Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Peter Hammill—
The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage


Released 1974 on Charisma
The Seth Man, November 2009ce
“The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage” is a near-impenetrable zone where the poetic vessel of Peter Hammill’s informed head navigates some choppy waters yet remains intact at all times. As an ongoing series of emotional charges shock and disturb, the astuteness of his perceptions and the range of his word hoard counterpoint in asymmetrical balance with an exquisitely toned voice of clarity, abandon and poetry.

This third solo album of Peter Hammill’s resembles his previous one, “Chameleon In The Shadow Of Night,” in terms of its general structure and stylistic approach. But its contents employ in the main piano as the base instrument instead of acoustic guitar while zapped with subtler production and deftly-applied electronic enhancements of distortion, oscillation and reverb. Moving from the shadow of night to the silent corner and the empty stage, Hammill rearranges his themes of obscurity, darkness and absence into some very constricted spaces -- Spaces not unlike the lower right corner of the album’s front sleeve where his personal sigil hangs suspended like a seed of discontented doubt; or the back sleeve’s mirror reflection of the same corner enclosing a realistic rendition of Hammill gazing upwards. These images, along with the gatefold’s mandala (drawn by former Ash Ra Tempel vocalist, Bettina Hohls) and the sleeve’s dominate white background of emptiness that surrounds these corners would seem to reflect the album’s themes of self, environment and the respective boundaries that lay between. From crediting himself on the inner sleeve’s extensive liners as ‘Ego’ to the constant objectification of ‘I’ and referencing both occupied and unoccupied spaces of life -- cities, gardens, the silent corner of the room in his mind -- “The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage” relates observations gained from self-exploration seeking out singular release.

With delicate touches applied fore and aft raging tempests, Hammill’s voice is pitched to extremes as if suspended from a pendulum swaying between life, death, loss, alienation, hope and (eventual) transformation. His chorister’s training provides all the flexibility needed to modulate instantly from quietude to menace. Which, given the amount of narrative breaks, tempo shifts, and lyrics that conjure up intensely specific (and specifically intense) moods, is a singular gift to consider. In fact, some of the states conveyed here are so oppressive and dense that the sweet relief felt once they passed would, for most, discourage any further reflection for fear of stirring them back to their claustrophobic hold. Staring into the abyss can be a risky business (especially once it starts staring straight back into you) but for Hammill it’s nothing less than the transformational power of his art to seek through these channels of violent precipitations a way to slough off old skin to allow new ones to form.

The album begins with a simple acoustic guitar patterning as “Modern” and its cities of antiquity come into view. Here, Hammill casts a timeless gaze on Jericho, Babylon and Atlantis and finds these crowning achievements of human civilisation as all transient and ultimately: overturned termite mounds crushed under the weight of their own inherent chaos, paranoia and insanity. Underlining this, a single, stern strum of Sturm und Drang fuzzed/compressed/phlanged guitar erupts to stake out the skeletal mass of this song with no drums whatsoever. The second verse is constantly impaled by Hammill’s growling guitar bursts and continues beyond the eternal cry of city, excruciatingly drawn out and quartered:

“This life is false / I-t-’s k-i-L-L-I-N-G-G M-E-E-E-E-E-E-E...”

The torture continues with the entry of a huge fuzz bass line before everything descends into a tangled mass of guitars, organ and mellotron until vanishing down a keyboard sinkhole. Suddenly, a full blown instrumental half the length of the song inexplicably swells up and soon spirals out of control to leave the previously established mood a distant memory. A slow acoustic guitar picks patiently alone then switches into a stridently pulsating pattern, joined by the return of the crushing fuzz bass plucking hard in tandem. A rising tide of terrifying electronically-treated guitars churn up alongside the grinding rhythm only to split off and wheel on high in ominous shapes. Further fuzz guitar clashes slice outside the rhythm underscored by the massive fuzz bass line that swamps the soundscape with a lumbering gait. It finally fades and the bass regroups all the pieces back into the final verse where “madness takes hold today-day-day-DAY-day-DAY-day...” Bouncing from speaker to speaker, a jagged, guitar rhythm careens crazily behind a tangled mass of guitars until a keyboard wash signals Atlantis’ final slip beneath the ocean’s surface.

The short and bittersweet “Wilhelmina” begins an ocean of concern away conducted predominantly with voice and piano and couched in soft, mellotron-based arrangements. A wistful ode to a young child and her future life, Hammill implores across the gaping divide of decades with “hope is but a single strand/we pass it on and hope you’ll understand” and hopefully, Willie is somewhere out there now, repeating it to her child. And on and on it goes...

A second ode of an entirely different nature follows with “The Lie (Bernini’s St. Theresa).” Taking its inspiration from the 17th Century Baroque sculpture “Ecstasy of Saint Theresa” by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, this track is an intense and abstract exorcise of (and in) guilt. With cathedral-sized reverb, this song is so powerful that when the initial piano joined by underpinning organ of amassed, angry cloudbanks suddenly halts, its echo holds in suspended decay long enough for the dust caught in its light to settle into darkness. Hammill’s opening couplet of “Genuflection/erection in church” is rendered only with unnervingly calm as it emanates forth from “the silent corner” that “haunts my shadow prayers.” The song tilts to and fro polarising opposites: from the softness of Hammill’s beautiful and delicate articulation of “ice cold statue” to the convulsive bloodletting of the title rendered low and elongated into a strangulated “LLLLLLLLIIIIIIEEEEEEEEeeeeeuuugghh...” This degenerates into a concluding banging of low piano keys and an elongated, dark undertow of swirling organ that cuts out abruptly. The side concludes with the lament of “Forsaken Gardens.” Plaintively channeled through a VdGG group arrangement similar to a calmer “Man-Erg,” its fragile and shifting terrain of emotions struggle to break through its self-imposed exile. After innumerable landscaping metaphors, electronic birdsong twitters piteously behind Hammill’s nearly faltering, yearning voice. The remainder of the song resigns itself mournfully, ending with hollow keyboard choir respectfully muted over Hammill’s final, whispery plea.

Side two commences with “Red Shift,” into entirely different atmosphere altogether. In fact, it’s beyond the atmosphere and into the vastness of an ever-expanding universe. Hammill, now joined by longtime cohorts Hugh Banton, Guy Evans and David Jackson, proceed into a full scale ebb-and-flow of Van der Graaf-ian proportions. Overall, this is the quietest moment of the album, shot through with deeply spacey interludes. After a single electric guitar nudges gently in the background and a madly echoed spoken intro, vague and indistinct shapes begin to emerge along with the entry of Jackson’s snaking, reoccurring sax motif. Extreme echo applied to Hammill’s vocals makes them hiss and sizzle and whenever the title is voiced, as if it’s tracing the source of the trajectory of said phenomenon’s spectral illusion. In the course of pockets of swinging low-tempo-ness alternating with near-silence, a space enlarges to swallow the song, along with Hammill, in its entirety. At first, he intones lowly and slowly, but then steadily builds and roils into a series of associative freak outs that then catapult him back into the speed of light to invoke “Reddddddddddddddd shiffffffffffffffffffftt” once again. Once redelivered to the cosmos, the galactic and pulsating guitar of Spirit guitarist Randy California crosses the threshold with an excellent and sustaining solo as the group works it into a truly redoubtable thing. The ensemble softly disassembles off into deepest space until “this song in the depth of the galaxies” finally vanishes with a faint, oscillating blip. One quick pastoral match cut back to earth later, the languid “Rubicon” eases in. Its acoustic guitar with bass accompaniment is a troubadour moment of entreaties to a lady that forms a gentle yet unnerving river dividing side two and its pair of epics: the preceding “Red Shift” and “A Louse Is Not A Home.”

Comprising one third of the albums total sum lyrics, “A Louse Is Not A Home” is where all of Hammill’s fears are brought home -- literally. The microscope of the once keen observer now turns on himself and the paralysing inertia that ensues is a spiraling world of fitful solipsism where all the ceilings, walls, windows, monitor screens and even the mirror on the landing all seep with an unknown, hidden presence. The song was subtitled into three parts in Hammill’s 1974 book, “Killers, Angels And Refugees” as “The Mirror On The Landing,” “The Mental Ferule,” (ferule: ‘an instrument such as a cane or stick used in punishing children’) and “Home Is.” Successive waves rise and fall away as its psychically painted corner fills in tighter and tighter until there’s nowhere to go and nothing to be except to withdraw into emptiness and vanish. The longest and most complex track of the entire album, “A Louse Is Not A Home” exhibits a Himalayan range of sudden shifts in dynamics, emotions, insights, tempo changes from near-silence to screaming blue murder. To just grade its peaks and valleys falls short of describing the track or conveying its true power, especially as Hammill hoists an abundance of detail into every word of every line: Whether it’s whenever the tempo steps up and causes him to sing in overdriven cadences just to keep the more effusive verses in time, or the memorably low intonation of “he who cracks the mirror” inflected low like the original thin white duke two years before his ‘return’ on “Station To Station.”

I think the end is the start with the reiteration of the opening verse as the coda, when the final line of “maybe I’ll disappear...Sometimes I think I have” halts and hovers on “think” as it submerges into a swirling chamber of mellotron chorus. All that remains is a repeating refrain of “I?... I?... I?... I?” before disappearing into the silent and empty expanse of white from whence it came.