Van der Graaf Generator—
Pawn Hearts

Released 1971 on Charisma
The Seth Man, May 2000ce
This album is the crowning achievement of English progressive rock: majestic, complex and oftentimes psychotic, capturing VdGG in a dense, post-psychedelic murk-out extraordinaire. “Pawn Hearts” contains only three songs and Peter Hammill roars them out as vocal exorcisms directed at expelling all the bad things in his head. And he’s backed by the powerful trio of Hugh Banton (on an arsenal of customised keyboards filtered through all manners of effects), Guy Evans (who flails his small and simple drum kit with all the finesse of a prog Ziggy Modeliste) and David Jackson (laden with multiple saxophones to worry in woodwind.) The cover depicts the firmament unrolled above the earth with various figures from history floating in space bubbled pawn chess pieces while the gatefold infrared photograph of the band is no less a mindfuck: Banton, Hammill and Evans stand on a table in matching dark shirts and white ties, giving the sieg heil salute to Jackson (who’s approaching the table wearing the same shirt and tie, football tucked under arm and sieg heil-ing in response whilst wearing ridiculous loons.)

And the music is as insane as the sleeve: two tracks on side one, and the brooding, psychotic suite that encompasses all of side two, “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers.” Side one simmers open with “Lemmings (including Cog),” until it breaks into expressionist streaks of sax against Guy Evans rocking out on drums while chords as heavy and huge as the band’s name pound out a march to Armageddon when it takes off as Hammill’s piano skitters underneath Jackson’s sax freak squonk-outs. It’s half an album’s side worth of continuous progressions into mental-ness while “Man-Erg” continues the other half with more quintessential Hammill. Starting out as a plaintive ballad, soon birds of prey wheel on high then stereo saxophone blare outs pan out between left to right speakers. A fevered pitch is easily reached with the echoed psycho-rant of “How can I be free?!!/How can I get help-help-help?!!/Am I really me?!!/Am I someone else-else-else?!!!” Mercifully, it all breaks down with shuddering horn and sax into gentle electric piano and phased cymbals and pastoral organ. There is a magical moment when Hammill’s vocals return and an ultra sharp whistle captured on the “s” of the line “acolytes of doom” and you know there’s no way it could ever be duplicated. It ends with banged-out organ and sax blats as piano tinkles to end -- but it constantly shifts from minor to major chords and back again it’s completely fucked up, only resolving itself with the last heavily hit/played/blown notes of the coda. “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” is a suite of ten movements, but you’d need the ultra-rare lyric sheet to keep track as it’s all one dizzying segue into another. Practically a summation of the previous side’s “Lemmings” premise with the overall psychosis template of “Man-Erg” only magnified. The vocals waft in with “Still waiting for my saviour” as a late night phone call transmitted from high atop Hammill’s solipsist lighthouse. Psychedelic razor and saxes relay to each other of another ship capsizing on the rocks...then a reverent organ requiem...“Presence of the Night” features session guitar from Robert Fripp, laying quiet filigrees behind even quieter vibes, organ, bass and drum as they waft over the moonless sea. This goes into the first descent into mayhem, “Kosmos Tour” -- an ARP-haunted, drum-led dissonance piece. “(Custard’s) Last Stand” is the last chance for redemption before “The Clot Thickens”, the mother of all PSYCH-OUTS and a syncopated nightmare with lurching stop and starts and a sickeningly wrong merry-go-round spinning out of control as Banton attacks his mellotron and organ cross-wristed. Hammill’s completely off his head and agitated as hell at this point and a mellotron swirl of the gods careens it all into complete chaos and cacophony. Simple piano and vocals begin the poignant choral epilogue of “We Go Now” as Hammill raises a glass of red wine to you in salute as the waves come in and wash away all the abyss-staring of the past forty minutes.