Van Der Graaf Generator – H to He, Who Am the Only One / Pawn Hearts

The sixties had finally ended, and progressive rock was now finally standing on its own two feet. Although most of the recognition would go to the likes of King Crimson, Yes, and ELP, it is my opinion that Van Der Graaf Generator released among the most inventive music of the period. Whether it be their unique style, their brilliant use of keyboards, or the gorgeous voice of frontman Peter Hammill, I have found myself more drawn to this band’s work than most any other ‘classic’ prog act. The oddly titled ‘H To He, Who Am The Only One’ is among the band’s most acclaimed works, perhaps only dwarfed by the subsequent ‘Pawn Hearts’ and ‘Godbluff.’ Although the band’s work here doesn’t move me as much as my favourite VDGG music, ‘H To He’ deserves recognition as a classic in the band’s canon.

Van Der Graaf Generator is quite clearly a prog rock band, but one thing that makes them stand out is that they were a fair bit gloomier than most of their contemporaries. This reflects in both their music and the highly poetic lyrics of Peter Hammill. Although the concepts and themes that drive this music has much in common with a lot of ‘prog,’ Van Der Graaf Generator approaches it differently here. ‘H To He’ delivers Van Der Graaf Generator’s signature style in droves; a tight blend of jazz, classical music, and psychedelia. To elaborate, VDGG feel like a jazz band playing classical music through psychedelic rock means. Also notable about the work here is that there is virtually no guitar in their work, although there are plenty of Hugh Banton’s gritty keyboard textures that make up for it.

The songwriting on ‘H To He’ favours longer compositions, often based in storytelling or metaphor. ‘Pioneers Over C’ for example, details the story of a space voyage gone sour, while ‘Killer’ and ‘The House With No Door’ are both allegories for isolation. Peter Hammill certainly has a penchant for the morose in his poetry, and this is sure to turn off listeners who want something a little more optimistic. As is common in all Van Der Graaf Generator album, ‘H To He’ becomes memorable not first as an overall album, but for its many ‘wow’ moments. Each of the five tracks here are given some amazing passages, be it a gorgeous vocal melody, dramatic climax, or jazzy break. The songwriting and structure of these pieces is excellent, although the main issue with the work here is that all of these songs feel just a little too drawn out for their own good. Even the beautifully tender ‘ballad’ track ‘The House With No Door’ feels as if it could have done with a minute sliced off. Much of VDGG’s best work has been indulgent like this, but I do feel that ‘H To He’ contends with this issue a little more than say, my favourite of their albums, ‘Pawn Hearts’.

That’s not to say that there is filler here, merely brilliant ideas slightly short of being used optimally. ‘H To He’ is not my favourite VDGG album, but there is more than enough here to demonstrate why I love them so much.

The last album that Van Der Graaf Generator would release before breaking up (for their first time), ‘Pawn Hearts’ represents the artistic peak of everything that this band had done up to this point. Although they had certainly released some great music in the three albums before this, ‘Pawn Hearts’ not only dwarfs previous achievements, but also stands both as being one of the greatest prog albums of all time, and one of my personal favourites.

This is an album set up in the same three-song format that Yes’ opus ‘Close To The Edge’ would achieve critical immortality with. Van Der Graaf Generator may be prog rock, but they take a different tone to their music than many of the contemporary bands that were taking rock music to new heights. Most notably, Van Der Graaf Generator has a much darker atmosphere, brought on in no small part due to Peter Hamill’s disturbing lyrical content. In any case, we are presented with three songs- err, epics- that are distinctly Van Der Graaf material. ‘Lemmings’ opens the album on a subtle note, with acoustics chiming in, but its not long before this piece of music evolves into something a bit more diabolical. There is little guitar in the music, with the instrumentation being driven by the keen keyboard playing of Hugh Banton, and jazz-infused percussion of Guy Evans. The true highlight to the music though is Hamill’s voice itself. As is best shown on the album’s highlight ‘Man-Er-G’, Hamill’s delivery can be both aggressive, and graceful within the context of one song. The piece starts off with pleasant pianos and organs, and Hamill’s pronounced British enunciation leading things on into a bombastic ‘chorus’ of sorts that screams all things epic. Then out of nowhere, Van Der Graaf Generator’s jazz leanings kick in and contrast the melancholy with something chaotic and proggy.

Maybe the track that this album is best known for is the twenty minute long ‘A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers’, an epic that is seen to be on par with other greats like ‘Supper’s Ready’, or ’2112′. Van Der Graaf’s chief contribution to the epic catalog certainly amounts to them on a musical level, although it has a more scattered sensibility to it. Instead of sounding like a traditional epic, ‘Plague’ is a chaotic, almost rhapsodic piece that cycles through a number of different interesting ideas and places on its journey, ending up somewhere very different than from it started. Much like the first two tracks, Van Der Graaf Generator ranges from lightly theatrical passages to craziness that sounds quite a bit more ‘out there’ than something you might here from Yes or Genesis. Some of the transitions between ideas feels rough, but taken as a whole, the musical quality of the ideas and performance warrants nothing less than an essential rating in my books. ‘Pawn Hearts’ is absolute gold, and I wonder if prog rock will ever see an album that manages to be so adventurous, yet so emotionally splendid at the same time.

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