Recently, Loznik presented a review of Curved Air, a woefully underappreciated band in the second tier of English progressive rock. These are the bands who made music as (and sometimes more) inventive, interesting, and grandiose as their more notorious comrades (the ELPs and Yesses of the world) while toiling in relative obscurity. These bands include Gentle Giant (to a degree), Nektar (actually a German group, but in this same territory), some of the better Canterbury school bands like National Health and Camel, and Van der Graaf Generator.
Van der Graaf Generator (VdGG)is an odd rock group – let’s put it on the line right away. First, their instrumentation is anything but normal – at their beginning they embraced a relatively normal voice-organ-sax-bass-drums with Robert Fripp (of King Crimson fame) supplying electric guitar in the studio. By H To He, the bassist (Nic Potter) had left the group (although he appears on a few tracks) and the quartet that is VdGG’s “classic” formation was established.
A note on the players: Guy Evans is the drummer, and is heralded by many as a virtuoso second only to Carl Palmer and Bill Bruford. I think he’s on their level. David Jackson supplies alternatively strident and squealing woodwinds, both in a solo and rhythm capacity. Hugh Banton is the organist, and what a powerful organ it is – customized to the hilt by Banton (an electronics genius, if rumor is to be trusted), it spits out huge washes of doomy power and trumpet-like blasts of apocalyptic fanfare. The final member is the enigmatic Peter Hammill, a legend in progressive rock for a) THE most over-the-top vocal delivery in rock, complete with screams, whoops, etc., and b) some of the weirdest lyrics ever (“you are the man whose hands are rank with the SMELL OF DEATH!” is my favorite on this album).
Surprisingly, with all this eclecticism, VdGG is a very approachable band who writes catchy tunes (albeit six or seven of them per song) and sounds remarkably at times like the Doors.
H To He Who Am The Only One (the title refers to the chemical reaction that creates the majority of energy in the universe – I assume this was Hammill’s idea) is the group’s third album, after the psychadelic colored Aerosol Grey Machine (released 1969) and the more melodic and pleasant The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other
(early 1970). The elements were in place to create a great progressive album, and do it they did. This record ranks in my personal top ten albums in progressive rock history along with their next album ( Pawn Hearts) and should be eagerly accepted by fans of melodic progressive, organ-based, depressing, or otherwise weird music.
So, you’ve got five pieces of music here, the shortest at five minutes, the longest at a hair over thirteen, all of them tremendous. “Killer” starts off, with a bass/organ/sax riff that you know you’ve heard before but can’t place. Hammill enters, full of blustering doom, telling the heartwarming story of a homicidal maniac (namely a fish) whose mother dies during birth and who can’t find anyone to love because he tends to kill anything that comes close. About halfway through it kicks into high gear with the introduction of a new, faster organ riff, and a killer disjointed sax solo over the melee. If VdGG had ever broken out in the States, it would have been on the strength of this song – it easily could’ve been their “21st Century Schizoid Man”.
“House With No Door” is the opposite – a gentle, piano-based ballad more akin to Hammill’s later solo output than the usual VdGG fare, but very good nonetheless. Here we see the other side of Hammill’s voice – gentle and capable of a stirring, beautiful falsetto that comes to the fore during the choruses. Lyrics dealing with alienation and lonliness, coupled with the sparse musical landscape (the exemplary production was handled by John Anthony) lead to a truly touching piece of music.
“The Emperor and his War-Room,” the first really extended track at about nine minutes, deals with (what else?) war and power, and (surprise) the corrupting aspects thereof. This one usually is singled out for praise – Hammill’s lyrics are especially tasty here, and the Evans/Fripp duet that begins the second part showcases the former’s considerable percussive talents. Still, for me, it’s the weakest track on the album (although considering the company it keeps that’s no slight).
The second side of the record features two expansive tracks that are much more exploratory and “difficult” than the first side. “Lost”, marked with swirling keyboards and saxophones over an alternately driving and plodding beat, is a real Hammill showcase – his yearning lyrics telling the story of the search for lost love are the real focus here. The climax of the piece, with crashing chords under Hammill’s plaintive cry of redemption is very satisfying.
The final track gives some insight into the genesis of the songs on Pawn Hearts. “The Pioneers Over c,” thematically similar to “Space Oddity” and 2001 and all the other stories of space travel prevalent at the time, is a truly linear song – many themes are introduced with different, catchy melodies, but only some are recapitulated as the piece continues, and often new melodic ideas crop up as well. This gives the listener the sense of being on a journey, or that the song is telling a story. I would compare it in this way to songs like “The Gates Of Delirium” by Yes and “Supper’s Ready” by Genesis (indeed, “A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers” off Pawn Hearts is very reminscent of the Genesis epic, which came out the following year – unsurprising that these two closely linked bands were labelmates and toured together in the early Gabriel-era years). Highlights include the periodic organ fanfares courtesy of Mr Banton’s wonderful noisemaker, Hammill’s always exciting vocal shifts, and the minimalist woodwind instrumental section toward the end of the piece.
I heartily recommend this album to progressive rock fans. It’s high time that Van der Graaf Generator gets the first-tier respect they deserve for their short, but artistically successful career. If you’ve never heard any VdGG/Hammill, I would say this is the place to start.
They picked it up. And, in all sincerity, they really picked it up – without a doubt, H To He (the title refers to the fusion of hydrogen from helium, so there’s nothing particularly flabbergasting about it) is the best prog album of 1970, which is saying something, because the competition was quite strong. However, where their main competitors were still learning (Genesis with Trespass, Yes with Time And A Word), or indulging in ultra-complex affairs that threatened to have too much ideological content and too few musical substance (Jethro Tull’s Benefit, King Crimson’s Lizard), VDGG suddenly made a definite breakthrough and demonstrated all the ample possibilities of the genre in one go. This is “glam-prog theatre” at its most elaborate and immaculate, and I really have a hard time trying to come up with any specific complaints about this record – apart from certain overlong sections and a couple instrumental and vocal melodies that come off a wee bit more thin than the others, this is a prime progressive album.
For starters, I’d be hard pressed to come up with a better multi-part progressive anthem than ‘Killer’. Maybe I’m not too imaginative – the song is indeed considered by many to be the band’s peak and is the critics’ favourite, and maybe it’s the only possible VDGG song you’ll ever hear played on the radio. But hey, what can I do? It’s not too often that you hear a band like VDGG come up with a brilliant riff like that, and set it to such positively frightening lyrics sung in such a positively frightening voice: ‘So you live in the bottom of the sea, and you kill all that come NEAR YOU-OOO-WHOO-OOO… but you are very lonely, because all the other fish FEAR YOU-OOO-WHOO-OOO…” Not only that – the intro and the opening verses might be the most epic and memorable moment on the album, but the mid-section, with the ‘death in the sea death in the sea’ chantings, is also prime stuff. Wow dude, what a song. I find myself coming back to it all the time, again and again; VDGG might have easily earned themselves a place on this site if they’d never done anything else. This is where it all comes together, and where ‘White Hammer’ was the nadir, almost a self-parody, ‘Killer’ is the zenith, symbolizing the band in full flight and Peter Hammill as a completely idiosyncratic, self-assured writer making a brilliant artistic statement. With ‘Killer’, the band finally proves that there was a reason of its existing in the first place.
And to top it off, ‘Killer’ is immediately followed by what I consider VDGG’s best ballad ever – the operatic, yet strangely sincere and moving ‘House With No Door’. It’s a little Bowie-like, which isn’t a compliment – I don’t usually like Bowie doing that stuff; but since the melody is a bit better than, say, Bowie’s ‘Time’, and Hammill’s singing is far more elaborate than David’s (no offense, Bowie fans – Hammill has got a voice quite worthy of an opera singer), I can forgive the theatricality. The song’s structure is immaculate, too: a sad, melancholic verse, a rousing chorus, a gentle flute solo, and a good buildup throughout – when Hammill screams out the last chorus in desperation, it’s as if you could already predict that. For me, it’s kinda comforting.
The next two tracks, dominated by guest star Robert Fripp’s guitar playing, are a bit of a letdown, but not a serious one – they are just overshadowed by the previous two masterpieces. It’s absolutely clear that for this album the band had really spent a lot of time carefully working out the song structures and thinking about setting Hammill’s lyrical imagery to some real music instead of sonic drones. So ‘The Emperor In His War-Room’ makes heavy use of the flutes; the entire first part is set to a steady, clever flute rhythm, and wisely alternates from super-slow and gentle to martial rhythms to anthemic heights. Unfortunately, Hammill does go overboard with the lyrics, but I hardly pay attention to these, preferring to concentrate on the cool melodies. Then it all dies down, and the drums kick in the second, faster part, where Fripp finally comes in and gives us some much needed guitarwork. Wow.
‘Lost’ comes next – again, Peter is the main star, this time mainly pulling out the song based on the strength of his singing. The melody is far too convoluted and twisted, with time signatures flashing like cards in a dealer’s hand and never giving you much time to enjoy them all; but whenever that gorgeous voice comes in and chants ‘I know I’ll never dance like I used to’, there’s some lump coming up my throat that almost makes me cry. Or when he intones in that super-duper pleading intonation: ‘…somehow I don’t think you see my love at all…’ This is not just rock theater; this is something far above. I still haven’t found the term for it, but for now, I’ll just say that Hammill’s vocal performance on ‘Lost’ gotta rank as one of the most magnificent uses of human voice (at least, from a technical sense) on a rock record. And, quite unlike the previous track, it’s just a… hell, it’s just a love song. It’s only a love song, get it? It’s not pretentious. It’s just a little suite that Peter probably cooked up to be sung as a serenade under someone’s window. Why don’t you try singing it to your girlfriend? (Hmm. On the other hand, I can imagine her reaction when you say ‘oh, it’s just a Van Der Graaf Generator song’).
And how do we finish this minor masterpiece? Why, with ‘Pioneers Over C’. Which is everything ‘After The Flood’ wanted to be, but failed. On here, Hammill tackles the traditional art-rock thematics of space travel – but it’s not the lyrics this time, it’s the atmosphere and the musical stuffing that makes the track so thoroughly unforgettable. Especially that cute little bass/sax riff in the middle of each verse to which Hammill tries singing in unison. And all the sections are just so dang cleverly constructed – I tip my hat to the masters. Fast, slow, moody and relaxed, energetic and fast-paced, and never getting boring.
I’m still a bit puzzled as to how the hell could this group come up with such a consistently great record, especially considering that it’s sandwiched by two considerably more weak efforts. Where did these killer riffs (actually, ‘Killer’ riffs, heh heh) come from? How come they didn’t do any more shattering ballads of similar quality? Where did that grandstanding operatic voice disappear afterwards? How come? Whatever; the band was definitely on a roll and it shows; the record’s currently one of my Top 10 Prog albums of all time, and I heavily recommend it to all progressive lovers out there. And kudos to producer John Anthony who didn’t bury Hammill’s voice too deep this time around.