Review If you exclude “The Aerosol Grey Machine”, which was really a Peter Hammill solo album released under the VDGG name for contractual reasons, then “The Least We Can Do….” was the band’s first album release.
I would say that it’s one of my favourite VDGG albums because it is one of the most accessible ones; there is discernable melody here and plenty of it too. That is always important to me, more so than lyrics (but there may be many VDGG/Peter Hammill fans who fixate on his lyric writing as one of their favourite aspects) and this is one of VDGG’d most melodious albums. Tracks (not sure I can call them songs) such as the opener “Darkness (11/11)”, “Refugees” and “After the Flood” are good examples, with the music on “Refugees” being quite beautiful at times.
The songs are complex, long and not in a usual rock format or beat at all but another feature of this album that I find enjoyable is the wonderful rhythm that Nic Potter (bass) and Guy Evans (drums) can set up – quite jazzy in a modernistic sort of way (not in an Ella Fitzgerald way at all!). Hugh Banton on keyboards and David Jackson on saxes and flute add wonderful aural textures and energy, as well as melody. These four create a wonderful musical soundscape for Peter Hammill to deliver his “sung” lyrics – well, if you’ve ever heard peter Hammill “sing” then you will understand that his is a delivery that will not suit everyone. It suits this music and I like it.
I used to have the version of the CD released before the millenium and the sound on that was pretty poor but I’m pleased to say that it is of excellent qaulity on this remastered CD – so well worth getting again for any of you fans with the old copy.
So – melody, drive, invention, energy, wonderful musical soundscapes and a vocalist that demands your attention – this is one of the great VDGG albums from a career that has delivered a strong set of albums – including the recent “Present”, released after an interval of some 25 years from what many thought would be their last, “The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome”. And there is another studio album in the offing for 2008!! Great – can’t wait!
Review Charisma Records was the love-child of the late sports writer, racehorse owner and all-round bon viveur, Tony Stratton-Smith and this band. Once introduced, he took on their management, resolved previous and unhappy contractual issues – and when they couldn’t get a label deal, started his own.
Whilst he nurtured the careers of an eclectic and talented roster of acts (many of whom went a long way to pay for the lifestyle – step forward Genesis), Van Der Graaf Generator were always ‘the ones’ for Strat.
Progressive rock was the new kid on the block, but whilst there was no shortage of labels and acts loaded onto its bandwagon, few were actually ‘progressing’ for long. VdGG were amongst few that were truly progressive in that they innovated, and by so doing, paved the way.
This is the first release in an exhumation of the VdGG catalogue. EMI has formed an ace team for the reissue programme of the Harvest and Charisma catalogues and this album bears their hallmark.
Issued to critical acclaim in 1970, The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other – 35 years later – delivers the goods again in an informative and entertaining package, re-mastered with extra tracks, and original artwork enhanced with intelligent and informed booklet notes, previously unpublished publicity photography and period memorabilia.
One incarnation of the band had supported main man Peter Hammill on his debut solo Aerosol Grey Machine in 1969 (later credited to VdGG).
But it was the line-up of song-writer Peter Hammill (guitar/vocals), drummer Guy Evans, classically-trained church organist, Hugh Banton, jazz-fusion horn player David Jackson, and bassist Nic Potter that formed the nucleus of this creative, wayward act.
In his original sleeve notes, Hammill warned: “Don’t listen when you’re bustling, because it won’t get inside your head. Don’t listen when you’re angry because you’ll smash something. Don’t listen when you’re depressed, because you’ll get more so. Don’t listen with any preoccupations, because you’ll blow it. ”
Melancholy, melody and mayhem co-function successfully in this imaginative and assured set.
Strikingly original then and a dramatic turn still today, it intersperses observational songs (Refugees, Out Of My Book) with epic statement (After the Flood, Darkness (11/11)) in a organ and sax-fuelled melee, powered by the hyperactive Evans, and preceded by the free-ranging Hammill vocal: British, educated, reasonable until prompted by some unseen force to unreason bordering on hysterical.
This release is bolstered with two extra tracks in the beautiful, orchestrated single version of ‘Refugees’ and its B-side, the atmospheric ‘Boat of Millions Of Years’.
The former is sweet, melancholic, lavish, naive – and a counterpoint to moments elsewhere in the proceedings that signpost the next horizon to be swept across by this band’s restless, raging force.
At the time of writing, VdGG have reformed, recorded a new album and are playing sell-out dates at major venues. Begin at the beginning, and find out how this came to be …
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.