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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Van der Graaf Generator

Pawn Hearts

Review by Julie Knispel

Pawn Hearts, the fourth album by the first incarnation of the seminal British progressive band Van der Graaf Generator, is the fullest distillation of the band’s multiple talents. Formed in 1967 at Manchester University, VdGG is perhaps best known as the band that first brought attention to Peter Hammill, vocalist, occasional keyboardist and guitarist for the band, whose voice has often been compared favourably to the multiple voicings and styles exhibited by guitarist Jimi Hendrix. With a voice that can shift from whisper to full throated scream within a single vocal phrase, Hammill’s voice exhibits all the range and diversity that has been a hallmark of Van der Graaf Generator’s career.

Pawn Hearts, as released originally in their home country, was a three song affair, with the “shorter” tracks “Lemmings” and “Man-Erg” (each well over ten minutes in length) on Side A, with the massive 23 minute epic “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” filling all of Side B. In the US and Canada, the band’s recording of the BBC 1 theme, “Theme One,” was jammed onto Side A between the other two tracks. Released on Charisma Records in 1971, Pawn Hearts solidified the band’s growing fan base throughout continental Europe (in Italy, rapturous audiences would turn out for their shows, treating them much like visiting royalty; in fact, Pawn Hearts held the number 1 sales spot in Italy for 12 weeks on its release in 1971), while in their homeland, the band was somewhat less known. Following the release of this album and its accompanying tour, the band fractured for four years, Hammill recording a series of solo albums (often with support from members of the band) before resuming work as Van der Graaf Generator in 1975.

Van der Graaf Generator’s sound, as mentioned previously, often seems somewhat overshadowed by Hammill’s vocal gymnastics. However, he was far from the only unique voice in the group. David Jackson (Jaxon to fans) provided wild and sometimes verging on unhinged sax and flute work; on stage, he would often play two saxophones at once, using circular breathing to give him the capacity to blow both horns with power and skill. Hugh Banton’s organ playing was somber and ornate, lending an almost church like feel to the material, while drummer Guy Evans excelled at deft, quiet percussive phrases, while also being able to hammer it out with the best of them. Pawn Hearts also featured the second guest spot by King Crimson guitarist and founding member Robert Fripp.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2007 Volume 5 at

Track by Track Review
Opening with choked cymbals, ethereal flute and a subdued organ line, “Lemmings” introduces Pawn Hearts gently. By the time Peter Hammill’s voice begins to intone his poetry, any chance of respite is long gone, the listener is fully in the band’s grip. ”There is no escape except to go forward.” Jackson’s multiple horn parts (most likely individually tracked in the studio, rather than played simultaneously) are tightly harmonized and thicken the mix, while Evans’ drumming alternates from machine gun snare bursts to piercing tom hits like a boxer working a heavy bag. Even on a shorter track like this (shorter being a bit of a misnomer, as “Lemmings” Is still well over 11 minutes long) VdGG works through a variety of styles and moods, leaving plenty of space for tension to build. The instrumental unison coming out of a lengthy ambient section, leading into Hammill’s “Yes, I know it's out of control,” is particularly tasty and worthy of comparison to some of Frank Zappa’s most enjoyable instrumental works. Virtuosos VdGG may have never been, but they could certainly rise to the occasion, and this piece is no small evidence of that.
Theme One
Van der Graaf Generator’s arrangement and take on the BBC One theme song, this is a jaunty instrumental that is nearly impossible to keep from humming along with. It’s uplifting, quick paced, and offers Banton and Jackson fans a chance to hear the two of them rocking out in a sort of slightly restrained VdGG manner. Tightly arranged and solidly performed, it’s one of a very few rays of light in an otherwise oppressive and foreboding album.
Much like “Lemmings” earlier (and in some ways, “Plague” which follows), “Man-Erg” opens deceptively quietly, with gentle piano courtesy of Hugh Banton and the closest thing to straight, traditional vocals one will get from Peter Hammill on this album. Banton adds an organ line behind his piano theme, and as the rest of the band joins in, the track moves toward a mid tempo, anthemic mood. Lest one think it will continue along these lines, a schizoid, psychotic sax line launches out of nowhere, sending the band and song careening down nightmarish carnivalesque pathways. Hammill’s lyrics are simultaneously searching and lost as he sings of the characteristics of man; the good, the evil, and the human that lies in the balance between.
A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers
The longest song on Pawn Hearts, and the longest track VdGG would commit to vinyl, “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” is 23 minutes of the band playing through every style of music they had ever explored. From gentle, almost funereal moods to schizoid proto-metal to sections verging on the ambient, “Plague” has it all and then some. This track has been influential on later progressive music in more than one way; Jackson’s flute line mid-way through “Eyewitness” would later be sampled by Porcupine Tree and used in their ambient classic “Voyage 34,” while lines from Hammill’s first vocal verse would be quoted by Fish on Marillion’s Misplaced Childhood. “Plague” opens with a fugue like organ line, with Hammill’s vocals sounding distant, almost as if sung across phone lines. Whispered, slightly distorted, they gradually build in intensity, his voice rising in pitch as the track pulses along. With a burst, the full band builds, Hammill holding a single note, sounding almost like Jackson’s saxophone. The ambient mid section evokes the sea-like themes, Jackson’s saxophone sounding like horns cutting through the fog. Short bursts of percussion and synth break the silence, leading to an ascending Banton organ line. The second vocal section sees a resumption of the main musical theme, Hammill’s voice more present and punched in the mix. His lyrics are as literary as ever, weaving a tale of nightmare and mystery unmatched in progressive music, with Ph.D level vocabulary to boot. The mood shifts and flows much like the foggy sea, not letting up until the final moments, where Banton’s piano playing and Hammill’s vocals rise from the darkness and murk to intone the final lines:

“Begin to feel very glad now:
All things are a part
All things are apart
All things are a part.”

The question, of course, is where the positivity comes from; has the protagonist/narrator found the light, or has he found peace through a final end. The lyrics are obtuse and do not offer immediate answers. It is up to each listener to decide what has happened in the song, which is likely much the way Hammill would want it.
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