VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR
Van Der Graaf Generator were never really a prog band in the typical sense. They were too ugly, too dark, too unpredictable, not nearly poppy enough, rarely concerned with matters whimsical or “fantastic.” Their leader Peter Hammill can seem like a seriously frightening rock God to the uninitiated, a nasty and schizophrenic dude incapable of using his amazing voice for anything but self-torture. And the band itself?An unholy amalgamation of melodramatic philosophical pontifications, growling organs, nasty horns, and powerhouse jazzy drumming. It’s hard to describe them, and equally hard to warm up to their unnatural mix of sounds. I remember a time when they seemed to me a poor man’s Genesis. Now, early Genesis (as much as I love ’em) seems like the cute poppy musical theater cousin to VDGG’s bad-ass Shakespearean punk tragedian. They never came close to selling out, and they managed to cut through the punk era like a razor. And in 2011, they seem not only sharper and more prophetic than any of the other 70s art rock bands, but also more menacing and violent than any of the late- 70s punkers. Any serious rock fan needs to give a LOUD listen to “Pawn Hearts” at some point in their life. A seminal group.
The Aerosol Grey Machine
The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other
H to He Who Am The Only One
Pawn Heart *
World Record *
The Quite Zone/The Pleasure Dome
Time Vaults (Outtakes)
Real Time (Live)
A Grounding In Numbers *
THE AEROSOL GREY MACHINE (1969)
It only seems proper to start this page with something confusing and off-putting. The first Van Der Graaf Generator record is not the first “official” Van Der Graaf Generator record. This perplexed me to no end when I first began investigating the band – but as far as I understand, this was a Peter Hammill solo album listed as a VDGG record for label-related business reasons. Yet, in addition to ringleader Hammill, it’s got Hugh Banton on organ, and Guy Evans on drums – so barring sax maestro David Jackson (and neglecting the fact that there’s an actual bassist), this is very nearly a proper VDGG lineup. But I’d be much happier throwing this into the footnote category for the band, as it’s just simply not very good. It lacks all the menace and wit and angst and absurdity of the upcoming albums, and falls into all sorts of lame 60s melodramatic traps. It ultimately sounds like an amateurish folk-prog mess – and had the band not eventually gone on to scale such incredible heights, I highly doubt this album would EVER have surfaced in conversation 40 years later. It’s not terrible – Hammill’s voice is pretty great already, and there are some pleasant melodic ideas. And some nice (if ragged) psych-poppy playing. But basically every idea on here would be expanded upon, improved, deepened, and perfected on the band’s later records. So this one is the epitome of a “fans only” release. In the prog realm, it’s comparable to Genesis’ “Trespass” or Yes’ debut, though both those records are better than this one. But all of ’em give off a similar sense of immaturity that sounds particularly immature considering the insane competence of all the groups’ peak albums. People will tell you that this isn’t really the same histrionic prog theater of classic-era VDGG – and that’s certainly true. You CAN hear the upcoming style pretty clearly insinuated in these grooves. But yes, this doesn’t really read as prog and certainly not as prog-punk – it’s more in line with Arthur Brown-style melodramatic organ-driven folky-jazzy-poppy-hard rock. It’s got that late-60s wannabe intellectual vibe dripping from its every pore – and I’m personally not a giant fan of that vibe. The songs are WAY too long, too melodically repetitive and simple, and there’s too much bloody wankery. I don’t think all that much attention was paid to the sonic experience here – almost certainly due to financial lack. It’s all organic and live-in-studio (and mostly dull in the production/arrangement department). There are a couple tracks that approach awesomeness – especially the indisputable highlight (for me anyway) “Aquarian,” which has the best hooks, the best playing, and the most power. “Running Back” is a nice acoustic number that begins the inevitable Hammill-Bowie comparisons – at this point, the two were almost identical in their intentions (what with a contemporaneous Bowie in pre-glam hippie epic folk mode). The first side of the album is actually mostly pleasant, and totally unmemorable – stuff like “Afterwards” and “Orthenthian Street” strum along without ever really igniting. The second side has the solid “Aquarian,” but also the positively DREADFUL closer “Octopus” – an early attempt at an angsty prog-psych drama that just falls completely flat. The boys would perfect the exact same style to such a degree that you might as well avoid this rough draft version entirely. The title track is a bouncy little music-hall advertisement for the titular machine – it’s a silly comedy track, and coming from Mr. Serious Himself (Peter Hammill) it makes me rather uncomfortable. My version of this record is adorned with two hilariously bad bonus tracks – “People You Were Going To” would be recorded in MUCH better fashion on a later Hammill solo record, but this early single version sounds like bottom-of-the-barrel Brit-pop garbage. The other bonus track, “Firebrand,” deserves special mention for being quite possibly the worst piece of music on any of Hammill/VDGG’s five billion records (at least until some of the 90s Hammill records start rearing their ugly heads). I feel bad for young Peter while listening to it. It’s AWFUL. Experience to this album at your own risk – but don’t feel compelled to make it part of your grand Van Der Graaf experience. There’s too much other amazing VDGG music for you to bother with it.
THE LEAST WE CAN DO IS WAVE TO EACH OTHER (1970)
Ah yes – now THIS sounds like the nasty, snarling, controversial, ridiculous, amazing, blasphemous, disturbing, ugly, freaky, tasteless, genius, proggy, punky, wacky, intense, classic Van Der Graaf Generator. That’s a lot of adjectives. But the truth is – this is one of those hard-to-describe cult bands that is either going to hit you HARD, or make you wince in embarrassment. There can hardly be too much middle ground with these dudes. And this is clearly their real debut. The essential David Jackson makes his glorious entrance here, and he’s already doing crazier things with saxophones than most rock bands ever even thought to attempt. This is our first real taste of the crucial combination of theatrical existential multi-voiced Hammill, ever-experimental horn god Jackson, man of a million organ tones Hugh Banton, and jazzy crisp drummer Guy Evans. As far as atmospherics, this is a gigantic step up from the previous album. The evil disturbing factor is in place now, and Hammill sounds much more like his commanding, soulful self. But there’s no getting around the fact that this is STILL very much a warm-up for the masterpieces to come. There is one drop-dead classic on here – the totally awesome and frightening historical number “White Hammer,” which ends with one of the most evil musical passages ever laid down outside of of a hard rock or metal record. That organ tone is simply HORRIFYING. It’s the first successful Hammill epic, and it drips with apocalyptic menace. It’s also quite lovely in the melody department during it’s early passages. None of the other tracks are quite as successful, but there are some near winners. I’ve always enjoyed the opener “Darkness,” but I also find this recording lacking in the extreme dynamics I know it’s going for. The hypnotic verses don’t quite BREAK enough into the more dramatic choruses – it’s a good track, and a strong opener, but the band would get even better at executing these sort of ideas. I’m also fond of “Whatever Would Robert Have Said,” another Bowie-esque tune that may be a bit of a structural mess, but nevertheless works due to a great Hammill performance and the band’s total commitment to the absurdities of the arrangement. The rest of the album is less striking. For me, the absolute worst offender is the most commonly cited highlight!!! I don’t get it – “Refugees” is totally a holdover from the corny 60s phony-romantic vibe of the previous record. It’s far too long, I don’t really buy Hammill as a lush storyteller (I like him as a fucked up British cerebral nutjob), the melody is generic, the arrangement boring and go-nowhere…it’s one of my least favorite VDGG tracks ever! It’s best qualities are also about to be usurped pretty soon by a similar ballad on the next album – so fuck it! I think the brief and arguably “filler” song “Out Of My Book” actually does a better job at nailing the darkly romantic atmosphere – or at least, it’s a prettier and more confident sounding recording. Then there’s the 11 minute closer “After The Flood,” which works great in parts, but never really gels as a big epic. By the time the song ends, I’m more relieved the record’s over than I am floored by something larger than life. This is an important record in the band’s history – and it lays down a lot of ground rules for their later and better records. But it’s hardly part of their peak. “White Hammer,” though, must be heard!!!
H TO HE, WHO AM THE ONLY ONE (1970)
Aside from the fact it has the least accessible album title in the catalog, this is also probably the most accessible album in the early catalog! It seems to be a lot of people’s favorite VDGG record, though I’m guessing that has a lot to do mainly with the opening two songs. The record as a whole pulls back slightly on the dissonance and goes for something more akin to classic prog. If this were to be your entry-point into the world of Peter Hammill, you could certainly choose a worse gateway. And yet, I still think this is the work of an adolescent band only on the verge of successfully combining their weird ideas into one masterful sound. There are some incredibly overlong and boring passages on this album – particularly on the second side. But let’s deal firstly with the beginning of the album. Because if any song could be considered this band’s “hit,” if any VDGG song had even the slightest chance of getting some classic rock radio play, I’d say that song is “Killer.” Now, to some people, “Killer” might sound like the most dated and silly piece of prog nonsense in the world. It’s a song built around what is essentially a stoner heavy metal riff, and yet the riff is played on saxophone and organ. It’s a song about isolation and lost love that uses as it’s central metaphor the story of a…killer shark! It’s a recording with a dramatic and humorless sounding lead vocalist singing about fish, though I’d like to believe young Peter found the piece funny. It’s got lines like: “Death in the sea, please come and help me, fishes can’t fly, and neither can I.” All of these elements will either thrill you or make you want to vomit, depending on your taste. But if you can get into the theater at play here and ignore some of the less tasteful moments…”Killer” is one hell of an opener! And it’s got some kick-ass jazzy evil playing. And it’s got that menacing tortured Hammill-ian atmosphere. And some pretty melodies. And a very dynamic arrangement. It’s a bit too long – and not completely successful (especially in comparison with the band’s later work), but it’s an undeniable highlight of the VDGG catalog nonetheless. And NEXT we get an even bigger highlight – one of the all-time best Hammill ballads – the drop-dead beautiful piano-driven “House With No Door.” I could soak up the pathetic atmosphere of that song for many more minutes than it’s (still quite ample) 6 or so. Bowie-esque, lush, and powerful. These two tracks go towards presenting this record as a much more audience friendly work than other VDGG releases. But wait! There are three more very long songs. And they’re chock full of problem spots. The best of the three is “The Emperor In His War-Room,” the portrait of a tyrant. It’s got some great ideas and musical passages – but I’ve heard it many many times, and it’s never really come together for me as a truly powerful epic. I don’t know – there’s something about these early VDGG that just feels LACKING to me…the band hasn’t yet harnessed their totally hypnotic maniacal power, and many of the big operatic swells (later so incredible) sound rather dopey at this stage. Side 2 of this record is particularly unfulfilling – there are 2 epics over 10 minutes long, and both contain moments of melodic power and distorted ferocity, but they just don’t add up to much. And they are ripe with goofy failed theatrics and awkward production moments. “Lost” is the first of the two, and it opens brilliantly – for the first 3 or 4 minutes, everything sounds totally controlled and exciting. But the song starts to meander through free jazzy sections and evil sax riff sections and ultimately ends up too shapeless and confusing for me. The 12 minute closer “Pioneers Over C” is Peter’s “Space Oddity” – his existential sci-fi epic – and I quite enjoy it’s jazzy melodic sections. But once again it’s far too long and loses focus all over the place. The song tries to create a terrifying Twilight Zoney “lost in space” sensation, but it’s only partially successful – the seams show. I LOVE the way it ends, though – with a brief and completely bizarre acappella Hammill vocal (“I am the one who crossed through space, or stayed where I was, or didn’t exist in the first place!”) followed by what has to be the ugliest piece of sax-driven music the band could conjure up at this point. This is a key release from this band, but I also think it’s the last time they released any unconvincing music (until their reformation in the 2000s). For me, it’s the end of “baby” VDGG – a big bad “grown up” was right around the corner…
PAWN HEARTS (1971)
This is the one. It’s the band’s masterpiece, a remarkable and terrifying assault on the senses, and a gigantic step forward on every front. These guys no longer sound tied to any particular scene or sound – they are creating their OWN sounds throughout this classic. If there’s an album that gets more bad-ass and unique tones out of saxophones and organs, I’d like to hear it. If there’s an album with a more committed and commanding lead vocalist, I’d like to hear it. And Guy Evans’ jazzy drum style has finally achieved total lift-off – the band has never been recorded to sound this locked and inspired. People call “Pawn Hearts” a prog album, but I don’t know very many prog albums that sound this DIRTY and ROTTEN, and concern themselves with sheer existential terror and personal torment as opposed to things magical and grand. This is more like an art rock album wrenched out from the inside of a madman’s brain. It’s a horror movie for the ears. It’s unafraid to go to places absolutely atrocious and dissonant, and then swing right back to passages unrivaled in their beauty and clarity. It’s a schizophrenic motherfucker, this record is. And it’s completely riveting. It seems to be the source of some major controversy – even among big prog fans. I don’t get it – to my ears it’s so much better and more mature than the previous VDGG records, it’s like comparing apples and oranges. It’s not an “accessible” album, so you can’t jump in expecting “Close To The Edge.” Peter Hammill is not trying to be your friend here – he is going to creep right into your brain and scream at you and then seduce you with niceties before launching you headfirst off a cliff into a pit of despair. This is a brave and uncompromising work, unlike any other record I know (including albums by this very band). There are only three epic songs here – “Lemmings,” “Man-Erg,” and the 23 minute “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers.” Each one creates its own mesmerizing hall of pain, and each one is equally incredible. The most immediate is certainly ‘Man-Erg,” with it’s fairly simple schematic – Peter is fighting the bad person inside of himself. The song is a boxing match between angelic organ driven pop sections (it’s no accident that these passages sound almost like church music), and awful discordant evil sections. And when I saw “awful” – I MEAN it. No other band has never gotten such a nasty and disturbing racket out of such odd means (horns and organs and jazzy drums). At the end of the song, we hear the evil sections trying to break into the atmosphere of the pretty parts as Peter sings about the duality within him. It’s highly emotional and utterly theatrical (in an old school Greek dramatic sense). It works perfectly. The opening track “Lemmings” is probably the least immediate, which renders the entire album in probably a more difficult light than it deserves (which isn’t to say the rest of this beast isn’t difficult to get into!) David Jackson shines all over the dense and passionate track. Hammill’s haunting ending refrain of “What Course Is There Left But To Die?” is totally mesmerizing and creepy. The biggest point of controversy on the album is the epic suite “A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers,” which takes up the entire 2nd side of the album. It’s not exactly one throughly composed piece of music, as it careens through wildly different sections that range in tone from poppy and melodic to atmospheric and sound-collagey to disgusting and evil. But it’s an incredible piece of work – one of the more intelligent and transportive extended pieces of the 70s art/prog boom. The whole thing ends with an uplifting glorious Hammill melody, and some great backing vocals (BTW – Hammill’s vocal layering style is one of the most unique in pop music – he’s like the Prince if Prince were an early 70s British intellectual). Even during that joyous climax, the subtle infiltration of dissonance and oddness makes it clear that this is a song about madness and disaster and there’s no escape. One more thing about this record that floors me…it’s easy to make the artistic leap from feelings of spiritualism and positivity to big epic music (a la Yes or The Beach Boys), and also easy to imagine a despairing artist producing music that seems somber or earthy or depressed (a la Joy Division or Nick Drake). But THIS album takes despairing emotions and turns them into expressionistic epics, combining the two perspectives. Peter Hammill’s best ideas are quite unique in that respect, and that’s probably why, as a I said earlier, this band looks more and more respectable with age while some of their contemporaries look progressively sillier (no pun intended). A must listen.
THE LONG HELLO (1974)
This was an instrumental album cut by the non-Hammill members of the group after the initial break-up. I’m guessing it was more of a friendly experiment than a serious attempt to start a new project. There’s a lot of light Canterbury-esque jazz-prog, and also some major medieval influences that I doubt Peter would have found much use for (especially “Looking At You”). Everything on here is played with the utmost skill and professionalism, and there are times when the band really rips. But it’s mostly mannered British early jazz rock, without a ton of the bad-assery of the VDGG albums. “I’ve Lost My Cat” has a bit of an early Gentle Giant vibe, if a bit more direct in approach. There’s a lot of acoustic guitar and flute on here, and not too much time-signature trickery or sonic wackiness. It’s far more overtly “pretty” than anything they’d done with Peter. The best “piece” for me is undoubtedly the fusion-y opener – ‘The Theme From Punge,’ which is probably the most classic-VDGG sounding. But the fusion quotient is more pronounced than in VDGG-proper, which merely showcase a jazz spirit and rhythmic adventurousness rather than any actual obvious jazz-rock stylings. These guys are all distinct and exciting players, and good instinctual writers, but Peter Hammill is a genius. At least, he’s a major song-writer. So this naturally suffers in comparison. But as a little side-project novelty for a big VDGG fan, it’s certainly worth a listen or two. It makes for nice background music!
The debut of the new-era VDGG is one of the leanest and meanest records ever made. Four extended compositions, each one a classic. This is a VERY different sounding record than “Pawn Hearts” – far more live-in-studio and stripped down. These aren’t “movies for the mind” like earlier VDGG. They are often quieter and more introspective, less reliant on special effects and nasty tone-making. The new sound basically continues the epic Hammill solo vibe of “A Louse Is Not A Home,” which was ultimately a VDGG production anyway. The lyrics are also more direct now, with Peter laying all his thoughts and beliefs and emotions on the line in every lyric. The band sounds supernaturally in tune with each other. Drummer Guy Evans in particular just rips it up all over this album. Peter brings his new tortured screaming style over from his solo albums — and he continues to serve as arguably the best vocal stylist in rock history. It’s incredible to think that this record was made right after ‘Nadir’s Big Change” – the two works have pretty much nothing to do with each other, even though they were created by the same group of musicians. It would be quite logical to consider this record as the first of a trilogy – the following two works came out right on its heels, and they’re all VERY similar. But this is easily the best of the three, with hardly a weak moment in it’s 37 minutes. The album begins with the most reserved piece of VDGG music yet – a pulsing flute figure, quiet whispery Peter vocals, minimal instrumentation…it all builds up to the epic “chorus” of hook of “The Undercover Man,” and when Evans eventually breaks in with a back-beat, it’s art-rock bliss! This album works best for me as a song cycle, or a symphony even – with four separate but equal pieces that work individually but run together to create a incredible whole. “Arrow” has some of the nuttiest Hammill vocals on record. “The Sleepwalkers” and “Scorched Earth” are just phenomenally intense and enveloping. This entire album rules, though it may take some warming up to the new style. There are definitely vocal melodies here, and lots of energetic musical bits – and some sections even rock – but these are NOT pop songs. The structures are logical and precise, but they’re also completely unconventional – they just seem too weird and off-putting at first. This band never aimed for accessibility – but the rewards of digging into their best work are truly great.
STILL LIFE (1976)
Before I get all negative on you all, let me state for the record that this album opens with one of the all-time best Hammill creations: “Pilgrims.” Similarly to “The Undercover Man” from the previous record, the song very slowly builds up emotion as Peter sorts through a series of philosophical ruminations, the band keeping everything tightly reeled until the big epic chorus release (“I CLIMB! Through the evening…ALIVE!”) The weird and brilliant combination of musical theater melodies, highly theatrical singing, jazzy drumming, and big churchy organ pads makes for a completely signature VDGG track. It’s so impassioned and soul-searching that it almost sounds like a religious work. The song gives me shivers whenever I hear it. But even on that awesome composition, this record’s general problems permeate. There’s not enough David Jackson on ANY of the 5 songs that comprise this record, and Hugh’s organ tones have grown less unique – the two instrumentalists seem far more content just playing it straight this time around. Peter is still utilizing his bizarre scream voice, but he’s so out front and center on this record – he so dominates the proceedings with his melodramatic vocals and existential lyrics – that he basically suffocates the dynamics. This is definitely my pick for most “boring” classic-era VDGG record. The least musically exciting, anyway. It’s just too stripped down instrumentally to support Peter’s crazy performances. The songs meander a bit too much, there’s far less “rock” energy than on any of the other releases, and like I said…the tones are too normal for me. Peter’s solo records often fall prey to the sin of putting lyrics and emotion above hooks and energy, but VDGG is supposed to be where the talents of Banton and Evans and Jackson get equal treatment. But this is the least hooky and most “serious” of all the VDGG records, the most like a late-period Hammill solo work. The two tracks that make up Side 2 have always struck me as seriously problematic. “My Room (Waiting For Wonderland)” is the same sort of melancholy and repetitive “woe is me” singer-songwriter fare soon to crop up on Peter’s disappointing break-up album “Over.” I don’t love the melody on that one, and the song never reaches anything approaching catharsis (or even tries to). I don’t really understand the reason for it’s inclusion on a VDGG album. It just saunters along for 8 minutes, with a lengthy instrumental at the end that repeats an already boring musical idea over and over without much exciting interplay. Plus, even though I previously complained that he wasn’t showcased ENOUGH on here…David Jackson’s horn contributions are obvious and corny! Then there’s the 12 minute epic “Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End,” which is (I think) a song about tormented man’s eventual death and re-birth as a superman. So it’s Peter’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, or else his Biblical account. “Humans we can all be, but humanity we must rise above” screams Peter. “In the death of mere humans, life shall start!” Is he being serious? Is this is a Christian song? I’ve never really understood that one from a lyrical standpoint. The title certainly leads me to believe he’s criticizing this sort of thinking, but he performs the song with such howling conviction that it’s hard to detect anything like irony (And with that possessed screaming demon voice, Peter would make a hell of a religious singer)! As a piece of music, I’ve never been too excited by the track. It never finds its focus. The big epic moments seem hokey to me, like the band hadn’t come up with an adequate arrangement to compliment Peter’s fervent preaching. As such, it’s one of the few times I agree with the band’s detractors…Hammill sounds like he’s completely over-emoting all over that one! Side 1 is mostly great though. I already talked about “Pilgrims,” but then there’s the creepy title track, a song about the implications of immortality. It’s got some of the most spine-tingeling moments in the catalog, ESPECIALLY the final way the band lands on Peter’s final depressing “in still…LIFE.” Frightening stuff, and perfectly in tune with what’s happening lyrically. And what’s happening lyrically is the polar opposite of “Childlike Faith” – it’s totally riveting, frightening, provocative, and commanding. “La Rossa” is the centerpiece, and it’s probably the best overall track (though “Pilgrims” is the best song) – it’s certainly the most Godbluff-y and rocking, with a highly dynamic arrangement and a totally absurd Hammill vocal (aren’t they ALL at this point!!) His WAY over the top recitation of the words “and the organ grinder SCREEAAAAAMMMSSS!” is going to separate the men from the boys as regards this band. There are some heavy sections of that song where the band actually sounds like themselves, as opposed to some stoned disinterested fruitier version of themselves. So overall, this is the weak point in the trilogy, but it’s still prime VDGG and must be heard for it’s genius high points.
WORLD RECORD (1976)
OOH YEAH! The boys are getting sleazy. This is VDGG’s sleazeball album. Listen to the porno music opening minute of “Masks” or the dirty groove in “A Place to Survive” or the extended reggae jam in “Meuglys III” — somebody must have put something in the water, because suddenly these guys sound like a bunch of lecherous British sex fiends. I’m joking of course, but not entirely – this is a pretty darned different vibe from “Still Life,” a much more groove-based and forceful sound. Things are still absurdly stripped down, which is apparent from the get-go with opener “When She Comes.” It’s an awesome and incredibly unique song, but the arrangement sounds SO bizarre due to the minimalism. Also, Hugh Banton has found this new and totally wacky bright church organ sound (is it a synth?) that he uses all over this record. So when Peter hits the epic chorus with a typically howling theatrical vocal (“Lady with the skin so white…”), and Hugh pads everything with the goofy organ sound, and Guy Evans refuses to play a straight beat — it just sounds totally wrong and odd. But in a mostly exciting way. This is probably the least Peter-y VDGG record, as it’s devoted more than ever before to groovy jams. Also noticeable is a palpable sense of humor in the riff and rhythm departments – this is the one of the only Hammill productions where it’s totally obvious the band was having a good time. It’s the “lightest” VDGG record by far, but that’s not to say it isn’t without it’s soul-searching and tormented lyrics. But Peter sounds more sarcastic than upset on here, and there’s really nothing comparable to ambitious epics like “Childlike Faith” from the previous platter. The big epic HERE is the 20 minute “Meuglys III,” a song named after Peter’s guitar. 20 minutes, yes, but a huge amount of it is devoted to rhythmic experiments and instrumental passages. A lot of prog fans go NUTS in rage over that song due to it’s very long “dub” outro – how dare these proggers play reggae music!? Well, I love that groove. It’s absurd! And it slams pretty hard. Similarly strange choices abound all over this album. Take “Masks,” which sounds like a weird half-joke to me every time I hear it. Peter’s vocal delivery is just…goofy. Especially when he says: “MMMMasochistic MMMUmble of his act.” What an awesome and completely batshit vocalist!. And David Jackson’s contributions on that song HAD to be self-aware – these guys were too smart not to realize that he was essentially playing soft-porn sax music on that track. This is one of the more entertaining VDGG albums, but I can’t say it’s particularly representative of their sound. It’s also one of the weirdest albums I’ve ever heard – is the band trying to sound contemporary? Are they going for something for commercial? Album closer “Wondering” was released as a single, and it IS quite lovely and melodic for the boys. Not something you’d find on “Pawn Hearts,” that’s for sure. I could use less of the Banton bright organ synth on that one though. Anyway, there’s no “Pilgrims” level highlight here, but there’s no “My Room” either. And it’s actually a lot of FUN to listen to this record. It seeks new rhythmic pastures all over the place – “A Place To Survive” is the closest thing to an extended dance track these guys would ever put out. It keeps a pretty straight and heavy groove going for 10 minutes! I can totally imagine someone remixing and disco-fying that one. Peter is playing far more electric guitar than usual for him, and that adds a new element to the sound (and also helps turn up the sleaze factor, since his tone is rather gross and he’s a pretty limited player at this point). So 5 songs, every one worthwhile, lots of cool ideas and neat grooves. Not a masterpiece, but these guys already made a couple. This is their “stretchin’ out” album – did Genesis or Yes ever make a fucking “stretchin’ out” album? No they didn’t. And you know why? Because by the time this record came out, those guys had their heads so far up their asses they could barely move, let alone stretch out! Kudos to Hammill and the gang for lightening up a little. All I can say is that it’s a good thing this wasn’t their ACTUAL swan-song – it would be like Dylan throwing in the towel after “Self-Portrait!”
THE QUIET ZONE/THE PLEASURE DOME (1977)
A strange anomaly in the catalog, and a VERY strange record. The band was now simply “Van Der Graaf.” Hugh Banton and David Jackson were gone (though Jackson guests on a few tracks). And in addition to Peter and Guy Evans, we get old bassist Nic Potter and violinist Graham Smith. So this an organ-less combo, with a real bass, and horns replaced by strings!!??? That ain’t VDGG! The guys agreed, hence the dropping of the “Generator.” It’s still Peter though, and you can’t take the Hammill-isms out of Peter Hammill. But the sound here is significantly different than the past three albums – shorter songs, punchier and almost new wave-y rhythmic ideas, an edgier sound that shares some traits with Peter’s punky solo album “Nadir’s Big Chance” but really just sounds unique in the catalog. I actually think this line-up could have gone onto make a masterpiece, because this record SOUNDS awesome. The electric violin, coupled with Peter’s guitars (and there’s a lot of heavily strummed acoustic guitar this time out) and the always kick-ass Guy Evans’ drum style, makes for a totally raw and energetic atmosphere. There are a lot of art rock moves on this record, and some time signature trickery, but this is hardly a typical “prog” album. I don’t even know WHAT to compare the sound to.This one isn’t a masterpiece though – there a lot of great ideas on here, and some incredible tracks, but it’s too uneven and does indeed sound at times like a new band finding its footing. That being said – “Lizard Play” is a FANTASTIC album opener, and contains some of the best Hammill lyrics ever. “Iguana lady…” The grooves are totally twisted on that one, and there’s a gross punk-ish energy that propels the song in a welcomely vicious manner. And it’s got a newfound sense of garish humor. The strong opening track is followed by another big winner – “The Habit of the Broken Heart,” which is essentially a two part song. Peter’s compositions on this record tend to start with something poppy and groovy, and then veer off into unexpectedly strange and dissonant territories. “Habit” sports another fantastic lyric – Peter admonishing a lady friend not to allow herself to grovel in misery or get religion over some break-up or other upsetting event. It’s a a prime example of the two part song structure, beginning as it does with a funky new wave section and then turning into a harder to define weirdo-prog sorta 2nd half. The third track is for me the biggest flaw – “The Siren’s Song” – which is, sad to say, CORNY AS SHIT. And bland. With a generic melody. It reminds me of some of the material that starts to crop up on Peter’s later solo works – just a bit tired and dull and obvious. It doesn’t help that Potter broke out the fretless bass for that – yuck! That’s possibly the worst song to grace a Hammill album yet, and it leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Luckily, nothing else on the record stoops that low, but “The Wave” and “Last Frame” are also a bit unmemorable. The latter has some cool melodic ideas, but it never seems to take-off. The 2nd side of the record opens with by far the best song – and one of my all-time favorite VDGG tracks: “Cat’s Eye-Yellow Fever (Running).” It’s a totally high-strung piece of manic string-driven paranoia – the arrangement rules, and the song itself genuinely rocks. The next two songs are both cool and exciting to hear, but they never really stick with me – though “The Sphinx in the Face” has a killer opening bass groove. There are some moments on this record (particularly on the closer “Chemical World”) where Peter goes for melodic and arrangement changes that seem to make no sense at all – like he’s being self-consciously difficult and ugly. Some of the songs seem to self-destruct before they really get going. It’s really a weird record. And it gets a bad rap from a lot of fans and admirers – I can understand why…it’s pretty hard to get a handle on. But I think it’s excellent, and consider it an important VDGG release. I like the sound, the ideas, the forcefulness of the arrangements. There are no embarrassing prog moves or over-reaching. It’s a “comfortable” and fun album. And you just can’t be without “Lizard’s Play” and “Cat’s Eye!”
VITAL (LIVE) (1978)
Holy shit. This is the GROSSEST sounding album of the band’s career, and possibly the most absurd live album of any “classic rock” band. Parts of this are utterly mesmerizing in their distorted industrial ugliness, and parts of it are nearly unlistenable! There’s a basic sound at play here, and it crazily runs throughout almost the entire double album – a giant distorted fuzz bass, Peter’s crunchy and sloppy electric guitar, Guy Evan’s typically busy and propulsive drumming, and somewhere behind them a violin, cello, and David Jackon’s horns. Plus, Peter screams pretty much the entire time. He doesn’t really sell too much of the material melodically – he’s too busy shouting at us. The bass is the dominant feature – almost every track showcases Nic Potter’s crazy beefy distorted bad-ass tone. It’s totally weird hearing some of this material with that bass tone and without Hugh Banton’s organs – “Still Life” and “Pioneers Over C” are turned inside out and end up barely recognizable. The former, in particular, has Peter singing the entire opening quiet couple minutes against the cello and violin – non-chordal instruments! It’s so minimalist and awkward that at times it seems brilliant to me, and other times disastrous. It’s THAT type of album!! Unsurprisingly, the best moments on here come from the new material and the one “Quiet Zone” track (“Last Frame,” which is given perhaps an even better reading than the studio version). The new compositions are all pretty awesome and gritty, and could have led to the punkiest Hammill creation yet had the band recorded them for a new album. “Ship of Fools” and “Door” are both serious riff-monsters that verge on punk metal. “Urban” is the best new track – it’s got this sort of punk-prog Irish jig melody. ‘Tis especially awesome when the band breaks into an amazing version of the middle riff of “Killer,” a song I really wish was recorded in its entirety with this line-up. The ugly riff would have been a PERFECT fit for these distorted sounds. This album gets a lot of flack from fans, but I think it’s actually one of the most interesting and useful live albums I’ve ever heard come out of a 70s art rock band. The material is presented in a very different fashion from the studio versions, and the band is so raw and aggressive they seem like they’re deliberately trying to upset fans. Which excites me. And makes this sound like a true “prog-punk” record, which is a label often given to the group, but one which they rarely live up to in actuality. But this is a more venomous sounding work than anything I’ve ever heard come from Johnny Rotten or Mick Jones or Stiv Bators – and it rips apart old proggy standards and tells them to go fuck themselves. If THAT doesn’t put forth a punk ethos, I don’t know what does.
TIME VAULTS (outtakes) (1982)
This was a collection of demos and rehearsals from the “lost” VDGG period between “Pawn Hearts” and “Godbluff.” We hear the band tinkering around with a bunch of ideas, mostly intended for a “Pawn Hearts” follow-up that would never see daylight. The sound quality here ranges from serviceable bootleg lo-fi to nearly unlistenable distorted lo-fi. There’s a lot of jamming, and not too much actual songcraft. So this is obviously a fan’s only release, and a bit lacking even on that level. I don’t think it was ever meant as more than a little gift to fans from Peter – a chance to hear the band at play during some sessions that never turned into a proper album. Anyway, there are two major reasons to hear this album. The first is the opening track, “The Liquidator,” which could have been one of the best VDGG songs! It’s the cleanest sounding and most fully fleshed out thing on here, and the band would (surprisingly) never re-use it or lift from it on any further releases. It’s got a strong poppy melody, a lot of cool rhythmic ideas, and the playing sounds awesome on this rough recording. It would have certainly been one of the more accessible Hammill tracks had it made a record – it almost sounds like Gabriel-era Genesis. This collection is worth tracking down just for that track. The other relative winner is the short funky instrumental “Tarzan,” which is decently recorded and has an awesome groove. Unfortunately, nothing else on here really matters much. “Roncevaux” sounds like it was to meant be a big harsh emotional epic in the classic Hammill vein, but the sound quality is so bad it’s hard to latch onto anything from a compositional or sonic standpoint. “It All Went Red” and “Faint and Forsaken” are both hideously recorded instrumentals, though it’s fun to hear some undeveloped “Godbluff” themes cropping up at the end of the latter. There’s also a pretty much fully written version of “Black Room,” the final track from Peter’s 2nd album. That song is perhaps the most evil and menacing in the entire VDGG catalog, but neither Peter’s underproduced solo version nor this lo-fi rendition truly do it justice as recordings. That being said, the bad sound quality here helps push the grotesque and pummeling darkness of the song into an even MORE disturbing territory. If you’ve already experienced the song on the Hammill album, this version will at least be an entertaining listen from a historical standpoint. But I wouldn’t recommend this record to anyone but the most ardent VDGG fan.
For anyone following in the real time the increasingly disappointing and gigantic Peter Hammill’s catalog from 1988 – 2004, the idea of a serious VDGG reunion must have seemed incredibly unnerving. Would Peter bring his corny keyboard sounds? Would the songs lack hooks and energy? Would this just SUCK, and leave a big stain on a classic band’s discography? And to make matters less certain, this was Peter’s first big project after his serious heart attack in 2004. WELL…I think most fans agree that this turned out just fine. I’d say it’s not only by far the best album Peter had been involved in since the 80s, it’s also a totally respectable and sometimes even magical reunion record. This is the classic mid-70s 4 piece (David Jackson, Guy Evans, Hugh Banton, and Hammill), and they sound like older versions of their younger selves. But that’s a GOOD thing. They aren’t trying to update the sound, or fit in with any trends. There’s no attempt at re-writing the old epics either – this is a short and generally groove-oriented record that grew out of a bunch of improvisations (the band even saw fit to include a whole 2nd disc of those improvisations). As such, it’s one of the least substantial albums the band ever cut, with a running time of 38 minutes and no particular composition standing out. But it’s VERY solid. And the guys bring back a lot of the old experimental spirit, and even some of the evil tones and dissonance. Peter couldn’t be totally convinced to leave his bad electric piano sounds at home, but they’re used pretty tastefully here – I only really notice ’em on the opening and closing tracks. Granted, there are only 6 tracks! So let’s break them down, shall we? The opener is the closest thing to a Hammill solo song – “Every Bloody Emperor” – which has a nice build and an OK melody, but some fairly obvious political lyrics. It’s probably my least favorite track on the record, and the least old-school VDGG. Next up is a neat and intense instrumental called “Boleas Panic” – it really just sounds like one of the jams on the bonus disc. Great organ/horn interplay, and Guy Evans destroys things with total grace as always. Third up is the overall highlight for me – “Nutter Alert” – which is an obvious attempt at sounding twisted and ugly. Just like the old days! It’s a super fun and weird song with a memorable shouted chorus hook, and it’s very idiosyncratic. Peter’s vocals are quite low and not particularly insane on large parts of this album, and they’re not even really the main focus….and that’s probably the biggest change from the old days. These guys obviously wanted to make a “band” record, and showcase their instrumental prowess over Peter’s voice and writing —- which is fine with me, considering the guy wouldn’t shut the fuck up with his fifty bad solo albums in the 90s! Next up is “Abandon Ship!” which is mainly just this repeated sleazy organ/sax riff and a great but mostly monotone Hammill vocal full of fun phrasing ideas. It reminds me of the “sleazy” part in “The Sleepwalkers,” and it’s quite possibly the most comical song in VDGG’s history (this may be their lightest overall record, too). “In Babelsberg” is all gritty guitars and dirty riffing, and it’s so nice to hear this sound coming from a Hammill-related album after all those MIDI years! It’s almost like a “Nadir’s Big Chance” track, and more of a riff than a song. The album ends with the nearly 7 minute “On The Beach,” a lightening up of the more tension-filled early parts of the record. It’s a languid and mellow groove with a nice simple melody and a cool repeated hook (“Even the silver surfer agrees”). I wish the electric piano patch was different, but it doesn’t kill the song for me. You can specifically hear one of the guys (I’m guessing Guy Evans) mention “Surf’s Up” at the beginning, which is cute. So again – a very solid and enjoyable listen, if not a revelatory experience like classic-era VDGG. But all things considered, this could have sounded WAY worse, and that means it’s a successful reunion. The bonus disc of improvisations runs for 60 minutes – there are lot of great moments, and cool tones, and evil riffs, and if you’re a fan you should definitely listen to it through at least once. But it’s not essential listening – this has always been a composition band for me, and I’d rather hear new material than lengthy jam sessions.
So David Jackson left the band (he was probably thinking: “Well, that was fun, eh? Like opening up an old photo album. Now back to me ol’ life again. Wait – what? Another album? You must be bloody mad! You guys are for real about this thing?”) That left the band with a gaping hole in their sound, a hole they attempt to fill in with a heavier reliance on Peter’s pianos and guitars. But there’s an overriding sense that something’s missing from the arrangements on this record. This band’s dynamics really relied on those ugly sax sounds filling up the high end, and it wouldn’t be until the next record that they figured out a way around the hole by exploring new writing styles. HERE, they’re clinging to an old arrangement style and it doesn’t quite work. To make matters worse, Peter turned in some weaker material this time around. Not all of it – just about half of it. Where “Present” was a tight and focused but slight record, this one is more sprawling but also a bit more substantial. There’s more composition and less “grooves with screamed vocals.” But the album as a whole feels a bit amorphous – it’s the least defined and “important” sounding album the band ever released. The taste seems to have lapsed a bit in other areas as well – to my ears the album title sounds nerdy and neo-proggy and reminds me of Genesis’ “And Then There Were Three” title. I just don’t like the idea of referencing your lineup changes as part of your album title. And that COVER! Yuck! Three old guys standing in some sort of warehouse holding a triangle of light with some dated Photoshopped red text. This looks like your Daddy’s VDGG. And it sort of sounds like it too – where are all of Hugh’s evil organ tones? He uses way too many straight-forward sounds here. The dissonance that came from Hugh clashing with Jackson is obviously gone, and Hugh is left to produce all that menace by himself (save for the welcome moments when Peter whips out the electric guitar). And Hugh doesn’t even really try – this is the least evil sounding VDGG record of em all. And Guy Evans almost seems like an afterthought on this album, as this is ALSO the least interesting VDGG record from a rhythmic perspective. It might sound like I’m being too hard on the guys – but they set up their own high standards, and I just want to make it clear that of the three reunion records so far released, this is obviously the least essential. But here’s the biggest issue with the record: the sequencing is WAY out of whack. The album opens with the cute surf-rocky instrumental “The Hurly-Burly,” a unique way to start things off, very unlike the band, but also not much of a track in the end. Then we get what’s probably the best piece overall – the twisted oddity “Interference Patterns,” which has Hugh and Peter weaving together a bunch of crazy keyboard parts and Guy savagely keeping up with it all. It’s maybe a bit “proggy” in the negative sense – complexity for the sake of it – but it’s mostly riveting and insane. But then we’re dropped into nearly fifteen minutes of the worst material yet to grace a VDGG record. Three songs, all of them at the bottom of the band’s quality chart. The first two are both slow and quiet songs – “The Final Reel” and “Lifetime” – which makes the album suddenly sound like a late-90 Hammill solo record. They’d be highlights on one of those records, for sure – but those records’ highlights can’t touch the hem of the garment of the best VDGG tracks. Not enough happens on either song, they’re melodically inert, and frankly folks – they’re just fucking boring. Then comes straight-forward groovy guitar rocker “Drop Dead,” which sorta sounds like a Peter solo K Group track and has an OK riff, but it doesn’t really go anywhere and doesn’t sound particularly raw or unpredictable (like the best Hammill rockers do). It ends up coming dangerously close to “Dad Rock” territory. So that’s a weird throwaway instrumental opener and three sub-par tunes — all stacked into the album’s opening half! Yikes. Luckily, the last four tracks are totally on par with the “Present” material, and sometimes even surpass it. “Only In A Whisper” is another quiet solo-Hammill sounding track, but it’s also gorgeous and delicate and jazzy and the band plays with a lot more freedom. “All That Before” is a really fun and convincing rocker about old age, with a totally disgusting and heavy guitar tone, an awesome melody, and a ton of exciting rhythmic ideas. Album closer “(We Are) Not Here” is dark riff-driven melodramatic psychedelia. That leaves the 12 minute “epic,” “Over The Hill,” which some fans consider the closest thing the reformed band has fashioned to classic. It’s a nice track, with some storng melodic ideas and classic Hammill moves, but it’s hardly a “Godbluff”-style classic. It’s more of a series of above-average late period solo-Hammill style peaceful melodies strung together with some harsh darker evil riff passages that could really use David Jackson!!! I like the track, but it sounds more like an older group’s professional and competent attempt to recapture their old vibe rather than the real thing itself. So in total, this is the least forward thinking and most redundant VDGG of them all. It’s a must hear for a big fan as it’s got a lot of good moments – but it’s certainly one of the last records you need to hear if you’re just getting into this great band.
REAL TIME (LIVE) (2007)
After “Present,” it came time for the re-formed Van Der Graaf’s to tour. And this is a document of their FIRST show – a lengthy sold out affair at the Royal Festival Hall in London. This is the entire show, without edits, and therefore full of roughness around the edges. Hammill isn’t quite on his game vocally here, and things could use a little polishing on the instrumental end. But the band sounds pretty amazing throughout, and the old spirit is totally there. The setlist is epic (they even do a version of “In The Black Room” from Peter’s 2nd solo album). The crowd must have loved seeing these guys back together, playing these old classics after so many years with only a minor and acceptable amount of the ferocity and passion gone from their performance. that being said, this is more of a historical document than a worthy record. You’d be better off sticking to the albums proper. But it’s sure fun to listen to once or twice – and it’s a joy to hear in Peter’s stage banter how much he loves and appreciates this resurgence of his old band.
A GROUNDING IN NUMBERS (2011)
A giant step up, and a very different kind of album from the previous two. And that’s right: an “A” range record from a bunch of 60 year old art rockers. I can hardly believe it myself – but this is the best record Hammill has been a part of since the 70s, and one of the best “reunion” albums to come out of a 70s band, period. It sits perfectly comfortably in my brain next to all the classic era records – it doesn’t sound old or tired or obvious. It seeks new ground while retaining the essential spirit and groundwork the classic years laid down. AND – it’s the most eclectic record the band ever put out! It’s like their “White Album!” You’ve got a languid Hammill ballad (“Your Time Starts Now”) a couple snarling tangled K-Group sounding rockers (“Embarrassing Kid” and “Highly Strung”), some funky warped jams straight outta “World Record” (“Smoke,” “5533”), and some classic epic sounding stuff (“All Over The Place,” “Bunsho”). The songs are shorter, there are some little instrumental miniatures, the flow is awesome, and there’s hardly any wasted moments. They brought in famed engineer Hugh Padgham to mix this beast, and that was a GREAT idea. The outside ears help re-frame the band’s sound – and Padgham is such an old pro, he mixes the trio (still no David Jackson here) to sound way more powerful and muscular than they did on “Trisector.” Hammill plays a lot of grimy electric guitar on here too, which brings to mind Nadir and keeps things down to Earth. And I haven’t even mentioned my two favorite tracks! First there’s the totally killer “Mr. Sands,” which is sort of similar groovy prog tune to “All That Before” and “Abandon Ship” from the previous records, but far outpaces them with a better melody, better arrangement, and better vocal performance from Peter. And “Snake Oil” is a short suite that sounds like it came straight out “Godbluff,” as it moves from a melodic verse into an evil middle section and back again with epic grace. I’m so happy these guys are still able to conjure up this much magic without losing sight of their past achievements. It’s truly rare. The only problem with this album is that it picks up steam as it goes on: the opener “Your Time Starts Now” sounds like an above-average solo Hammill track, with a questionable piano sound, and second song “Mathematics” is a quieter piece and a grower that doesn’t quite grab you at first. They’re not really good signposts for the variety and creativity soon to come on the rest of the record, even if they’re both strong compositions (and eventually elevated by the bad-assery of the accompanying tracks). There’s a bit of a conceptual framework here – something to do with mathematics. But the music is king on this baby, and it’s really something. I’d highly recommend this to any old fan of the band – even if that fan’s skepticism has increased after years of weak solo Hammill and the less-than-stellar “Trisector.” I’d even recommend this to new fans curious to hear what these guys are all about – this may indeed be the most accessible VDGG ever made. I don’t mean that in a bad way – it’s hardly a pop record, but rather a relatively brief distillation of most of the best ideas these guys have put forth over the years. The epitome of a return to form.