Classic Rock Review

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Van Der Graaf Generator World Record (1976)


Apparently, Hammill got a little bored of re-writing the same record over and over, so World Record is a wee bit different from the previous two. No, the main ingredients are still there: a small bunch of lengthy tunes with loads of apocalyptic and deeply personal lyrics, drenched in organs and saxes. But something has changed, too; namely, Pete and company seem to have suddenly remembered that lyrics aren’t the only thing to be cared about. Thus, the instrumentation is a little bit more diverse throughout, and one major change is that there’s quite a lot of electric guitar throughout, mainly played by Hammill himself. Therefore, if you think that rock music has no right to exist if it ain’t featuring a plugged-in six-string, World Record might as well be your first (and last) VDGG record.

The instrumental sections are also getting much longer – the band takes the time to jam (and ham and spam) a lot on the record, and the ensuing effect is mostly good, considering that most of the jamming is built around real musical themes, not just atonal noodling or anything like that. Taken together with the fact that World Record has the biggest share of memorable vocal melodies on any of the second period VDGG records, it’s easy to see why I have granted the record such a high rating.

That said, I certainly do not think that the album is flawless or anything: all the usual defects are firmly in place, the main of which is a frustrating lack of diversity: the melodies are different, sure enough, but the instrumentation is all the same throughout, and well, what do you want? It’s still nothing but a sequel to the endless “Mr Hammill Complains” saga.

Still, it would certainly deserve a rating upgrade even if it only contained ‘Place To Survive’. The song’s jazzy groove works dang near-perfect; Jackson’s saxes churn out powerful riffs, stern, solemn and ice-cold, yet this is by no means a “goth” tune, despite Hammill’s overemoted nazi-style vocals (if you consult the lyrics, you’ll see that it is in fact an optimistic song – the same “everything-sucks-but-there’s-an-exit-if-you-look-for-it” message that can be so often found on some of Hammill’s previous creations). I mean, it’s just so darn catchy and well-constructed. What the heck.

‘When She Comes’ is also a jolly good number; I can easily overlook the dissonant beginning, because later on it develops into yet another powerful jazz-rock jam with a fast and invigorating tempo. In fact, the only song on the first side I don’t particularly care for is ‘Masks’, and even that one at least boosts a solemn, romantic atmosphere despite the lack of a truly memorable melody (but doesn’t Hammill sound funny when he’s murmuring out the ‘m-m-m-masochistic m-m-m-mumble’ lines?)

The second side is kinda controversial. Most of it is occupied with the endless, overwhelming jam ‘Meurglys III (The Songwriter’s Guild)’, about which I naturally have mixed feelings. On one hand, twenty minutes is way too much for a VDGG song; on the other hand, it does have a lot of cool musical and lyrical ideas. How can you stay away from a song that begins with the words ‘these days I mainly just talk to plants and dogs – all human contact seems painful, risky, odd’? And all the parts of the song seem to uphold this thesis: it’s lengthy, noodling, depressing, minor, melancholic…

This is also where Pete steps in on the electric, playing amateurish, unprofessional, simplistic solos that are nevertheless quite powerful in all their repetitiveness and triviality. The biggest surprise comes at the thirteenth minute, though, when the band suddenly switches gears and begins playing… in a reggae tempo. Which shows that the band wasn’t nearly as closed to outside influences as one might have supposed. Of course, we’ll disregard the fact that World Record came out just as the punk movement was starting to gain force, and nothing could be further from punk than this overblown, super-complex album, but that’s another story.

The most pompous bit is, as usual, left for the end – ‘Wondering’ is a really good song, with the bombastic closing section being, again, very well-constructed and smoothly running; I don’t feel very easy about it, because there’s too much resemblance to an Olympic Games opening theme, but I can’t deny the melodicity and the power anyway.

Again, the record requires a solid number of listens to be truly appreciated, and it can’t be appreciated to the max unless you’re always ready to identify with Mr Hammill and his troubles. But what really strikes me about it is that all the songs are actually fairly normal. The motto of the day isn’t “freak out unlimited”; there’s only a little bit of dissonance throughout, and I feel that all the instrumental parts have been carefully thought over; i.e., Hammill is not the only significant presence on the record this time. Good sax riffs. Moody, “robotic” organ passages. Melancholic, slightly angry electric guitar. Relatively catchy melodies. Complex, yet existent song structures.

What else do you need? World Record is a very mature album, with a message that’s hardly common to me but which I can understand and I can respect. If anything, I’m just being a bit too objective and self-detached here; I don’t love this album (which means, in this particular case, that I don’t feel the urgent desire to put it on one more time after uploading this review), but I respect it very much and can easily see why some fans consider it to be VDGG’s greatest achievement (no kidding – even if the voting board on VDGG’s official site put it rather low. Number one on there was Pawn Hearts, of course. Blah.)

February 22, 2013 Posted by | Van Der Graaf Generator World Record | | Leave a comment