“A vivid, three-dimensional update… they outstrip the originals’ impact by some distance”: Peter Hammill’s In A Foreign Town / Out Of Water 2023

Van der Graaf Generator frontman has little to prove – but does it anyway with his revamp of solo albums hobbled by late-80s production values

Peter Hamill - In A Foreign Town / Out Of Water 2023
(Image: © Esoteric)

You can trust Louder Our experienced team has worked for some of the biggest brands in music. From testing headphones to reviewing albums, our experts aim to create reviews you can trust. Find out more about how we review.

If Peter Hammill has taught us anything over the years, it’s that his songs should always be regarded as works in progress. With an astonishing number of solo albums under his septuagenarian belt already, not to mention the entire Van der Graaf Generator catalogue, prog’s most prolific rebel has little to prove. Instinctively focused on whatever his wayward creative urges will do next, he has rarely looked backwards, preferring instead to let old songs grow and mutate through live performance.

These new, re-recorded and reworked versions of two mid-period classics travel along similar lines, as Hammill gently hauls some of his most polarising work into the 21st century. Released in 1988 and 1990 respectively, In A Foreign Town and Out Of Water are hardly outliers in the Hammill discography, but thanks to the influence of what was then new technology, both suffered from a certain sonic inelegance. With clunky drum machines and chintzy synth sounds proving a distraction from the brilliance of the songs themselves.

More than 30 years on, Hammill has allowed himself some revisionist studio tinkering, and the results are glorious: a vivid, three-dimensional update, with significant elements of the original records retained, but with new vocals and instrumentation, and a more rounded sonic identity.

Perhaps the biggest surprise here is how painfully relevant many of the songs on In A Foreign Town have remained. A dark and edgy six-minute sprawl, Hemlock is Hammill at his most vitriolic and incensed, as he rails against Cold War-thinking and the eternal spectre of war. Sparse and creepy on the original album, it has lost none of its furious bite and is more pertinent than ever here: ‘The Earth is flat and pigs can fly/Swallow hard and believe the lies,’ 2023 Hammill spits, clearly more rageful about the state of things than he ever was in 1988.

Similarly, anti-Apartheid polemic Sun City Nite Life (‘It’s a rich man’s world/Kick those beggars and fools’) and the languorously seething Tory takedown Smile (‘A smile has set upon this land/Ooh, a selfish grin of ignorance’) hit home with renewed power, particularly given their newly full and broad sonic values. Time To Burn, a tribute to Hammill’s late manager Tony Stratton-Smith, is profoundly poignant, even in its album-ending instrumental form.

Out Of Water was a less clunky and more band-orientated album than its predecessor, but it still benefits hugely from Hammill’s revamp. In particular, new takes on opener Evidently Goldfish and devastating finale A Way Out outstrip the originals’ impact by some distance. Two great albums, deftly transformed.

The A Foreign Town / Out Of Water 2023 2-CD set is on sale now via Esoteric / Cherry Red Records.

Dom Lawson

Dom Lawson has been writing for Metal Hammer and Prog for over 14 years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He also contributes to The Guardian, Classic Rock, Bravewords and Blabbermouth and has previously written for Kerrang! magazine in the mid-2000s.