Peter Hammill does not slow down. The Van der Graaf Generator leader, prog savant, and sorely underrated songwriter has never truly taken a moment to rest on his well-deserved laurels. It’s almost as if he views the thought of stopping as death: whether through Van der Graaf, his own work, or, in more recent years, collaborations with adjacent prog bands, decidedly few years since 1969 have seen the man inactive.
His latest, alongside Swedish prog stalwarts Isildurs Bane, is one of the grander statements he’s expressed in years. Who better, after all, to delve into the collective fear and misery of the COVID era than a man who’s been exploring paranoia and emotional isolation for more than half a century?
For those that haven’t followed either act, this is not the first time the two parties have linked up: 2019 saw them gather for In Amazonia, yet, that project feels almost playful in comparison to their second offering. Any sense of laid back collaboration has been abandoned for consciously grand stakes on In Disequilibrium.
Spread across two massive, disparate, and ultimately stately suites, the recording for this mammoth creation took over a year, with the artists clocking in for 14 months. Where In Amazonia, at times, could give the sense of Hammill simply waxing poetic over what Bane laid down as they assembled the album piece by piece, here every step of the way feels carefully melded, an intensive, true collaboration in every sense of the word, even in spite of the necessitated separation of the players. Indeed, Hammill was sent the instrumental demos of the two acts in essentially completed form, challenging him to find just the right moments and methods to intertwine his notoriously commanding vocals into.
The lyrics, as the foreboding title In Disequilibrium readily implies, do indeed deal with the pandemic. Indeed, they’re largely composed of the very first words that came to Hammill’s mind as our worldwide catastrophe began to come into full view. As ever, it’s nigh impossible to get a bead on anything resembling a comfort zone for the singer. Heralded in at least some small, devoted circles for his often knotty lyricism and endless curiosity (he just released a collection of his favorite Italian songs, personally translated to English, earlier this year), he often eschews that complexity entirely here in favor of something more direct, even primal. To say the least, there’s power to his words when he simply howls, “Leave me alone!” amidst extended musical rants. On the other end of the spectrum, there are moments that strike with their emotional, stark simplicity.
The album itself also saw creativity necessitated by quarantine: musicians contributed their respective parts from Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Sweden, the UK, and the U.S., with even King Crimson drummer Pat Mastelotto getting in on the surreal cacophony (for the album’s second half). To achieve their massive, grim vision, the parties involved pulled out just about every play in the book, complete with orchestral movements, gnarled, sinister guitar, disquieting, yet gorgeous, woodwinds – you name it, it’s present on this balls-to-the wall prog descent into unknowable fear.
During “In Disequilibrium, parts 1-3” both the music and Hammill’s words alike delve into our collective sense of terror at the state of things, spiraling at the sudden loss of freedom and mobility, alongside the inevitable fear of the suddenly all too uncertain future. Hammill seems to say that to be human is to be uncertain, but this latest salvo has left him, and all of us, in a nearly unmanageable state, one in which a return to anything resembling normalcy is entirely unknowable. The music of In Disequilibrium exists squarely within this very terror, tearing the listener asunder with its striking insistence and immediacy. Even moments of ecstasy (such as the all too brief appearance of twinkling percussion in “Part 3”) are tempered by Hammill’s all-consuming, depressive performance. It crashes with anguish and pulls us right into the vortex along with it.
“Gently (step by step), parts 1-4” is a greatly different affair, with Mastelotto’s often triumphant drumming entering the picture, and Hammill’s words shifting beyond the immediate moment, hoping for a future in which we’ll find, “a place [we] can always stay.” As the music mellows out into a serene, beautiful backdrop, he softly declares, “Take it easy.” At the same time, however, he’s singing of going gently into that good night, a tunnel of light.
It seems, given the state of things, that death may well be the only true release. Suffice to say, a sense of dread still creeps into the music – even as the instrumentation seeks to lay us in a comforting bed, Hammill stands prepared to yank us into the darkness below. Only towards the album’s very end does he verge into something resembling true optimism, yet (at least to this writer’s ears) an air of cynical, saddened, weathered sarcasm is detectable. Indeed, even as his words of hope, and the gentle music, fade out, the last sound heard on In Disequilibrium is an ominous thud. There is perhaps little genuine hope to be found here – but there is certainly, undeniably, a release.