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4.7 out of 5 stars
4.7 out of 5 stars
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The recently rejuvenated VDGG has met with unparalled interest and critical zeal. All the daily newspapers seem to have run articles on them and their place in the history of progressive rock. Whether this is a reflection on the popularity of all things prog today, or the media trying to latch on to an 'acceptable' example of the genre from the 'golden age' in light of the recent progginess of acts ranging from Radiohead to The Mars Volta is open to conjecture. I don't think even in their heyday did VDGG develop such mainstream interest. But it is more than warranted as can be seen from this first batch of back catalogue remasters which peaks here with "Pawn Hearts". This album is without doubt a classic of progressive rock in its purest sense. Nothing else at the time sounded like VDGG. Evolved around the musical vision of Peter Hammill, the band went solidly against the grain of prettiness and positivism that pervaded a lot of post-hippie prog rock. Theses guys were making gloomy, brooding soundtracks to the darkest recesses of our psyche. With Hugh Banton's gothic keyboards and David Jacksons squalling saxes, their chamber rock was declamatory and full of foreboding.
"Pawn Hearts" is made up of 3 monumental tracks; "Lemmings", "Man Erg" and the hugely epic "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers". For me, "Man Erg" is one of my favourite VDGG pieces. Lyrically this is quintessential Hammill. He doesn't write basic songs about the usual states of love, happiness and sadness, here he digs much deeper and ruminates about our innermost motivations and one that strikes such a singular and in some ways disquieting chord. No other lyricist expounds so eloquently or bares his wounds so openly or deeply!
Musically this album is VDGG at their most complex. Using multitracking to its limits, the band and producer John Anthony produced a breathtaking musical collage. Using disparate musical elements including rock, jazz, musique concrete and choral music all mixed together into their own style they produced a musical brew that at once was tonal and atonal and had a hymn like quality in its dark grandeur. The listener was never sure whether the music would at any minute fall apart under the weight of these heavy, complex arrangements. They always rode at the edge of melody, sometimes pushing it right over.
There is so much detail in the arrangements and this remaster does bring out all the nuances in the mix which were buried deep in the murkiness of the original CD releases. However, these new digital transfers have somewhat exposed the limitations of the recording technology of the day and the possible delicate state of the original multitracks. The sound is still pretty good though.
The booklet is excellent, with the usual informative notes by Mark Powell that we have come to expect. The extra tracks are worthy, especially "W" and "Theme One", though the more extemporaneous pieces which were recorded for a proposed double album version of "Pawn Hearts" can at best be viewed as showing how the band were willing to experiment.
The other two titles in this first batch of remasters are also worth getting and admirably reflect the burgeoning development of this individual and innovative band that are now rightfully being recognised as one of the most exciting and crucial forces to come out of the early 70's English progressive rock scene.
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on 19 February 2006
Progressive rock is, or was, by definition pushing the boundaries of what could be done with music, and VdGG were one of the pushiest. With this album, they probably reached their peak - the albums previous to this were stepping stones toowards this complete album; the later albums are less radical musical statements.
All three tracks on this album are introspective pieces about aspects of the human condition, and I cannot think of any singer/song-writer who looks deeper into the depths of a human soul than Hammill.
Many people, including Hammill himself, seem to consider Lemmings as the least good track here, even a disappointment; for me it is a very powerful song, at first attacking the warlike nature of humans with venom, then finally mellowing into a plea to save ourselves from ourselves.
Man-erg takes the introspection to an individual level, and is a simple theme. We are all human, no more, no less, and it is this simplicity that makes the song so appealing. Yet again, as with Lemmings, the song ends on a somewhat optimistic note, that of acceptance of our condition. Or is that a pessimistic note?
And so to A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers: what can be said? Is this a tale of madness? A tale of us all? Is it even a tale about a lighthouse keeper? Maybe all of these. Whichever, it is an entrancing piece that is the essence of the album, and, consequently, the essence of Van der Graaf Generator. Whilst seeming to take us through the innermost thoughts of a terminal depressive, paradoxically it can be heard as an uplifting and moving song. However it is received by the listener, it is the central track of any VdGG collection.
So to answer the initial question: is this the best progressive rock album ever? Well, for me, there is no question about the answer - absolutely yes.
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on 11 June 2006
... as we used to hear it in those long gone days.

There was nothing quite like Van Der Graaf. Capable of the most beautiful tunes, the music was nonetheless angular and spiky, and the nearest prog rock ever got to becoming genuinely frightening. The musicianship is just incredible, as it was for the other Big Guys, Yes, Genesis, Tull and so on - but the difference between now and then is that they could do it on stage, night after night, never the same, always top class.

This record is another of Peter Hammill's explorations of what makes humankind tick, and as with many concept LPs there are actully half a dozen songs here. The Plague of Lighthouse Keepers (as we knew it) features some of the best organ playing of all time (from Hugh Banton who later went on to join forgotten genius Kenny Elliott in Secondhand/Seventh Wave - see my reviews)and Man-erg feautures some of the best sax ever from David Jackson. Hammill's extraordinary voice is one of the most expressive ever in the genre, and anyone who heard his 600 solo albums will know that he explores these themes aagian and again.

I shared a stage with this lot once, in Bournemouth of all places, and they were just hypnotically good, and the nicest guys ever. They were only kids really when they created this masterpiece. Absolutely unrepeatable brilliance

One thing that is bloody annoying - when ALTERNATIVE versions are labelled as ALTERNATE versions. All the rock critics do it now .... if you repeat a lie often enough...
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on 21 April 2012
The music here is five-star all the way, a classic of its era. Sadly the current CD edition is little more than adequate in the sound stakes. If ever an album needed the remix/remaster magic of a Steven Wilson it's this one. After hearing what he's done for King Crimson and Aqualung can someone out there give him the tapes for PH and let us hear this in a form that suits its stature?
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on 29 November 2001
I rediscovered this ancient classic during a clear out of the record cabinet. It was one of the half dozen records that I gave a spin to decide if they were worth keeping, and the only one of them to make it safely back to the cupboard (rather than the bin). More than that, it was a moving experience. Although some of the instrumentation and production sounds a little dated, this is a strangely up-to-date work of art that out-achieves many fine recent offerings (e.g. Radiohead) on their home turf.
The most remarkable aspect of all VdGG's work was the lyrics. Peter Hammill was (and remains) an accomplished and visionary poet in his own right (how many other rock lyricists have had their work published in book form?) whose prophetic insight has stood the test of history. When he was actually putting pen to paper in the swinging sixties and early seventies his words seemed too black, too preoccupied with social fragmentation, too pessimistic. We still thought we were going to carve out some kind of hippy utopia here on earth.
If only New Wavers of the later seventies had listened to Van der Graaf (and Hammill's solo albums) instead of slagging them along with the other glam and prog behemoths of the era, they might have recognised kindred spirits (although no new wave band ever approached Hammill's clarity or beauty of expression). Hammill could have been to New Wave what Neil Young was to Grunge - a sort of grandfather in arms - and who knows we might have escaped the horrific excesses of New Romanticism.
Hammill takes the alienation and sorrow and doubt and loneliness that in my adolescent years were mainly confined to the experience of socially retarded individuals, and imagines . . . what if these pains were felt not just by lonely individuals, but collectively by a whole lonely civilisation? ("A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers")? What would happen if a whole society developed suicidal tendencies ("Lemmings")? What will society be like when we are so dehumanised that men and women are thought of as no more than units of work ("Man-Erg")? And of course those nightmarish pictures, which were once so much on the fringe of our artistic consciousness, are now mainstream. Sadly, the price of bringing these patterns within the grasp of a wider audience is that to present-day listeners they no longer seem prophetic . . . merely realistic.
The most remarkable thing of all - the aspect that makes Hammill's work into art rather than mere science - is that he is not afraid to find a glimmer of hope in the darkness. And he does so with the finesse that only a wordsmith of genius could pull off: "What course is there left but to die" all on its own means little today - that sort of thing has become the staple diet of Norwegian metal headbangers. But switch the final verse to this: "What cause is there left but to live . . . (falsetto croon) in the hope of saving our children's children's little ones" and you have a call to redemption that will bring string men out in goose-bumps.
The final lyrical flourish is to alternate a statement of despair ("All things are apart") with a statement of transcendent unity ("All things are a part"). The fact that you might never spot this subtle exchanging of pain for acceptance without reading the lyrics in print is a measure of the composer's rugged integrity.
Imagine this awesome lyrical freight carried by a group of virtuoso musicians unafraid to experiment. The fact that some of the experiments don't quite work is part of the work's radical beauty. Steel yourself for moments of jarring noise and dissonance alternating with moments of melting sweetness. It is arguable that Hammill at his peak had the most beautiful voice in rock, and almost beyond argument that he possessed the greatest musical and dramatic range. Add the searing brilliance of Robert Fripp out of King Crimson, playing the sort of guitar that nobody else can copy even today (although Radiohead have tried once or twice). You end up with a statement unequalled in the history of rock music.
No compromise, just art. Easy listening it isn't, but truth and beauty are rarely pretty and never bland.
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on 5 October 2007
If I had to select an album to play to a Martian to justify the existence of the human race, this is it.

A pinnacle of Western culture.
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I came across this album in a bargain record store for two quid a few years ago. I chose it for the odd cover design. The music was a pretty impressive journey. If you're into concepts, experimental music, pomp, drama, sound engineering, and prog rock, you need this album. Its one of those that you have to listen to from start to finish. Hammill's vocal range is huge. He always wanted to be the vocal equivalent of Jimmy Hendrix. The band create an engaging environment of sound whilst playing compositions endlessly changing from quiet to saturated volume from ambient to heavy, and a guest appearance from Fripp himself to boot. A strange and addictive album that grows and grows. Hammill is unique as a song writer.
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on 8 December 2006
This is my first purchase from the Vdgg. Being genuinely very interested in rock music, I kept reading the name Peter Hammill in magazines or anthologies of rock music etc. I decided to plunge in and bought 'In Camera' by Peter Hammill. I was initially more impressed with the level of experimentation than the music itself [ you don't tend to hear people whistling 'Tapeworm' on the bus!], but it did grow on me. I have now purchased 'Pawn Hearts' and again I'm confronted with music that at first appears inpenetrable. But now I am quite a fan of 'Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers'. And 'Man-Erg' where Hammill sings 'there's a killer inside me', the music has a dark tone but is also strangely uplifting. I think maybe too much is made of the 'Hammill influenced punk' thing. I heard John Lydon say in a recent interview 'yeah, I said I liked one of their albums and you keep going on about it...' which is probably true. When people say it's proto-punk you shouldn't be expecting a kind of British MC5 or Stooges. This is punk music in spirit in that it is what it is and the band are not afraid to do their own thing. As other reviewers have said, this has none of the tiresome neo classical 20 minute keyboard solos that date progressive rock very badly nowadays. This still sounds wildly experimental even today, even though the studio effects which were then ground breaking can probably be recreated on a laptop today [ perhaps not!] but you get my meaning. It's funny to hear of how every tape machine at Trident Studios was being used at some points in the recording and that mixing at the desk went on with 6 pairs of hands pushing faders up and down!. The album consists of 3 epic tracks, my favourite is the enormous 23 minute 'Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers'. It seems to work a bit better than other similar epics of the time, for example Pink Floyd's 'Echoes' on 'Meddle'. It is by no means a flawless album: to some modern ears it's rather an acquired taste [ played it to several friends whose expressions have ranged between bemusement and wincing] but I like it. A newly converted fan.
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on 6 June 2015
'Pawn Hearts' (1971) is certainly a contender for the most esoteric progressive rock album of all time. With just 3 tracks on its original running order - 'Lemmings', 'Man-Erg' and the fascinating, but sprawling 23 minute epic, 'A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers' - the listener is taken on a highly challenging journey; to be honest I wouldn't suggest that this is the ideal place to begin your voyage of discovery through the VDGG back catalogue ('The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other' is probably your best bet) but this is an LP that definitely grows on you with repeated playing and is well worth investing in.
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on 17 November 2015
Three songs, the shortest of which is a touch over ten minutes and the longest over twenty minutes. Defines 1970s prog. The bonus tracks add to that too. Marvellous.
Hammill and his buddies make a lot of noise in many different ways in clever arrangements. All classic prog, all deep and take time to discover but do reward the listener for their patience. VDGG always somewhat “Marmite” though perhaps this is their most easily accessible album and the most consistently sonically varied and engrossing.
Dark, brooding, heavy, quiet, relaxing, noodling piano bits, crunching. It has it all. Lemmings and Man Erg are both as finer quintessential English prog rock as you’ll hear – well, until you get to A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers. Profound, gothic, choral, the burgeoning mixture of manic drumming, sweeping organ and devilish sax makes a sound like nothing else. The quieter gentle melodic piano interludes as Hammill slows it down a time or two.
I recall buying the original on vinyl way back when – I called it Prawn Hearts then (perhaps I was drunk at the time) and still do. It’s as good as it gets. A good place to start if you are new to VDGG or want to see what real prog was like in the 1970s.
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