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Posts tagged ‘Peter Hammill’

Peter Hammill: a story unfolding

 

In Amazonia (1)

The members of Isildurs Bane with Peter Hammill (third from right) in Portugal on May 4.

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.

Peter Hammill’s ‘From the Trees’

PETER_HAMMILL_London_2018_2_photo_credit_James_Sharrock

As skinny as a bread-stick, his white hair cropped almost back to his skull, an outfit of loose white shirt and trousers giving him (somewhat deceptively) the austere, elevated air of a Zen monk, Peter Hammill took the stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last Friday with only a grand piano and an acoustic guitar for company. He was welcomed by an audience which recognised that at this stage of a 50-year journey that started with the rock band Van Der Graaf Generator, he is one of the few members of his generation who still has something to say.

It’s always intrigued me why, despite its post-war outpouring of great popular music, Britain has produced so few male singer-songwriters to rank alongside Jacques Brel, Lucio Dalla, Paolo Conte, Julien Clerc, Leonard Cohen or Randy Newman in terms of maturity, wisdom, observational gifts, craft skills and performing character. I think it’s because so many of the potential candidates came up in bands, and retained that mentality even in their solo careers, continuing to make records that very successfully put a concentration on musical (instrumental) style and content on an equal level with songwriting substance — as David Bowie did, for instance.

There have been exceptions. Paul Buchanan is one. Hammill is another, writing what might be called art songs and recording them in way that pays no attention to anything other than the songs’ demands. On his new album, From the Trees, recorded and mixed by himself at his own West Country studio, he contributes all the instruments (keyboards, guitars, bass guitar) and vocals (lead and backing), deploying his resources with fastidious restraint. There’s an exact understanding of what is needed at all times and an instinct for diversity, from the wonky minuet of “Reputation” and the pensive chorale of “What Lies Ahead” to the opening synth cloud and swooning clustered voices of “On Deaf Ears”, the folk-rocky electric guitar of “My Unintended” and the chiding Greek chorus of “Anagnorisis”.

Each lyric repays attention: literate, plain-spoken even when taking an oblique approach, never remotely pretentious (I had to look up “anagnorisis”, but was glad I’d bothered). The degree of autobiographical essence doesn’t matter, although the songs have the stamp of felt emotions, of a man addressing his own doubts and imperfections, his own perceptions of fate and mortality. I might be forgiven for following the clue in the title of “Girl to the North Country” towards the inevitable conclusion that this poignant song was inspired by Bob Dylan and his early muse, Echo Hellstrom, whose death was reported back in January.

The best of all comes last: “The Descent”, a work of quiet but intense drama dealing, I think, with the long-term consequences of auspicious beginnings and missed chances (or possibly something else altogether). But, anyway, it’s a thing of great elegance and beauty, its verses alternating bars of 4/4 and 3/4 to build tension before the cadence of the line smoothes out, with a strong vocal flighted in its finished studio version on piano, organ and Mellotron-like sampled strings. Correctly placed in the running order, it resonates long after the music has stopped.

At the newly refurbished QEH, Hammill ranged through the repertoire assembled through his long career, moving from piano to guitar and back, with great care taken at the mixing desk to enhance the immediacy of the sound of both instruments. His singing was highly wrought in its changes of volume and attack, as it used to be with VDGG, and well tailored to each song. Circumstances meant that I could only stay of an hour, but of the older material I was particularly struck by “Like Veronica” (from None of the Above, 2000), possibly inspired by the abused Kim Basinger character in Curtis Hanson’s movie of James Ellroy’s L. A. Confidential (“Wear your hair like Veronica Lake / And the bruises won’t show where he hit you”: the brutality of the lyric matched by the delivery). And most of all by an exquisite “Time to Burn” (from In a Foreign Town, 1988), a meditation on temps perdu much stronger for being shorn of the trappings of its original arrangement.

“The world has gone IKEA,” Hammill told Nick Hasted in an interview for the Independent in 2004, “and I’m a bespoke furniture maker. Not selling many, and only to people who find me.” They’re the lucky ones.

* The photograph of Peter Hammill is by James Sharrock. From the Trees is released on Hammill’s own label, Fie! (www.sofasound.com).

…all that might have been…

Peter Hammill CDThe last conversation I had on the subject of Peter Hammill, several years ago, was with the novelist Nick Hornby, who upbraided me for having cost him the price of an album when he decided to act upon my warm recommendation, in the pages of the Melody Maker, for an album by Hammill’s band, Van Der Graaf Generator. This was 1970, and Hornby was 13 years old. When he got the record home and listened to it, he wasn’t happy. The resentment seemed to have lingered, although I wouldn’t suggest that this is necessarily why we haven’t spoken since.

Now, almost four and a half decades since that ill-fated recommendation, I have another one for him, also involving Hammill. The singer has filled the intervening years with activity, most of it as a solo artist and songwriter. I can’t claim to have kept a close watch on his progress, meaning that his new record, …all that might have been…, arrives as all the more of a revelation.

The album came about while Hammill was trying to assemble lyrics to go with music that he’d been putting together himself, using notes that he’d made over a period of years. He realised that he could use these fragments of observed behaviour, sidelong glimpses collected during his time as a travelling musician, to create something he’d long wanted to achieve: a series of songs that could then be fractured and reassembled in an order that would make the narrative more elusive and suggestive — more “filmic”, to use his word.

…all that might have been… comes in three different CD forms. The first, titled the RETRO, contains the original instrumental sound beds: mostly synths, guitars, bass and a bit of percussion. The second, the SONGS, consists of the 10 basic compositions. The third, the CINÉ, is the finished 40-minute tapestry of 21 linked pieces, cut up and rearranged, most of them no more than two minutes long. You can buy the latter separately, or all three together in a box.

There’s a story of sorts to the full CINÉ version, although Hammill intentionally leaves it ambiguous. We know that a man and a woman are involved, and that the viewpoint is mostly male. We can work out that, after a certain amount of ecstasy and rather more anguish, nothing ends happily.

“I’ve never been one to like dogma or absolute linearity to be at the core of songs, and I’ve always been keen on the idea of ‘show not tell’,” he writes in a sleeve essay. He describes the result as “the flickering light of things half-seen and often only half-understood.”

I’ll buy that. It’s how, inside ourselves, some of us perceive our life in the world: as a barely coherent series of events, internal and external, on which we fail to impose order and whose meaning changes according to the light, with an inevitable existential loneliness at its core. Hammill’s voice finds the right tone, or series of tones: he’s often compared to Bowie, but although he can certainly declaim his range also encompasses the sort of sensitivity associated with the Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan. His overdubbed backing vocals function as a Greek chorus: commenting, interrupting, supporting, contradicting.

The  musical settings — mostly synths, occasional guitar, prowling bass, a sprinkling of percussion — ensure that the work never lapses into melodrama. There’s a lot of rubato but occasionally, as with “Inklings, Darling”, one of the two longer tracks, a light groove is allowed to settle. Hammill has been spending time in Japan recently, and perhaps you can hear the influence of kotos and shamisens from time to time, although never explicitly. The result is very spare, almost ambient, understated but nevertheless full of relevant incident: a partner rather than a soundtrack to the narrative. “He Turns Away”, the penultimate piece in the cycle (appearing in full as “Until” on the SONGS disc), is a thing of haunting beauty.

This feels like one of the big achievements of a long career. His devoted admirers will adore it, but it deserves a much wider audience. And if you don’t like this one, Nick, you can have your money back.

* …all that might have been… is available from Hammill’s website, sofasound.com, as a single disc or a 3CD box. My only reservation is that I wish the singer or his designer had made the lyrics more easily legible, rather than reversing them out of the photographs in the booklets that accompany the box set.