Review Summary: The darkest musical experience that the genre has to offer...
Van Der Graaf Generator - Pawn Hearts
Pawn Hearts is very different to my usual progressive rock favourites. The general sound of the album is dark and aggressive, and these are not attributes that are generally found in my favourite prog albums. All three of the Pawn Hearts' epic length tracks are a brutal assault on the ears and the conceptual ideas are communicated with a jazz-tinged rhythmic drive, which gives the album an aggressive touch. The compositions in this record are infused with avant-garde harmonic ideas, and the album's dark sound is characterised by juxtaposition of timbres, emotive lyrics, and a heavy emphasis on rhythm.
The exact concept of Pawn Hearts is unclear. However, main themes that are visited by lyricist and vocalist Peter Hammill are clearly those of power and control, human nature, and one's identity as a part of society. There is a clear protagonist who is explored in each of the three tracks, and his character undergoes development that is communicated through Hammill's vocal flourishes and timbre. The lyrics of the album could be said to represent different perspectives of Nazism, dictatorship, and other such methods of control. The most obvious reference to this idea is the opening track, Lemmings, where the protagonist witnesses those that he is close to, following the crowd as they jump to their doom. The whole album revolves around the protagonist's resistance to the crowd of "Lemmings" as they fall to their fate, presumably at the hands of leaders, and the emotional turmoil that is caused by the solitude that follows. Hammill wastes no time in establishing the metaphors that the story is based around, with an immediate reference to a "game", where the "Lemmings" are used as "Pawns", jumping to their doom in a scenario that is left ambiguous.
The album opens with the hostile and dramatic Lemmings, a perfect beginning to the album. This track is both composed and performed with conviction and aggression, and Hammill's performance remains one of the most convincing vocal deliveries in progressive rock history. The "Cogs" section is as close as any 70s band can get to a death metal breakdown, combining a slow tempo with an aggressive rhythmic emphasis and dissonant timbres to create a very disturbing musical portrait of a dystopian world. Guy Evans' superb drumming is featured here, his meticulous approach to timing giving the piece a solid backbeat and highlighting the jazz influences that characterises the band's sound. Despite the abundance of hostility, there is still an air of positivity in the message of the song, with the protagonist's final message being "What choice is there but to live, to save the little ones?"
Man-Erg is a welcome contrast to the malicious sound of Lemmings. The track opens with a gentle piano opening, which is followed by Hammill's soft vocals. This track visits the idea of conflicting feelings, personalities or ideals, with the protagonist describing the "killer" and the "angels" that live inside him. The character, arguably the same character that is explored throughout the album, is experiencing inner turmoil and could be said to be struggling with an important decision. There is a more melancholy flavour to this track, which is supported by the musical allusions to the previous track, which provides musical contrast. The song develops into many different sections, each with their own contrasting musical characters, and these are all combined and revisited in the final minutes of the song to provide dramatic juxtaposition and to bring the piece to a fitting conclusion. Side one is brought to a dramatic close with Hammill's final wailing statement, "I'm just a man, and killers, angels, all are these, Dictators, saviors, refugees, In war and peace".
A Plague of the Lighthouse Keepers is a very different creation. This side-long epic combines the emotions that are visited in the previous tracks, only this time there is a sense of manic urgency and an increased use of dramatic tension (most notably the saxophone's imitation of a fog horn). There is an unfortunate lack of consistent motifs throughout this piece, but fortunately this allows room for development and exploration of new melodic territory. The collaboration between the vocals and keyboards really shines in this piece. This final chapter sees the protagonist watch from his "lighthouse", as all of his peers jump like Lemmings into the untold situation, which he has struggled with in each of the tracks. He feels lonely in his decision to defy the crowd, and seeks signs of direction and significance in his solitude ("You'll begin to wonder if the points of all the ancient myths, are solemnly directed straight at you..."). Toward the end, our protagonist surrenders to the control of the crowd and jumps into the situation that he has defied, seeing the epic concluded in a swirl of keyboards. The music here is more extreme in its juxtaposition of moods, but it is less effective in creating dramatic tension than the subsequent tracks. There are many more dissonant passages here, contrasted with several emotive collaborations between the keyboards and Hammill's vocals.
It is very rare to find an album with such raw emotion as Pawn Hearts. Both the composition and the performance of this album are drenched in unconventional emotive devices, creating an album which is brooding, aggressive, and desperately melancholic. Hammill's vocals are in top shape, and his performance on each of these tracks is outstanding, emphasizing each contrasting section with a unique approach to timbre and extended vocal techniques. The sound of this album is much more mature than the band's previous releases, yet there remains a freshness that adds excitement and vigor. It is evident that each of the members of the band were fully engaged in the recording of the album, and Peter Hammill's vocals are delivered with excitement and engagement that can come only from a passionate connection to the lyrical content.The standout track is "Lemmings", with its frantic and aggressive delivery and its eternally relevant message of the defiance of mass manipulation.
Pawn Hearts is the darkest musical experience that the genre of progressive rock has to offer, and is an essential addition to any serious progressive rock collection.