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Van Der Graaf Generator The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome (1977)


Aaaaaarrrggh! Bands don’t get more inconsistent than this. Just when you thought Hammill had finally managed to balance the weirdness of his lyrics with the weirdness of his music, making the former more comprehensible and meaningful and the latter more groovy and memorable, the hammer of the gods strike again. Maybe Peter thought that with World Record he started getting more commercial or something; whatever the circumstances, in between 1976 and 1977 the band went through a number of radical transformations. Banton quit, and old pal Nic Potter returned on bass; and one more member was added to the lineup in Graham Smith, whose violin is supposed to form some kind of ‘sonic opposition’ to Jackson’s saxophone. With all this, it was decided to change the band’s name, and it was shortened to Van der Graaf, with the ‘generator’ left off for good.

So far so good. This lineup’s one and only studio record was again ‘conceptual’ in character, and even if it was just one LP, it actually came out as if it were two separate albums, The Quiet Zone on one side and The Pleasure Dome on the other. It even featured two separate album covers – two “front sleeves” instead of a front one and a back one. I actually prefer the back one, but that’s not the problem with the album. The songs are also significantly shorter: so short, in fact, that it becomes possible to fit in four of them on each side (plus a mini-reprise of ‘Sphinx In The Face’ at the end). So, with all the lineup changes, the band name change, the new concept principle, and the shortened tracks, where do we head off?

In Pawn Hearts direction again, that’s where. I can’t stand this record and, like with Pawn Hearts, I only give it a six out of respect for the guy and some interesting bits and pieces that crop up occasionally. First of all, the lyrics are whacko once again – yeah, sure, it was pretty hard for Peter to keep contained, and apparently, after dropping ‘generator’, he felt free to leave the limited imagery circle of Godbluff, Still Life, and World Record and started once more revelling in an endless sea of useless graphomany.

At times I can still see the misanthropic, ‘claustrophobic’ imagery, but most of the time, he just rambles about nothing. Is this poetry? Could be, but I sense no magic in these words; Hammill can be a really clever guy when he wants to, but he’s not a crafted word-wielder like Dylan, and when he begins spouting nonsense, it only makes me puke. That said, it’s not exactly random nonsense, like the one found in ‘Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers’; nearly each of these songs seems to be telling a story, but goddammit if I can figure out the idea in any of them.

And the music? Broken and rambling. Over the last three records, we all had a fair chance to witness Hammill and company in action, as they slowly progressed in their jazzy sound, learning how to build up interesting, involving grooves, based on competent riffage and smooth, well-flowing vocal harmonies. Their songs even offended the diehard proghead so as to feature memorable melodies – something you could actually hum to yourself when the record was over. Well, thanks to the Great God of All Things Progressive, that obstacle has been safely overcome, and neither in the quiet zone nor within the pleasure dome you won’t find even a single memorable melody. The level of dissonance is dangerously high, the riffs make way for psychedelic violin solos and broken up, wimpy sax passages, and what’s even more disgusting, the guitar is out of question again (and this, after the wonderful solos on World Record).

It’s really hard for me to discuss the individual tunes, since I’m used to discussing what kind of melody and what kind of instrumentation produce what kind of emotional resonance within me – but since there are no discernible melodies, the instrumentation is bland and uniform, and the emotional resonance is universally at a zero level, I’m kinda stuck. Okay, I’m gonna make a try: ‘Lizard Play’ is pretty tolerable, due to a particularly angry, sardonic delivery from Peter, and, well, it’s the first tune on the album, after all: I admit that their sound here is rather unique, so it’s interesting to hear what they do with it for the first four minutes. But ‘The Habit Of The Broken Heart’ dissipates into rambling dust one minute after it starts, and after that it’s just disaster after disaster. The chorus harmonies in ‘The Sphinx In The Face’ (and its reprise, ‘The Sphinx Returns’) are an interesting, atmospheric idea, and ‘Chemical World’ is pretty energetic too (no it’s not eco-rock – do you think a guy as smart as Hammill would ever resort to eco-rock?). That’s about it.

For some reason, though, the record seems to be favoured by the fans and critics alike – even the All-Music Guide favoured it. Well, forget all the above – I’m probably a dumbhead who doesn’t recognize good avantgarde when he sees it. But hey, I’d say that if you wanna try out a weird record, why not concentrate on Trout Mask Replica instead? Captain Beefheart could really show this guy a trick or two (well, he probably did).

April 9, 2013 Posted by | Van Der Graaf Generator The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome | | Leave a comment