June 14, 2020

One that (almost) got away…

You know how sometimes a particular album can somehow pass you by when it really should have registered strongly on your radar? This is one of those cases, and the reason for this is the fact that, when this appeared last year, things were rather heavy on the plate-spinning front as this very website was being launched. So this album just flew on past me, which is something that, as a declared fan of Peter Hammill and all of his work with Van Der Graaf Generator in particular, frustrates me, but also perversely pleases me as I have it to experience anew right now. I have to confess that I only have a sketchy knowledge of Swedish band Isildur’s Bane, collaborating here with Hammill for the first time, but on the strength of this work it will be imperative to seek them out in more depth.

Right from the get-go, let’s lay our expectation cards on the table. Knowing Peter Hammill’s work over the past five decades, it is clear that this will almost certainly be a dark album. Peter could collaborate with S Club Seven and it would come out as a pensive, brooding work. It is his oeuvre, and one that he delivers as well as anyone on the planet. And so it proves to be. This is not a long album (around 40 minutes, with even the CD version listing the tracks as Side A and Side B). It is clearly intended as one complete listening experience, and as such, given the weight of the content, any significantly longer duration would risk listener fatigue. This is not music to put on while you do the washing up. This is music to be listened to, absorbed, and then listened to again in order to see what you missed. Even more so given that the lyrics are not included, and you have to go the long way into Peter Hammill’s tortured psyche, via ropes and rock faces, and quite possibly starting from a volcano in Iceland! This isn’t easy stuff, and you have to be prepared for the journey.

The songs are all collaborations between Hammill and Isildur keyboard man Mats Johansson, with the lyrics naturally coming from Hammill. His starting point appears to be a loose concept of times of crisis or panic, and the nature of the choices we are forced to make, along with the potentially dire repercussions of them. Even the experiences we gain, and the positive memories we have, he appears to be warning at one point, have to be paid for potentially with suffering. The title of the album is referenced with some uses of jungle metaphor, none of which are cheery in their tone. The music accompanying this existential angst is perfect – using some often unusual instrumentation, and at times diverting seriously off the beaten path of conventionally structured song, yet sounding as if there could be no other possible music in place. Many would believe that, so singular is Peter Hammill’s musical vision, the only group of musicians fully in sync with that have been his regular ‘VDGG family’, with whom he has worked so often. Now the name of Isildur’s Bane, and particularly Mats Johansson, can be added strongly to that list.

Of course, Isildur recently worked with Steve Hogarth, with whom there are superficial similarities of approach, in that Hogarth’s low-key, almost mumbling delivery puts across a sense of quiet gloom. Hammill utilises this same gloom, of course, but uses the Sturm und Drang of his astonishing delivery to drive home the fact that, yes there is despair, but that it is much more serious than you had hoped. You may very well come away from this album feeling inspired, but it is also a safe bet that you will be unlikely to in the mood to fight for your right to party. You may well be drained, with your soul sucked dry. In a good way.

It is difficult to pick out individual tracks from the six on offer here. The openers of the respective ‘sides’, Before You Know It and This Is Where?, both initially appear fragmented, even disjointed, before they lock together like pieces of a jigsaw which you wonder how you never put together at first. The final track, the short This Bird Has Flown, is different in that it is instrumental, and seems to exist to wrap up proceedings and close the book. Taking its titular cue from the bird metaphors employed in the preceding The Day Is Done, it fills its scant three minutes with great percussive crashes like the very hammers of doom, and tortured keyboard squalls echoing around them. Then it is gone, but you know what you have to do. It’s Side A, Track One waiting for you again. Like a terrifying rollercoaster you simply can’t resist going around on again.

Come on in. The Bleak Darkness of the Soul is wonderful!