Sunday, 31 December 2017

Album of the Month: FROM THE TREES by Peter Hammill

Back when progressive rock seemed like something John Lydon could not grasp on a purely intellectual level, I bought H To He Who Am The Only One. It did not quite soundtrack my teenage years the way (say!) Aqualung did, but "House With No Door" was a piece of chilling ecstasy I played ad nauseam. Nothing else on Van Der Graaf Generator's most famed record matched those piano chords and those flutes, but "House With No Door" was such a top prize. 

Eventually, some long-haired guy borrowed the album and never gave it back (possibly thinking that Uriah Heep's compilation he brought me was a worthy substitute - although in its defence, it did keep my kitchen table in balance), and I lost track of Peter Hammill's music until someone, somewhere suggested Nadir's Big Chance.

It would be hard now to describe the shock to the senses that Nadir's Big Chance once was for me, but that fucking album was unique in a most extreme way. It was not the vibe or the voice - it was the way he constructed the songs with melodies that were supposed to be melodies but barely registered as such. Which was Peter Hammill's very special way. It was punk before John Lydon started wearing controversial T-shirts.

From then on, it's been a rough and wild ride that has produced enough subversive classics to keep me looking for more (The Future Now and the more recent Consequences are personal favourites). But From The Trees, released earlier this month, had the kind of urgent intimacy I could hardly expect.

The record is mostly piano and acoustic guitar filtered through Hammill's complex, deeply uncomfortable songwriting. Face it, the moment you hear the irresistible backing vocals in "Torpor" (strangely, they remind me of "Goodbye Blue Sky") you think this is from a wrong album. After all, Rikki Nadir was never supposed to be accessible. And it's not that he is, or tries to be, but the tune in "Charm Alone" is easy to grasp, the piano in "The Descent" is heartbreaking by any standard, etc. And none of it, mind you, distracts from Hammill's trademark style and charisma.  

From The Trees may not be the most appropriate record for New Year's eve, but it clearly is the best album I've heard all month. From The Trees seems like Peter Hammill's most intimate record in years, maybe ever. And, in "Torpor", it has the sort of universally sad melody that hits me as hard as "House With No Door" once did. And that takes some doing.