(New Album Review) Peter Hammill & Gary Lucas- Other World

The release I was most hyped for this year, by far, was Other World,  a joint collaboration between two artists I have greatly admired for many years, Peter Hammill, best known as a founder of the art rock group Van Der Graaf Generator, and guitarist Gary Lucas, best known as the collaborator and friend of the late Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart). I’m not sure if this release will grow on me more or become one of my favorites of the year, but it is a challenging and at times elegantly beautiful album, certainly a fine release that will likely get very little recognition despite deserving it.

Along with John Cale, Peter Hammill was one of the cult artists who sparked my obsession with music, one of the personalities in rock music who I have related to strongly, at times. With his uniquely beautiful voice, literate lyrics, and strong sense for finding beauty in chaos and the absurd, I took to his music like a fire to a house: Van Der Graaf Generator’s Pawn Hearts was one of my favorite albums when I was a young kid, a visceral and at times profound masterpiece of art rock. I think that Hammill is a very original, inspiring, and honest artist, and, as a writer myself, perhaps part of what has attracted me to his music is the high quality of much of his writing, though it can be perhaps a bit too po-faced and dramatic for some, I can understand. In any case, he has always been something of a cult artist, admired by folks like Nick Cave and Thom Yorke enough, sure, but willfully avoiding anything more than modest success himself.

This has not changed the fact that he has had an absolutely staggering work ethic for the whole of his career, with almost forty solo studio albums to his name by now, nine of which were released between 2000 and the present. Compare this to the output of his friend and contemporary Peter Gabriel, who has been in the business for the same period of time and has more or less retired from recording new music– how long has it been since Gabriel put out an album of new songs? Over a decade.

The unfortunate reality, however, is that most of Hammill’s solo albums in recent memory have been somewhat disappointing to me, as a fan. For a while, the last album of his that I really enjoyed from start to finish was 2001’s Unsung, a set of instrumentals that I quite liked. The last album to even approach the greatness of his seventies output was probably Fireships from 1992. Part of the reason why Hammill’s recent work has left me cold might be on account of the fact that he has chosen to record virtually all of his recent albums completely on his own, playing all the instruments and then giving performances on solo piano when touring. Honestly, it’s good to have the input of other people when you’re making music. This is part of what makes Other World such a breath of fresh air.

Gary Lucas is a highly talented guitarist and fusion-music strategist who I have a lot of respect for; his albums with Beefheart are honestly some of my favorites, particularly Ice Cream for Crow, and I remember enjoying another of his called Gods and Monsters, which I listened to because I thought it had a cool cover. Since Gary Lucas is apparently a fan of Hammill’s in his own right, and was after all able to work for years with the notoriously difficult Van Vliet, who better to collaborate with Hammill, a guy with an uncomprising vision who has literally worked by himself on all his albums for the past ten years? Lucas and Hammill are definitely on the same wavelength and it shows on this new work.

Part of what I like about Other World is that you can tell that it is not just Hammill singing over tracks by Lucas. In fact, the most interesting moments on the album are arguably the instrumental pieces– take, for instance, the mysteriously beautiful, psych-tinged “Attar of Roses” and “Slippery Slope”. For the most part, Lucas provides the arpeggios, Hammill the ghostly textures. The album is, overall, very much in the spirit of Hammill’s work– the gripping dramatics in “Some kind of Fracas” (probably my favorite vocal track on the album), the bitterness of “This is Showbiz” and “The Kid”. Lucas, with his fusion-musican facilitator’s sensibility, really plays off Hammill’s musically-sinister, lyrically-symbolist vision well in a way that others might not know how to.

My only complaint? I feel sometimes as though Hammill needs to abandon this trend of multi-tracking his voice. On earlier albums, like Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night, it added an interesting freakiness and drama to the production. Hammill’s voice has not exactly left him over the years (which is basically what happened to Scott Walker), but it has wizened and softened a little in a way that’s interesting. I would almost prefer to hear his unadorned voice– it has a vulnerable quality now that I like, though it is certainly different from how it sounded on his earlier work.

Overall, this is an interesting album that deserves more acknowledgement. If you’re a fan of art rock, space rock, or avant garde music, check it out as soon as you can.

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