Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Peter Hammill - The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage

Peter Hammill
The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage

Released 1974 on Charisma
Reviewed by Fitter Stoke, 19/07/2002ce

If the likes of 'Astral Weeks', 'Kind Of Blue' and 'Pet Sounds' can justify having entire books being written about them (and they certainly can), 'The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage' deserves a multi volume encyclopaedia to itself. There is so much of substance about this remarkable and criminally disregarded record that I barely know where to start. Suffice to say that even a liberally-minded and right-on site such as 'Unsung' has to impose a word limit on enthusiastic missives such as this. So, being unable to condense my feelings in this instance to my usual paragraph a song, I'll masochistically confine this amateur review to the first and last tracks of the album which stand out majestically.

I have already noted in an earlier review that Peter Hammill's vocals can verge on the operatic in their range and power. Well, 'Modern' and 'A Louse Is Not A Home' are nothing short of miniature operas for their composer's indulgence. And indulgence is at a max on this record, not for the sake of shallow showiness, but for the most fulfilling and satisfying musical ends. His old Van Der Graaf pals provide sterling backup for their former frontman, but make no mistake: this is Peter Hammill's record, Peter Hammill's concept, Peter Hammill's world.

'Modern' is a drumless epic played entirely by its creator. It begins with Hammill strumming single open strings on his acoustic: hardly Segovia it's true, but listen to the subtle power of that single chord (on the word "heart") that establishes the song's vague key, and those terrifyingly intense electric notes that accompany his "Foundations are shattered in the city" cry. The chord sequence is irregular, unresolved and spine-tingling, and the yearning mellotron that comes in at the verse's end accentuates the sparse and unusual atmosphere that Hammill has created. Awestruck already, and we're only 45 seconds into the song. The second verse follows the path of its predecessor, but Hammill's vocal and guitar is even more emotive and stressful. When he growls "Don't look back...OOOOOOOOOORRRRRR you'll turn to stone" he has us pinned to the wall with the sheer unmitigated ferocity of his voice. And when he describes "the searching eyes...that STAAAAAABBBBB" his strained and screaming Les Paul accompaniment has to be heard to be believed. But the best is still to come. Hammill brings the first section of the piece to a shattering vocal climax by intoning the word "insane" in three almost endless held notes of a key totally alien to what has gone before. All hell has broken loose behind him, but a single, held-on mellotron chord (sounding exactly like Klaus Schulze's 'Timewind' of two years later) dominates, leading us into a much calmer and solemn alternative world. The chord develops into a desperately slow three note sequence, before swooping oscillator, bass and 12 string acoustic take over, themselves soon subsiding into a sparse two-beat pulse. This intensifies in volume, and when Hammill's searing multitracked electric guitar and bass accompany, then kill off, that pulse, we're in the most harrowing and godless place on earth or beyond. Do not listen to this sequence in the dark! An ingenious bass-driven passage then segues back into the (barely) relative comfort of the third verse, this time beset by all manner of extraneous instrumental cries, screams and fill-ins, not always in key, and always uncomfortable. The stereo panning on the final word of the penultimate line "Madness takes hold today" is a production master-stroke on top of another manic guitar figure from Hammill backing the "I can't live under water" coda. A vibrato-ridden mellotron chord (in yet another alien key) closes the song. 'Song'...jeez, that's an understatement. There is more happening in the seven minutes of 'Modern' than in more acclaimed artists' entire back catalogues.

'A Louse Is Not A Home' is a full band masterwork, but with its creator very much at the epicentre. And it's Hammill alone who starts this tale of self-searching and alienation with his doomy, Wagnerian baritone on top of equally dark, heavily-played piano chords. Bass, drums and wailing alto sax join in for the second verse and the volume rises dramatically, albeit with a temporary (and tremendously effective) pianissimo at the verse's end. I love the patent Hammill "how-many-syllables-can-I-get-in-a-line" and alliterative effect at the beginning of the third verse ("there is a lofty lonely Lohengrenic castle in the clouds")! This sees our man at his absolute operatic peak and his vocal extremities may well tempt the uninitiated away - but stick with it, he more than repays your time and tolerance. The quieter, contrasting "Cracked mirror mid the drapes of the landing" sequence is blessed by a gorgeous, harmonic tune - hereafter referred to as "the big tune" ( yes, Hammill can write great tunes as well) - preceeding a delightful, jaunty piano and sax section. Then comes a bass-driven, almost comical sequence ("I've lived in houses composed of glass.."), which would be almost funky were it not in the most difficult time signature in the history of the western world, before the big tune returns, at first tenderly, then hammered home by Hammill and the band. When it reappears after another 'jerk-funk' (my term - sorry) section, our big tune is played and sung for all it is worth, with terrific held vocals dubbed atop Hammill's syllable-fest and the band positively rocking. Then the song moves into a much lower gear, down, down further still, until we're back with just Hammill and his piano again ("I believe - er - I think - well I don't know..."). The song has virtually stopped, but that last word "knoooooooooooowwwwwww" is held on interminably, rising two tones, with only long, low sax and piano notes behind it. God help us, but Hammill's brought us into another alien world, his own head. A rising, partially chromatic riff evolves ever so gradually from this eerie backdrop, speeds up, then the drums pick up the irregular 5/4 beat and we're rocking again. "I only live in one room at a...TIME" declares our head-guide, as he moves back up to vocal Valhalla. Wonder at that "mmmaaaaaaaAAAAHHHH" that accompanies the "Give it a chaaaaaAAANCE" scream at the sequence's apex. Then, after a reprise of the 'jerk-funk' section ("I am surrounded by flesh and bone...") comes the big tune again, this time more intense, rocking and dynamic than ever before, with even more syllable abuse ("Home is home is home is home is home is home is home is me!"). Lesser mortals would have ended the piece at that highest point, but no, you've guessed it, we soon get back to the man and his piano again, wallowing in his self-inflicted doom ("Day is just a word I use to keep the dark at bay" - great line, among many). The band comes back with an all-out refrain of the opening doom-tune, and the mood of resignation appears to triumph as the song heads towards its end with a long, keyboard-as-chorus chord while Hammill repeats "I?... I?... I?..." as an endless question of who and what and where he is. But there is one more thing to mention. Right at the very, very final fade, that keyboard evolves into a comforting major chord. Pick up the needle too quickly and you'll miss it. It's a stroke of sheer genius that deftly and quietly resolves the twelve minutes of termoil that have preceeded.

I haven't room to mention the album's other tracks, Moreover, I have barely touched upon the quality of Hammill's lyrics which move and thrill even without their musical embellishment. In many ways, 'The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage' is a typical Peter Hammill album, simultaneously time-locked and timeless. You may not like some of it, you may not like any of it, but I guarantee you've never heard anything like it!

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