Thursday, March 30, 2017

Peter Hammill - 1974 - The SIlent Corner And The Empty Stage

Peter Hammill 
The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage

01. Modern (7:28)
02. Wilhelmina (5:17)
03. The Lie (Bernini's Saint Theresa) (5:40)
04. Forsaken Gardens (6:15)
05. Red Shift (8:11)
06. Rubicon (4:11)
07. A Louse Is Not A Home (12:13)

Total Time: 49:45

Bonus tracks on 2006 Virgin remaster:
08. The Lie (Live) (6:31) #
09. Rubicon (5:02) *
10. Red Shift (5:51) *

# Recorded at the All Souls Unitarian Church, Kansas City, on 16 Feb. 1978
* BBC session, Feb 1974

- Peter Hammill / vocals, acoustic & electric guitars, bass (1,2,6), pianos, Mellotron, Fx (oscillator), harmonium, co-producer

- Randy California / lead guitar (5)
- Hugh Banton / organ, bass & bass pedals (3,4,7), backing vocals (4)
- David Jackson / alto, tenor & soprano saxophones, flute
- Guy Evans / percussion, drums

Peter Hammill's solo efforts only appealed to me due to my avid interest in the mighty Van der Graaf Generator. Hammill's voice has a distinct storyteller quality that has made him a popular icon of the prog scene for many years. At least 3 of his solo albums have become revered treasures and "The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage" is definitely one that is closer to the VDGG sound than many others. Jaxon, Banton and Evan's contribution is of course a primary reason for the Van der Graafian sounds. The consistent quality of the songs is another reason for the high status of this album; whereas many Hammill albums wallow on one style, this one throws in a plethora of styles and holds the interest on repeat listens. it also contains arguably Hammill's finest solo composition 'A Louse is not a Home'.

In the first 5 seconds Hammill makes his presence known with the exhilarating 'Modern' with potent lyrics; "Jericho's strange, throbbing with life at its heart, people are drawn together simultaneously torn apart." His vocals are a pervasive force. The music is as VDGG as it can get with fuzz bass and odd time sigs with very unusual instrumentation. In the liner notes Hammill states the song is, "simply a sonic assault." There is nothing simple about this with its weird meter and shifting moody atmospheres. The instrumental break is a dynamic soundwave of hyper tense musical structures, high pitched soprano saxophone screeches from Jaxon, and an ominous build-up of Banton's keyboard and Hammill's angular phased guitar. Then after this tension it releases into a new time sig and back to the descending acoustic chords. The dissonance of woodwind competing against the melody is astonishing.

'Wilhelmina' is a piano ballad similar to the softer VDGG songs where Hammill croons about his existential state of mind. However the lyrics of this are more focussed on the love of Guy Evans daughter and giving advice to how she can cope with the changes in her life as she grows to be a lady. Quite beautiful and a little sad in tone. 'The Lie' features a slow cadence and the familiar cathedral organ of Banton. At times Hammill rises to his passionate aggressive voice and it even climaxes on a grinding Hammond blast. It is also directed towards Evans' daughter.

A capella Hammill begins 'Forsaken Gardens', a slow moderate melancholy song. Hammill points out in the album notes, "we played it on a few occasions after the "Godbluff" reformation." It is a transition between the two VDDG periods and sounds similar to that style, building with flute and some scorching sax passages. It is so great to hear that sax on a Hammill solo release, a part of the more recent VDGG albums that was sorely missed for a time. The birds twittering at the end is an effect using Hammill's Fluid Sound Box, a Leslie effect according to Hammill.

'Red Shift' is a track that must rank as one of the solo highlights, along with the album closer. It begins with some narrative, spacey sax squeals and a VDGG time sig. Lyrics are off the planet, "once all the stars were bright now they are red and fading, and all the colours we wore, the shades that we bore have moved, and the gold turns to red with no time for changes: Red shift all moving away from we." The chorus is a slow meter vocally, with odd sporadic percussion from Evans. This is a darker song on the album and Jaxon's sax is dynamic. The track immerses the listener into its dark recesses as only Hammill can.

The release of the next track, 'Rubicon' is a welcome relief. It is acoustically driven and peaceful with some poetic beauty; "open the toy box, you are Pandora, I am the world, if you cross the stream you can never return."

The last song is the clincher, the masterpiece of the album, 'A Louse is not a Home' and it reeks of VDGG. It should, as the band were going to add this to their new album before they disbanded again. The sound is pitch dark and reflects the downbeat lyrical content which at times is brilliant; "my words are spiders upon the page, they spin out faith, hope and reason, but are they meet and just, or only dust gathering about my chair" and later "day is just a word I use to keep the dark at bay, and people are imaginary, nothing exists except except the room I'm sitting in, and of course the all-pervading mist - " Hammill is chilling speaking of a presence of someone watching him and his paranoia is frightening.

The time sig that pounds with Banton's staccato sax blasts and loud guitar is similar to the "Pawn Hearts" era. It soon settles into quiet meditative reflections. The haunting solitude is an intense atmosphere, with spasms of sax and organ. It builds with a ferocity and Hammill's scream to the world is unnerving. It returns to the huge melodic motif at the beginning with, "maybe I should delouse this place, maybe I should deplace this louse, maybe I'll maybe my life away, in the confines of this silent house." A brilliant eargasm clocking 12 minutes and encompassing the best of Hammill in his blackest mood.

The bonus tracks are intriguing raw versions of album tracks played live in various locales and with varying quality. The rumbling thunder of Hammil's piano is a weapon to project his anger and anxiety on 'The Lie', especially the primal scream at the end. As Hammil makes clear in the liner notes, "somewhat deficient in sound quality but very much there in Presence." 'Rubicon' live is a flute driven evocative version, 'Red Shift' is acoustic and sax dominated, no drums necessary fore either recorded at BBC Radio One. "The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage" is a definitive Hammill classic and certainly one for VDGG fans as well as those with a proclivity for dark atmospheric moods.



  2. It's probably not massively significant that Randy California, of ALL people, turns up playing oozing guitar lines under the latter stages of 'Red Shift'.

    However for me, oddly, it was my entry point into Hammill's oeuvre 'round about 1977. Ha! a mere 40 years! ('...Time is a Thief')
    At that time I was a Spirit/Randy California tragic (it happened,I'm not proud!)and had read that California had,(himself in a weird, dark head-space) guested on an album by this Peter Hammill chap.
    A new friend furnished me with tapes of his favorite Hammill/VDGG tracks.
    I adored 'The Silent Corner' album from first listen. 'The Lie' simply left me speechless! And still cuts deep to this moment as I type.
    Thence, I immersed myself deeply up to 'Sitting Targets' and have maintained an interest, if not a burning passion, for pH's work since.
    Thanks for this collection of thoughts on pH and VDGG.