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Old 11-15-2011, 09:04 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Review: VDGG, Pawn Hearts- 1971


Van Der Graaf Generator Pawn Hearts- 1971
RMR Album Rating- 10


If I had to describe Van Der Graaf Generator’s “Pawn Hearts” in one sentence, I would say that it sounds like music that was composed and performed by a genius locked up in an insane asylum, and I write that with the highest level of praise possible.

This album is not only about insanity, but every note and lyric is performed with perfectly insane precision. Also, it is certainly not for undiscerning ears, and if you are not willing to put in many, many repeated listens— this album will just sound like a imbroglio of insane chaos, but if you are willing to put in the listening time and effort, it just might prove to be the most rewarding album in your progressive rock collection.

Before we get into the album, let’s do a little history first. The 20-minute progressive rock epic really defines prog rock, and if you wanted to be in the game in the early 70’s you had to have one. “The Plague of the Lighthouse Keepers” is not only one of the first (being released in ’71), but it is also one of the best and most influential. My favorite 20-minute epics other than “Lighthouse Keepers” are Yes’ “Close to the Edge,” Jethro Tull’s “Thick as a Brick,” & “A Passion Play,” and Genesis’ “Suppers Ready,” and all of these took direct inspiration from VDGG’s “The Plague of the Lighthouse Keepers”.

“Close to the Edge” took its three-song album structure, and its chaos factor, “Thick as a Brick” and “A Passion Play” took its complex lyrical content and varied instrumental approach, including Ian Anderson’s use of the saxophone on “A Passion Play” (if you want more of the sax sound from “APP,” then “Lighthouse Keepers” is you’re album), and lastly on “Supper’s Ready,” Peter Gabriel took Peter Hammill’s rising and falling vocal technique. I’m not saying that these songs are ripping off “Lighthouse keepers,” I’m just saying that “Lighthouse Keepers” must have been a huge influence on those songs and their respective bands.

On to the album, “Pawn Hearts” is one of the most challenging albums in my catalog and it is incredibly dense both in terms of music and lyrical content. Musically, it is very saxophone and organ/mellotron driven, plus it also features Robert Fripp from King Crimson on Guitar. These instruments combined with the way Hammill changes his vocal tone back and forth between soft and soothing signing to chaotic screaming (while still in tune) is simply amazing. Lyrically, the album is as dark as they come. There are only three songs, and they all cover the same lyrical content, which is mainly centered on death, suicide, loneliness, and most importantly insanity.

On to the songs…

“Lemmings” is about a man contemplating suicide by jumping off a cliff. The title “Lemmings” is really interesting to me in that a lemming is someone who with very little thought joins a mass movement of people that ultimately ends in a very negative way. The character here sees all people of the world as lemmings, and he views himself as a metaphorical cog in a wheel that someone else is controlling or a pawn in someone else’s game (hence the title of the album “Pawn Hearts”). As I mentioned, this is really deep and complex lyrical content.

The next song, “Man-erg” is no less complex, and it also deals with insanity. The character questions who he really is, and he contemplates the differences in men, which ultimately leads to his realization that all of man is the same, regardless of what an individual man might stand for or has accomplished. In other words, a man is just a man. The most powerful lyrical passages are the first, where the character states that “the Killer lives in side me; yes, I can feel him move,” and the last passage where the character states that he’s “Just a man, and killers, angles, all are these; dictators, saviors, refugees in war and peace as long as Man lives…” Again, this is incredibly dense and dark stuff, and even reading the lyrics it can be difficult to process.

Lastly, you have the 23-minute “The Plague of the Lighthouse Keepers”. This song is a musical and lyrical masterpiece. It is dominated by David Jackson’s saxophone and Hammill’s lyrics and vocals. There’s no way to summarize the depth of this song with brevity and do it justice, but ultimately it’s about the lighthouse keeper’s loneliness that slowly leads to his eventual insanity. The imagery and terror of this song far transcends normal rock lyrics, and the lyrics would seem more fitting as an Edgar Allen Poe poem, than a rock song.

In review, this album has it all, and it is perfect if (and this is a big if) you are already a fan of progressive rock, you like extremely diversified instrumentation, you enjoy incredibly dense lyrics with extremely dark overtones, and you are willing and patient enough to listen to this album many, many times to let your ears fully acclimate to it. If you fit all that criteria, “Pawn Hearts” is a must own, if you don’t fit that criteria, avoid it like the Plague.

Post Script: This one of the heaviest albums in my entire music collection. It is heavy in a different way than Sabbath or Slayer, in that there is absolutely nothing metal about it, and even Fripp’s contribution on guitar is very subtle. I really can’t explain it, but it is just so dark and insane that it just has an extremely heavy feel to it, and it will burn up your ears, if you’re not ready for it!
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Old 11-17-2011, 10:30 PM   #2 (permalink)
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I think it's funny that Man-Erg references VDGG's first two big songs, 'Killer' and 'Refugees' in the lyrics. I think 'Plague' has great lyrics, but it can be a little bit grating on the whole.

I say 9 out of 10, but that's just me.
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Old 11-18-2011, 05:51 AM   #3 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Electrophonic Tonic View Post
I think it's funny that Man-Erg references VDGG's first two big songs, 'Killer' and 'Refugees' in the lyrics. I think 'Plague' has great lyrics, but it can be a little bit grating on the whole.

I say 9 out of 10, but that's just me.
I never thought about the Killer and Refugees connection... good call. I guess Peter Hammill had those themes continually floating around in his head.

I had always thought of this album as an 8 or 9, but then after re-listening to a few times with headphones and while reading the lyrics... it boasted it to a 10... really pretty powerful stuff.
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