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coverpic flag England - Full Moon 42 - 03/20/00

Peter Hammill and Judge Smith
The Fall Of The House Of Usher
Fie! (re-release)

This is a work of its own kind, based on the famous short story by Edgar Allen Poe. It's a sort of opera, not in the classical sense, neither a rock opera nor a musical in the Rice and Lloyd Webber tradition. The album isn't easy to categorise. That's maybe a reason why Usher sank without many traces after Some Bizzare originally had released the album in 1991. Now Peter Hammill has recovered his old recordings, digitalised, partly re-recorded and re-mixed them and released the new version of the album on his own label.

Judge Smith started to write the libretto/lyrics in 1966 when he was still at school. He and Peter Hammill picked up the work in 1973. It was rewritten, composed, changed and adapted at intervals throughout the 70s and 80s and finally recorded in 1989 and 1990. Hammill played all the instruments and sang the parts of Roderick Usher and the voices of the House itself (a vital part!). Gothic new wave vocalist Lene Lovich, popster Andy Bell of Erasure, Sarah-Jane Morris who had a hit or two in the early 90s and the successful German AOR-artist Herbert Grönemeyer sang the other parts.

Originally the opera was intended as a stage performance with an orchestra including strings and brass, but it was unfortunately cancelled. Most of the arrangements of the original release were intended for those kinds of instruments. Because of lack of money, Hammill had to use keyboards and sequencers for his recordings instead. The new version of the album is based on the original recordings. The vocals are the same except some by Hammill. During 1998 and 1999 he re-recorded most of the instruments. The sequencer-based drums and percussion have been removed altogether. The keyboards don't sound like a poor man's version of a symphony orchestra anymore; lots of guitars and some violins (real strings!) have been added. This means that the new album doesn't sound like a demo recording for a stage performance. Now it's an album in its own right.

When I first heard Usher way back in the early 90s, I didn't like it at all except The Sleeper - about the only conventional song of the album - and a few other short bits. It was a hard album to get into for a non-opera listener like me. Both versions include passages where the artists sing different words simultaneously to each other, long dialogues and monologues. I had to listen to the entire album (75 minutes plus) without interruption and read the lyrics at the same time over and over before the music and lyrics started to creep under my skin. A very rewarding process it was. In retrospect Usher easily fits into my Top 5 album list of the 90s. The vocal efforts are excellent. I'd never been impressed by Andy Bell's or Herbert Grönemeyer's capabilities, until Usher. There are some traces of Peter Hammill's music of the early 70s here, when he probably was at his creative peak, and some traces of his late 80s music when he recorded my least favourite album of his, In A Foreign Town. First and foremost Usher is a work beyond time. The new version even more so. There are parts with various guitars creating a kind of guitar orchestra sound, very appropriate with the overall haunting feel of the story. Judge Smith and Peter Hammill seem very pleased with the improvements themselves. As Hammill says: "The result is a presentation of Usher which is at the same time much more lush and ordered and much darker, denser and forbidding. This is, after all, a Gothic story!" How true! Highly recommended for those with an open mind that want to try something (completely) different. But you ought to start by reading the original Poe story.

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