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Hammill, Peter: Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night (remaster)

Since we are all creatures of the time and place we inhabit, it seems generally true that early exposure is often the most profound. Hearing Chameleon when it was released in 1973 was one of those transformative experiences. After lyrical and compositional expectations had been steadily raised by the likes of King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Genesis, The NIce, Yes and -- of course -- Van der Graaf, it was something of a shock to walk in on Hammill, alone at the piano, wringing out highly personal lyrics and a music that resulted from violent collisions of emotion and intellect. That the "Chameleon" is portrayed as a scorpion on the cover sets the tone: this album is an emotionally and aurally raw onslaught.

What is most ominous in the world and in ourselves is usually given archetypal and cliché notice. Few musicians have ever been as immediate and insightful as we find Hammill here. Even fewer manage the note-perfect and chaotic music Chameleon displays as witness to such pain and the struggle for a living, breathing definition of the self. Yet from the simple pun of "German Overalls" to the unflinching self recrimination of "In the End" -- which seeks nothing short of the utter oblivion of the self once glimpsed in Lautreamont's "Maldoror" and again in Rimbaud's "Une Saison en Enfer" -- the nightmares all seem real enough, as does the sense of redemption offered at the very close of the music. Until that end is reached, all the forms of personal conflict are brought to the fore, even to the at home terror that father and son relationships sometimes uncover. As portrayed in one of the gloomiest, most threatening lines ever sung: "Fathers, stare out at the whispering night, rub mud on their arms" seems to intimate a most personal abuse of kinship and trust. That such a force of expression is here largely accomplished with only voice and stripped-down accompaniment remains remarkable. But it is the simplicity of instrumentation that contributes enormously to the pervasive nakedness of the emotions, barely contained herein.

Too naked perhaps? Music such as this is often forced to the margins. It typically gets the short shrift from labels as well as listeners. Now, nearly thirty-five years later, Chameleon stands as one of the pioneering examples of the truly independent release. If you seek integrity in the music business, Hammill is the original. The home studio Hammill built to pursue his solo career becomes not only an instrument for artistic expression, but a weapon against the untiring impulses of commerce to eventually and ultimately stamp out anything that resists being categorized, predictable and, most of all, resists the industry's necessity of placing profit ahead of music. What Hammill decides to do in 1973 becomes a model that countless others now follow. So, in yet another way, the importance of Chameleon can't be emphasized enough.

While many of the original technical compromises have been addressed in the remaster, the character still comes through as raw and even still a bit brittle. The sonic improvements are mostly evident in imaging and the more convincing low end. The three bonus tracks aren't especially necessary, but they do add some historical dimension -- particularly the live version of "In the End". As part of a series of remasters for the Van der Graff catalog and the earliest of Hammill's solo work, Chameleon may be the most significant of the lot -- if you set aside listening to the mics crack during a John Peel session bonus track on "The Silent Corner..."

This guy must be absolute murder to record.

Track Listing
1) German Overalls
2) Slender Threads
3) Rock and Role
4) In the End
5) What's it Worth
6) Easy to Slip Away
7) Dropping the Torch
8) (In the) Black Room / The Tower
Bonus Tracks
9) Rain Jam
10) Easy to Slip Away*
11) In the End*
* Live in Kansas City, 2.16.78

Added: November 13th 2006
Reviewer: Kerry Leimer
Related Link: Website
Hits: 2579
Language: english

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