Tentative Review #18

Peter Hammill

(released 1985)

1. Skin***1/2
2. After The Show***1/2
3. Painting By Numbers***
4. Shell***1/2
5. All Said And Done***1/2
6. A Perfect Date***1/2
7. Four Pails****
8. Now Lover****



All tracks written by Peter Hammill except "Four Pails" (C.J.J. Smith/Max Hutchinson).


Peter Hammill's name can be counted on to elicit mixed responses from many progressive fans.

In the recent Possible Productions release, Sometimes God Hides, Hammill is described as having done for the human voice what Jimi Hendrix did for the guitar. There is a certain element of reasonableness to this claim. It is not terribly unusual for a vocalist (even a prog vocalist) to convey emotion in his/her singing -- it is unusual for someone to articulate this emotion as lucidly as Hammill is usually capable of. In a genre frequently marred by second-rate vocalists, Hammill is easily one of the rare geniuses of prog in this particular idiom.

Very few people, however, would classify Hammill as "having done for lyrics what Jimi Hendrix did for the guitar", though. While occasionally ascending to moments of rare clarity, Hammill's lyrics are frequently of a deliberately tortured nature, dragging absurdly overwraught themes through painstakingly desperate developments. The lucidity which this voice is capable of portraying is all-too-frequently unequaled by the content that it expresses.

These conflicting tendencies are quite evident on Skin (1985), one of the albums resulting for Hammill's attempt at producing albums of a more popular-oriented nature. In most cases, the songs (which in and of themselves are generally decent-to-good) are hindered by the usual "trying to hard" syndrome manifesting itself in the songwriting. Hammill's voice is fine throughout, and the song arrangements are generally top-notch... but, at the same time, the listener is often under the impression that something is missing.

The opening track, "Skin", is primarily a vocal showcase grafted onto the framework of a pop song. With simple musical embellishment (including a really simple guitar feature), the track appears as a semi-successful attempt at producing decent craft for the pop market. A decent track, but not one which lends itself to much analysis.

"After The Show" is a much more personal track (with easily the best Hammill-penned lyrics on the album, the German philosophy gaffe aside), with an excellent fretless bass development throughout (and a decent Jaxon solo towards then end). This lament of the lonely artist would easily receive a higher rating were the track based on composition alone; the performance, however, seems occasionally to fall into too many mainstream pop trappings. A flawed gem, it would seem.

"Painting By Numbers" is the weakest track on the album, and one which might reasonably stand as a perfect "type" for Hammill's "trying too hard" lyrical tendencies (the Asia-esque keyboard riff doesn't really help either). The quirkiness of the arrangement + lyrical theme gives the song a few extra points... but, fundamentally, there's nothing "essential" about this track.

"Shell", with its amazing overwrought lyrics (including references to Borges and Eischer by name), is nevertheless somewhat better -- the vocal performance and musical backing are both good enough to carry this song into consideration as a worthwhile track. Potential listeners might note that the song features a vaguely "tribal" rhythmic basis as well.

"All Said And Done", likewise, merits its high rating by virtue of Hammill's vocal performance (the acoustic guitar adds a rather nice "haunting" effect as well). This is a fairly minimal track (once again possibly due to the "personal" nature of the lyric), but still isn't that bad for this.

"A Perfect Date" is easily the most confusing lyric on the album -- it seems to be a commentary on those religious individuals who prepare themselves for the end of time, but even this is only conveyed in a rather vague manner (naturally, Hammill wouldn't spoil a title like this on casual dating when the Rapture could suffice instead). Fortunately, there is an interesting music basis to the track (especially as regards Guy Evans's drum track), with a decent development towards the end.

Thus far, the songs on this album fall into the category of "good but not great" works, suitable for serious fans but not likely to be of much interest to casual progressive listeners. The final two tracks, fortunately, are somewhat better.

It's rather ironic that "Four Pails", not actually written by Hammill, would turn out to be one of the most clear developments of his usual writing style imaginable. Lyrically, musically, and atmospherically, this is an amazingly powerful piece (the title refers to the amount of water in the average human body; the song as a whole is a lament for a departed lover). This one is almost worth the price of admission on its own.

The final track -- the epic 9-minute "Now Lover" -- is more of a conventional Hammill lyric, redeemed by the (extremely "progressive") development of the piece through a variety of musical cycles. The original stark (and naturally melodramatic) process of the piece eventually yields to a slower development, which allows all of the instruments in question to attain brief spotlights. The appearance of Tony Banks-esque synth lines halfway through the piece is a rather surprising touch as well. Hammill's voice on the "Slicing through time in a perfect world" section is nothing less than incredible -- with better lyrics (and perhaps a bit of editing in the middle) this piece would have merited an even higher rating.

Skin cannot be recommended as one of Hammill's better albums. None of the songs on the album are disastrously bad, but few attain the levels which Hammill is usually capable of. For a serious PH fan, this is a valuable purchase -- newcomers may which to start elsewhere, though.

The Christopher Currie

(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 23 June 1997)

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