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|Main Category:||Prog Rock|
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Few progressive rock bands have ever been cluttered with so many controversies as this one. Even on www.prog.net, the ultimate paradise for prog lovers, where music is usually judged according to the number of time signatures and complex chord changes within a certain song (whose running length should definitely exceed 6 or 7 minutes), Van Der Graaf Generator are often viewed as ridiculizers, a bunch of guys who took the worst aspects of progressive rock and never bothered to throw in any of the best. In that respect, Peter Hammill and company are even more of a cult band than, say, Gentle Giant - except that they have a really big following in certain countries with a penchant for "DEEEEP" music, like... oh well, like Russia, for instance.Actually, even if your humble servant is Russian, he must confess that, to a certain extent, he, too, hates this band with a passion. They might have been one of prog's immediate fathers - the band had been formed as early as 1967, and their debut album preceded even In The Court Of The Crimson King, so their music really lies at the foundation of the genre itself, rather than representing some guys licking the boots of their predecessors, like Rush, Styx or Marillion. But they got an awful lot of things going against them, which most of their colleagues don't really have. First of all, it's the question of musicianship. I can't exactly call VDGG a band of 'amateurs' - most of the members were quite skilled at their instruments, and anyway, it's probably an impossible thing to imagine a progressive rock band whose members couldn't play their instruments. But neither Hammill nor any of the other band members (that came and went according to the classic "revolving door" principle so popular among prog groups) were virtuosos, nor did they offer any intriguing, innovating playing techniques. For the most part of its existence, the band didn't even have a qualified electric guitar player, which sometimes worked, as once in a while Robert Fripp himself would pay a visit into the studio and supply the guitarist's seat; but more often it didn't work, and then the most prominent instruments - the organ and Dave Jackson's saxophone - turned out to be pale and emotionally and stylistically vacant. Which brings forth the problem of music. Even some rabid progheads suggest that the band's music is just a big put-on - grand layers of empty sounds that mean nothing, are taken from nowhere and are actually not as complicated and convoluted as they are supposed to be on first listen. Which is absolutely true; the only time the band had bothered to come up with memorable riffs was on H To He, and most of the other time they're just busy fiddling and doodling around with puffed-up structures that are pretty scary and fascinating at first but which wear thin on subsequent listens. For this band, writing a catchy tune was an even more difficult task than for Yes, and that's a really serious complaint. Lastly, there's the problem of Peter Hammill. His voice is fairly impressive, even if it sometimes seems that he's mostly taking his vocal inspiration from both Syd Barrett and Roger Waters at once; but what about the rest? His lyrics, pretentious, mystical and grandiose, are certainly a far cry from the completely meaningless pomposity of Pete Sinfield or the totally fruitless word-combinations of Jon Anderson. He's definitely a good wielder of words, in any case; but he's so dependent on cliches and stolen second-hand imagery, so entangled in his own hallucinogenous fantasies and ununderstandable 'prophetic' visions, that I truly refuse to view Hammill's 'poetry' as anything but a big put-on. It's better at times ('Killer') and plain ridiculous at others (most of Pawn Hearts), but most of the time Mr Hammill is just looking like he's trying to demonstrate to the world that he knows how to use epic-sounding epithets, too. In other words, he's done his literary homework; unfortunately for him, fellow art-/prog-rock poets like Ian Anderson, Peter Gabriel, or Keith Reid have done it far better, and with a lot more entertaining and philosophical value. And that said, I still insist that the band, inane, pompous, pretentious and whacky as it is, still deserves at the least a D class rating. If only because their brand of musical art and theatricality - which I and my love for pigeonholing will be calling GLAM-PROG from now on - was absolutely unique in rock culture. Hammill is, and always was, a blistering showman, and it translates well even onto the band's studio recordings. The VDGG recordings, each and every one of them, apart from, maybe, the debut album, is an involving, invigorating "show", a completely fake and insincere, yet an interesting, drama that it's just plain fun to follow. I do not doubt even for a single moment that Hammill (unless he's a real schizo) never really believed in these sci-fi fantasies of his; it was entertaining, show-biz within a cult following, a "tragicomedy for the intellectual ones". Sure, ELP and Genesis engaged in rock theater, too, but those guys were still far more keen on the actual music than on the theatrical side of things. That's why so many ELP and Genesis fans often wrinkle their noses at Emerson's knifing the organ and at Gabriel's stage costumes: these things were not vital to the bands' essence, and whether you like these gimmicks or not does not really change your attitude towards these bands' main strengths - the music and the harmonies. With VDGG, it's seriously different - if you don't accept Hammill's theatricality, you'd better steer clear of the band in the first place. Hammill was a despot - much like Ian Anderson in Jethro Tull - and you have no hope of becoming a VDGG fan unless you learn to tolerate everything about Peter. (Which automatically excludes VDGG fandom for me, but I was never interested in the perspective in the first place). But the man's talent is undeniable - he's a subtle master of atmospherics, statics and dynamics, his singing is powerful and attractive, and at certain points of his career, he also had a knack for writing solid vocal melodies with a good potential of getting under your skin. Some, in fact, have quoted the man as a vast influence on David Bowie, and, while I don't have any real documental proof for the hypothesis, it seems quite likely to me: there's far more in common between Bowie and Hammill than meets the eye. I have currently managed to assemble all the four "classic period" VDGG albums, and, while the last of them, Pawn Hearts, really leaves me cold, I'll still be looking forward to reviewing their later stuff, although I'm in serious doubt about Hammill's prolific solo career. Lineup: Peter Hammill - vocals, Chris Smith - drums, Nick Pearne - organ. Lineup released one single in 1968, then dissolved; Hammill recruited Hugh Banton - organ, Guy Evans - drums, Keith Ellis - bass. Ellis quit, 1970; in his place the band recruited Nic Potter on bass and Dave Jackson on saxophone. Potter left by the end of 1970, his bass duties were taken over by Banton; at that period, Robert Fripp, while not a member, often helped the band out on guitar. The band dissolved in 1971; reformed in 1975. In 1977 Hammill changed the band's name to Van der Graaf, returning Potter to play bass and adding Graham Smith on violin. The revamped band split up again for good in 1978.
Listenability: 1/5. Apart
from H To He, the band's albums are all extremely hard to get into
unless you're subjectively predisposed. It IS possible to get into some
of them, though.
Resonance: 3/5. Hammill is one of those nasty guys who can create deeply insightful experiences one day and go completely overboard on trippy meaningless journeys through dissonance and graphomany on the next one.
Originality: 3/5. The band's style was completely unique, but it never changed much through the years.
Adequacy: 3/5. See above for the 'resonance' parameter on this one.
Diversity: 1/5. Oh no. VDGG is a very "style-compact" band.
Overall: 2.2 = D on the rating scale.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1969
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 11
He's a bit whoopey like Syd Barrett on here, but this also makes up for some whizzed-up Syd Barrett-style hooks, and that's good.Best song: AQUARIAN, although AFTERWARDS is pretty cool, too
Track listing: 1) Afterwards; 2) Orthentian St. - Part 1 & 2; 3) Running Back; 4) Into A Game; 5) Aerosol Grey Machine; 6) Black Smoke Yen; 7) Aquarian; 8) Necromancer; 9) Octopus; [BONUS TRACKS:] 10) People You Were Going To; 11) Firebrand.
This album always tends to be a little underrated - as is the case with most debut albums by any prog rock band. I mean, it's only natural to treat first albums as "ugly ducklings" or "embryos", but hell, for me, insecure prog debuts are often far more fun and enthralling than the colder, clumsier, less humane "mature" efforts, and when it comes to a band so dinosauric and puffed up as VDGG, this is especially true. So yeah, I dig the hell out of this record, even if it took quite a few listens to really appreciate its charm.The problem is that there's hardly anything groundbreaking on here. You can easily see Peter Hammill's main influences - Dylan, Syd Barrett, possibly Lou Reed, certainly Tyrannosaurus Rex (for whom the Generator used to serve as the opening act at the end of 1967), plus there's a tinge of the Moody Blues and Procol Harum, i. e. art-rock bands of the day. Throwing all these influences in the melting pot, Hammill adds just one more ingredient - his powerful, inspired 'prophetical' singing - and comes out with a record epitomizing the very idea of 'snubby ego-rock'. It's also dark, but it's not the kind of acid darkness that the Airplane were working on, or the psycho darkness of the Doors; this is mystical theatrical darkness, especially obvious on such tracks as 'Running Back', and in this respect Van Der Graaf also stand as one of the forefathers of goth - some people actually compare the band's music with Black Sabbath, and the comparison's not totally unjustified: the only thing they lack to make the comparison completely obvious is a Tony Iommi at the guitar. Lyrically and mood-wise, the 'classic' VDGG style is already here. Hammill entertains you with cold, shiver-sending ballads ('Afterwards'), stately gothic epics drenched in pessimism ('Running Back'), occult, almost cabbalistic, ravings ('Aquarian'), and an occasional bouncy, catchy ditty to liven up your senses and make you catch your breath from the general heaviness of the style ('Necromancer'). What the hell, this record features even a comic "jingle" - the title track, with a one minute length and a nonsensical message, apparently VDGG's only attempt at some forced humor throughout their entire career. Now that's really saying something - Genesis these guys were not. Nevertheless, all the songs just mentioned do rule, if in a slightly perverse way (well, everything about VDGG is slightly perverse, so keep that in mind, please). 'Afterwards' is an extremely intelligent way to start off the record - an immediately likeable ballad, highlighted by Ellis' intense wah-wah rhythms and Hammill's passionate singing. It's very much Velvet Underground-ish, in fact - even if I doubt Lou Reed could have been a huge influence on these guys as early as 1968, when these songs were being recorded. 'Running Back' is also Hammill's show all the way, with a gorgeous vocal melody and an echoey, metallic voice sending chills down your spine as he booms out those 'and I thought I'd make it... yes I really thought I'd make it...' lines. But he really brings it to a boil on 'Aquarian', the album's most Barrett-ish track. A real mind-blowing trip, this one, and it features what's possibly the most interesting musical element on the entire album: a ragged, dirty, fat bassline that really carries the song forward. I don't actually remember the bass guitar used in that way before the song, although I sure can recall certain songs with the same pattern recorded afterwards (Paul McCartney's 'Loup (1st Indian On The Moon)', for instance). The lyrics are typical of Hammill - 'Now we move to the sun in every direction; we are cloaked in veils of mystic protection... joking a lot, smoking or not, floating our yacht off to freedom, voting to be Aquarian!' - but whatever you think of the lyrics, that vocal melody is really something. Meanwhile, 'Necromancer' bounces along at a relatively fast pace, borrowing certain elements from medieval folk chanting (including, of course, the 'I am the necroma-a-a-ncer' refrain), and, once again, inspiring Black Sabbath for at least a good half of their catalog. Although, unlike Black Sabbath, the guys aren't really fooling around with black magic - Peter makes it very clear that the magic he's singing about is white, not black. Funny, do you think the stupidly "correct" lines 'And now remember magic is here; you'd better believe in the White' could be put in the song on the request of the record company? Heh heh. Of course, there's a good share of duffers on the album, too... not actually bad songs, mind you, but since the style is so shockingly uniform on track after track, it's only natural that the stronger numbers completely overshadow the rather routine 'Orthenthian St.' or the not too memorable 'Into A Game', and that the carefully structured and funny 'Aquarian' is far better than the sloppy, rambling and incoherent self-indulgence of 'Octopus'. Plus, the bonus tracks on the CD issue - both sides of the band's first single - are completely dispensable. 'People You Were Going To' is a naive and unsuccessful attempt at writing something for the Top 20 (sounds like a bad Monkees parody), and 'Firebrand' is exceedingly ugly - I don't know who's the asshole that's exchanging verses with Hammill, but thank your lucky stars the dork never tried singing again (unless somebody makes a shocking revelation to me and reveals that it's actually Hammill himself singing in an 'alternative' voice. I won't believe it anyway); "offkey" is too mild and innocent a word to depict that style. Nevertheless, bonus tracks are bonus tracks - if they're bad, you might just as well leave them. The good news is that, as self-indulgent and snubby as Aerosol Grey Machine is, it's just a taster of things to come, and it's a good way to get acquainted with the band. If you're not wild about it, you'd better not worry about the band at all.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1970
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 9
Pretentious and not way too strong on melodies. A serious blow for nineteen sixty-nine.Best song: REFUGEES
Track listing: 1) Darkness (11/11); 2) Refugees; 3) White Hammer; 4) Whatever Would Robert Have Said?; 5) Out Of My Book; 6) After The Flood.
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.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1970
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 12
Ah! This is more like it. Glam-prog theater at its most luxurious - and the hooks are back, too.Best song: KILLER
Track listing: 1) Killer; 2) House With No Door; 3) The Emperor In His War-Room; 4) Lost; 5) Pioneers Over C.
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.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1971
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 8
Begone, ye foul precursor of worst prog excesses. Thanks goodness the public weren't turned off by the genre back then.Best song: MAN-ERG
Track listing: 1) Lemmings (Including Cog); 2) Man-Erg; 3) A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers.
Oh no no no no. Just like VDGG is prog's most controversial band, this is the band's most controversial album - some swear by it as the best record ever made, others condemn it as simply weird for the sake of being weird. And I am certainly of the latter persuasion; if H To He was Hammill's Thick As A Brick, then Pawn Hearts is undoubtedly his Passion Play. Except that it's even worse, and makes me wonder if I've seriously underrated such "masterpieces in comparison" as Yes' Close To The Edge and Genesis' Lamb Lies Down...But enough with all the comparison stuff. Really, I don't even know where to begin with reviewing the last record of VDGG's "first" period, after which the band split up and went on a four-year hiatus. Pawn Hearts is supposed to be a concept album - about people representing nothing but pawns in somebody else's supreme game. Hence the cool album cover with people enclosed in pawn figures; but unfortunately, the cover is the best thing about the record. The track listing consists of just three titles - two ten-minute long suites on the first side ('Lemmings (Including Cog)' and 'Man-Erg') and a twenty-three minute long suite on the second one ('A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers', further subdivided in ten different subsections - a trick later nipped by Genesis for 'Supper's Ready'). But apart from 'Lemmings', where certain lyrical elements do indicate some connection with the general 'concept', since ultimately the song seems to be about the decline of human society and its being dominated by 'cogs' that set the human mass in motion, anyway, apart from 'Lemmings', I simply can't make head or tails of those lyrics. "'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 and mindless grins/Only intent on destroying what they've lost" (taken from the 'S.H.M.' section of 'Keepers'). This is quite typical of everything else on the album. The lyrics on the second side are frankly impossible to follow - there is no real imagery and no real atmospherics, everything is just a put-on. They often come close to being ungrammatical, and at times Hammill comes dangerously close to equalling Jon Anderson as the most shameless graphomaniac in rock history. Too bad, as we all know at other times Hammill can be good enough to earn the title of best prog poet ever... But to heck with the lyrics. Where is the music? Pawn Hearts refuses to present us with even a single memorable riff, with even a single impressive solo passage, with even a single piece that would trigger one's emotions. The few things on here that could raise an eyebrow or two, like Hammill's usual vocal tricks and Jackson's weird sax playing, have already been used to better effect on previous albums; a person previously uninitiated to VDGG might find this album intriguing, but if you try to follow the band's development in chronological order, this is bound to be a huge disappointment. 'Lemmings', for instance, really tries, and tries very hard, to create an apocalyptic mood, with swirling organs and saxes and Hammill's histryonic singing abounding in spades; but who needs an 'apocalyptic' tune that has no distinguishable melody at all? Blah. In a couple of places, Peter and Co. slightly approach catchiness (the 'we have looked upon the High Kings' chorus is moderately nice, for one), but mostly, this is just a band on autopilot playing a pointless 'progressive jam'. In other words, yet another number in the fine tradition of the abominable 'White Hammer'. Note, though, that essentially the song sports the same escapist message that would be so much more sharply stated in later VDGG creations (as well as solo Hammill recordings) - life is cold mechanically-driven piece of shit that drives one to the brink of suicide, but one can as well search salvation inside oneself instead of stupidly ending one's existence once and for all. 'Man-Erg', then, takes its place as the best composition on the album, but there's not too much to praise here - the main melody is nowhere near memorable, and the only thing that's laudable about it is the atmospherics. I mean, it can very well function as a relaxation piece, especially if you edit out the silly mid-section. On the other hand, the 'silly mid-section' has the best guitar parts on the album (again, contributed by Fripp), and the sharp jagged sax/organ interplay occasionally kicks ass, so maybe one might just as well leave it in. And the 'Lighthouse' suite? Don't get me started on that one, I already got a headache. I mean, I sat through it the required three times in a row, clenching my head and trying to make sense of it. In vain. I fully agree with the cynics: this is complexity for the sake of complexity and weirdness for the sake of weirdness. Again, there's nothing but atmosphere here, and I've had plenty of that stuff on Least We Can Do. The final sections of this pseudo-masterpiece are okay - 'Land's End' is where the weirdness becomes so overwhelming and the playing so sharp and angry (and Pete's vocals so completely freaked out) that it's involving, and 'We Go Now' presents a rather pleasant and gentle ending. But by the time you get to these last two sections, you have to plod your way through barrages of noise, repetitive, uninspired organ jamming, twisted, cold, mechanical, dissonant melodies with not an ounce of sense or emotion, and barrelloads of unadulterated pretension that even I find extremely hard to tolerate, and I'm a big fan of Greg Lake, too. Having to listen to these twenty three minutes of prime crap (and I'll never take these words back) for the fourth time in a row already induces a fit of paranoia on me. Help me Lord... Once again, I revert to the opening line of my review - it's a good fact that VDGG were nothing more than a cult band even back then. With Pawn Hearts, Hammill and company happily predicted the self-mocking parody that progressive rock would evolve into in three or four years - this is the natural precursor to Tales From Topographic Oceans (mind you, that TFTO at least has excellent musicianship and some real melodies, unlike this one) and to everything that made the critics turn away from their beloved child and set their gazes upon the punk scene instead. And imagine that it was recorded as early as 1971, when bands like Genesis, Yes, or ELP were only starting to go as far as to twist their melodies in a completely unconventional manner. Hmph. I still give the album a rating of eight, if only for the boldness and the audacity - this is by far the most "far out" record of 1971, and picking out the little pleasant bits now and then (like the mid-section of 'Man-Erg' and 'Land's End') is not an unpleasant action by itself. But the disappointment is still enormous - after the great riffage and the superb theatricality of H To He I was really expecting something in the same vein. This is horror. Do yourself a favor and stay away from this stuff in favor of some concurrent Hammill solo albums; they're not really superior music-wise but at least present a far more restrained and meaningful attitude towards the lyrics, so as not to come across as total self-parody.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1975
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 10
Here starts some extremely personal and philosophic music. Beware - and try to identify with Mr Hammill beforehand.Best song: THE SLEEPWALKERS
Track listing: 1) The Undercover Man; 2) Scorched Earth; 3) Arrow; 4) The Sleepwalkers.
After Pawn Hearts, the band happily disbanded, much to the relief of critics who were now free to concentrate on more accessible, lightweight, easy-goin' stuff like A Passion Play and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. Peter Hammill went on with his solo career, which many fans claim to have been just as interesting, if not more interesting, than Graaf itself; and yet, apparently he felt something was still left unsaid, because four years later the band - hah hah - regrouped. With the same lineup, as far as I understand.And yet, this "Mark II" of Van der Graaf Generator turned out to be a completely different band, apparently, due to huge transformations in Hammill's style along the way. Formally, this music can still be recognized as VDGG: minimal or no guitar, a heavy reliance on keyboards and saxophones, lots of jazzy and avantgarde, dissonant noodling, and Hammill's pretentious singing. But the overall effect is certainly different - for better or for worse. First of all, the production on Godbluff and all of its follow-ups is heavily stripped: very little overdubbing, very few special effects, very low volume level (the first track, 'The Undercover Man', starts almost in a whisper and the record very rarely picks up "true" steam). Apparently, by now Hammill no longer wanted the tunes to possess a certain "universalist", bombastic aspect - and so the elements of 'prog theater' are severely reduced. This is music to listen to late in the evening with the lights dimmed and the mood more contemplative than rocking. Well, we just have to grow older, don't we? Second, Hammill has very seriously matured as a lyricist - in fact, I'd say that Godbluff finally finds him bravely acquiring the post of one of rock's premiere poets. The lyrics are still hard to get, but they're not meaningless; essentially, he's just continuing the 'pessimistic human theme' which he started touching upon in Pawn Hearts and even before that, but he very rarely relies on cliches and he never steps away from the direct path into a world of obscure and fake fantasies. What's with us? Well, we're all lunatics ('The Sleepwalkers'), we all have a mysterious alter ego ('The Undercover Man'), we are all trailing a senseless and wretched existence ('Scorched Earth'), and we're all condemned to eternal torture anyway ('Arrow'). A very fun and welcome concept, I suppose - of course, there might be other interpretations, but I doubt any of them will be more optimistic. Nevertheless, the album does not give the impression of being utterly depressive: Hammill seems almost to be revelling in his contemplation of man's essence, but not in a Satanic way - rather assuming the part of an 'outside observer'. In the same way certain Chinese philosophers used to make their theories about the original evil character of man: with a tranquil and indifferent expression on their faces. What there is, should always be, I suppose. In the good old prog tradition, there are only four songs on the album (and the tradition would be carried on afterwards), and, strange enough, none of the four are particularly irritating. It takes much more than three listens to get into any of them, though, and while I can easily see people dismissing this with a wave of their hand, I'd beg 'em to reconsider. It's a clever record. And it's definitely clever in the musical sense, too: Van der Graaf are still a band, after all. 'The Sleepwalkers', I think, is this album's most interesting piece of melody-making: the organ/sax riff which carries the tune forwards is very strange, yet very bouncy, but the main fun starts near the middle when the tune suddenly slips into several almost vaudevillian instrumental passages. It bears a slight resemblance to 'Pioneers Over C', too, and some moments bring up associations with Jethro Tull's Passion Play (although that album could never hope to be as good because of its not making any sense at all). And the stately, gritty section that clocks in at around 5:05 into the song defines the very principles of 'VDGG Rock' for me: a good slab of organ/sax hard rock, catchy, stompy and self-assured. 'Arrow' is also pretty good - the funny thing is that at first I thought the song to be messier than anything else on here, but later on it struck me as the catchiest piece on the entire record. I guess that first impression just had to do with Hammill's singing: I don't like when he's overrelying on screaming, because he's not a very convincing screamer. I far prefer the soft tones in his voice, or at least the "icy cold" majestic intonation of 'Killer'. But that vocal melody can't be beat anyway, and the song embodies a vivid atmosphere of battle and torture just as the lyrics suggest - 'How strange my body feels, impaled upon the arrow!'. 'The Undercover Man' has a cool operatic feel to it - the song should certainly be taken as a free-flowing aria rather than a well-structured rock epic. Funny, I don't really mind the lack of structure here, maybe I'm just falling under the Hammill charm. 'Scorched Earth', then, is the tune that inspires me least of all: it's the closest to the band's Pawn Hearts style, with less introspection and more fake epicness, yet even here there can be found scraps of good riffs and interesting ideas. Occasionally. On occasion. On occasion, I enjoy an interesting idea, and Godbluff certainly has a fair share of these - and it's an album that really makes you think, unlike Pawn Hearts, which only makes you wonder. Concluding on that intriguing note, I'd also want to warn you that Godbluff is the first, but not the best of Van der Graaf Generator's second period; so don't rush out to acquire it (in case it ever gets back into print, that is) until you have a couple other records that follow it.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1976
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 10
Solid concept, whatever. A wee bit underdeveloped musically, though.Best song: PILGRIMS
Track listing: 1) Pilgrims; 2) Still Life; 3) La Rossa; 4) My Room (Waiting For Wonderland); 5) Childlike Faith In Childhood's End.
Like I said, the band's 1975-76 records are all pretty much interchangeable, and the differences between them are more of a "cosmetic" character than anything, which makes the process of reviewing them even more witty and resource-consuming (I have been steadily approaching this particular review for over two months' time, for instance). All of them grow on you once you actually give 'em a chance, but grow slowly, like a lazy plant gradually pulling out of the ground, one inch a week or so. And the further we progress, the more complex - and yet the more meaningful - Peter's lyrics become. Still Life more or less continues the main themes of Godbluff, but it is even more mature and even more personal than that album. Entirely gone are the inane sci-fi references, inherited from the pretentious horrors of Pawn Hearts; Peter is still bathing in metaphors and stuff, but at least he is mostly singing about his own subconscious or global metaphysical problems rather than battles, Guinevere and ghost helmsmen. And about the Apocalypsis, of course: all these songs deal with life's end, whether it be on a personal scale ('My Room'), in the sense of "history's end" (title track), in the sense of "loss of meaning" ('Pilgrims') or in the sense of a new hope of regeneration someday ('Childlike Faith In Childhood's End'). Creepy, isn't it?Well, actually, no. While I do like the lyrics on here better than the ones on Godbluff, and the record's high point ('Pilgrims') is one of Graaf's best ever successes, musically Still Life leaves me a bit disappointed. The previous record initially produces an impression of musical blandness as well; but over time that feeling slowly dissipates, what with all the little tasty instrumentation bits sticking in your head, particularly in 'Sleepwalkers'. Not to mention, after all, that this was a turning point in the band's style in general, and like every innovation in the hands of a master, it produces a good effect. Still Life not only follows exactly the same musical formula, it is also extremely inobtrusive in the musical sense. Even when the rhythm section gets into a tight groove, I still can't get rid of the feeling that by now the music is nothing but an obligatory background to Peter's lyrics - this and nothing else. Same pathetic saxes and organs, same lack of guitar. Same everything. And no musical hooks whatsoever. Thus, Hammill is the one and only hero of this record. It still holds up, though, because the combination of lyrics, powerful singing, cute vocal melodies, and stately atmosphere works fine, and only the lack of a few refreshing musical tricks prevents it from getting a higher rating. But Hammill is wise: there's hardly any dissonance at all, everything flows very smoothly and compactly, again, like in an opera. 'Pilgrims' is even kinda catchy, in fact, with its anthemic chanting, gradually rising and falling and culminating in mighty climaxes with Mr Hammill roaring out '...all of us pilgrims!'. An excellent song to put on in a state of depression - it seems to start on a gloomy, melancholic note along with your own mood and then slowly pulls out of its melancholy, ending in a not too clear, but still somewhat optimistic message (life's meaning is unknown, but it's not unsearchable), pulling you out of your gloominess as well. The title track, on the other hand, is dark beyond hope - a song of death and especially one's own resignation before death. The song's ending is particularly impressive; Hammill is a good master of hard-hitting codas like these. 'Hers forever... hers forever... hers forever...', whispered in a light falsetto, and then the gothic 'In - Still - LIFE' falls so dang heavy, like a stone that's attached to the rope that's attached to your neck. Splash, and you're gone. In still life. Whatever. But it's not at all creepy, not at all. Weird, mayhaps, curious, yes, sagacious, yes, but not frightening. What's to be afraid of? The other three tunes don't hit that hard - 'La Rossa' is the only song that I'd say openly stinks, again, due to Hammill's unreasonable "overshouting" on it, and 'My Room (Waiting For Wonderland)' is pretty and emotional, but drags on for too long without really developing into a solid groove. It's a ballad, see, and a Van Der Graaf ballad ain't a good thing unless it's 'House With No Door'. As for 'Childlike Faith', that one is ambiguous: again, I fear that Hammill is overindulging on that piece, being somewhat more straightforward and "open" than usually, and at the same time, more 'universalist' and more pretentious. I mean, I would never feel all that easy in the presence of a song that ends with the pompously sung line 'In the death of mere humans life shall start!'. But if you don't have a problem with that, it's all right, because the song's "vocal flow" is just as good as anything else on here. In conclusion, I'd just want to say this: if I don't just throw away this record and condemn it as a load of pseudo-progressive self-indulgent derivative tripe, it's mainly because of its personal power - stripping down the arrangement helps enormously, since on most of the tracks Peter seems to be just sitting inside your stereo in a meditative pose and delivering his personal philosophy right in the listener's ears, without any embarrassing mediums. I find it charming, even if I would never recommend the record to a weak-hearted or an impatient listener. It's a very tough experience, believe me.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1976
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 11
The most musically solid album of this second period; not at all accessible, though.Best song: PLACE TO SURVIVE
Track listing: 1) When She Comes; 2) Place To Survive; 3) Masks; 4) Meurglys III (The Songwriter's Guild); 5) Wondering.
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.)
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1977
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 8
This is for diehards. What a mockery - shorter songs and duller melodies.Best song: LIZARD PLAY
Track listing: 1) Lizard Play; 2) The Habit Of The Broken Heart; 3) The Siren Song; 4) Last Frame; 5) The Wave; 6) Cat's Eye/Yellow Fever (Running); 7) The Sphinx In The Face; 8) Chemical World; 9) The Sphinx Returns.
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).
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1978
Record rating = 5
Overall rating = 7
Messy and unlistenable, but snubby industrial fans may revel in its dissonance.Best song: pauses between tracks.
Track listing: 1) Ship Of Fools; 2) Still Life; 3) Last Frame; 4) Mirror Images; 5) Medley: Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers/The Sleepwalkers; 6) Pioneers Over C; 7) Door; 8) Urban/Killer/Urban.
The reviewer awoke before dawn... He put his headphones on. He went to the shelf where his Van der Graaf collection lived, and then he... payed a visit to the Vital album, and then he... he walked on to his stereo. And he opened his CD tray, and he put Vital inside..."Nic Potter?" "Yes, George?" "I want to kill you. Peter Hammill?... I Want To..." .... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ...... The reviewer isn't joking. This Morrisonian sequence of events was just about the first thing that materialized itself in his head on hearing the first several numbers off this pathetic excuse for a live album. Unfortunately, the conception hasn't undergone even minor cosmetic changes after the required three listens. And while I'm not saying that directly and explicitly, anybody who'd like to make a bet that Vital is, hands down, the worst live album ever made by a giant of progressive rock, would find an ardent follower in the maintainer of this site. (Which probably makes it a priori the worst album reviewing site that you have ever visited, but what were you expecting? Lester Bangs? Heck, leave me alone with your pretensions!) The 'new look' Van der Graaf, deprived of the sub-title of Generator, apparently turned out to be a dead duck - substituting Jackson's saxes for Smith's violin failed to give Hammill an additional creative impulse, and the only reasonable thing that was left for him to do was to disband the ensemble, this time for good. This live album, recorded at the Marquee before a small pack of fans, was actually an afterthought, and was put together not even by Peter himself, but by drummer Guy Evans. He might have salvaged the poor quality recording from being sonically unlistenable; but even so, he would have done better to leave it on the shelf, as the show itself is plainly miserable, not to mention that seventy-five minutes of it is overkill. The track listing is rather bizarre. About half of the compositions are new ones, unavailable as official studio releases ('Ship Of Fools'; 'Mirror Images'; 'Door'; 'Urban'). The rest draws on more recent material, completely disregarding their best second period album, World Record, and taking one number from each of the other ones ('Sleepwalkers', 'Still Life', 'Last Frame'). The "oldies", then, are only represented by extracts from 'A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers', which, fortunately, is structured to segue into 'The Sleepwalkers' as part of a medley; 'Pioneers Over C'; and a brief instrumental snippet of 'Killer's midsection, inserted in between two parts of 'Urban'. In other words, predictable sissies we're not. Leaving the new material for dessert, let's concentrate on the oldies. 'Pioneers Over C' is mercilessly butchered. Yeah, I'm all for diversity and re-arrangements, but ripping an old classic to shreds and drowning it in a sea of grumbling chaos and screamfests isn't exactly my idea of a re-arrangement. Remember that marvelous sax riff introducing the 'faster part' sections in the original? Well, perhaps Jackson (by the way, Jackson is present on the album - apparently as a guest star) does play some sax in the background, but if so, I can't hear him because Potter puts so much fuzz on the bass he manages to reduce everything else to faint echoes. As a matter of fact, he plays super-fuzzy bass throughout the whole album, which makes it almost impossible to distinguish the exact notes coming from under the fuzz. Meanwhile, Hammill himself doesn't even bother to sing - he just blurts out the lyrics, and while he does raise and lower his voice at some crucial points, the weird 'encoding' effects (laid on later in the studio, I wonder?) effectively kill off any difference. As for 'Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers', well, you know my feelings towards the song. The fact that it's been shortened doesn't mean that it's become any better. 'Last Frame' was one of the least memorable tunes on Quiet Zone. 'Sleepwalkers' lose all of their steady paced charm. Even 'Still Life', one of Hammill's most involving vocal highlights if there ever was one, is annihilated: instead of the moody Gothic 'In... still... LIFE' that ended the song in the studio, here Peter prefers to throw out the ending in an aggressive, near-punkish way, and ruins all the charm of the original. As for the newer compositions, well... They seem to be picking up the odd jazzy groove again, particularly 'Urban', which has some nice spots, and 'Ship Of Fools', but it works nowhere near as good in a live setting as it used to work earlier in a studio one. The riffs are forgettable, and when they aren't, they're masked by poor sound quality. That said, I'm ready to admit that there is a certain atmospheric peculiarity to this performance that can't be found on studio records; with the heavy bass, Hammill's occasional metallic guitar and constant apocalyptic roar and Smith's dirgey violin, it ends up having a curious Gothic/Industrial vibe to it, triggering the darkest spots in your character if you have 'em. Perhaps Vital is a good album to listen to after you've murdered somebody (hey wait, don't threaten me with legal action - I said after you've murdered somebody, not before! I'm a psychotherapist, not a Satanist!). And if it can console you, this is at least a better listen than an absolute majority of Throbbing Gristle (a band that was heavily influenced by VDGG, by the way). But if you ask me seriously, I'd say that Vital was the shittiest career end I've ever witnessed, apart from maybe Led Zep's Coda and a few others. Stay away from this album, please, unless you just never ever take my recommendations seriously. The Surgeon General did warn you.
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