Peter Hammill: a story unfolding
Of all the major figures associated with the British progressive-rock movement of the early ’70s, Peter Hammill might be the only one still devoting himself to seriously creative new work. A recent eight-CD set called Not Yet Not Now documents his solo tour of 2017-18, demonstrating the richness of his self-composed repertoire (it includes 98 songs) and the undiminished commitment of his performance. But now there’s something perhaps even more extraordinary, a collaboration with the long-established Swedish group Isildurs Bane called In Amazonia, just released on vinyl and CD and given its live première last week at the Gouveia rock festival in Portugal.
Mats Johansson, a member of the band, composed the music and gave it to Hammill, who wrote melodies and lyrics in a process that turned into a proper collaboration. Listening to it the first time, my first thought was that this was how progressive rock should have turned out. The music is characterised by a sense of inquiry and a delight in exploring resources that was present in the early music of a number of prominent bands but soon became drowned by excessive fame and its rewards, while the lyrics strive for the effect of poetry.
It’s dramatic, as this music always hoped to be, employing sudden changes of trajectory to negotiate contrasts between near-bombast and relative tranquillity, but all the time with a care for fine textural details. These include Axel Croné’s bass clarinet, Karin Nakagawa’s koto, Klas Assarsson’s marimba, Luca Calabrese’s trumpet and Liesbeth Lambrtecht’s violin and viola, as well as the guitar of Samuel Hällkvist and the countless timbres provided by the keyboards of Katrin Amsler and Johansson’s synths, including discreet touches of Mellotron and music box.
Hammill responds magnificently to the challenge of becoming the lead singer with a different sort of band, one that employs a more orchestral approach. Whether exposed above a sparse background or absorbed into a densely churning sound-bed, his melodic lines turn at unpredictable angles while insinuating themselves into your memory. His words are typically oblique and allusive, the 10-minute multi-section “This Is Where?” beginning with a brusque declamation: “Open and shut, action and cut, / Story unfolding. / Jungle drum beat, numbers repeat, / River is flowing.” Contemporary unease is a thread running through all the lyrics.
I love this record, for itself as well as for the fact that it arrives at a place where European rock music seemed to be heading when it veered away from American influences 50 years ago. To fulfil some of the promises made so long ago, while, sounding completely fresh and contemporary, is quite an achievement. And Hammill, 70 years old, is still going at full throttle, intensity and creativity undimmed.
* In Amazonia and Not Yet Not Now are out now, on the Ataraxia and Fie! labels respectively. The photograph was taken at the Gouveia festival.
I am still amazed and delighted by Hammill’s unapologetic seriousness and incredible commitment which occupies its very own world. And his voice still (just about) holding up. I last saw him on his recent tour at the Junction Two in Cambridge. He played songs from throughout his career including, if I remember, a beautiful version of Birds from Fools Mate. He closed with Refugees and the man next to me had tears rolling down his cheeks by the end. I wondered afterwards whether it was not just the beauty of the song but also, at 70 he was giving us not just his lifetime in song but saying something to ours too. Something about keeping going and the optimism implied in that. From Refugees:-
‘There we shall spend our final days of our lives;
Tell the same old stories: yeah well,
At least we tried.
Into the West, smiles on our faces, we’ll go;
Oh, yes, and our apologies to those
Who’ll never really know the way.’
I’ve been a Peter Hammill fan(atic ) since the VdGG days and continue to be amazed with his music including some of his fairly off the wall collaborations ( with the likes of Gods and Monsters guitarslinger Gary Lucas etc ) A bad Peter Hammill album ? Methinks there is no such thing !
Hopefully both these CD’s come to the States .. not to mention the remote hope he might tour our way ….
BTW ; Thanks Richard for keeping me up on PH’s career seeing as how the US ( music ) press all but ignores his very existence .
A personal favorite ; From ” The Lie ” ( The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage )
” You took me through the window-stain,
Drowned in image, incense,
Choir-refrain and slow ecstasy.
I’d embrace you if I only knew your name.
The silent corner haunts my shadow prayers.
Ice-cold statue, rapture divine,
Unconscious eyes, the open mouth,
The wound of love,
PS; A recommendation – Somewhat lighter lyrically ( albeit very literature based ) and a bit more … peaceful …dare I say ? One of ours who much like myself has leaned away from strict ” mericun ” influences and a young man deserving much wider attention than he gets ; Gabriel Kahane … particularly his albums .. ” Gabriel Kahane ” and ” Book of Travelers “
For the record for any other Yanks looking in … both PH CD’s mentioned are available in the US … and yes … both are on order from my local independent record/cd store
Thanks again Richard
In true 70s Prog Rock style, Isildur’s Bane take their name from Lord of the Rings. God bless ’em.
I wasn’t going to mention that.
I also resisted the urge to mention the Tolkien reference in the name … but after seeing someone else take the initiative I’m wondering why either you or I avoided doing so ourselves . Hmmmm .
We humans is such complicated overthinking critters sometimes … aint we !
I remember buying The Least We Can Do… on your recommendation, Richard, and not much liking it, mainly on account of PH’s declamatory style of singing. This latest thing sounds interesting, though.
So glad to see Peter get recognition. Lovely write-up Richard. Saw Hammill in Vancouver in the 80s – small venue – never forgotten it.