Tentative Review #157

Peter Hammill
Chameleon In The Shadow Of Night

(released 1973)

1. German Overalls ****1/2
2. Slender Threads ****
3. Rock And Role ****
4. In The End ****1/2
5. What It's Worth ***1/2
6. Easy To Slip Away ****
7. Dropping The Torch ***1/2
8. (In The) Black Room/The Tower *****




Chameleon In The Shadow Of Night was Peter Hammill's second solo album, after Fools Mate (1971). Whereas the former release had been criticized (and still is) for the supposedly lightweight nature of the material, Chameleon is seen as marking a quantum leap for Hammill -- moving from short, pop materials to more adventurous conceptual works.

I have some difficulties with this argument. Notwithstanding the fact that Hammill had already explored more elaborate themes with Van Der Graaf Generator, the praise often given to Chameleon ignores one of its fundamental problems: whereas Fools Mate generally managed to avoid lyrical bathos (probably by virtue of the time restrictions), Chameleon often sees pH running headlong into the overwrought lyrical traps which would eventually define his career. This album is a more impressive work than FM, when viewed as a conceptual whole -- but the very dominance of the album's conceptual framework is responsible for dragging Hammill's lyrics into tedious realms, on some occasions.

But perhaps this is an unfair way to start this review. After all, Chameleon is a very solid album, and its deficiences pale when compared to the album's high points -- especially the ways in which Hammill is able to evoke an urgent mood, through a combination of sparse music and edgy vocal lines. Moreover, it's the album which clearly defined the path for Hammill's subsequent solo career -- a combination of personal, singer- songwriter/folky works, and a slightly modified form of the dirgelike material which VdGG was famous for (usually involving the same musicians, of course). The supporting cast plays its role well -- and Guy Evans, in particular, is very impressive throughout the work (I've long thought of him as one of the more underrated drummers in the prog medium -- this album provides further proof of his merits). Besides which, some of the tracks here feature impressive lyrics, including "(In The) Black Room" and the album's opening track, "German Overalls".

"German Overalls" is sung from the perspective of an English band stranded in Germany (autobiographical?), mostly featuring Hammill's stark lyrics over a strummed acoustic guitar. pH captures the foreign setting quite nicely, and even manages to work a bizarre singer/soldier comparison into the lyrics [some might argue that this track provided the inspiration for Marillion's "Slainte Mhath"]. Hugh Banton takes a brief solo following a reference to the "German lords" of traditional cathedrals. It all works together very well, getting the album started on an impressive foot.

The next two tracks aren't quite as impressive, albeit only just. "Slender Threads" features Hammill's "stately" vocal setting, as he describes a bout with image-obsession after seeing the picture of an ex-lover in the pages of the Evening Standard. The title apparently refers to both clothing-wear and mental stability, the latter theme marked by some amazing work in the high vocal range. The first part of the track comes off as somewhat awkward, though the elaborate character study eventually pays off. This track, too, is based on an acoustic guitar setting.

"Rock And Role" is more of a band piece, essentially Van Der Graaf Generator without Hugh Banton. These lyrics, too, focus on obsessional desire, this time in the form of a self-effacing letter to the object of Hammill's affections. David Jackson's first saxophone lead is surprisingly weak, although he manages to redeem himself towards the end -- Evans is at his best. The track conveys the impression of being a rejected piece from the Pawn Hearts period, which it may well have been.

"In The End" is almost a high point of the album, as Hammill's lyrics provide the image of a mysterious journey towards a lakeside -- either in remorse for a past deed, or as the prelude to a period of suicidal contemplation (perhaps both). Subtle allusions to Edgar Allan Poe appear in the early moments of the piece ("Ulalume" may be the most obvious point of reference), and this extended psychological study is a remarkably vivid picture of the character's desire for the logical end to his nervous energy ... until the last section of the song, that is, which comes off as remarkably weak in comparison to all that came before it. I suppose that this could be a part of the overall plot -- the character eventually leaves the area without knowing why -- but it doesn't do the song any favours. (Remember what I said about lyrical bathos. Those comments apply here.) The music on this track is strongly based on early 20th-century piano music (think Russian influences), and works extremely well throughout the piece.

The next few tracks seem slightly underwhelming, and may have been intended as developmental pieces towards the final track. "What It's Worth" is another psychological study into existential being, with Hammill again juxtaposing suicidal and happy-go-lucky perspectives (and using the metaphor of a park gardener, for some odd reason). Strummed guitar again figures prominently, though an uncredited flute presence (probably Jackson) helps things a bit. "Easy To Slip Away" is a powerful glimpse into personal loneliness, and a follow-up of sorts to VdGG's "Refugees" (especially as Hammill laments his separation from the "Mike and Susie" figures of that song). Unfortunately, his overwrought lyrical tendencies get the better of him here, as well; thankfully, the piano and saxophone setting carries the song throughout. "Dropping The Torch", viewed on its own, is the weak link of the album, with Hammill painting an image of a man building a tower, brick by brick, and locking himself within. Rather obvious in its use of metaphor, the song is merely good, as opposed to anything special.

But, of course, "Dropping The Torch" isn't meant to be viewed in isolation -- a few minutes into the song comes THE BREAK, wherein "(In The) Black Room" suddenly bursts forth in its full horror. This track is easily the lyrical high point of the album, with Hammill's themes of obsession and isolation bursting towards a breaking point (the music is also incredibly good, especially in the keyboard and drum lines). Hammill's study into aging and repressed desire is nothing short of remarkable, in this context. "The Tower" appears as a quasi-diversion here, as the protagonist brings himself into the passage of symbolic death and rebirth -- his eventual return to the "Black Room" sees him still holding an aggressive mind, still isolated, but ultimately renewed in his strength. The track describes what it, in itself, achieves -- the triumph of solitary contemplation. And it's utterly successful.

Chameleon may not be Hammill's best album (though it's close). Given that all pH albums tend to be a bit uneven at some level, it may be as good of an introduction as anything else. Devoted fans should obviously grab it, assuming they haven't already done so.

The Christopher Currie

(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 7 Jun 2001)

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