H To He Who Am The Only One

Van der Graaf Generator

Virgin Records, 1970


REVIEW BY: Dan Smith


Recently, Loznik presented a review of Curved Air, a woefully underappreciated band in the second tier of English progressive rock. These are the bands who made music as (and sometimes more) inventive, interesting, and grandiose as their more notorious comrades (the ELPs and Yesses of the world) while toiling in relative obscurity. These bands include Gentle Giant (to a degree), Nektar (actually a German group, but in this same territory), some of the better Canterbury school bands like National Health and Camel, and Van der Graaf Generator.

Van der Graaf Generator (VdGG)is an odd rock group - let's put it on the line right away. First, their instrumentation is anything but normal - at their beginning they embraced a relatively normal voice-organ-sax-bass-drums with Robert Fripp (of King Crimson fame) supplying electric guitar in the studio. By H To He, the bassist (Nic Potter) had left the group (although he appears on a few tracks) and the quartet that is VdGG's "classic" formation was established.

A note on the players: Guy Evans is the drummer, and is heralded by many as a virtuoso second only to Carl Palmer and Bill Bruford. I think he's on their level. David Jackson supplies alternatively strident and squealing woodwinds, both in a solo and rhythm capacity. Hugh Banton is the organist, and what a powerful organ it is - customized to the hilt by Banton (an electronics genius, if rumor is to be trusted), it spits out huge washes of doomy power and trumpet-like blasts of apocalyptic fanfare. The final member is the enigmatic Peter Hammill, a legend in progressive rock for a) THE most over-the-top vocal delivery in rock, complete with screams, whoops, etc., and b) some of the weirdest lyrics ever ("you are the man whose hands are rank with the SMELL OF DEATH!" is my favorite on this album).

Surprisingly, with all this eclecticism, VdGG is a very approachable band who writes catchy tunes (albeit six or seven of them per song) and sounds remarkably at times like the Doors.

H To He Who Am The Only One (the title refers to the chemical reaction that creates the majority of energy in the universe - I assume this was Hammill's idea) is the group's third album, after the psychadelic colored Aerosol Grey Machine (released 1969) and the more melodic and pleasant The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Othermy_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 (early 1970). The elements were in place to create a great progressive album, and do it they did. This record ranks in my personal top ten albums in progressive rock history along with their next album ( Pawn Hearts) and should be eagerly accepted by fans of melodic progressive, organ-based, depressing, or otherwise weird music.

So, you've got five pieces of music here, the shortest at five minutes, the longest at a hair over thirteen, all of them tremendous. "Killer" starts off, with a bass/organ/sax riff that you know you've heard before but can't place. Hammill enters, full of blustering doom, telling the heartwarming story of a homicidal maniac (namely a fish) whose mother dies during birth and who can't find anyone to love because he tends to kill anything that comes close. About halfway through it kicks into high gear with the introduction of a new, faster organ riff, and a killer disjointed sax solo over the melee. If VdGG had ever broken out in the States, it would have been on the strength of this song - it easily could've been their "21st Century Schizoid Man".

"House With No Door" is the opposite - a gentle, piano-based ballad more akin to Hammill's later solo output than the usual VdGG fare, but very good nonetheless. Here we see the other side of Hammill's voice - gentle and capable of a stirring, beautiful falsetto that comes to the fore during the choruses. Lyrics dealing with alienation and lonliness, coupled with the sparse musical landscape (the exemplary production was handled by John Anthony) lead to a truly touching piece of music.

"The Emperor and his War-Room," the first really extended track at about nine minutes, deals with (what else?) war and power, and (surprise) the corrupting aspects thereof. This one usually is singled out for praise - Hammill's lyrics are especially tasty here, and the Evans/Fripp duet that begins the second part showcases the former's considerable percussive talents. Still, for me, it's the weakest track on the album (although considering the company it keeps that's no slight).

The second side of the record features two expansive tracks that are much more exploratory and "difficult" than the first side. "Lost", marked with swirling keyboards and saxophones over an alternately driving and plodding beat, is a real Hammill showcase - his yearning lyrics telling the story of the search for lost love are the real focus here. The climax of the piece, with crashing chords under Hammill's plaintive cry of redemption is very satisfying.

The final track gives some insight into the genesis of the songs on Pawn Hearts. "The Pioneers Over c," thematically similar to "Space Oddity" and 2001 and all the other stories of space travel prevalent at the time, is a truly linear song - many themes are introduced with different, catchy melodies, but only some are recapitulated as the piece continues, and often new melodic ideas crop up as well. This gives the listener the sense of being on a journey, or that the song is telling a story. I would compare it in this way to songs like "The Gates Of Delirium" by Yes and "Supper's Ready" by Genesis (indeed, "A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers" off Pawn Hearts is very reminscent of the Genesis epic, which came out the following year - unsurprising that these two closely linked bands were labelmates and toured together in the early Gabriel-era years). Highlights include the periodic organ fanfares courtesy of Mr Banton's wonderful noisemaker, Hammill's always exciting vocal shifts, and the minimalist woodwind instrumental section toward the end of the piece.

I heartily recommend this album to progressive rock fans. It's high time that Van der Graaf Generator gets the first-tier respect they deserve for their short, but artistically successful career. If you've never heard any VdGG/Hammill, I would say this is the place to start.

Rating: A

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© 1999 Dan Smith and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Virgin Records, and is used for informational purposes only.