Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Peter Hammill—
In Camera


Released 1974 on Charisma
The Seth Man, June 2001ce
I joke to friends from time to time that Peter Hammill should’ve released a live album titled “Got Goth If You Want It”. Because after I bend their unwilling ears from time to time in order to win them over to the side of either solo Hammill or Van der Graaf Generator, I find I gotta turn the humour waaaay up because except for maybe five people I’ve met in the past 20 years no one really appreciates VdGG’s or Hammill’s dark complexities twisted up with lightened shades of love and its distresses as they find it entirely too much. But despite the darknesses Hammill delves into, at the heart of these penetrations is the omnipresent (albeit never promised) calling of redemption...Or at very least: peace. And although he never exactly takes the QUICKEST route in all of his lyrics’ point A to B’s, he was (and is) an fantastic artist that caters to no one including himself, releasing albums that are at once confounding and personal while heaping umpteen-tiers of lyric upon lyric that fill both sides of 12 inch inner sleeves delivered in one of the strongest yet delicate voices I’ve ever heard in my life.

Hammill’s fourth solo album, “In Camera” was unique for several reasons. Not only was it the first time he recorded an album solo or otherwise without backing from all of Van der Graaf Generator (although drummer Guy Evans is here in attendance on two tracks) but it also signaled the use of far more synthesizers in the form of engineer David Hentschel’s unforgettable ARP programming. According to the now de rigueur copious liner notes rendered in Hammill’s own fluid, spidery script on the inside sleeve -- in blood red, no less -- he first laid down the guitars, bass, piano, harmonium and oddments (!) at his home studio, then took the tapes to London’s Trident Studio where he then added his vocals, synthesizer and mellotron touches into a raging, psychotic panic attack of a record.

‘In Camera’ is a term with three different yet interlaced definitions: 1) “in secret, private, or closed sessions”; 2) “In private, with a judge, rather than an open court; in the chambers of a judge”; and 3) “In the chamber” (its literal Latin meaning.) It is interesting to note that the album “In Camera” reflects this on several levels: the base tracks were recorded at Hammill’s home studio (see 1), then taken to a studio in London where early VdGG cohort Chris Judge Smith (see 2) joined in the recording process, appearing on the track “Magog (In Bromine Chambers)” (see 3). And the title was not chosen lightly. But the clot thickens...

The album begins with a parting into a gentle forest clearing as “Ferret And Featherbird” emerges with phlanged, picked and Hawaiian-slid guitar overdubs as the lyrics return again and again to the lines “time and distance” as he tries to unravel the eternal dance of love and time. But the lightness of the track is abruptly forgotten with the next track, the ARP synthesizer-dominated “(No More) The Sub-Mariner.” The ARP sizzles over Hammill’s recounted memories of childhood’s heroic games -- of planes and Panzers, and a time when his beliefs were unshakable. The additional pitchshifting on the ARP and bass chords drag Hammill nearly down the many mental sinkholes in the song, as he’s about to be utterly blown into self-doubt for all eternity with the reappearing ARP swirls, but when “Tapeworm” follows, it tramples over everything. The introductory, white knuckled piano chords open up for the entry of drums for the first time on the album as Hammill’s double-tracked fuzz-wah guitar clots and bass anchorage rush out in a frenzy. And with Guy Evans’ cymbal crashes bashing away, it propels everything in the manner of the very best Van der Graaf albums. And just as Hammill’s already completely vocally worked up, a sonic curveball in the form of a giddy, lighthearted barbershop quartet interrupts everything. It returns into the near spat-out vocals over the rushing drumming and piano-banged chords, rocking out to the heavens and echoing equally kamikaze lines. Recounting them verbatim without the context of the backing music falls more than a bit short of conveying its desperation, but it’s there in all its adrenaline glory:

“Sprinting down the highway
Running over the edge,
On and on into our doomsday
There is no saving ledge”

Once more, the mood shifts to quieter realms of Hammill’s emotions with the lovelorn lament, “Again.” Acoustic guitar and vocals fill in the traces of a loved one’s shape and perfume within early morning sheets, only to be buzzsawed by a surprise ending of two separate feedback waves that stop the reverie dead in its tracks. Ending the ever-exhausting side one is “Faint Heart And The Sermon,” sweetened by the baroqued-up opening with an undercurrent of low-droned cellos. By the song’s end, the mellotrons open up the gates of Hammill’s pawn heart in a majestic end with string brass as though some sort of conclusion has been reached...But has it?

Side two encompasses two truly dark odysseys. “The Comet, The Course, The Tail” begins with the slashing of an acoustic guitar that echo its lyric of “Channeling aggressive energies/The death wish and the will to survive” as Hammill’s spiritual and philosophical questions shift between balancing and canceling themselves out. Additional echo is applied to his vocals during the chorus, making his words about the comet of human existence spread across the sky in a similar trajectory. It’s an awesomely beautiful track, but nothing can prepare you for the rest of side two where for a little over 17 minutes Hammill physically cuts open the body of his own simmering angst to let pour out all of his hyper-alert and charged psychic darkness into a quietly deranged vacuum and called it “Gog/Magog (In Bromine Chambers).” Aided only by Guy Evans on drums, sleeve designer Paul Whitehead and old friend and early VDGG member Chris Judge Smith on a variety of instruments, it starts off with Hammill going completely POTTY as for better or worse or just to save his soul, invocating himself as all the spiritual gods of dark mystery to “Love me for one more LIFE!!!” over heavy organ storm clouds and wildly recorded tom-tom fills that tear through the careening mass of banked keyboards and all-around general angst-y vibes in the truly singular way only Hammill can conjure. And the images “Magog (In Bromine Chambers)” conjure up are absolutely fucking INSANE. When the body is pierced and beams of light gently emanate from its elongated slit, it is gently lifted by unseen hands above the bromine chambers where salty, yeasty pools of darkened protein and dripping stalactites dip into pools of painted hues of violent red and deep crimson’d purples, all ringed by walls blackened by millennia of charred souls as a chorus of voices begin (It’s none of the members listed on the album, and they must have been well spooked if they recorded this piece in complete studio darkness but for the rows of red power lights decorating the amps and mixing desks.) But the bromine chambers tell no lies and hide no truths -- the pools are already filled with the dreck of humanity’s discontents, fears and guilt like the run-off from the world’s psychic cesspool. All stirrings in the chambers are residual forces of out own self-narrated fears, now fully peeled away to expose the most doubtful and unnamable human emotions to the cleansing properties of the swirling, reddish-brown corrosive liquid bath...

A challenging and visceral confessional, “In Camera” is a highly engaging album of sheer fuck intensity. But it almost sells it short by calling it just an ‘album’ -- it’s more the result of an ever-exploring and keen mind as it makes contact with magnetic tape via studio recorders via amplifiers via instruments, leaving behind only the bared evidence of such an axis. I’m grateful he was able to safely get these demons off his chest. Now I gotta work on mine...