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.