Classic Rock Review

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Van Der Graaf Generator – Pawn Hearts (1971)

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They blew it. They made their major artistic breakthrough with H to He, got greedy, went for the universalist jugular, and absolutely blew it. There are three songs, none of which are even as good as “The Emperor in His War Room.” The production has gone back to suck – it’s not the same suck as on Least, but Peter’s magnificent voice is once more relegated to a supporting role instead of receiving the starring role it deserves. None of the riffs are anywhere as magnificent as those in “Killer” or “Pioneers,” none of the vocal parts are as beautiful as those in “Lost” or “House with no Door,” almost none of the instrumental parts approach the brilliance of those in “Killer” … what a disappointment.
That said, I do not want to give the impression that the album is worthless, because that’s simply not what I think. You see, each of these three tracks has something I like a lot, and to be perfectly honest, on some days I like this album slightly more than I do Least (even if it gets a lower grade here). It’s just that built around these ideas is a whole ton of material that simply irritates the hell out of me. Many repeated listens (I’ve definitely listened to this album more times than I have any other album with a comparable or worse grade) have brought the positive features clearly to the forefront of my mind, and I’ve always liked a few parts of the suite that makes up side two, but certain parts have only gotten worse and worse for me as the number of listens I’ve given this has gone up.

At first, track number one, entitled “Lemmings,” actually gets the album off to a fairly promising start. The “soft” vocal melody that Peter sings is quite cute, and I particularly enjoy it because the little spike up in the middle of each repetition easily brings to mind the image of little lemmings jumping up off a cliff and then tumbling to their dooms. The harder riff, with a vocal melody sung in unison, is also intriguing – I’m bugged by the echo on Peter’s voice, but the riff is very interesting, and Peter really sounds majestic as he sings lines like “We have looked upon the high kings.” Of course, every time he breaks the vocal melody from mirroring the riff, he starts to fall back into declamation instead of a singing mode, but still, it’s tolerable. Unfortunately, while the track works until about 3:20, the remaining eight minutes of the piece make it very difficult for me to stay focused, and don’t forget, I can keep my mind laser focused while listening to Yes’ “The Remembering.” The noodling just keeps going and going, Peter occasionally reprises the beginning vocal melodies but mostly just mirrors the jamming, and basically the sound loses all of its apocalyptic tension by making itself so freakin’ low key and boring (well, except for a fairly brief passage where the band goes into an extremely angry-sounding bit). I mean, I really don’t see how I can keep myself from falling asleep during the last minute of quiet sax/keyboard noodling.

Up next is “Man-Erg,” which starts out as a piano-ballad in the vein of “House with No Door,” but while the atmosphere is quite nice, Peter has trouble here matching the majestic approach of his singing with an equally resonant and memorable vocal melody, and that hurts quite a bit. The sound is nice, but it’s getting mushy again, which I’d hoped they fixed once and for all with H to He. The “I’m just a man …” section, reprised several times, has some strong emotional power, and would have worked well as an actual climax, but it feels rushed to me, without enough buildup to make it work as any kind of real climax. Anyway, the song also features a fairly cool mid-section with some fierce sax/organ jamming, along with some solid Fripp guitar lines. Peter’s singing sounds especially dumb during this part, but while the instrumental parts kinda veer towards the pointlessness that bugged me so on Least, they’re also very fast in parts, so whatever. Of course, Peter comes back and starts singing another soft part, this time using cliches like “acolytes of doom,” and it doesn’t do much to raise my opinion of the track too much. Concluding with the initial melody, along with the mid-section popping up amidst it from time to time, does give the track a nice epic sweep, but when the individual parts don’t impress me that much, it shouldn’t be difficult to guess that I’m not totally thrilled.

And then there’s “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers,” which those who hate the band often use as Exhibit 1 of why they hate it so. Strangely enough, though, I’ve actually come to enjoy several parts of it, though I doubt I’ll ever go sufficiently loony to consider it the peak of VDGG, like many fans do. The general gist of the piece, best as I can tell, is that it’s about a lighthouse keeper going nuts from a combination of loneliness and all of the ghosts, real and imagined, that are are inherent to the mythology of sea travel. He goes batty, jumps into the sea to kill himself and escape the madness, and muses over various philosophical things. Fine, decent concept, whatever. What does matter to me, though, is that there a few parts that I enjoy a great deal, even though I consider the suite as a whole to be a moderate failure. I actually think the opening “Eyewitness” section is incredible, combining decent lyrics with an eerie vocal melody and a gloomy atmosphere that sets the lighthouse backdrop well. Furthermore, the lyrics also do a fine job of establishing the gradual paranoia of the protagonist – I particularly like the line, “When you see the skeletons of sailing-ship spars sinking low You’ll begin to wonder if the points of all the ancient myths are solemnly directed straight at you…” I don’t even mind the occasional dissonant backing harmonies as Peter sings the melody – they do a good job of depicting the various ghosts fluttering around.

So that’s part one. Alas, the next couple of minutes, entitled “Pictures/Lighthouse,” are devoted to a bunch of “atmospheric” blaring sax noises over blaring keyboard noises, followed by some atmospheric organ chords. Enough said. Part three is a reprise of part one melodywise (and thus is also called Eyewitness), and depicts the protagonist reaching the very edge of his sanity. Just as it seems things are starting to get obnoxiously repetitive, we enter section four, “S.H.M.,” where images of sea spectres start assailing the protagonist’s mind. I actually find the lyrics here quite image-laden, despite the nonsense that appears at first glance when one glosses over a line like, “‘Unreal, unreal!’ ghost helmsmen scream and fall in through the sky, not breaking through my seagull shrieks … no breaks until I die: the spectres scratch on window-slits – hollowed faces, mindless grins only intent on destroying what they’ve lost.” Call me nuts, but it’s not difficult at all for me to imagine a nightmare to go with this passage; a bunch of translucent ghosts whirling all around me, screaming seeming nonsense, set upon my destruction solely because they themselves have been destroyed. So anyway, as the lyrics go on, the protagonist is leaning on the wall to support his wilting self, looking out upon the sea and seeing ghosts of ships long gone, crashed upon the rocks. Not bad so far.

Unfortunately, in part five, divided into “The Presence of the Night” and “Kosmos Tours,” the suite starts to come unraveled. The first part works nicely, a quiet reprise of the S.H.M melody with appropriately epilogue-ish lyrics, and the later sorta-jazzy melody that comes up after some noodling is amusing (though the hooks aren’t very sharp), but then the rest of the part goes into a bit of self-parody. Hammill’s screams go with a melody that really strikes me as jerky discord for its own sake, a bit of a vocal freakout for no good reason other than having a bit of a vocal freakout. It ends with the hero jumping out of the lighthouse, presumably into the sea, but while I might have cared for his fate before, the detachment presented immediately before this managed to preemptively undo any resonance I might have had from this. And what’s with that random dissonant keyboard-layers part that pops up after that cold melody has finished? This sucks, Beavis.

The next section, “Custard’s Last Stand,” tries to be one of the band’s cathartic anthemic ballads, but the melody is so flaccid that it doesn’t warm or inspire me at all. Just Pete’s voice with lots of echo and not approaching the grandeur of “House with no Door.” Then we have “The Clot Thickens,” where everything just goes nuts – it’s actually fairly amusing, since it’s insane and twisted and weird beyond recall, but given that it uses an “ANNHILATION”-like trick when Peter sings “..one more haggard DROWNED MAN,” it’s not about to get a total free pass from me. Whatever.

At least the piece ends on a nice note. “Land’s End” and “We Go Now” actually base their majesty around a lovely piano chord sequence instead of seemingly random organ splurts, and despite the amount of crud I’ve just waded through to get here, I actually feel a twinge of catharsis listening to this. Plus, let’s be fair, the majestic guitar parts coming through the layered vocal and keyboard harmonies (as well as all the sputtering radio static, which works well as a symbol of the protagonist slowly slipping out of his life conciousness), had they come with a better overall piece, would be recognized as near the same level (though in a different way, since this is Robert Fripp and not Steve Hackett) of the brilliant instrumental passages at the tail-end of Genesis’ “Supper’s Ready.” Go Robert!

So there you go – a loooooooong review given that this is only gets a 7 from me. It’s just as I said in the band’s introduction – even the songs that are dreadfully flawed overall still have chunks of solid quality, and it takes a lot of effort and explanation to separate those chunks from the overall chaff. In any case, Hammill apparently decided he couldn’t do anything else with the band at that time, so they broke up for a few years. It’s just as well – I shudder to imagine how a 1972 followup would sound.

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February 20, 2013 - Posted by | Van Der Graaf Generator Pawn Hearts |

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