Review Summary: “A true original. I'm damn sure Bowie copied a lot out of that geezer”, John Lydon, 1977.
Adopt and adapt or die. This was the choice facing many of the progressive rock acts who had achieved commercial success in the 1970’s but for whom the onset of the new decade was proving to be a markedly hostile environment. Half-heartedly embracing contemporary sounds and incorporating it into their own music was about as far some of these stalwarts went, sometimes to quite risible effect (‘80s Camel being a case in point). For sonic pioneers such as ex-Van der Graaf Generator frontman Peter Hammill, however, merely reacting to the current scene was not enough. Hammill had often seemed to be ahead of the curve. The almost prescient ‘Nadir’s Big Chance’ in 1975 had anticipated punk rock and by 1978 Hammill had already incorporated electronic music on his transitional ‘The Future Now’. By 1980 Hammill was fully ensconced in the possibilities provided by electronics and the release of ‘The Black Box’ marked a notable chapter in his musical evolution.
Hammill’s music had always had a dark edge and ‘The Black Box’ is no exception. ‘Fogwalking’ is without a doubt one of the most malevolent pieces of music ever recorded, with its subdued angular beats and swelling electronics building an atmosphere of sheer creeping menace. Hammill’s acerbic ‘received pronunciation’ style singing serves admirably to enhance this claustrophobic tale of a bleak post-apocalyptic London; ‘buildings loom up like icebergs, on collision course..in the no-go zone’. Hammill takes the experimentation even further on the jarring ‘Jargon King’ with its flurry of spitting percussive electronics and cold, robotic beats. Once again Hammill is clearly ahead of his time here and the music comes over as raw proto mid period Radiohead. When Hammill manages to combine his experimentation with sharp songwriting the results are far more satisfying, a case in point being the stirring ‘Losing Faith In Words’, a glorious mash of humming synth, uplifting electric piano passages and post-punk clankiness.
In some cases the electronic experimentation is eschewed and Hammill re-invokes the feel of earlier outings with some relatively straight-forward offerings that channel a compact new wave edge while retaining his musical eccentricities. Album opener ‘Golden Promises’ has a swaggering industrial-era Bowie feel, with crashing percussion and mechanical grating guitar hooks and ‘The Spirit’ carries on in this particular vein to the extent that it could happily sit within many Bowie records of the era. Whatever cross fertilization actually went on between these two musical geniuses, and in which direction, there is no doubt that Hammill’s eccentric musical personality pervades these songs to such an extent that they manage to sound truly original. Hammill would push his electronic experimentation to an even deeper level on subsequent releases, with 1983’s divisive ‘Loops & Reels’ taking things to extreme levels. On here the contrast between the electronic pastiches and the straight up new wave rock songs is quite marked at times and gives the album a disjointed feel. But there is little doubt that a true innovator was at work. Whether you warm to Hammill’s style or not, this album, among others of his during the period, stand as notable episodes in the evolution of electronic music.