Hammill, Peter - Fireships

Year of Release: 1992
Label: Fie!
Catalog Number: Fie9103
Format: CD
Total Time: 52:18:00

While he has never lost his edge, and his innovation has remained undimmed throughout, the 1990s allowed Peter Hammill to ascend to new reaches of artistic development. The links with Van der Graaf Generator now consigned to obscure fan web sites and a number of seminal 1970's records, his development as a solo artist debatably reached maturity in the final decade of the millennium.

Fireships is the first of the new-era PH releases, and its acclaim was not universal. Many of the "old guard" fans felt the Peter was slipping away from the tangential weirdness and unsettling explorations that they loved so much, but many others saw the beauty of the new music that he was producing. Later output was to prove that Peter had certainly not lost the abrasive edge to his work, but Fireships is probably the most conventional thing he has ever done. It should of course be noted that in the world of Peter Hammill "conventional" is a very, very relative term...

The mellow nature of the album was well noted by the artist, who actually dubbed it "Number One in the Becalm Series" - an attempt to strand his work into two series of reflective and aggressive recordings. This categorisation never got much further because Peter's writings proved themselves impossible to label in any such way. Which is part of their charm.

An integral part of Fireships is David Lord, who shares the Terra Incognita studio with Peter. His orchestrations are key to many of the tracks, and he is co-producer of the album with the artist himself.

Opening with gentle, tremulous guitar and soon supported by the lush strings arranged by Lord, "I Will Find You" is perhaps the most satisfying piece on the album. The voice is distinctly Hammill, as is the lyric and the style of composition. But still... but still it is very different. Mellow, and almost easy to listen to, it comes somewhat of a surprise. That shouldn't be mistaken for boring... this track is anything but, with layers of melody cascading over each other in quasi-Baroque style,

Peter's vocal delivery is less extreme than usual and certainly restrained compared to his Van der Graaf work and the more outlandish solo albums. Instead the richness and warmth of is voice is allowed to exhibit itself, providing a tone that is reassuring, as opposed to his usual more disturbing and provocative style. If good "easy-listening" was to meet Peter Hammill, out of the resultant wreck would probably come the Fireships album, and this stately, enveloping love song in particular.

"Curtains" is somewhat more familiar territory. Telling the tale of Tommy and Sylvia, a couple lost both spiritually and physically in a motel room, and their waking moments one morning. The descriptions are vivid, as is the desolation then conjure. "This story they'd been faking / was frozen on their lips / and falling through the brush of fingertips..." Piano controls the mood, with mournful strings dancing above and below. Stuart Gordon, Hammill's long time cohort, takes the aching violin leads.

"His Best Girl" seems to be an exercise in minimalism, with a dark keyboard soundscape running through the song with only hints of structure. Hammill's voice is very much in the foreground, although sparse bass and faint violin add to the tapestry. Tackling the subject of "trophy" wives, he alternates between sympathy and an ironic sneer without ever truly exhibiting either. One is left with a feeling of empathy for the subject of the song, the trophy who has just been superseded by a younger model, but at the same time the blame is laid upon her acceptance of her treatment. Multi-tracking allows the legendary all-Hammill choir to take the chorus in ethereal style. Slow and flowing, the space within the song says as much as the sounds that inhabit it.

Progressive musicians often seem incapable of writing songs relating to love or sex without either being clichéd or cloying. In many ways it reflects the state of the genre itself... being a somewhat emotionally repressed environment. Born from the English white middle classes (see Genesis for a prime example) it has tended to explore the intellectual more than the emotional, even if within there is room for intellectual emotion. Technique all too often smothers sensuality in the music, and while being capable of beauty it scarcely aspires to romance.

Hammill, like Peter Gabriel of late, has always been one of the exceptions to the rule in this matter... a Prog legend who can sing simply about love and make it real, and about sex without making it boastful, awkward or tawdry.

"Oasis" tackles the first... opening with sparse world percussion, the lilting melody over it is simple but beautiful. David Jackson's soprano sax provides the affecting lead while Gordon's violin adds unsettling effects beneath. The effect is surreal and haunting, over which Peter sings at his most tender. The lyrical mind that can generate the most disturbing and abstract can also tackle the most simple: "With stars and moonlight for shelter / your breathing close in my ear/ the wind is whispering a mystery/ for me to hear".

The following "Incomplete Surrender" is led by Gordon's violin and Nic Potter's languid, hesitant bass lines, and while more bodily in description is none the less subtle. Shredding the mask of masculinity that all too often inhibits Prog ("Behind the smirk of the macho man / is the quivering lip of the little boy") there is no pretence. The opening lines say it all: "Sweetheart I want to hold back nothing/ Sweetheart I want to give my all". Simple, yes? But in that simplicity lies a depth that makes the feelings universal.

"Fireships", the title track, shares musical similarities with "I Will Find You" with the striking broken guitar chords, the dancing violin, and the strong vocal lines. It's probably the nearest to "traditional" Hammill (whatever that might be) in mood, with dark warnings for the overly confident all around. The tempo takes time to settle but once the rhythm falls into place it is one of the more intense, if one of the more straightforward, on the album. After the tenderness of the last two tracks, Peter's voice stretches once more, but still rarely explodes in the way that fans are used to. While some listeners were, and still are, disappointed by this, the caged power is in some ways as striking as the unleashed version: at times you can almost hear Peter straining to contain himself and the passion within.

Contained passion is also the key to "Given Time", a heartbreaking but truthful rumination on the manufacture of our own fates. Almost in slow motion, with gentle string backdrops and a lead guitar line that unfolds note by note, Hammill is at his most reflective. Again space is the key... the moments of silence and hesitation are as dramatic as the moments of sound, which remain sparse apart from a brief swell during the instrumental middle. Again the importance of human contact is approached: "Say it's over when it's done / Did you learn to touch someone?" Hammill rarely sings so much about relationships in this way on one album, but when he does so it is with the honesty that makes the eternal clichés true.

A spiraling string flurry descends into "Reprise" - a piece that would have been the logical conclusion to the album. Borrowing snatched lines and phrases (both vocal and musical) from "Fireships," "I Will Find You," "His Best Girl," and others, it is a surreal coda to what has passed before.

The closer, "Gaia," is a natural companion to "Given Time," sharing a similarly slow motion, aquatic feel. Music is provided mainly by David Lord's orchestrations that are present throughout, although brief interludes of Peter's piano are evident. Unconventionally dramatic, this track is almost an anticlimax as the album ends with a world-weary sigh than a bang.

To nail my colours to the mast before going any further, I am a loud and proud lover of all things Hammill - to me he is one of they key artistes of rock music, regardless of genre, and an artistic beacon by which many others are lit. Fireships is not typical Hammill, whatever that might be, but is a beautiful, reflective, mature, and considered album of music. Not for everybody for sure, and those who remain addicted to the craziness of Peter's more left field work probably won't find what they are looking for here. But there is beauty and contemplation to be found within, if you can be bothered to look...

I Will Find You (4:43) / Curtains (5:43) / His Best Girl (5:00) / Oasis (5:37) / Incomplete Surrender (6:38) / Fireships (7:31) / Given Time (6:32) / Reprise (4:18) / Gaia (5:32)

Peter Hammill - vox, piano, guitars, keyboards, pads, bass, percussion
David Lord - keyboards, orchestrations, keyboards, percussion, bass
Stuart Gordon - violin
Nic Potter - bass
David Jackson - woodwind
John Ellis - guitar (5)

Fools Mate (1972)
Chameleon In The Shadow (1973)
The Silent Corner (1974)
In Camera (1974)
Nadirs Last Chance (1975)
Over (1977)
Future Now (1978)
PH7 (1979)
Black Box (1980)
Sitting Targets (1981)
Enter K (1982)
Patience (1983)
The Love Songs (1984)
The Margin (1985)
Skin (1985)
Close As I Am (1986)
Organum (1986)
Let It Play (1987)
Spur Of The Moment (1988)
In A Foreign Town (1988)
Out Of The Water (1990)
Room Temperature Live (1990)
Fall Of The House Of Usher (1990)
Fireships (1992)
The Noise (1993)
Roaring Forties (1994)
X My Heart (1996)
Everyone You Hold (1997)
This (1998)
Typical (1999)
None Of The Above (2000)
What, Now? (2001)
The Margin (2002)
The Thin Man Sings Ballads (2002)
Clutch (2002)
Incoherence (2004)

Genre: Progressive Rock

Origin UK

Added: June 1st 2000
Reviewer: Tony Emmerson

Artist website: www.sofasound.com
Hits: 991
Language: english


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