(All Album Reviews by jargonking)
Fools Mate is the first solo album by Peter Hammill and was released in 1971 during the Pawn Hearts incarnation of Van der Graaf Generator. Indeed, all the members(and some ex-members)of the group are present on this album.
The music here ranges from bright, breezy, occasionally zany songs (“Imperial Zeppelin”, “Happy”, “Sunshine”, “Re-Awakening”) to more typically downbeat introspectiveness, a sort of quieter version of VdGG (“Candle”, “Child”, “Summer Song”, “The Birds”).
A stand out track is “Vision”, an early stab at PH's career long quest for the perfect love song. The album closes with “I Once Wrote Some Poems”, a sparse, acoustic piece whose quiet whispered opening belies it's true nature with PH spitting venom, a sort of VdGG-unplugged, and a pointer to some of his later work.
Many of the songs are coloured by the unmistakable guitar of Robert Fripp, a favour which was returned by Hammill years later when he guested on Fripp's Exposure. The cover features another surreal collage by Paul Whitehead, also noted for his work with VdGG and Genesis.
In conclusion, an excellent album and a gentle introduction to the Hammill catalogue.
Peter Hammill is well known in prog circles for his dramatic, anguished vocals and doom-laden vision as the front man for Van Der Graaf Generator. Fewer proggers are very familiar with his extremely extensive solo recording career, which continues to this day. At the crossroads of his Van Der Graaf Generator and solo careers is his first solo album, Fools Mate. This album is a logical point for Van Der Graaf fans to start investigating Hammill’s solo output since it includes performances by all of that band’s members. Also of interest are several appearances by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp on guitar.
Despite this, those expecting a ‘lost’ Van Der Graaf album may be disappointed at first listen to Fools Mate. Even at this early date (1971), Hammill was apparently already seeking to explore shorter, more conventional song oriented forms. Some effort, however, will reward the listener with some of those qualities that made Van Der Graaf so endearing – as well as some new treats.
The album opens with the instantly likable “Imperial Zeppelin.” Of all the songs on the album, this one most strongly evokes memories of Van Der Graaf Generator. Grinding Hammond organ and David Jackson’s inimitable saxophone honks contribute to an unusually peppy Van Der Graaf Generator vibe. Don’t let the beginning of the song fool you, however, as Hammill proposes spreading love and peace from a Zeppelin “flying high across the sky.” This goofy utopian vision seems like it came from a misplaced Gong track at first, but eventually gives way to Hammill’s admission that it wouldn’t do any good.
“Solitude” is an amazing display of Hammill’s chillingly effective descriptions of feelings of loneliness and cosmic insignificance. Twelve-string acoustic guitar, harmonica and some freaky studio effects like backwards sounds and phasing combine to paint a picture of Hammill as a psychedelic cowboy sitting by the campfire in the dessert. One might almost picture him there underneath a sky where “mortals hang on metal, but who’s to know how long either will last.” Six songs later, Hammill brilliantly weaves some of the same threads into the cloth of “Viking” to continue a similar theme. The same harmonica and acoustic guitar reappear to color the optimistic narrative of Vikings returning home from an even older western frontier.
Hammill covers a good bit of stylistic ground on this album, from intimate acoustic numbers to an organ, piano and flute track that sounds like it could have come from an early Le Orme or PFM album. It never gets too varied that it feels disjointed, however. Fools Mate carries all the marks of a well-crafted solo album from one of progressive rock’s most distinctive singers.