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 …
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).
Released in 1971, this album is regarded by many fans as the finest material VDGG ever recorded. I certainly share this enthusiasm and Pawn Hearts ranks right up there with my top ten prog albums of all time. Ever. This is difficult listening however, and themes of despair and paranoia abound, which are wonderfully brought to life in all of their twisted glory with Peter Hamill’s anguished lyrics.
The members of the band at this point included the classic VDGG lineup: Hugh Banton (Hammond E&C organs, Farfisa professional organ, piano, mellotron, ARP synthesizer, bass pedals, bass guitar, and vocals); Peter Hammill (lead vocals, acoustic and slide guitar, electric piano, and acoustic piano); superb drummer Guy Evans; and David Jackson (flute, tenor/alto/soprano saxophones). All of the musicians are very good with Guy being an exceptional drummer – just like all of the other remastered VDGG albums, the subtle intricacies of his drumming really come across. The ensemble work is also pretty good too. Before I forget, Robert Fripp (of King Crimson) contributed a tiny bit of electric guitar here and there – it’s barely noticeable though.
Now for my favourite part – the music. The album is comprised of two longer pieces (11’39” and 10’22”) with the massive 23’05 multimovement suite A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers as the centrepiece. The music is, for the most part, harsh and unyielding with only the briefest moments of reprieve. Hugh’s alternately twisted and churchy organ work really drives each piece along, with Dave’s angular and jagged sax work slashing through each piece like so many shards of broken glass. OK, maybe that last bit is a little over the top, but it is not far from the truth. Although the music is very heavy, there are a few quieter and haunting moments. The introduction to Man Erg comes to mind as the best example, although those moments (albeit fleeting moments) are pretty much scattered across the album. Last but not least, is Peter Hammill’s incredible and very distinctive vocal delivery. He had developed a vocal style over the course of three albums that ranged from a heavy metal rasp to a high pitched falsetto “choir boy” vocal style and it is brought to perfection on this album. He also screams/rants during certain frenzied passages on the feverish closing track, A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers. Although some people feel that his vocal style is overly theatrical I have to admit that I absolutely love it – In fact, I am of the opinion that VDGG would not be VDGG without Peter Hammill.
The EMI remastered album is incredible and features restored cover art and band publicity photos/live shots along with an extraordinary improvement in the sound quality. The improvement is so great that it is like listening to a completely different recording – every nuance is brought out and you can even hear subtle synthesizer effects and percussion parts that had previously gone unheard. The liner notes include all of the lyrics along with a ton of informative liner notes. The bonus tracks are also really good too (well, maybe the dinner time jazz of Ponker’s Theme is not so great) and are outtakes from the 1971 Pawn Hearts sessions. I think that of all the bonus tracks, Diminutions is the most interesting because it is so unlike VDGG. It is very spacey and consists simply of long, drawn out passages on synthesizers and organ over a period of six minutes or so – in fact it sounds more like electronic artists such as Tangerine Dream or Klaus Schulze.
Well I have gushed over this incredible album long enough, although I could easily go on for another 20 pages. Suffice it to say that this is VDGG’s finest recorded moment and is very highly recommended along with H to He, He who am the Only One (1970) and Still Life (1976).
One more thing – this was the last album VDGG released before regrouping and releasing Godbluff in 1975.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
Review Summary: Three reasons why Van Der Graaf Generator never quite managed to make the same impact on the general public of the 70’s as Genesis, Pink Floyd and Yes did
2 of 2 thought this review was well written
Reason 1:Van Der Graaf Generator are a band that defines the darker side of progressive rock. Each of the four tracks on the album tells their own tale of tortured minds, ancient battles and dark fantasies. The lyrical work from Peter Hammil is one of the core aspects of the music and embodies each track with a feeling of individuality. Each of the lyrics in turn hold their own literary merit and are reminiscent of looking into the mind of a madman.
Reason 2: The music here is just as dark as it’s subject matter. Herein lies one of the albums biggest strengths: How the music supports Peter Hammil’s vision. If for instance he is singing about a dark twisted world on the edge of our conscious as he does on “The Sleep Walkers”, the music will transport you there. Other examples that can be found are the ending of scorched earth with its wailing and screaming keyboards, as though to signify the death of a warrior in battle, and the melancholic atmospherics of “The Undercover Man” which take you back to the pain of growing up and accepting adulthood.
Reason 3: Godbluff differs from a traditional progressive rock album, in that it is not a concept album and there is little to no use of electric guitar. The band instead opts to make the Saxophone and Keyboards as their main instruments of choice and this manages to succeed in ways that the electric guitar would simply not be able to. In “Arrow” a wailing saxophone plays over an eerie drumbeat and sounds desperate, almost tortured. Because the lyrics involve both of these emotions by the bucket load, it succeeds in supporting the music by magnifying the emotions conveyed.
If there is a track that sums up the album as a whole in one package, so to speak, it would definetly be “The Sleepwalkers” Here everything the band has been trying to achieve works. From the emotion and atmosphere and the lyrics that speak of a dark twisted fantasy world. The same ingredients are used on all the other tracks and the result is a progressive rock classic and the definition of more Avant Garde progressive music done right.
They blew it. They made their major artistic breakthrough with H to He, got greedy, went for the universalist jugular, and absolutely blew it. There are three songs, none of which are even as good as “The Emperor in His War Room.” The production has gone back to suck – it’s not the same suck as on Least, but Peter’s magnificent voice is once more relegated to a supporting role instead of receiving the starring role it deserves. None of the riffs are anywhere as magnificent as those in “Killer” or “Pioneers,” none of the vocal parts are as beautiful as those in “Lost” or “House with no Door,” almost none of the instrumental parts approach the brilliance of those in “Killer” … what a disappointment.
That said, I do not want to give the impression that the album is worthless, because that’s simply not what I think. You see, each of these three tracks has something I like a lot, and to be perfectly honest, on some days I like this album slightly more than I do Least (even if it gets a lower grade here). It’s just that built around these ideas is a whole ton of material that simply irritates the hell out of me. Many repeated listens (I’ve definitely listened to this album more times than I have any other album with a comparable or worse grade) have brought the positive features clearly to the forefront of my mind, and I’ve always liked a few parts of the suite that makes up side two, but certain parts have only gotten worse and worse for me as the number of listens I’ve given this has gone up.
At first, track number one, entitled “Lemmings,” actually gets the album off to a fairly promising start. The “soft” vocal melody that Peter sings is quite cute, and I particularly enjoy it because the little spike up in the middle of each repetition easily brings to mind the image of little lemmings jumping up off a cliff and then tumbling to their dooms. The harder riff, with a vocal melody sung in unison, is also intriguing – I’m bugged by the echo on Peter’s voice, but the riff is very interesting, and Peter really sounds majestic as he sings lines like “We have looked upon the high kings.” Of course, every time he breaks the vocal melody from mirroring the riff, he starts to fall back into declamation instead of a singing mode, but still, it’s tolerable. Unfortunately, while the track works until about 3:20, the remaining eight minutes of the piece make it very difficult for me to stay focused, and don’t forget, I can keep my mind laser focused while listening to Yes’ “The Remembering.” The noodling just keeps going and going, Peter occasionally reprises the beginning vocal melodies but mostly just mirrors the jamming, and basically the sound loses all of its apocalyptic tension by making itself so freakin’ low key and boring (well, except for a fairly brief passage where the band goes into an extremely angry-sounding bit). I mean, I really don’t see how I can keep myself from falling asleep during the last minute of quiet sax/keyboard noodling.
Up next is “Man-Erg,” which starts out as a piano-ballad in the vein of “House with No Door,” but while the atmosphere is quite nice, Peter has trouble here matching the majestic approach of his singing with an equally resonant and memorable vocal melody, and that hurts quite a bit. The sound is nice, but it’s getting mushy again, which I’d hoped they fixed once and for all with H to He. The “I’m just a man …” section, reprised several times, has some strong emotional power, and would have worked well as an actual climax, but it feels rushed to me, without enough buildup to make it work as any kind of real climax. Anyway, the song also features a fairly cool mid-section with some fierce sax/organ jamming, along with some solid Fripp guitar lines. Peter’s singing sounds especially dumb during this part, but while the instrumental parts kinda veer towards the pointlessness that bugged me so on Least, they’re also very fast in parts, so whatever. Of course, Peter comes back and starts singing another soft part, this time using cliches like “acolytes of doom,” and it doesn’t do much to raise my opinion of the track too much. Concluding with the initial melody, along with the mid-section popping up amidst it from time to time, does give the track a nice epic sweep, but when the individual parts don’t impress me that much, it shouldn’t be difficult to guess that I’m not totally thrilled.
And then there’s “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers,” which those who hate the band often use as Exhibit 1 of why they hate it so. Strangely enough, though, I’ve actually come to enjoy several parts of it, though I doubt I’ll ever go sufficiently loony to consider it the peak of VDGG, like many fans do. The general gist of the piece, best as I can tell, is that it’s about a lighthouse keeper going nuts from a combination of loneliness and all of the ghosts, real and imagined, that are are inherent to the mythology of sea travel. He goes batty, jumps into the sea to kill himself and escape the madness, and muses over various philosophical things. Fine, decent concept, whatever. What does matter to me, though, is that there a few parts that I enjoy a great deal, even though I consider the suite as a whole to be a moderate failure. I actually think the opening “Eyewitness” section is incredible, combining decent lyrics with an eerie vocal melody and a gloomy atmosphere that sets the lighthouse backdrop well. Furthermore, the lyrics also do a fine job of establishing the gradual paranoia of the protagonist – I particularly like the line, “When you see the skeletons of sailing-ship spars sinking low You’ll begin to wonder if the points of all the ancient myths are solemnly directed straight at you…” I don’t even mind the occasional dissonant backing harmonies as Peter sings the melody – they do a good job of depicting the various ghosts fluttering around.
So that’s part one. Alas, the next couple of minutes, entitled “Pictures/Lighthouse,” are devoted to a bunch of “atmospheric” blaring sax noises over blaring keyboard noises, followed by some atmospheric organ chords. Enough said. Part three is a reprise of part one melodywise (and thus is also called Eyewitness), and depicts the protagonist reaching the very edge of his sanity. Just as it seems things are starting to get obnoxiously repetitive, we enter section four, “S.H.M.,” where images of sea spectres start assailing the protagonist’s mind. I actually find the lyrics here quite image-laden, despite the nonsense that appears at first glance when one glosses over a line like, “‘Unreal, unreal!’ ghost helmsmen scream and fall in through the sky, not breaking through my seagull shrieks … no breaks until I die: the spectres scratch on window-slits – hollowed faces, mindless grins only intent on destroying what they’ve lost.” Call me nuts, but it’s not difficult at all for me to imagine a nightmare to go with this passage; a bunch of translucent ghosts whirling all around me, screaming seeming nonsense, set upon my destruction solely because they themselves have been destroyed. So anyway, as the lyrics go on, the protagonist is leaning on the wall to support his wilting self, looking out upon the sea and seeing ghosts of ships long gone, crashed upon the rocks. Not bad so far.
Unfortunately, in part five, divided into “The Presence of the Night” and “Kosmos Tours,” the suite starts to come unraveled. The first part works nicely, a quiet reprise of the S.H.M melody with appropriately epilogue-ish lyrics, and the later sorta-jazzy melody that comes up after some noodling is amusing (though the hooks aren’t very sharp), but then the rest of the part goes into a bit of self-parody. Hammill’s screams go with a melody that really strikes me as jerky discord for its own sake, a bit of a vocal freakout for no good reason other than having a bit of a vocal freakout. It ends with the hero jumping out of the lighthouse, presumably into the sea, but while I might have cared for his fate before, the detachment presented immediately before this managed to preemptively undo any resonance I might have had from this. And what’s with that random dissonant keyboard-layers part that pops up after that cold melody has finished? This sucks, Beavis.
The next section, “Custard’s Last Stand,” tries to be one of the band’s cathartic anthemic ballads, but the melody is so flaccid that it doesn’t warm or inspire me at all. Just Pete’s voice with lots of echo and not approaching the grandeur of “House with no Door.” Then we have “The Clot Thickens,” where everything just goes nuts – it’s actually fairly amusing, since it’s insane and twisted and weird beyond recall, but given that it uses an “ANNHILATION”-like trick when Peter sings “..one more haggard DROWNED MAN,” it’s not about to get a total free pass from me. Whatever.
At least the piece ends on a nice note. “Land’s End” and “We Go Now” actually base their majesty around a lovely piano chord sequence instead of seemingly random organ splurts, and despite the amount of crud I’ve just waded through to get here, I actually feel a twinge of catharsis listening to this. Plus, let’s be fair, the majestic guitar parts coming through the layered vocal and keyboard harmonies (as well as all the sputtering radio static, which works well as a symbol of the protagonist slowly slipping out of his life conciousness), had they come with a better overall piece, would be recognized as near the same level (though in a different way, since this is Robert Fripp and not Steve Hackett) of the brilliant instrumental passages at the tail-end of Genesis’ “Supper’s Ready.” Go Robert!
So there you go – a loooooooong review given that this is only gets a 7 from me. It’s just as I said in the band’s introduction – even the songs that are dreadfully flawed overall still have chunks of solid quality, and it takes a lot of effort and explanation to separate those chunks from the overall chaff. In any case, Hammill apparently decided he couldn’t do anything else with the band at that time, so they broke up for a few years. It’s just as well – I shudder to imagine how a 1972 followup would sound.
According to the All-Music Guide, this originally started out as a Hammill solo album (the band broke up before it got into the studio), but the band came back together in the midst of recording, so it became Van Der Graaf Generator’s debut. The best thing about this is that the album is primarily a showcase of Hammill’s talents and less of the others, and since Peter was the most talented of all of them, this can’t really be a bad thing. Some tracks aren’t as well-formed as others, focusing on dark atmosphere far more than on interesting melody twists, but quite a few of them showcase Peter’s strengths in each at the same time.
A couple of the tracks, in fact, are among my favorites that Peter and the band would ever put out. “Running Back” is related to a “normal” song subject, a man’s feelings towards a woman, but it’s done in a dark, stately manner unlike most any other ‘love’ song I’ve ever heard. From the somber bass and acoustic lines the piece is built around, to the moody vocal melody (and incredibly well-formed lyrics for a love song), to the dark shadow of Peter’s singing, to the alternately happy and melancholy flute lines in the mid-song instrumental passage, this piece is a virtually ideal snapshot of everything I like about the band, with basically none of the bad. Similarly, “Aguarian” showcases Peter’s singing and melody-writing abilities extremely well, even as Peter moves into bizarre whacky land with his lyrical imagery. Come on, is there any chance of getting that “Now we look to the sun in every direction” chorus out of your head after hearing it? The rest of the band does fine too, though – the thumping bass sound is killer, and the minimalistic piano lines are perfectly placed.
There’s other good stuff to be found as well, most notably from the opening “Afterwards,” which shows that the band could have been perfectly successful working in the “conventional” formulas they would avoid in the rest of their history. The vocal melody is memorable and non-trivial (ie my definition of “catchy”), Peter gives a warm vocal performance (while singing a somewhat chilly vocal melody), the low-key wah-wah’s give a strangely uplifting feel in the midst of the moodiness of the rest, and the electric piano solo in the middle is very pretty and moody. What else could be wanted? Oh yeah, lyrics like “the pedals that were blooming are just paper in your hands.”
The album also has three other short tracks, which is definitely something not to be found on later VDGG albums. “Necromancer” is a fine energetic piece, with “spacey” keyboard and guitar parts helping out a bunch of energetic vocal lines about, well, being a “Necromancer” (not to mention that funny part where Peter wails up and down on the word “blaaaaaaaaaaack”). The other two short tracks are insubstantial, but cute nonetheless – the title track is a goofy fake jingle, and “Black Smoke Yen” is a minute-and-a-half of bass, drum and piano jamming that works more as an introduction to Aguarian than anything else.
The remaining three tracks are more or less ok, but unfortunately not particularly interesting in the context of the album. The two parts of “Orthenthian St.” are each fairly pretty as background noise, but aside from the great sound of Peter’s voice, and maybe one or two memorable lyrics, I’ll be damned if, even after a ton of listens, I can describe much about it. “Into a Game” is a bit more aggressive, but except for parts of the chorus, ” ” Finally, fans might like “Octopus,” since it comes closest to the classic VDGG style than anything else here, but except for the downward organ swirls, I’m not too impressed with Peter’s hysterical ramblings or with the instrumental parts or whatever (though the moody organ chords in the middle do kinda rule in their own way). It’s pretty danged far from the worst thing VDGG has ever done, though, and I do like the feeling of desperation in the last couple of minutes, so it’s not an album killer.
In short, this album shows a band with quite a bit of talent but that occasionally has trouble getting that talent put on record. In other words, a quintessential VDGG album. Quite good, though.