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Van Der Graaf Generator H To He Who Am The Only One (1970)

MI0000049312From starling.rinet.ru

They picked it up. And, in all sincerity, they really picked it up – without a doubt, H To He (the title refers to the fusion of hydrogen from helium, so there’s nothing particularly flabbergasting about it) is the best prog album of 1970, which is saying something, because the competition was quite strong. However, where their main competitors were still learning (Genesis with Trespass, Yes with Time And A Word), or indulging in ultra-complex affairs that threatened to have too much ideological content and too few musical substance (Jethro Tull’s Benefit, King Crimson’s Lizard), VDGG suddenly made a definite breakthrough and demonstrated all the ample possibilities of the genre in one go. This is “glam-prog theatre” at its most elaborate and immaculate, and I really have a hard time trying to come up with any specific complaints about this record – apart from certain overlong sections and a couple instrumental and vocal melodies that come off a wee bit more thin than the others, this is a prime progressive album.

For starters, I’d be hard pressed to come up with a better multi-part progressive anthem than ‘Killer’. Maybe I’m not too imaginative – the song is indeed considered by many to be the band’s peak and is the critics’ favourite, and maybe it’s the only possible VDGG song you’ll ever hear played on the radio. But hey, what can I do? It’s not too often that you hear a band like VDGG come up with a brilliant riff like that, and set it to such positively frightening lyrics sung in such a positively frightening voice: ‘So you live in the bottom of the sea, and you kill all that come NEAR YOU-OOO-WHOO-OOO… but you are very lonely, because all the other fish FEAR YOU-OOO-WHOO-OOO…” Not only that – the intro and the opening verses might be the most epic and memorable moment on the album, but the mid-section, with the ‘death in the sea death in the sea’ chantings, is also prime stuff. Wow dude, what a song. I find myself coming back to it all the time, again and again; VDGG might have easily earned themselves a place on this site if they’d never done anything else. This is where it all comes together, and where ‘White Hammer’ was the nadir, almost a self-parody, ‘Killer’ is the zenith, symbolizing the band in full flight and Peter Hammill as a completely idiosyncratic, self-assured writer making a brilliant artistic statement. With ‘Killer’, the band finally proves that there was a reason of its existing in the first place.

And to top it off, ‘Killer’ is immediately followed by what I consider VDGG’s best ballad ever – the operatic, yet strangely sincere and moving ‘House With No Door’. It’s a little Bowie-like, which isn’t a compliment – I don’t usually like Bowie doing that stuff; but since the melody is a bit better than, say, Bowie’s ‘Time’, and Hammill’s singing is far more elaborate than David’s (no offense, Bowie fans – Hammill has got a voice quite worthy of an opera singer), I can forgive the theatricality. The song’s structure is immaculate, too: a sad, melancholic verse, a rousing chorus, a gentle flute solo, and a good buildup throughout – when Hammill screams out the last chorus in desperation, it’s as if you could already predict that. For me, it’s kinda comforting.

The next two tracks, dominated by guest star Robert Fripp’s guitar playing, are a bit of a letdown, but not a serious one – they are just overshadowed by the previous two masterpieces. It’s absolutely clear that for this album the band had really spent a lot of time carefully working out the song structures and thinking about setting Hammill’s lyrical imagery to some real music instead of sonic drones. So ‘The Emperor In His War-Room’ makes heavy use of the flutes; the entire first part is set to a steady, clever flute rhythm, and wisely alternates from super-slow and gentle to martial rhythms to anthemic heights. Unfortunately, Hammill does go overboard with the lyrics, but I hardly pay attention to these, preferring to concentrate on the cool melodies. Then it all dies down, and the drums kick in the second, faster part, where Fripp finally comes in and gives us some much needed guitarwork. Wow.

‘Lost’ comes next – again, Peter is the main star, this time mainly pulling out the song based on the strength of his singing. The melody is far too convoluted and twisted, with time signatures flashing like cards in a dealer’s hand and never giving you much time to enjoy them all; but whenever that gorgeous voice comes in and chants ‘I know I’ll never dance like I used to’, there’s some lump coming up my throat that almost makes me cry. Or when he intones in that super-duper pleading intonation: ‘…somehow I don’t think you see my love at all…’ This is not just rock theater; this is something far above. I still haven’t found the term for it, but for now, I’ll just say that Hammill’s vocal performance on ‘Lost’ gotta rank as one of the most magnificent uses of human voice (at least, from a technical sense) on a rock record. And, quite unlike the previous track, it’s just a… hell, it’s just a love song. It’s only a love song, get it? It’s not pretentious. It’s just a little suite that Peter probably cooked up to be sung as a serenade under someone’s window. Why don’t you try singing it to your girlfriend? (Hmm. On the other hand, I can imagine her reaction when you say ‘oh, it’s just a Van Der Graaf Generator song’).

And how do we finish this minor masterpiece? Why, with ‘Pioneers Over C’. Which is everything ‘After The Flood’ wanted to be, but failed. On here, Hammill tackles the traditional art-rock thematics of space travel – but it’s not the lyrics this time, it’s the atmosphere and the musical stuffing that makes the track so thoroughly unforgettable. Especially that cute little bass/sax riff in the middle of each verse to which Hammill tries singing in unison. And all the sections are just so dang cleverly constructed – I tip my hat to the masters. Fast, slow, moody and relaxed, energetic and fast-paced, and never getting boring.

I’m still a bit puzzled as to how the hell could this group come up with such a consistently great record, especially considering that it’s sandwiched by two considerably more weak efforts. Where did these killer riffs (actually, ‘Killer’ riffs, heh heh) come from? How come they didn’t do any more shattering ballads of similar quality? Where did that grandstanding operatic voice disappear afterwards? How come? Whatever; the band was definitely on a roll and it shows; the record’s currently one of my Top 10 Prog albums of all time, and I heavily recommend it to all progressive lovers out there. And kudos to producer John Anthony who didn’t bury Hammill’s voice too deep this time around.

February 21, 2013 - Posted by | Van Der Graaf Generator H To He Who Am The Only One |

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