In my review of Peter Hammill’s last Austrian concert in 2010 I speculated that Hammill’s work “seems to be heading ever closer towards notions of ending and mortality” and that his airing of many seldom performed older songs was linked to the notion of “looking back over his life’s work”. I was accused in some quarters of an inappropriate morbidity, but Hammill’s October 2012 journal entry confirms that I was spot on: “a serious point about doing so many songs is that as and when I’m done with playing then all these songs will be stilled… the time of these songs’ lives is finite and we’re now evidently quite a long way down it.”
Here’s some kind of list of the most memorable concerts I attended this year. (By the way, you won’t find a list of albums of the year here. I hardly ever listen to recorded music any more; increasingly, music to me means live music.)
It’s been an excellent year for my kind of music in Vienna, and shows by The Walkabouts, Tindersticks, Shearwater, The Cherry Thing and Bruce Springsteen might all have made the top ten on a different day. I was also gutted to miss, for one reason or another (work, illness, domestic commitments) many shows which I was looking forward to, including those by Brötzmann/Lonberg-Holm/Nilssen-Love, Death in June, Broken Heart Collector, Bulbul/Tumido, The Thing, Kern & Quehenberger, Sonore, Nadja, Josephine Foster, Double Tandem, Kurzmann/Zerang/Gustafsson, Glen Hansard and A Silver Mt Zion, not to mention the entire Konfrontationen festival.
A few of the concerts listed here have links to the reviews I wrote at the time, but most of them do not. This is partly because I haven’t had time to write those reviews, but mostly because it’s getting harder and harder to keep this blog going, to the point where I’m considering giving it up altogether. Very few people read these pages, and of those who do, only a few bother to leave comments. Those people, and they know who they are, have my eternal gratitude; but it’s rather disheartening not to be making more of an impression on the wider world.
In chronological order, then:
1. Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach, Barbican Centre, London
2. Codeine, Szene Wien, Vienna
3. Peter Brötzmann’s Full Blast, Chelsea, Vienna
4. Anthony Braxton, Jazzatelier, Ulrichsberg
5. Peter Hammill, Porgy & Bess, Vienna
6. The Thing, Blue Tomato, Vienna
7. Marilyn Crispell/Eddie Prévost/Harrison Smith, Blue Tomato, Vienna
8. Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Martinschlössl, Vienna
9. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Arena, Vienna
10. Swans, Arena, Vienna
Here’s some kind of list of the concerts I enjoyed most in 2010, with links to the reviews I wrote at the time. In no particular order…
1. Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Martinschlössl, Vienna
2. The Swell Season, Museumsquartier, Vienna
3. Ken Vandermark/Paal Nilssen-Love/Lasse Marhaug, Blue Tomato, Vienna
4. Swans, Arena, Vienna
5. Naked Lunch, Arena, Vienna
6. Suzanne Vega, Konzerthaus, Vienna
7. Peter Hammill, Posthof, Linz
8. Heaven And, Konfrontationen Festival, Nickelsdorf
9. Oliver Welter, Radiokulturhaus, Vienna
10. The Thing XL, Konfrontationen Festival, Nickelsdorf
“I believe that, with regard to both the tragic aspect of suffering and instances of extreme ecstasy and affirmation of life, art needs to have a sense of sacred solemnity.” (Hermann Nitsch)
This was a stunning opening to the 2010 concert-going season. Since, for whatever reason, Peter Hammill didn’t make it to Vienna on his European tour, it was a no-brainer to make the short journey over to Linz for my first visit there. The venue, the Posthof, was a very pleasant place indeed, not least because of its wacky location in what appeared to be an industrial estate on the bank of the Danube, miles from the centre of town. Good vibes, nice food, laid-back management (I was able to reserve a seat in the front row by the simple expedient of walking into the hall before the doors opened, while others were able to wander in and listen to the soundcheck), perfect acoustics and a lovely Bosendorfer grand piano for Peter to play. If only all venues could be like this.
Here’s some kind of list of the 2009 releases that made the most impression on me last year.
1. Peter Hammill, Thin Air
2. Naked Lunch, Universalove
3. The Thing, Bag It
4. Fire,¹ You Liked Me Five Minutes Ago
5. Ken Vandermark & Paal Nilssen-Love, Chicago Volume/Milwaukee Volume²
6. Full Blast,³ Black Hole
7. Steven Wilson, Insurgentes
8. Æthenor, Faking Gold and Murder
9. Christina Carter, Seals
10. Alela Diane, To Be Still
1. Fire is Mats Gustafsson, Johan Berthling and Andreas Werliin.
2. Released as two single CDs, but it’s hard not to think of them as a double.
3. Full Blast is Peter Brötzmann, Marino Pliakas and Michael Wertmüller.
Peter Hammill continues to hold a unique and ridiculously unheralded place within contemporary music. No-one negotiated the treacherous terrain of progressive rock more adroitly than Hammill did with Van der Graaf Generator, and no-one, with the honourable exception of Robert Fripp, has acquitted himself with more dignity following its inevitable demise. Clutch is firm evidence that Hammill’s creative fire continues to burn as strongly as ever, 35 years after he began making music.
Clutch is as defiant and questing as any of Hammill’s forty-odd previous albums. As usual, these spirited qualities are often submerged beneath a surface of reflectiveness and melancholy. But it is never long before they break through, propelled by the ferocious roar of Hammill’s voice and the unbridled energy of the instrumentation. The songs are performed exclusively on acoustic guitar, with minimal contributions from Hammill’s long-time collaborators David Jackson (saxophone, flute) and Stuart Gordon (violin). This is the first time in his career that the guitar has been so foregrounded, but as Hammill remarks in his sleeve note this “has not turned out as any kind of folk or roots collection.” Hammill describes his guitar playing as ‘functional’, but there is far more than mere utility in the spectral half-melodies that haunt the opening ‘We Are Written’, or the chordal slash and burn of ‘Bareknuckle Trade’.
Lyrically Hammill is, as ever, preoccupied with weighty matters. There are courageous, issue-led songs about religious hatred, anorexia and paedophilia; emotional reflections on life as a father and musician; and philosophical broodings on the nature of free will and predestination. Whatever the subject, the sentiments are expressed powerfully and eloquently, and delivered with peerless authority and gravitas.
Hammill doesn’t merely sing these songs, he inhabits them with serpentine grace and fervent energy. The densely packed, argumentative lyrics tumble forth and constantly threaten to break the limits of the song. He will alight on a word or phrase and invest it with a charged, visionary significance. The guitar gathers restlessly around the voice, now darting in sparkling trails of note clusters, now exploding in bursts of angry riffing. Even at its most becalmed, this is urgent and passionate music.
(Originally published in The Sound Projector 11, 2003)
None of the Above is Peter Hammill’s first collection of new songs since 1998’s This. That was Hammill’s fortieth album, released in his fiftieth year, and this remarkable alignment produced an album of eloquent meditations on age and the passing of time. Refusing as ever to fall into habit and routine, Hammill has this time produced “a number of tales of people in earthy and/or earthly circumstances”. This concern with the outwardly mundane and quotidian is reflected in the title None of the Above, which is to be read as meaning “there is nothing of a spiritual/otherworldly nature here”, as well as punning on the difficulty of categorising Hammill’s music.
As we have come to expect from Hammill, this album contains several fine examples of what makes him rock’s finest, most literate songwriter. The opening ‘Touch and Go’ sees his darkly resonant vocals giving voice to urgent threads of melody, sustained by swelling, grandiose piano chords. ‘Tango for One’ is another, starker arrangement for piano and voice, illustrating why Hammill’s recent work is such artfully uneasy listening. Refusing conventional song structure, he makes listeners work hard for their rewards by forcing them to follow the undulant patterns of the text.
The promised attention to earthly detail is manifested in the subject matter, some of which is unusually explicit for Hammill: a violent husband, a demented stalker, a rose-grower mourning the death of his wife. These are vivid domestic dramas in which Hammill’s gift for idiomatic phrasing is matched by settings that range from the sombre to the pulsating, yet always foregrounding the elegance and mutability of the voice.
Most of the instruments are played by Hammill himself, with occasional contributions from violinist Stuart Gordon. The soundscape is endlessly vital and fascinating: shape-shifting changes of mood and timbre; instrumental colouring by turns delicate and brutal; the juxtaposition of the tightly arranged and the purely improvised. The final song is the blissful ‘Astart’, a grand finale of transcendent emotion that is as lyrical and beautiful as anything he has written: a wondrous end to another intensely rewarding Hammill album.
(Originally published in The Sound Projector 8, 2000)
Peter Hammill has regularly complemented his prodigious studio output with a series of finely recorded live albums. His existence as a performer is in a constant state of flux; although generally working with a regular pool of trusted musicians, he frequently changes the configuration of his band in order to avoid slipping into familiarity and routine.
When speaking about his live work, Hammill emphasises the uniqueness of each performance. Whereas the Prog rock bands, with whom Hammill’s former unit, Van der Graaf Generator, were usually and inaccurately bracketed, were concerned with putting on the same show every night, VdGG’s concerts contained major elements of randomness and fragmentation. The results, as might be expected, ranged from the inspired to the chaotic.
Hammill has carried and extended this aesthetic of uniqueness into his work of the 1980s and 1990s, and it is this that makes his live performances such fiercely attractive propositions. This immaculately recorded 2CD set fills an obvious gap in the discography, being the first official record of Hammill’s most angular and discordant take on the live – alone with keyboard or guitar. In such a setting, these songs – most of which were originally recorded with full band treatments – take on the haunted, skeletal form of Giacometti sculptures. Hammill’s sonorous voice swoops manically above his tense, knotted playing, which occasionally lurches to a halt and modulates into something much more soothing and pastoral.
Hammill’s piano playing is often accused of being clumsy. Certainly there is nothing very considered to it, and the number of wrong notes is extraordinary given the frequency with which the songs have been played. But the lack of finesse is a function of the performances themselves. These songs are the vehicles of their own impulses, and both Hammill’s voice and his playing are apt to strain and crack as the emotions that he is struggling to express hit him faster than he is able to articulate them.
Few performers can approach the eloquence of Hammill’s lyrics, or the ferocious beauty of his full-throated vocal attack. This valuable release, complete with lengthy sleeve notes by the man himself, merits your full attention.
(Originally published in The Sound Projector 6, 1999)
November is a good month in Vienna for fans of literate male singer-songwriters, with two of the finest in the world playing here within the space of three days. First up is Peter Hammill, best known as the leader of 70s avant-prog rockers Van der Graaf Generator. VdGG reformed last year for a new album and a series of triumphant concerts, but they are now on hold again while Hammill continues his remarkable solo career, during which he has released upwards of 30 albums of spiky, uncompromising art rock.
This thin, greying man of 58 is one of the unheralded legends of music – a man whose singing voice modulates from an achingly sad caress to a blood-curdling shriek, often within the same song. His songs are dense, knotty propositions, reflecting with rare lyrical eloquence on the nature of love, the passing of time, free will and predestination. Accompanying himself on guitar and electric piano, he will be joined by his regular collaborator, violinist Stuart Gordon.
Hammill plays in Vienna on 11 November, the date in 1968 on which one of VdGG’s most celebrated songs, “Darkness (11/11)”, was written. He may or may not play that song on the night, but his dark subject matter and anguished, expressionist delivery will in any event be offset by a genuine onstage warmth and a wholehearted commitment to the physicality of live performance.
From the intimacy of the Szene to the grand space of the Konzerthaus, where Nick Cave gives what is billed as a solo performance on 13 November. ‘Solo’ in this context means without Cave’s long-term backing band, the Bad Seeds, although in fact three of them – violinist Warren Ellis, bassist Martyn Casey and drummer Jim Sclavunos – will also be onstage, adding colour and depth to Cave’s finely wrought meditations on love, redemption and the power of myth.
Cave has left his formative 80s years with the Birthday Party, Australia’s foremost goth-punk ranters, far behind, and is now settled into a life of domestic bliss with his wife and children in England. He is also something of a renaissance man, having written an acclaimed novel (And The Ass Saw The Angel) and film script (The Proposition). But his remarkable gift for self-expression, in language that ranges from the potent to the delirious, is undoubtedly heard to best effect in his songs.
Cave’s most recent album, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, shows him at the height of his powers. He writes and sings about love with exceptional tenderness and beauty, yet he also delivers rousing anthems that achieve an extraordinary blend of rumbustiousness and articulacy. The splendid acoustic of the Konzerthaus will be an ideal setting for Cave’s elegant croon and gorgeous piano playing, and with ticket prices ranging from €45 to a wallet-sapping €125, the audience will no doubt be hanging on every note.
The ever prolific Peter Hammill returns with two albums of quite staggering dissimilarity. It’s galling how little attention he gets, this eccentric fifty-year-old who has been responsible for over forty albums, every one of them a Gordian tangle of weighty propositions and speculations. That some of his projects are more successful than others is due less to inconsistency than to the exacting, far-reaching nature of his enquiry, as these two releases demonstrate.
The Fall of the House of Usher is an opera (not a ‘rock opera’) based on Edgar Allan Poe’s tale of the same name. When originally released by Some Bizzare in 1991, after some eighteen years’ on-and-off work by Hammill and his librettist Chris Judge Smith (the co-founders of Van der Graaf Generator), it disappeared without trace. When the rights reverted to Hammill he began a process of revision, using advances in studio technology and rethinking certain key aspects of the piece. He re-recorded his own vocal parts, removed all drums and percussion and added lots of electric guitars.
The result is a revelation. The original version suffered from the limitations of the recording techniques available to Hammill at the time, and sounded dry and colourless. In contrast, the depth and clarity of the new version throw into sharp relief the awesome power and terror of this work.
The unlikely cast of singers includes, besides Hammill, Andy Bell of Erasure, Lene Lovich and Sarah Jane Morris. Together they act out a morbidly fascinating tale of love, friendship, madness and betrayal. The vocal performances are uniformly excellent, particularly that of Hammill himself, who in the role of the increasingly demented Usher reaches jaw-dropping heights of declamatory fervour. When read on the printed page, Smith’s libretto seems rambling and prolix; interpreted by these singers, it becomes lucid and elegant.
The rhetorical richness of the words means that the music is inevitably low on melody. Hammill has never been much of a tunesmith. Instead the guitars and keyboards surge and retreat, pulsing with grandeur and taking on a macabre chill as the drama unfolds.
The collaboration with Roger Eno is an intriguing experiment in aleatory composition which doesn’t really come off. Hammill and Eno improvised in their respective studios for exactly an hour at 1pm on 1 April 1999. The Appointed Hour combines these recordings, with no overdubs. Conceptually, the idea is impeccable; listening to the outcome, however, is less than enthralling. The pair tinkle away pleasantly on guitar and keyboard, and the parallel strands occasionally coalesce to produce moments of stimulation. But for the most part this is inoffensive background music, devoid of the vitality which Hammill normally brings to his work.
(Originally published in The Sound Projector 7, 2000)