While there’s a number of artists (at least five or six) who have remained consistently listenable, and sometimes even bravely so, as they march towards what we might once have termed their dotage… Neil Young, Richard Thompson, [insert your own candidate here], there are fewer who have likewise remained challenging, blinding and electrifying too. And fewer still who have done so while simultaneously appearing more prolific than they were even in their prime.
It was just a year back that we were celebrating a new Peter Hammill album, recorded in tandem with Gary Lucas. Yet this month not only brings us a new solo disc, it also delivers a live disc too, recorded in cahoots with Van der Graaf Generator. And, while it does merely echo titles that you can readily tick off from the “greatest hits” register, the scope and majesty of the performance is such that they might as well be brand new compositions.
“A Plague of Lighthouse-Keepers,” the sidelong signature from the band’s Pawn Hearts, has never been played in concert in its entirety before the current three piece VdGG resurrected it; “Flight,” the equally epic creation that dominated Hammill’s Black Box solo set, had never been performed by the band. Add a churning, burning “Gog,” from another solo album, In Camera, and clearly this is a band that has no interest at all in encoring with “My Generation”… “Satisfaction”… “Panama Red.” And that is Merlin Atmos, available now as a single CD, a limited edition double, and a mighty vinyl Behemoth as well.
…all that might have been… on the other hand, isn’t simply an album of new Hammill songs. It’s a three CD box set of new Hammill songs… or fragments, or vignettes, or craftily revisualized demos and offcuts, all rescheduled and redesigned into three very separate collections: …the Songs, which comprises ten of the things, each one sharp and demanding, and snakebite memorable; …the Cine… in which we encounter the songs hemmed in by the elements that were trimmed off for the Songs disc, and find them mapped seamlessly together, a singular suite of barnstorming intent; and …the Retro… which reconstructs Hammill’s original work-in progress tapes, and is simultaneously instrumental, haunting and glorious. Bowie's Low will certainly be referenced by some listeners, although the Cure's Carnage Visors soundtrack is just as apt. Which proves the perils of trying to compare PH with anyone.
Whatever. It all adds up to a collection which drops directly into a landscape placed - surely coincidentally - between the two solo albums we’ve already referenced, 1974’s In Camera, and 1980’s A Black Box.
In other words… primal Hammill, perfect Hammill, unpredictable Hammill. Or, as Hamill himself told Goldmine this month, “It's a pretty dense project. The "main" (cine) disc cuts apart the songs and presents them in a highly filmic way, moving backwards and forwards between scenes and characters. The songs themselves, of course, are individual pieces as ever. There's a strong film noir element about the whole thing. As ever, beyond that, [it ’s] best to let it speak for itself.”
GM: In the world of musical labels, Van der Graaf are very firmly referred to as a Progressive band today - but for a long time, and certainly through the first two lifetimes, you were virtually uncategorisable. Beyond the public/media’s need to box everything up, what do you think changed?
PH: “To be fair, we were referred to as Progressive back in the seventies. At that time, it was an extremely broad church. Later, as it mutated into Prog and so on, we felt less comfortable being tagged into a genre that seemed more restrictive (and specifically dated back to particular periods of time). My impression now is that Prog (ressive) is once again a category which can take all sorts of styles under its wing. But you're right, we never liked to be boxed in, by others or ourselves, at any stage!”
GM: Without getting into the subject of “influences” (which is so subjective), I’m curious - what music were you listening to during the lifetimes of the 1970s VdGG... what artists, if any, did you listen out for, what were your favorite records. And contrarily, what artists did you decidedly NOT listen to?
PH: “All sorts of stuff really. Since we came from different musical backgrounds, our listening habits tended to cross-fertilize. So, personally, I began to listen to classical stuff (both ancient and modern) and jazz. Obviously there were rock records I/we listened to as well, but usually it'd be stuff at a far remove from anything we were doing.”
GM: Were you a fan of, or listening to, any of what we would now call “the other” prog bands... Yes, ELP, Genesis etc?
PH: “No, I didn't really listen to this stuff, with the exception of Genesis of course, as friends, label-mated and co-touring conspirators!”
GM: How about today - are there any current/new bands or artists you especially enjoy?
PH: “When I get to listen to music today it's almost always in that ocean-wide definition of Classical. So, Byrd to Bach, Mozart to [Oliver] Messiaen….”
GHM: A new VdGG live album! It’s great that it’s now possible for a band to document its development, and key moments in time, with “proper” releases - as opposed to scrambling around years later, hoping somebody bootlegged the show in vaguely listenable quality. So first - what was the thinking behind Merlin Atmos?
PH: “Ahead of the tour, we realized that we were attempting something special with nightly performances of both long-forms, "Flight" and "Lighthouse-Keepers" and that, whatever happened, we were unlikely to repeat the effort. So, somewhat contrary to normal practice, we decided to record the entire tour. This, of course, before we'd actually rehearsed “Lighthouse-Keepers,” so it was a bit of a leap in the dark. Happily, we're really happy with the versions and so it gets a public release.”
GM: Are there any moments in the 70s band’s lifetimes that you wish had been preserved with the same care and clarity?
PH: “It's a bit of a shame that there's so little TV/film footage of the band in its various incarnations. But specific moments? I've always liked to be inside them, in the moment. So, no regrets!”
GM: “Lighthouse Keepers” does exist as a Belgian television performance “live,” but recorded in two halves for various reasons. Beyond that, did the band ever try to work up a live version? If so, what happened... and if not, why?
PH: “I think we'd tried to work it up - or else we wouldn't have been able to play itm in Belgium. But we didn't feel, I think, that we were doing it or ourselves justice with it. Strange, I know, as the TV show's a bit of a cracker. Also, the problem, if there be one, with long forms is that if you have one in the current set-list, you either have to play it every night, or risk disappointing those who miss out. Hence, in a way, our decision to announce in advance that we'd play both. It made sorting out the rest of the set complex, but heigh-ho.”
GM: It’s also the only “early” song on the new album. Do you see a musical separation between the early 70s band and the post-1975 version? And if so, what is it?
PH: “Actually, we don't make or notice any distinction between old and new when we come to rehearse or play it - we're working in real time, in the now, and this simply happens to be the material we're working on.”
GM: Van der Graaf have always included elements of your solo output in the set… the first band album, Aerosol Grey Machine, started life as a Hammill solo set, and your solo debut, Fool’s Mate, was recorded with the band alongside you. And thereafter, VdGG gigs were always likely to include a solo song or two… which is actually a rare phenomenon. Or at least it was, back when you were first doing it. Was there ever any resistance to including your solo tracks in the show? And what do you think the band setting adds to them?
PH: “As above, the definition of whose song it is depends on who's playing it. “(in The) Black Room” and “A Louse Is Not A Home” were both played by the band before we broke up [the first time, in 1971], and then recorded as part of solo albums. “Gog" and “Forsaken Gardens” were solo things which the band then immediately took up on reforming [in 1975]. When it’s played by the band, it becomes a band song. There hasn't ever been any kind of muscling-in… “I want to do one of my solo ones now!” We just take each song as it comes.”
GM: Have you ever thought of recording an album featuring band versions of solo songs? Just to see how they would emerge?
PH: “No. Obviously, there are a number of solo songs which could suit the band which we haven't attempted. But to be honest, we'd rather press on with new VdGG material, I think.”
GM: When you are writing, do you know in advance whether a song is destined for the band, or for a solo project... can you compartmentalize yourself like that? Or do you wait and see how it turns out, what the others think, and so on?
PH: “Usually the writing process takes place in a period when the next recording window is known - so I'll be attempting to write VdGG material, knowing that that's next up. It's not a cut and dried thing, though; sometimes something will come up which, in one direction or another, I think should be diverted to the "other" project home. In lyrical terms I feel (have always felt) a certain responsibility to write songs for the band with which we all have some empathy, if not necessarily total agreement. On solo stuff, obviously, I go off wherever I want!”
And so he does, with a new solo album… his thirty-seventh studio set, to which can be added nine live, and eighteen with Van der Graaf… that is as enthralling a ride as any; and as utterly divorced from anything else you might be listening to as you’ve ever wanted a Hammill recording to be. Indeed, spread across the full weight of a triple album package (and how Prog Rock is that???), …all that might have been… answers the question that Goldmine didn’t ask Hammill, but which comes to mind whenever he releases something new. Or, if we add Merlin Atmos to the pile, something old as well.
Why can’t more artists in the middle of the Twenty-teens still make records as vital as they did in the past, that will repay as many listens as the faithful oldies already have?
Because they’re not Peter Hammill, that’s why.