Peter Hammill

What, Now?

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The absurdly prolific Peter Hammill has averaged an album a year since 1971, but, as his fans know, quantity doesn't necessarily equal quality. Regularly compelling as a lyricist, he hasn't always succeeded in creating engaging musical contexts for his perfectly enunciated cerebral ruminations. Although None of the Above fell prey to that weakness, Hammill redresses the balance with What, Now? As usual, he excels when he's at his most dramatic, teetering on the brink of bombast; several of the strongest tracks belong in that category. The menacing, tormented ambience of "Fed to the Wolves," for instance, provides the perfect setting for a no-holds-barred indictment of child-abusing clergy: "Father's fumbling in the vestry/Lip-service to the sermon even while his fingers fiddle/Blind-eyed nuns ignore the soiled habits." The brooding "Lunatic in Knots" employs a more cohesive song format, but Hammill's evocation of the darker side of the human psyche is no less powerful: "I don't remember much about last night/But I suspect I went too far..../Unchain me from this lunatic/Restrain him in his cage." Hammill possesses one of rock's more powerful and distinctive voices, one that leaves no room for critical ambivalence, and a tendency to layer his own vocals has occasionally proven overwhelming. However, on less fraught numbers like the austere "Enough," he uses that technique to craft a sublime, haunting soundscape. Another standout, "Here Come the Talkies" seamlessly fuses the different facets of Hammill's sonic personality, undertaking an epic journey through contrasting moods and shifting tempos, from hymnal, piano-based introspection to angular, distorted rock, and back again. Elsewhere, "Edge of the Road" meanders aimlessly and "Wendy and the Lost Boy" approaches sappy melodrama, but overall this is a return to form, consolidating Hammill's place among Britain's most enduring musical institutions.

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