"Undeniably brilliant but unlistenable": Pawn Hearts by Van der Graaf Generator - Album Of The Week Club review

Van der Graaf Generator's fourth album Pawn Hearts sums up all that is glorious and bewildering about the band: unconventional vocals, confrontational music, and the unruly spectre of jazz

Van der Graaf Generator: Pawn Hearts cover art
(Image: © Charisma Records)

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Van der Graaf Generator: Pawn Hearts

Van der Graaf Generator: Pawn Hearts cover art

(Image credit: Charisma)

A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers
Theme One
Angle of Incidents
Ponker's Theme

Pawn Hearts sums up all that is glorious and bewildering about Van der Graaf Generator. The free-form staccato madness of Man-Erg still sends you reeling, but that’s nothing compared with sprawling concept piece A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers

Ostensibly a tale about the wrath of the sea, it plunges deep into the murky realms of insanity and transcendence, spanning the spectrum of human emotion: the listener experiences complete desolation, reacts to the sheer terror of drowning, then becomes relieved as extreme fear is transformed into utter peacefulness.

“The song deals with the guilt felt by a lighthouse keeper and his complexes about seeing people die and not being able to help,” frontman Peter Hammill once said. “In the end he either kills himself, or he rationalises it all and can live in peace."

“When we recorded Pawn Hearts,” recalled drummer Guy Evans, “we experienced more real, uh, heavy conflict between ourselves than we ever had done before. It produced a good result, but it placed the band in a difficult position. We just didn’t know where to go from there."

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Other albums released in October 1971

  • Teaser and the Firecat - Cat Stevens
  • The Morning After - The J. Geils Band
  • 200 Motels - Frank Zappa
  • In Search of Space - Hawkwind
  • Message from the Country - The Move
  • 18 Other Voices - The Doors
  • Restrictions - Cactus
  • American Pie - Don McLean
  • Grateful Dead - Grateful Dead
  • Chicago at Carnegie Hall - Chicago
  • Rough and Ready - The Jeff Beck Group
  • Fearless - Family
  • Bloodrock U.S.A. - Bloodrock
  • Fog On The Tyne - Lindisfarne
  • Focus II (Moving Waves) - Focus
  • Memories - John Mayall
  • Meddle - Pink Floyd
  • Rainbow Bridge - Jimi Hendrix
  • Reflection - Pentangle
  • R.E.O. Speedwagon - REO Speedwagon
  • Stoney & Meatloaf - Stoney & Meat Loaf
  • Tupelo Honey - Van Morrison
  • UFO 2: Flying - UFO
  • War War War - Country Joe McDonald


What they said...

"The band was trying for something midway between King Crimson and Genesis, and came out closer to the former, at least instrumentally. Hammill's vocals are impassioned and involving, almost like an acting performance, similar to Peter Gabriel's singing with Genesis, but the lack of any obviously cohesive ideas in the lyrics makes this more obscure and obtuse than any Genesis release." (AllMusic)

"Pawn Hearts is a masterpiece in the old-fashioned sense of the word, that is: it is a musical blueprint on which to build in the future and has as sensibly structured an anti-structure as you could wish for. It is in turns beautiful, ridiculous, foul, overwhelming, irritating, mutating and magnificent." (Head Heritage)

"Pawn Hearts stands out as one of the most extraordinary albums of its era. Already an intense, hard-edged, progressive outfit, intent on grappling with big musical and existential themes, here VDGG saw how far out they could push themselves. A long way, as it happened. Featuring heavily treated keyboards and electric sax, the sound was garish and nightmarish, with passages of great beauty menaced by eruptions of near mania." (Mojo)


What you said...

Alex Hayes: I must admit that I wasn't exactly relishing the prospect of getting down with Pawn Hearts this week. However, although I agree with many of the observations made (particularly in relation to the acquired taste that is Peter Hammill's voice), I think that I actually got a lot more out of this album than other club members did.

What was the biggest potential turn-off? Oh, that's easy. The reviews all make the point that there is a prominent jazz presence within Van Der Graaf Generator's music, the albums 'horn parts' (Yep, I did my homework on the album too, including learning where the title came from). I loathe jazz, and almost gave the album a miss this week solely due to that fact. Turns out I needn't have worried too much. Although that infernal tootling is there, an important element in the band's chemistry in fact, it was nowhere near as discordant or intolerable as I was expecting. It actually suited the songs quite well at times. Phew.

The progger in me really quite enjoyed this. Imagine, if you will, a darker, more sinister and melancholy version of Genesis's Foxtrot album. One that shares that album's more esoteric themes, but also prominently sprinkles Robert Fripp and, lets say, Elton Dean of The Soft Machine, into the mix. That's the vibe that I took from Pawn Hearts. It's a musical journey that definitely encompasses difficult terrain in places, but was ultimately well worth it. The Genesis comparisons are not without merit either. At the time, the two groups shared management, record labels, producers, and even sleeve designers.

Going back to those vocals and, yeah, they almost redefine the meaning of the phrase 'off kilter'. Thing is though, this is a progressive rock album. With the best will in the world, this isn't a genre of rock that is traditionally blessed with great singers (with a couple of obvious exceptions). Quirky, unconventional vocals are quite common in prog, and kind of go with the territory. Just give Radio K.A.O.S. a listen, if you need proof of that.

I can totally understand the negativity though. A couple of years ago, the club covered Chicago II, an album that I found almost unlistenable, for pretty much the same reasons. I also dread to think what the more metal minded people would make of this. In fact, I'd advise fans of last weeks' Metal On Metal by Anvil to avoid this and run for the hills.

So, that's Pawn Hearts by Van Der Graaf Generator. Definitely not for everybody, but it worked for me. As diametrically opposed to last week's album choice as can possibly be, but I'm still gonna finish my review almost verbatim. Very progressive indeed, and a 7/10 from me.

Gary Claydon: For the love of prog! That was every bit as difficult a listen as I remember it (and most VDGG) being. They've always been a band that, as a prog fan, I used to feel obliged to 'get'. Try as I might, their appeal still eludes me. Much of that is to do with Peter Hammil's vocals. Even his most ardent admirer would admit that he is very much an acquired taste. Several of the tracks on Pawn Hearts start off promisingly before, seemingly, eschewing composition altogether. I don't mind a bit of chaos in the music, quite welcome it, in fact but VDGG just make it hard work. The brass parts are simply jarring to me.

Pawn Hearts' is the kind of album that makes prog's detractors roll their eyes. In this case, I can easily sympathise.

Mark Tucker: I love prog, including Crimson but no matter how many times I try, I just cannot get my head around VDGG.

Mark Herrington: As one preferring the prog metal end of the scale , I found this hard work . Very much a case of ‘slog prog ‘ for me .

Anthony Coad: I tried hard to like this album but just couldn't get into it, I found it jarring and disjointed. Undeniably brilliant but unlistenable. A pyrrhic album.

Chris Elliott: The musical equivalent of a hairshirt.

Scott Pélzél: Great band and great album, one of their best.

Brian Carr: Well, this is different. Got through 18 or 19 minutes of …Lighthouse Keepers before pulling up the Apple Music window and seeing this album clocks in at over an hour. Not sure I’ll make it through despite the fact that I hear some musical similarities to 70s era Frank Zappa - music that I like very much.

John Davidson: I'm very much a prog leaning rock fan but VDGG have always veered too close to the jazzy side of prog for my tastes. I can get behind the emphasis on organ/ mellotron over guitar, but the Ssaxophone is a step too far.

Peter Hammil's vocals straddle the not quite sung/not quite spoken delivery style favoured by some prog bands (e.g. The Tangent, Camel), presumably because they can't quite pull off full throated singing but don't have room in the band for a dedicated vocalist. Describing Hammil's vocal delivery as an acquired taste is generous.

Musically ambitious in a way that last week's offering from Anvil was most assuredly not, but still not really scratching my musical itch.

Mike Canoe: I listened to Pawn Hearts a couple of times before during Quarantine and it didn't really hit. The stars must be better aligned this time around.

To my ears, it's an interesting mix of early Roxy Music art rock (affected singing style, instrumentation not normally associated with "rock," and a few chaotic noisy bits thrown in for good measure) and Yes at their proggiest (grand arrangements, grander song lengths, "Progressive" with a capital P).

Not too worried about listening to the bonus tracks but the original three all have enough stuff to tickle my eardrums.

James Last: This album, and this band actually, represent the dark side of 70s progressive rock, and are about as marmite as they come.

For me, It's an all time top 20 album. I was intrigued from the first listen and gradually got sucked in from there. There's nothing else that quite sounds like it, which can be good or bad depending on your own taste. The music's full of left-field twists and turns. Its jazzy in places, sometimes beautiful, and at others dark, morbid, and heavy, and sometimes even all of those at the same time.

I would just recommend that if you do decide to check this one out and it doesn't immediately put you off in the first minute, but you aren't convinced either, give it at least a few spins to be make certain, it does take a bit of getting used to. I love it though so I'm biased.

But, on the other hand, whether it clicks with you or not, it can also serve instead as a great room clearer at house parties! So, win-win all round!

Greg Schwepe: A couple of funny things happened on my way to reviewing VDGG’s Pawn Hearts. First, I inadvertently selected the wrong VDGG album on my Spotify app. I clicked on something with similar artwork. About two minutes into the first track: “Hey, this doesn’t seem as weird as it was made out to be…oh, wait, wrong album. Oops.” About two minutes into the first track of the correct album; “Hey, this is as weird as it was made out to be. Oops.”

Second, since I’ve been a member of this esteemed club, I usually end up liking the weird, bizarre 70s prog experiments we’ve reviewed a lot more than I thought I would. But that all ends today with Pawn Hearts. Can’t really get into the vocals at all. And that’s what kind of ruins it for me right off the bat. Looked down at Spotify app and saw I was only halfway through Lemmings and thought “stick it out, stick it out…” And halfway through Man-Erg I thought the same thing. The 23:12 of A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers was all I could handle until I pulled the plug before the end of this little adventure.

This is one where you really, really gotta be in the right frame of mind to listen to this. Not saying VDGG is not made up of talented musicians and songwriters, just not the kind of music that sticks with me. 5 out of 10.


Final score: 6.41 (41 votes cast, total score 263)

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