Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

Van Der Graaf Generator Pawn Hearts (1971)


Released in 1971, this album is regarded by many fans as the finest material VDGG ever recorded. I certainly share this enthusiasm and Pawn Hearts ranks right up there with my top ten prog albums of all time. Ever. This is difficult listening however, and themes of despair and paranoia abound, which are wonderfully brought to life in all of their twisted glory with Peter Hamill’s anguished lyrics.

The members of the band at this point included the classic VDGG lineup: Hugh Banton (Hammond E&C organs, Farfisa professional organ, piano, mellotron, ARP synthesizer, bass pedals, bass guitar, and vocals); Peter Hammill (lead vocals, acoustic and slide guitar, electric piano, and acoustic piano); superb drummer Guy Evans; and David Jackson (flute, tenor/alto/soprano saxophones). All of the musicians are very good with Guy being an exceptional drummer – just like all of the other remastered VDGG albums, the subtle intricacies of his drumming really come across. The ensemble work is also pretty good too. Before I forget, Robert Fripp (of King Crimson) contributed a tiny bit of electric guitar here and there – it’s barely noticeable though.

Now for my favourite part – the music. The album is comprised of two longer pieces (11’39” and 10’22”) with the massive 23’05 multimovement suite A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers as the centrepiece. The music is, for the most part, harsh and unyielding with only the briefest moments of reprieve. Hugh’s alternately twisted and churchy organ work really drives each piece along, with Dave’s angular and jagged sax work slashing through each piece like so many shards of broken glass. OK, maybe that last bit is a little over the top, but it is not far from the truth. Although the music is very heavy, there are a few quieter and haunting moments. The introduction to Man Erg comes to mind as the best example, although those moments (albeit fleeting moments) are pretty much scattered across the album. Last but not least, is Peter Hammill’s incredible and very distinctive vocal delivery. He had developed a vocal style over the course of three albums that ranged from a heavy metal rasp to a high pitched falsetto “choir boy” vocal style and it is brought to perfection on this album. He also screams/rants during certain frenzied passages on the feverish closing track, A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers. Although some people feel that his vocal style is overly theatrical I have to admit that I absolutely love it – In fact, I am of the opinion that VDGG would not be VDGG without Peter Hammill.

The EMI remastered album is incredible and features restored cover art and band publicity photos/live shots along with an extraordinary improvement in the sound quality. The improvement is so great that it is like listening to a completely different recording – every nuance is brought out and you can even hear subtle synthesizer effects and percussion parts that had previously gone unheard. The liner notes include all of the lyrics along with a ton of informative liner notes. The bonus tracks are also really good too (well, maybe the dinner time jazz of Ponker’s Theme is not so great) and are outtakes from the 1971 Pawn Hearts sessions. I think that of all the bonus tracks, Diminutions is the most interesting because it is so unlike VDGG. It is very spacey and consists simply of long, drawn out passages on synthesizers and organ over a period of six minutes or so – in fact it sounds more like electronic artists such as Tangerine Dream or Klaus Schulze.

Well I have gushed over this incredible album long enough, although I could easily go on for another 20 pages. Suffice it to say that this is VDGG’s finest recorded moment and is very highly recommended along with H to He, He who am the Only One (1970) and Still Life (1976).

One more thing – this was the last album VDGG released before regrouping and releasing Godbluff in 1975.

April 8, 2013 - Posted by | Van Der Graaf Generator Pawn Hearts |

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