing with nat­u­ral beauty and dig­nity.

eter Ham­mill’s 35th al­bum un­der his own name is a finely crafted mas­ter­piece that grap­ples fear­lessly with the var­ied psy­cho­log­i­cal as­pects of old age. For­get the de­mon al­co­hol or drugs, ad­vanc­ing time is prog’s worst en­emy as more of its veteran he­roes, young guns when they started mak­ing waves half a cen­tury ago, are falling with in­creas­ing fre­quency.

Peter Ham­mill, who co-formed Van der Graaf Gen­er­a­tor at Manch­ester Univer­sity 50 years ago, is one of the few to square up to their mor­tal­ity on record. He even started 40 years ago, with the pro­jected later life of 1976 track Au­tumn, but he in­evitably upped the in­ten­sity af­ter 2003’s near-fatal heart at­tack at 55. That nar­row es­cape was re­flected in his as­ton­ish­ing next al­bum, Sin­gu­lar­ity.

This vul­ner­a­bil­ity has un­der­pinned sub­se­quent al­bums with vary­ing de­grees of trans­parency, joined by in­creased fo­cus on van­ish­ing fam­ily, friends, places and con­tem­po­raries. Al­ways in­tensely driven, Ham­mill has de­scribed an on­go­ing thread “that I make an ef­fort to doc­u­ment some of the pas­sages of life through which most of us go as I ex­pe­ri­ence and ob­serve them”.

This ethos is used to dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect on his fol­low-up to 2014’s cin­e­matic noir epic …All That Might Have Been…. True to long-stand­ing form, its multi-tiered fire­walls of vo­cals and swirling elec­tronic back­drops are fol­lowed by “10 songs, all of them on the short end of things and gen­er­ally con­ven­tional – or as con­ven­tional as I get – in form”.

Long-time devo­tees will know this means more con­cise state­ments that make their point in un­der five min­utes. Sub­tly hued and au­tum­nal, these 10 songs are starkly sim­ple, be­fit­ting an al­bum named af­ter an eter­nal sym­bol of age­ing with nat­u­ral beauty and dig­nity. As Ham­mill puts it, “The char­ac­ters who pace their fret­ful way through these songs are, in gen­eral, fac­ing up to or edg­ing their way to­wards twi­light… None of these songs are of soft com­fort, but in the third act of life it’s time to look with a clear eye at where one has (or, in­deed, has not) been, at where one’s go­ing.”

Un­usu­ally, when he started work on the al­bum last year Ham­mill, per­formed these songs live on piano or gui­tar (“old school”) be­fore record­ing. Each fol­lows its cho­sen mood, maybe sug­gest­ing a cho­rus or hook but in­vari­ably with a seat-clench­ing turn or heartin-mouth lyri­cal twist. His over­dubbed chorales are less fre­netic and more warmly car­peted – even if that devil still likes to whis­per on his shoul­der. Syn­the­sis­ers are used as tonal crayons rather than flamethrower paint brushes. This makes the gor­geous strings that rise on clos­ing track The De­scent, about com­ing down from life’s peak, dou­bly ef­fec­tive when they fade into in­fin­ity as the al­bum’s fi­nal sound.

Dur­ing his first three decades or so, Ham­mill of­ten sang of the pain, anger or melan­choly caused by lost love. From The Trees sees him re­flect­ing on those changes that seem to set in af­ter pass­ing 60, ques­tion­ing his lost youth and ask­ing why all that en­ergy wasn’t some­times put to bet­ter use.

Girl To The North Coun­try reaches back to folk scene be­gin­nings (‘She was once your lucky star, you went and let her down so hard’), while My Un­in­tended is ‘the let­ter I never sent’, cap­tur­ing these un­com­fort­able mo­ments when trau­matic episodes or bad de­ci­sions of decades ago sud­denly jerk into sharp fo­cus, to be re-ex­am­ined as if they can still be put right.

Be­ing Ham­mill, as he sings on Charm

Alone, ‘My pri­vate thoughts, I keep them all well hid­den,’ which means pro­ject­ing painful sit­u­a­tions through char­ac­ters, such as the per­former los­ing his muse and au­di­ence on Milked, find­ing ‘Fame and for­tune are false­hoods that’ll leave you for dead’ on Rep­u­ta­tion (against a rolling Brecht-Weill piano jaunt) or, even worse, find­ing no one lis­ten­ing (On Deaf Ears).

The com­pelling un­cer­tainty of What Lies Ahead con­cludes, ‘Let’s leave the truth un­said about all those lies ahead.’ Para­dox­i­cally,

Ham­mill pours the bleak lyrics of Tor­por

(‘I find it hard to breathe, I can’t main­tain the pace, feels like I’m slow­ing ir­re­versibly and there’s no know­ing where this leads’) over the al­bum’s most ex­quis­ite vo­cal melody.

This isn’t to say that this richly com­pelling al­bum can only be ap­pre­ci­ated by sex­a­ge­nar­i­ans, even if it is grat­i­fy­ing to en­counter some­thing so much deeper than the usual ageist gags. With Ham­mill, an al­bum’s al­ways go­ing to touch emo­tions that are uni­ver­sal at any age and, on any level,

From The Trees de­mands to be held among his evoca­tive best. It might just take a lit­tle time.

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