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2 selections as Proggnosis Best of 1971 Release

Pawn Hearts

a Studio release
Van der Graaf Generator

Release Year: 1971

Date Label Catalog # Comments
01 Oct 1971 Charisma LP
1990 Blue Plate CAROL-1639-2 CD
Added To Proggnosis Database on: 12/1/2000 12:00:00 AM
Entry Last Updated on: 3/16/2023 9:02:00 AM by: ZapNiles
  1. Lemmings (Including Cog)
  2. Man-Erg
  3. A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers

Guy Evans
drums, percussion

Hugh Banton
organs, piano, Mellotron, bass pedal/guitar, synthesizer, vocals

Peter Hammill
lead vocal, guitars, piano

David Jackson
saxophone, flute, vocals


Robert Fripp: guitar

Reviewed by MichelF on 10 Oct 2009

Pawn Hearts, released in 1971, has always been among my favourites Van Der Graaf Generator albums. I was moved by The Least We can Do Is Wave to Each Other and H to He and thrilled by Still Life, but Pawn Hearst epic length tracks were more to my liking. Furthermore, VDGG is the perfect example of the darker side of progressive rock. They offer us no quiet ballad or reassuring songs; instead, unsettling ambiances, troubling lyrics and intense soundscapes. That is not to say that they are crude and lack subtlety quite the opposite. The lyrics are a case in point: they are poetic in the true sense. We are light years from pop here. I may add that the weird voice of Peter Hammill is not particularly pleasing or harmonious in itself. We even nicknamed him the duck! However, strangely, in combination with what the other members of the band were playing, his voice blended improbably well and the result was truly impressive; a kind of dark aesthetics conveyed by his voice. Often, their tunes were a roller coaster of emotions alternating between calm and heavy passages, brief fleeting hope and definite despair, luminous and tainted ambiances, nostalgia and profound sadness. Pawn Hearts is, for me, the quintessence of that spirit.

The jacket cover of the album was the work of Paul Whitehead (he also did the cover of the classic Genesis album Trespass, Foxtrot and Nursery Crimes and more recently of Hermetic Science latest album These Fragments I Have Shored Against My Ruins). It is a superb surreal work of art which shows our new perception of earth seen from space with floating human pawns before an unfolding sky, a stunning cosmic size game. Today, that kind of scene is taken for granted, surrealism and views from space are part of the common culture. In 1971, it was considered a very creative step. It is certainly one of the best jacket cover produced to this day in progressive rock.

On my US vinyl album, there was one uplifting tune, Theme One. Since I was rubbed of that album a long time ago by a so-called friend, my CD version does not feature it. It is a shame, since that tune was like a ray of hope in all that despair. Nevertheless, the dark aesthetics qualities of Pawn Hearts will continue to shine for a long time, in my opinion. I will comment here the CD version of the 90s which I own.

For a starter, the musicianship is excellent and original. Hugh Banton fabulous keys, the creative sax and flute of David Jackson, the drumming of Guy Evans and the acrobatic vocals and piano of Peter Hammill produced a real masterpiece. The addition of Robert Fripp as guest guitarist (mainly on A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers) only enhances further this progressive gem. The band disbanded after this album, but Peter Hammill kept the flame alive with its solo projects (the formidable trio albums The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage, Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night, and In Camera).

This album contains three pieces only (sic). The first is Lemmings; what an incredible start. Those little furry animals of our Nordic legends tend to end their lives rather abruptly, so the rumour says. There seems to be no escape possible for lemmings, a root metaphor for our civilization! The text is really serious here and in no way funny, but dark in the deepest sense. The music begins like a rising wind, and we can see that mob going blindly to their certain death. This dark atmosphere is rendered well by the singing and the orchestration. However, the musical theme is quite catchy. In the end, there is a little hope; if we could live for our childrens childrens little ones.

Man-Erg made references to the songs Killer (the killer lives inside me with angel) and Refugee of the album The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Others. The rather calm piano debut and quiet unfolding ends abruptly with birds like screeching cries. How can I be free? How can I get out? Am I really me? Am I someone else? The heavy organ, the change in tempo and the shifting stereo sounds weave a unique ambiance. The nostalgic power of that song (the sax in particular) still gets me goose bumps today.

A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers is the epic masterpiece of VDGG and a pioneer song of the genre. It is unequal, in my view, to convey the solitude in life that assails many of us. The lighthouse keeper is like a metaphor of a large part of the post-modern human experience. Those comments touch the lyrics and the general aesthetics of the song. The music is, however, the amazing part of that song. We hear the shore birds, we hear the foghorn, the machines and in our mind, we see the lighthouse solitary standing on a cliff near the ocean. We feel the intensity of emotions and it roller coaster qualities. Each part of this suite made us journey on this painful and uncertain path. We are touched by this maritime tragedy and the guilt and remorse of this poor man. This song closes gloriously with magnificent keys and we definetely hear Fripps guitar near the end.

I know many critics don't get it and some even can't stand it. They think this album is amateurish in the worst sense of the word and probably beyond redemption, with poor musicianship and laughable lyrics (this is incredible in my view, do they really listen?). It is another occasion to examine the nature of musical aesthetics. Is the music of VDGG showing real complexity or not? Are the cord progressions in the tunes exquisite or not? Are the musicians' virtuoso? That is not of the highest importance and to the point for me. Aesthetics is not science; it is not exact and has no pretension to be. Aesthetic experience varies from person to person. From my point of view, I see Pawn Hearts as a masterpiece, a defining album that had influenced many generations of progressive musicians, but others as well (like Current 93 and David Tibet). They are also among the founders of dark pop. However, I conceived that someone doesn't like it. I'm just puzzled that someone takes time to critic styles that he doesn't dig. Seems to me like a waste of time.

This album is a classic and must be heard. Youll discover a unique style of progressive rock, a style which explores the darker side of human nature; a style not easily accessible. Maybe, as some critics have pointed out, it is an acquired taste due to the singing of Peter Hammill. Nevertheless, I strongly recommend it, it was and is prophetic!

Reviewed by ZapNiles on 16 Mar 2023

This is one of my favorite Van der Graaf Generator albums, and (in my estimation) one of the band’s most wild and experimental.

Peter Hammill’s vocals are especially manic on the band’s fourth release, while the music on the three epic (and original) album tracks—”Lemmings (Including Cog),” “Man-Erg,” and the twenty-three-minute “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers”—is often dark, atmospheric, and (at times) downright creepy…certainly not for the faint of heart or for Prog-Rock fans who prefer pretty melodies or gentle instrumentation. Nope, the ever-changing rhythms, the screeching saxes, the whacked-out keyboards and discordant guitar arrangements, and those damned demented lead vocals, all seem strategically designed to set the listener’s hair on end, to send shivers down the spine. And if that was the band’s intention, then Van der Graaf Generator succeeded admirably. I love it!

By the way, the remastered version of the album contains five bonus tracks, which are welcome additions, although they aren’t quite in the same spooky “Stephen King soundtrack” vein as the original album. These five tracks are fairly “normal,” or as normal as an experimental Prog group such as Van der Graaf Generator can muster. Regardless, this is the version of the album to seek out.

4.5 out of 5 Stars

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