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PETER HAMMILL – IN A FOREIGN TOWN/ OUT OF WATER (1988/1990) (2023) (Esoteric Recordings)

How successful has the re-working of often overlooked Peter Hammill albums been?

I have been a big fan of Peter Hammill and Van Der Graaf generator right from the start. Even though their output has varied down the years, there is always something of relevance and inspiration in their music. These two albums, which did not meet with particularly glowing reviews at the time, have been re-worked by Mr Hammill himself, and while he acknowledges their frailties, maintains they were of vital importance to his own musical journey.

First of all, they must be seen within the context of 1980s’ technology: sampling, sequencing, and I believe in this particular case an Atari. I bought “In A Foreign Town” on LP when it came out and, at the time, wasn’t that surprised given the unfettered growth of synthesisers and rather “plastic” sounding music that was around. I’ve always seen it as a tale of two halves, with the really good stuff front-ended. There is ‘Hemlock’, an enduring favourite of mine, a political satire as relevant today as it was then (“if you swallow hard, you’ll believe the lies, it’s a hemlock world”).  There are songs about using “promotional tools”, “maximising the market” and the world being made a more complicated place. Remember, this was still the Thatcher free market economics revolution and things have actually got worse since then, so Hammill’s songs were prescient.

‘Invisible Ink’ and ‘Sci-finance’ (from VDGG’s “Vital” period) remain great songs, the latter with its KINKS-ian guitar riff and brief quotation from ‘Money, That’s What I Want’; ‘This Book’ addresses more personal issues: “This book is ended, so I’ll put it down”. There’s also ‘Time to Burn’, a homage to Tony Stratton-Smith, the legendary Charisma label boss. But there’s a problem: there are some good things in the second half, continuing the political focus with ‘Vote Brand X’ for example, but it’s hard to get past the transitional, experimental stage of trying to get the best out of MIDI technology: not the easiest thing when you end up with horrid brass and drum samples. The thing that is really puzzling me, and this is where I disagree with the reviews I’ve read so far, is that the dodgy sounds still remain: surely it is a straightforward job to replace them in a studio redux? Also, there is only one other musician on the band and that is fellow VDG traveller STUART GORDON on violin on ‘Hemlock’.

“On the Water” is the more cohesive and better produced of the two, not so many tracks and slightly more band-oriented, with a bit more use of piano, largely not in evidence on “In A Foreign Town”. ‘Evidently Goldfish’ remains an intriguing song and has JOHN ELLIS on guitar, DAVID JACKSON plays sax on ‘No Moon on the Water’, and then there’s ‘About Ysabel’s Dance’ (“there’s no Charlie Mingus!”), just acoustic guitar with Stuart Gordon’s violin, a song that would become a live staple. Nic Potter also plays bass on two tracks. Peter’s mind is exercised by the Tienanmen Square massacre on ‘Our Oyster’, while the album ends with two long tracks, ‘On the Surface’ whose repeated Gothic organ chords give it a distinctive early VDGG feel, although it lacks the variation of Peter’s first band, and becomes rather repetitive in the chorus. I can only guess at the tragic subject matter of “A Way Out”, with its cunning word play, a beautiful song, and another reason for checking out an underestimated period on Peter Hammill’s history.

I couldn’t argue here that there is anything to match “Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night” (1973), “The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage” (1974), “In Camera” (also 1974), or latterly “All That Might Have Been” (2014) and “From the Trees” (2017), or even Peter’s many collaborations, including one with ISULDUR’S BANE as complete albums. But these were different times and the 97-minutes on offer in a two CD set reveals many hidden treasures.

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