Classic Rock Review

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Van Der Graaf Generator The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other (1970)


I have a very, very tough time trying to like this one, or even to come up with some positive ideas about it. Okay, let’s try this: how about a brief and concise summary of a telegraphic character? An album with six lengthy drones, hardly any interesting melodies in sight, no memorable guitar or organ lines, lots of pretense and fake mysticism, atrocious production (they really got let down on this one – Hammill’s vocals are even hardly noticeable at all most of the time), and a deadly serious atmosphere with not even an inch of relaxation. Aaahhh…

Okay, so there is a dim of light even in the darkest corners. I’m referring mainly to the two gentle ballads on here; somehow Mr Hammill comes off as more sincere and emotional when he tries to be tender and caressing than when he’s impersonating an old Biblical prophet or an angry cabbalist. ‘Out Of My Book’, with its pretty medieval flutes and gentle acoustic rhythms fluttering around Peter’s pretty love lyrics, is oddly beautiful, even if the main melody is not too memorable. Dylan would probably have treated this material more subtly, rendering it even more personal and intimate; for the lack of Dylan, here’s Hammill to you. But an even better treatment is ‘Refugees’, one of VDGG’s stage favorites – the last time in a long, long, long while that Hammill would actually be tackling subjects remotely attached to the problems of real life instead of indulging in fantasies. (Not that indulging in fantasies is condemnable, mind you – but too many fantasies do make you lose control, now don’t they?). It’s a sad, gorgeous tale of people separated from their homeland and lamenting the fact even if their current life conditions are rather improved; I have no idea if the ‘West is Mike and Suzie, West is where I love’ line actually refers to real people and means something to Peter, but it might as well have, and if there is one VDGG song to bring a person to tears, it’s this one.

But then there’s the problem of the ‘heavier’ stuff. And oh man, is it boring. Boring, dull, and bleak without a point. One possible half-exception is the album closing number, ‘After The Flood’: with its apocalyptic imagery and a nice psychologic buildup throughout, it comes close to being endurable. I’d even exceed certain limits and go as far as to say that its chorus, umm, err, is catchy – ‘and when the water falls again, all is dead and nobody lives’, I find myself repeating these lines all the time. But even so, it’s marred by idiotic gimmicks – the chaotic jam in the middle is pedestrian and primitive, and sounds like a half-assed rip-off of similar King Crimson jams; the electronic encoding of Hammill screaming ‘ANNIHILATION’ is a banal cheap trick that probably sounded dated way back in 1970; and for no specific reason, Hugh Banton steals Hendrix’s ‘Love Or Confusion’ riff for the organ in the coda.

And that’s it. The three other drones I could easily live without. ‘Darkness’ seems to be a fan favourite, but I still can’t see what’s so special about that one – it sounds like an inferior rewrite of something like ‘Octopus’ with far poorer production and far less interesting things to offer us second time around. The vocal melody clearly centers around the lyrics, not containing even a single eyebrow-raising hook, and the organ/sax interplay is blurry, smudged, and essentially atmospheric – the melodic lines aren’t even complex, they’re just… they’re just there. Other bands like the already mentioned King Crimson, or even Genesis, were far better at capturing this somber autumnal mood, anyway, and they actually relied on chords, not just vague atmospherics. Meanwhile, ‘White Hammer’ is just everything bad about VDGG poured in one place: abysmal lyrics (so they’re based on historical facts – as if I cared, gimme ‘Return Of The Giant Hogweed’ over this any time of day), complete lack of melody (I’m no musician, but I could certainly write something like that in half an hour) and an eight-minute running time; when you’re suddenly ground into the ground with the furious thunderstorm coda, it’s way, way too late, since nothing can really pull me out of the induced slumber. Yeah, the coda is good, even if it is also heavily influenced by King Crimson; but that doesn’t save the song. What would have saved it would be a memorable riff or an unexpected vocal twist instead of the predictable “now we’re quiet, yet ominous ==> and now we’re loud and scary as hell” development.

Finally, ‘Whatever Would Robert Have Said?’ is just more of the same – hell, Peter, if you bother writing lyrics like “I am the love you try to hide, but which all can understand; I am the hate you still deny, though the blood is on your hands”, you might as well bother setting them to a real melody, not just a random set of chords which could have as well been selected by a computer.

So you get my drift. I mean, something just happened, didn’t it? Somewhere along the way Hammill and Co. just forgot all about the music. They went for the atmosphere and for the pretense, they went for the kill, and they got themselves a duffer. Something tells me Hammill must have been jealous of King Crimson’s debut, and he just had to overcome them in the self-indulgence department. He probably did that in the lyrical sense – Pete Sinfield can go sulk in the corner – but, unfortunately, the music on this album leaves a lot to be desired. Ah well. That’s the usual trapping of prog-rock, after all, so I guess there’s nothing to be terribly surprised about.

February 21, 2013 - Posted by | Van Der Graaf Generator The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other |

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