Van Der Graaf Generator
The Lineup Card (1968-2004)
Peter Hammill (vocals, guitar, keyboards)
Guy Evans (drums)
Hugh Banton (organ, bass) 1970-1977
Keith Ellis (bass) until 1970
Nic Potter (bass) 1970, after 1977
Dave Jackson (woodwinds) after 1969
Graham Smith (violin) after 1977
VDGG (as all the cool kids call 'em when they're not playing Cribbage or searching out first edition Dutch translations of Wodehouse novels from estate sales) are a seminal if seriously forgotten (at least in the US) proto-progressive rock band fronted by uber-prolific singer/songwriter Peter Hammill. Factually, I know next to nothing about Van Der Graaf Generator except the following:
1. They are, in fact, not German, but are rather English. Though they may as well have had a strong influence in Krautrock, they really don't cotton to that sort of sound. If anything, in their classic '68-'70 epoch they sounded something like a less apocalyptic Court/Poseidon-era King Crimson fronted by a highly emotional John Cale/Marc Bolan hybrid.
2. Thought their first album was released in 1968 and therefore prefigured the whole Court thing by several months, they're not considered to have attained true 'progressive rock' status until at least their second record, and indeed only their third and fourth records really feel like they belong in a conversation next to Yes or Jethro Tull.
3. VDGG broke up following 1970's Pawn Hearts so Hammill could start his lifelong project of releasing a new solo album for each day he was alive, excepting Sundays and days when Arsenal hosted a home match. However, since his early solo albums often featured some or all of his VDGG bandmates, the line between Hammill and VDGG became blurrier than Ted Kennedy's vision at the Kentucky Derby.
4. They reformed in 1975, thus having completely missed out on prog's '71-'73 commercial peak. They spent out the Seventies releasing quiet little greyscale albums that impressed neither their hardcore prog berzerkoid Pawn Hearts fans nor the record buying public. Hell, even Peter Hammill fans thought the stuff was roundly inferior to the things he was doing simultaneously under his own name. Then they released a shit-pants live album and closed up shop in 1978.
5. Nowadays, it's hard enough to find anyone who knows who VDGG were outside of the insular little music-fetishist clubs like Music Babble or prog.com, except in Russia. There, along with the Scorpions and Tom Waits, they enjoy a bizarre, shockingly large cult following amongst the former music underground. Leave it to the Russians to latch onto something long-obsolete and unfashionable like a bear trap on a hunter's ankle, while somehow never figuring out the Kinks existed.
VDGG recently reformed for a short concert tour a few years back which I didn't see, and recorded an album I heretofore do not own, possibly proving that my theory that the band has been 'forgotten' is somewhat overrated. I'm sure your hardcore prog fans still know who they are, but whenever your band is several rungs lower than even Gentle Giant on the classic rock familiarity ladder, you're probably not necessarily a household name. Of course, Peter Hammill's been a cult figure ever since being (unshockingly) mentioned as an influence by David Bowie and Johnny Rotten. At times, listening to Peter you can hear exactly the phrases and pronunciations, crescendoes and catcalls Die-vid would ape to much greater commercial impact just a few years later. The connection to Rotten is less obvious, but still pretty apparent if you pay attention. Hammill was a sort of English Jim Morrison, not in the get-fat-and-drunk-and-wave-your-Willie-over-Miami-like-the-Pope-blessing-the-masses-with-his-scepter sort of way, but in that volatility, that emotional temperature kept so near the boiling point that it's impossible to predict whether Peter will hiccup, yelp, or whisper the next line. He's just as likely to boil over or freeze over with his lyrics - half stilletto-sharp imagery of violence and fear, loss and disappointment, half goofball sci-fi hysterics that make Peter Gabriel look like Merle Haggard. There's another probable Hammill disciple - Peter Gabriel. Both were theatrical as hell, it's just that Genesis were several notches better as a band and Gabriel, you know, could really sing when he wanted to.
Musically, VDGG prop themselves up with lots of minor chords and modal melody lines over that tricky, snare-intensive tippity tap drumming style that everyone was using in 1969. They use a Hammond organ instead of a Mellotron, lots of saxophone, and fuzzed out, aharmonic guitar work, often courtesy of Bob Fripp, who was evidently a big fan of this band during King Crimson's lean post-Greg Lake years. Technically they're no Troggs, but then again, for prog players none of these folks ever distinguished themselves as anything special. At least they shy away from extended solo workouts, like King Crimson, when they improvise, it tends to be as a big, sloppy, quivering whole.
The King Crimson musical connection is simply impossible to deny - VDGG is never as sweeping or as anthemic as the best early Crimson, but there's that similar reliance on group atmospherics and a general mood of, if not creeping evil, then assuredly an inescapable darkness. When Hammill sings 'I hope the dreams will still come true', he sure as shit doesn't sound like any dreams are going to come true any time soon...so you better get on with your melancholy brooding already. Over the course of several records, the nihilism gets a bit exhausting (I mean, even the National Socialists had an ethos!), and VDGG albums never achieve the same sort of cumshot finishes that, say, Court of the Crimson King did, where you know you've arrived at a completely different place from which you started. Rather than soar, VDGG albums tend to sort of lie there and wiggle, but they still sound assloads better than Lizard.
Aerosol Grey Machine
- Repertoire. 1968
Would I flunk AP Progressive if I were to claim that, like Bob Dylan's, the unheralded, forgotten first album by VDGG is my favorite? Jesus, I love this record, at least the first 3/4ths or so, until the end of the second side descends into disgusting noise like I've not heard since staying a night at a Motel 6 in a room adjacent to Senator Brownback and approximately a half dozen Peruvian llamas. Prog fans dismiss it because this is far closer to the 'art-rock' of early Procul Harum or Pink Floyd than it is fucking Pictures at an Exhibition, but fuck that. It was 1968...whaddya want, 'The Revealing Science of God'? Of course you don't, and that's one of the reasons this album has become my major rediscovery of the last several months - this album has almost nothing to do with 'progressive' cliches as we've come to know them (and as VDGG themselves would later come to embrace). Some songs are extended, but they're not padded out with show-offy solo spots or endless reams of go-nowhere lyrics. VDGG use their time to create a mood, usually one of tremendous tension (though definitely not always), and then let it go to see if it can ever free itself and reach some semblance of comfort. It never does - the thumbscrews get twisted tighter and tighter until we're in such dire straits not even our ambivalent guide Hammill can resist howling along with the tortuous bastards.
Have I maybe gone a bit off the edge into Hyperboleville with that last paragraph? Shit, probably, but it's not often I connect emotionally with a sequence of songs like I have with the first half dozen or so tracks on Aerosol Grey Machine. 'Aftermath' could be construed as a run-of-the-mill hippy-dippy bit of acid rock muffleheadedness ('the world's too beautiful!'), but it sounds like Hammill is clinging to these visions of pretty little flowers and perfect love in an attempt to keep from breaking down completely and pulling a Syd Barrett on our ass. Even then, the song admits the 'petals that were blooming are just paper in your hand', and the love affair dries up and blows away. 'Orthentian St.' as a come-on to optimism, an escape to the adventures of the sea and away from the damned 'motorways'. It ends with the lines 'we're off on our sea trip, the water may be cold in the bay, but we're safe in our sailing ship. And if the ice forms, you can walk onto land, and still cling to my hand, if you still want to.' The song then ends with a slowly accelerating, accelerating series of cascading drums, like waves crashing against the hull. The journey will be damned difficult, but he's willing to trust himself if you will...just have faith, and you can make it. If you try.
'Running Back' is the deflation of the myth, the destruction of the trust, the smoking ruins of the relationship. Holy God the ship wasn't enough to make us safe, and the ice broke beneath our feet as we attempted to seek shelter back on dry land. Peter's intonation of the line 'I thought I'd make it, yes I really thought I'd make it' makes it sound like he's lost the last shred of confidence in himself. Now, it's pretty clear these two songs are not intentionally connected ('Running Back' actually sounds like a sort of love song, in a twisted way), but the emotional impact of the contrast between the two is undeniable. The storm gathers on 'Orenthian St.', and we see the aftermath, the loss, the regret on 'Running Back'. 'Into a Game' is simply the pounding of the final nail into whatever there ever was between this couple...they're no longer communicating as real people to each other, but are rather 'acting charades' and engaged in a 'game'. This song is violent, Hammill's vocals reaching punkish hysterics at several points, and it's about this point if you wonder whether these guys even own a Happy Face they can put on, if even for a little bit.
Evidently, they do, but they only use it for about 46 seconds for the goofy softshoe title track, about being dosed with acid by a stranger, evidently. Still, the comic relief (as well as the snazzy waltz instrumental that follows) is welcome, because believe you me, things get weird again with 'Aquarian', a Floydian space rock tune laying back on a grumbling bassline and a deliberate tempo straight out of an acid dream. Funnily enough, Hammill mocks the term 'happy faces' on this song, not only slicing a big hole in the reasonably good feeling we started to gather, but also creepily referring to the last line of the previous paragraph, which I wrote almost 40 years since this album came out. 'Aquarian' has this odd key change on the chorus - they move to a bunch of joyous major chords and start singing of 'looking to the sun in every direction', as if they actually believe in this Great Shared Mind hippie bullshit or something. Myself? I don't trust anything that sounds this sinister as Peter goes off about seas ships and 'freedom' - I've already seen that movie, thanks. I mean, the ambivalence of this song is absolutely insane...it's clear that the point was to get as close to the enemy as possible before jabbing the shiv beneath the ribcage, smirking all the while.
Okay, so the album, which so far has been just about flawless, begins to his a rough patch with the unconvincingly heavy 'Necromancer', a completely unironic song about, well, a Magician. Like David Henning or that Blackwell guy who sold my friend Brian several magic kits when I was 7 years old, but since my friend had the manual dexterity and fine motor control of a Katherine Hepburn on meth, never resulted in a successful trick even once. I mean, how hard is it to do that stupid card trick where you look at the bottom card of the deck every time, and then somehow 'read' the guys mind? Not fucking very, man. Anyway, Peter wants us to make sure we understand this Necromancer guy, who we better well fucking believe in or he'll make us into smoking piles of ash in a blink of an eye, is in actuality a white magician. Well, isn't that nice? Maybe Mr. Happy Potion can be a bit less insistent about us having to believe in him if he's going to then turn around and claim he's all for babies and flowers and little bitty bunnies and stuff. It's been said that this song somewhat prefigures Black Sabbath, which I guess is accurate on some shallow level, but Black Sabbath made sure everyone understood where the real power lies - in Iommi's stub of a middle finger cranking out detuned C power chords through a wall of Laneys larger than the Pentagon. Needless to say, VDGG lacks that certain 'metal' element.
There's none of that idiotic vagary on 'Octopus', though, a jarring, slashing rocker that symbolizes Peter's struggle against a red-headed hottie and his love for her, which will 'enfold' him and never let him reach the freedon of the 'blue sea' (there's that damned sea metaphor again. What was that? Did he have some chick not want him to tour America with Tyrannosaurus Rex or something?). He finally surrenders, and is 'pulled under' in a horrific maelstrom of organs and bass throbs as he screams 'I KNOW YOU TOO WELLL!!!' Holy christ, Peter! It's just some ho, G. Just kick the bitch outta bed, and tell her to get her nappy weave out of your apartment before you pick up your GATT and start to perforate a bitch. Then smoke some Cheeba and make sure all your hos came through with the money last night. We wouldn't want Peter to have to murder a bitch, you would we?
Yup, apparently Peter wanted to travel overseas and some lady told him not to, because 'The People You Were Going To' is a doofy bit of nothing about missing out on some overseas trip (either to America or Africa, evidently). This and 'Firebrand' are apparently bonus tracks, and both are absolutely horrendous. The vocals on 'Firebrand' sound like someone gave a microphone to a random passerby and told him to read the lines in a voice like someone performing Richard III with a hot poker located some six to eight inches up their left nostril. Then there's some angry bumblebee fuzz guitar and an organ being sat on, all crammed into the right channel, leaving Shakespeare to pontificate unabetted in the left. Which is as close to death as I can stand.
Capn's Final Word: Holy shit, haven't I said enough? Buy the bastard!
Definitely a hit in the solar plexus compared with the varied, emotionally charged debut, a painting that was made with lots of different colors. This one? Well, if drab, depressing jazz rock is a color, then Sherwin Williams must have had a helluva sale in 1969, because The Least We Can Do (apt title, that) is awash in it. I suppose it was inevitable, but VDGG's move further into distinct prog territory takes its first major steps here - there's an eleven-minute monstrosity about the end of the world, and 4 out of the 5 other tracks are longer than 6 minutes each. Moreover, this album feels like it was made by people who were acting as serious and 'progressive' as possible - pretty much all of the songs are a collective downer, with none of the brilliant ups and downs like 'Orenthian St.'/'Running Back' or intriguing, confused little things like 'Aquarian'. The Least We Can Do sounds like it was made to impress the King Crimson crowd - the Traffic-y jazz improvisation is expanded, the whimsy and humor is torn out completely and tossed out the window. Now, I understand that 1969 was not exactly the most optimistic of years, and the end of the world probably seemed a whole helluva lot closer then than it had in a long time. Still, there's more than one way to translate apocalyptic fever to music, and the way that's chosen on 'After the Flood' is the wrong damn one. Somehow, the soundtrack to my vision of the watery destruction of every Starbuck and Chuck E. Cheese from here to Timbuktu doesn't include several minutes of some asshole leaning his forearms on a Hammond organ keyboard while some chump attempts to channel John Coltrane in a flurry of overdubs. The rest of the album never gets as outwardly ugly as that, but I almost wish it did. The lazy, meandering tempos of 'Darkness', reprised nearly in full on the deadly dull 'White Hammer' could use something, anything to save them from the never-ending doldrums of too many droning minor chords underpinned by gutless, pointlessly snippy drums from Guy Evans, who apparently gets lots of good press as some sort of master musician of the bunch. I certainly don't get that...to me, he sounds like he's trying to ape Michael Giles (first King Crimson band) all the time, while saxist David Jackson is just Chris Wood with a penchant for free-jazz hackdom. At least on this album, they are. You put them on a record with some hooks, you may have something.
That said, there is an emotional high point on the record (and no, it's not when Hammill screeches out an electronic belch of 'ANNN-II-HILLL-A-TION!!!' on 'After the Flood' in a voice so cheesily processed that it would make Karn Evil 9 blush.) It's on 'Refugees', the one track here that has some hints of light, or at least bittersweet longing (if you can't get anything truly upbeat, you'll have to take what you can get). It's also the only track with any true melodic sense, subtlety, or craft - the one place that wasn't hewn by hacking away with an axe, anyway. Peter's cries for Mike and Suzie, apparently the people who he'd wanted to go to America with, are oddly affecting ('West is Mike and Suzie! West is where I love!'), even if I have no idea why somebody would go to all the trouble of name-checking two people that no one has any idea about. I'll say it's legendary investigative journalist Mike Wallace (of 60 Minutes and skin cancer fame) and Suzi Quatro (of shit pop-rock and tight buttocks fame) and Hammill is reminiscing about the wall-shattering, teeth-gritting menage-a-trois they had one night in late 1967, involving a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon, several species of flowering cacti, and a fully operational Caterpillar road grater. What, would you rather I have said Peace and Love and Kindness and all that shit? I needs my perversions, Mr. Chips.
Okay, so this album more or less blows it. Big fans of it, in my opinion, must either be absolutely in love with the sound of a bass and organ playing minor 3rd intervals over and over again while Captain Snareaddict taps away at his drums with sticks that sound like they're thinner than No. 2 pencils and the sax player gets 'far out', or they're so in love with the idea that something is 'progressive' that they lose all sense of melody, dynamic, or emotional impact. Just like the band did when they recorded this record, in fact.
Capn's Final Word: A grey, unengaging monolith that finds the Genderbenders indulging in some of the worst prog tendencies. It's a shame the kids got perverted so.
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Your Rating: B+
Any Short Comments?: You forgot to mention the worst wah-wah solo ever recorded, by Nic Potter on Whatever Would Robert Have Said? But Out Of My Book is as sweet and gentle as anything they ever did. The original CD issue suffers from TERRIBLE mastering as well.
He to He, Who Am the Only One
- Blue Plate 1970
All right, it's the Least We Can Do done right, meaning that it has songs that make you feel something besides sleepy and irritated. The sound is still more or less the same (not surprising, considering there's only so much a band can do with a tonal palate consisting of only vocals, keyboards, bass, drums, and saxophone. I suppose Bob Fripp adds a few of his sustain-o-matic guitars here and there, but this is still very much a Singin' 'n' Organ Band otherwise), but the songwriting and production both belie a clarity that was totally lost on the last record. H to He is good, in other words...the type of prog album that anybody who's not so allergic to overstatement, dramatism, and the blind pursuit of unbridled fantasy. Oh, and musical passages both big and noisy which probably owe more to Berlioz than Berry. But what's wrong with all that? A bit of musical chutzpah now and then can cleanse the digestive system and, you know, broaden the mind or something. Or at least sound really fucking cool while you're cooking dinner or something. For some reason, lately I've been listening to 20th century classical music while cleaning the house, and bizarre prog for when I'm cooking. Of course, when my wife's home, it's 80's and 90's pop, with the occasional foray into Radiohead territory now and then. I tried to play Discipline when she was home a couple of weeks back and she had such a bad reaction, I thought her head was going to fly off, buzz around the room a couple of times, and then zoom off to Taco Cabana for an enchilada platter with jalapenos.
Oddly enough, H to He always seems to me like it's running time is about 20 minutes long - for an album with 5 songs, two of which are longer than 10 minutes, that's quite a feat. The only other prog records I can point to that have a similar effect are Red and Relayer, two of my absolute ding-dong good-time favorites of the genre. It helps that things kick off on a high note - 'Killer' is probably the band's best-known single track, a lurking, sweepingly devilish little number with lyrics that, well, pretty much perform a kitchen table psychoanalysis of a shark. That's right. Pete doesn't see fit to merely rest on the 'you're a big, mindless murder machine' angle like so many others who have written about fish with pointy teeth - he sympathizes with Jaws that he must be pretty lonely out there when everybody assumes he's going to eat them all the time. Yup, it's a rough life out there when you have the mental capacity of a pinto bean, weigh 1500 pounds, and have six rows of razor-sharp fangs that you just can't help but gnash, gnash GNAAASHH all the time. You simply can't catch a break. No one wants to hire you, you are a hopeless piano player, and dating is always awkward because you always end up disemboweling your date at the end of the night when she refuses to kiss you at her apartment door. So the Tale of the Lovelorn Selachimorpha continues on through a veritable encyclopedia of horrifying prog noises parading past (my favorite is the thing that sounds like the electric viola, but is most likely just Fripp having fun in the studio), capped off as usual by a harrowing vocal by Hammill ('DEATH IN THA SEA! DEATH IN THA SEA!') and the saxophonist's wild and wacky octave wails. All in all, everything you could hope for in a song about a sea creature.
'House With No Door' couldn't be more different than 'Killer', but it's every bit as great - a piano ballad that sounds more Nick Drake than Nick Mason (okay, so Nick Mason's a drummer, and the drumming on this track actually sounds a lot like him. Go ahead and shoot me for my awful attempt at a turn of phrase then, you Philistine!) and that patented VDGG melancholic tone, a bittersweet flux of emotions ever suited to a song about loneliness and loss. It's just this type of track that differentiates the Degenerator from their prog competition - I suppose Genesis could make songs like this, but Yes couldn't without making them sound positively ridiculous, and King Crimson couldn't without making them sound apocalyptic and suicidal. Hammill appears, beyond all reasonable expectations, to be a real life human being, albeit one with a slight happy-happy-joy-joy deficit, and he's learned how to telegraph when he's writing songs about emotions ('Running Back', 'House with No Door') and when he's writing about stuff ('Killer', 'Pioneers Over c.'). After 'House', the rest of this album is about stuff, which means it's a bit easier to take from a listener's point of view, though it's somewhat less rewarding than the rollercoaster first half of Aerosol Grey Machine. Instead of confessionals and odes to lost love, you get 'The Emperor in His War Room', about that stinking war business. There's lots of parallels to Black Sabbath's 'War Pigs' here lyrically, if you look for them, though musically it's just a variation on 'Killers' with a rather cool jazz-funk section at about the fifth minute featuring overdubbed Fripps tangling all over each other (I'm glad they used guitar there instead of the usual sax nonsense - hearing all those dives and screams from three or four Fripps is one thing, from three or four soprano saxophones is something else entirely.).
'Lost' is yet another groovy piece of work. Pretty lightweight and airy for an extended prog piece, parts of it sound like the Chicago Transit Authority (for chrissakes!) more than a killer bunch of British John Coltrane fans. What it does lack is cohesion - compared to 'Killer', it's just a collection of moments, a string of somewhat related passages that pass by with varying success. I'm still not convinced when this band does it's patended jazz freakout thing - it always seems to come along right when the number of ideas in the song has begun to dwindle. 'Pioneers Over c.' goes for the sci-fi approach but fails at the atmosphere - this band only does space-y to a certain degree of success. They never let that weightless mood set before turning on a dime into some illusion-breaking tweaked riffage. Again, as a whole, 'Pioneers' succeeds as a behemoth prog symphony but fails as a thematic, cohesive vision. Still, it never gets ugly for too long...just wait a few minutes and that dissonant saxophone will fall away into jungling wind chimes and acoustic gorgeousness for a minute or two before changing, I dunno, to a drunken Sousa march, and then a waltz, and then some electric fuzztone Bouzouki music or whatever. It sure as shit doesn't have much to do with interstellar travel, if you ask me.
For an album that contains two barn-burner moments and three tracks that are never any worse than okay, and are frequently quite juicy. Even the prog-for-prog's sake sections of 'Lost' and 'Pioneers Over c.', while definitely not the most engaging prog I've ever heard, is also pretty darned far from being the worst. H to He is a fully enjoyable record that simply doesn't have enough great tracks for me to want to pull it out as often as, say, Lark's Tongues in Aspic, which it seems to share a great deal of spirit.
Educational moment: H to He, by the way, references fusion of hydrogen molecules. Who Am the Only One references the fact that Peter Hammill ate an entire Smurf Village full of magic mushrooms in the year 1969 and could no longer tie his shoes without thinking he saw God in a wad of dirty bubblegum stuck to his sole.
Capn's Final Word: Not flawless, but it's got it where it counts. And the rest is just ummkay with me.
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Your Rating: A
Any Short Comments?: I was a big King Crimson fan my senior year of high school, and through this solo Robert Fripp album called "Exposure" I discovered Peter Hammill which eventually led me to this album. What I really liked about his tracks on "Exposure" was that he oversings, like, everything. The idea of oversinging dumb and trivial lyrics has been done by a zillion subpar comedians but Peter Hammill's voice can just be hilarious, especially in "House with no Door"...."I don't know you, you say you know me...THAT MAAAAY BE SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.....", I tells ya I laugh at that every time. I personally think this album kicks ass and I like all the songs...I'll have to get more by them. Haven't heard "Aerosol Gray Machine", but I do have "Pawn Hearts", and I like it a lot!
- Blue Plate 1971
Okay, so it's a fairly disappointing end to the first Van Der Graaf administration, but only because their reach has seriously exceeded their grasp here. Three songs. Nothing less than 10 minutes. A 23 minute song about the loneliness of a lighthouse keeper who sees ghosts all the time. All of it desperately wanting of the true instrumental flash a band like Yes could've provided it, anything to distract away from the fact that VDGG's vision is not merely complex, it's incoherent, schizoid. Pretty much the format is just 'Lost' and 'Pioneers Over c.' all over again, for an entire record, with portions of it consisting of some of the sharpest, most violent sections of music VDGG ever produced (the staccato section of 'Man-Erg' about three minutes into the song is simple brute force), and portions of it containing absolute mindless fuckabout that seems to drag on until next March before it finally snaps out of its self-obsessed indulgence. Van Der Graaf's instrumental sound has sometimes been described as 'claustrophobic', and I can certainly get where their coming from. None of these records are particularly well produced, but Pawn Hearts in particular seems to flatten out all of the instruments into a nearly dimensionless slab. I wouldn't say it's 'badly' produced - it's not muffled or noisy per se (the only 'badly' produced VDGG album was the second one, as far as I'm concerned) - but it's certainly a bit close for comfort. It feels like the instruments are playing on top of you. For example, on parts of 'Man-Erg', a song that seems to want to combine several 10th minute 'anthemic' codas so typical of prog epics and put a bunch of them into single song, this approach works. On the monumentally inscrutable 'Lemmings', the oppressive production is merely repulsive - the organ writhes in your face while the saxophone jams random pieces of debris into your ear canals. Only Hammill is stuck back in the bowels of the mix on 'Lemmings', and he's trying his damndest to stick out nonetheless...I've never heard more screeching, mugging, yipping, or howling from anyone who wasn't busy being attacked by a bear. It's something about people being pawns in someone else's game or whatnot, but he may as well be gakking out the play-by-play to an early 70's Man United - Arsenal Premiership match for all I can tell.
'A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers' is, f course, the point at which most right-minded people part from the Van Der Halen and never return - what else can you say about a song that's longer than most televised sitcoms, contains no laugh track, no Matt LeBlanc, and no curiously prominent erect nipples straining against camisole tops? More than that, what can you expect from a song this full of itself? Mr. Lighthouse Keeper decides he's had enough of the rough tower life - all that keeping the light lit, encountering ghosts of ex-sailors, endless games of Microsoft Solitaire on the tower laptop since the Boss is too cheap to spring for a lousy internet connection - and decides to off himself. However, as is wont by British pseudo-intellects who enjoy the smells of their own farts, he doesn't just jump off the roof and get it over with. No, he contemplates existence, life, and the power of cheese for a good 15 minutes, and by that time I've long since pushed the fucker off myself. As inscrutable prog song topics go, well, it's no 'Siberian Khatru', but it gives Hammill enough chances to ham it up on the mic as if somebody stomped his puppy's tail and shot Truth and Goodness with a Red Ryder BB Gun. He's absolutely unhinged, which is pretty normal if you've been following the thread so far. The problem is this - if lyrically it's a bit dodgy, musically it's a big fat nothing. You'd think that extending the track out this far would result in a few more moments that make sense, but you'd be absolutely wrong. Chord sequences and tempos come and go with only the faintest hint of why they're changing (apparently the song is divided into sections or movements, but since my MP3 isn't banded, I honestly don't have a fucking clue as to what they might be), they move from aimless, boring ballad-type airiness to offensive noise at a whim, the drumming is beatless, the saxophone hacks and coughs...do you get the idea? VDGG attempting to fill space, in other words. I will say that the coda section is nice, but after surviving the noise/metal/doom/cat-stuck-in-In-Sink-Er-Ator section at minute 18, just about anything reasonable would sound like the Salve of Goodness. 'Lighthouse' is definitely a low point of some sorts, the time when VDGG's good sense and taste was sacrificed on the mountain for the tribe, the blood fed to the gaping maw of Self Importance. THIS SONG IS SAYING SOMETHING. WHY CAN'T YOU FIND IT IN YOUR HEART TO DEDICATE THE PATIENCE AND CONSIDERATION TO IT! IT COULD change your life!! HOLY CHRIST WE HAD TO MAKE IT 23 MINUTES LONG BECAUSE EVERY WORD IS A NUGGET OF SWEET HARMONY AND TRUTH. JUST LIKE THE BIBLE. OR THE '365 DAY KITTEN CALENDAR' Edit it? Edit It! We couldn't edit it! You wouldn't ask which of your children you like the least, would you?
Capn's Final Word: Only 33% of these songs are something decent for our society. The rest have already eaten all our pigs and ravaged our fields. Let's not encourage them by inviting them in for tea, eh?
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- Blue Plate 1975
Now, here's where my ignorance of Pete Hammill's solo career stops being a mere annoyance and starts being a Phillips head screwdriver lodged 3 inches into my foramen ovale, because the Post Break version of VDGG is different than the Pre Break version used to be, like how Gandalf got all white and stopped being any fun after he fell down that Hell Hole in Lord of the Rings or how Lindsay Lohan stopped being sexy at all once she started screwing anything in Los Angeles County with a pulse and cab fare home. But the thing is, the old VDGG was a bit too strident and self-confident for their own good - a general toning down of the band's fascistic tendencies isn't just welcome, it's necessary for their survival. And if there's nothing else about this new Van Der Graaf Generator, it's definitely toned down. Yeah, Hammill still hollers and grunts with impunity, and it's still clearly a prog rock band playing prog rock sounds (you know, time signatures and saxophones and all that mess), but things are muted, subdued...damn near comatose at times. Unlike Pawn Hearts, there's nothing at all on Godbluff that makes me grab my ears and run for the hills, but I can't remember a goddamned thing about it after it's done and I've listened to it way more times over the last several days than I care to admit. The best thing I can say about it, besides my oblique reference to its inherent non-offensiveness, is that it's consistent - VDGG crank up into a semi-space rock groove, tinged with their own peculiar walls-closing-in ensemble sound, and ride that sucker off into the sunset like Dennis Hopper on his teardrop fuel tank. The best moments on Godbluff (the middle instrumental section of 'Sleepwalkers' comes to mind) are when the band is allowed to keep balling that jack for several minutes, widening the groove and sounding, at least for a little while, like a legitimate rock band. Hammill just blathers arhythmically for the entire album, but Lord knows that's to be expected by now. The production is bad enough that most of his lyrics just come out as sub-Damo Suzuki mouth noises anyhow, so this 'Hendrix of the voicebox' (their words, not mine. He's more of a Ron Asheton of the voicebox, as far as I'm concerned, but that's no insult in my parlance). Hammill is really only coherent on the first passage of 'The Undercover Man', and that's mostly just because the band hasn't warmed up to its usual rolling boil yet. The rest of the lyrics may as well just be a series of pops and whistles as far as I'm concerned, but that doesn't affect my lukewarm enjoyment of this record in any way.
What's more problematic is that this thing, in reality, just takes 'A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers'-style mishmash, strips it of most of its guts, and applies it to an entire record. Hammill's never been much of one for choruses, but if there's a single unified melody or hook on this album, it comes when I start humming Bow Wow Wow's seminal paedophile anthem 'I Want Candy' as I take it out of the CD player. The track numbers change, but the band's sound never does - within a song they may move from touching ballad to the abovementioned free-ranging space rock, but song-by-song, this crap is the same thing over and over again, and I can't remember a damn bit of it after it's done other than the fact that it 'sounds like Van Der Graaf Generator'. I guess bland competence counts for a lot when you're operating a toll booth or rearranging a shop shelf full of adult incontinence products, but for a rock and roll band it's a funeral dirge - here, Van Der Graaf sacrifices its previous demon - foolhardily pretentious risk taking - and conjures a new one: BOREDOM.
Capn's Final Word: Incoherent, messy, and maddeningly resistant to presenting things in a digestible manner? Must be Van Der Graaf Generator!
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- Blue Plate 1976
Better...this is a form of VDGG that I can embrace as they make a righteous attempt to inject true melody within their long, meandering songs. As a direct result of that, the grooves are allowed to flesh out nicely. Add in the usual Hammill over-emoting over graphomaniacally convoluted themes such as, uh, loneliness and apocalypse and why leftover waffles grow hair on them if you don't touch them for a week, and you've got yourself probably the most subdued and conventionally listenable VDGG album so far. It's also probably the least Van Der Graaf-y of their releases so far (even Aerosol Grey Machine sounds more tempestuous than this record), so of course most fans see it as a step down from Godbluff. I personally saw that album as one long, boring piece of prog-flavored hackwork, while this thing actually provokes some interesting reactions in me. 'La Rossa' is supposedly the least appealing song on here, but I don't detect a single point in which the groove, the lifeblood of the song, is sacrificed for the arbitrary changing of tempo, key, or time signature, which has been the bane of this band ever since The Least We Can Do. There's even a neato 'progworthy' section about 6 and a half minutes through, just to remind us that this band was once seriously mentioned in the same breath as King Crimson. Why most people snipe at the band's supposed marginalization on this record is beyond me - to me, they've rarely sounded more in control of the songs they're playing. Perhaps there's too many points where they're just bouncing along on chord sequences instead of arpeggiating and randomly soloing until the audiences' brains liquefy for those folks, but I can dig it on a fairly strong level.
The end of the record, however, is where I can agree with the naysayers. 'My Room (Waiting for Wonderland' is just flat-out embarrassing...a ballad 'featuring' Kenny G soprano sax tweedle-twaddle and Hammill doing a pinched falsetto that's too precious for proper digestion. Here, the album screeches to a dead halt while the band continues to stroke Hammill's prodigious ego for 8 minutes. Apparently, nothing this guy has to say is unworthy of being preserved on tape, so therefore he's allowed to keep saying it and saying it. It's fine when the band is percolating along with him and the mix is so bad everything coming out of Pete's mouth sounds like a pitch-shifted garble. When Hammill's exposed to the light, however, the man's descent into pointless, self-important wordiness becomes disgustingly apparent. Part of being a great lyricist is expressing or at least eliciting reaction with your songs, and Hammill's songs all feel like different cups of the same plain yogurt - depressing, melancholy, melodramatic - the man hasn't written a genuinely different song since 1969.
Things pick up a bit with the de rigueur 'Childlike Faith in Childhood's End', which sounds just like the first 2/3rds of the record except for an oddly refreshing disco feel to the main rhythmic passage. Things build up to an impressive level of heat here, mostly thanks to some snazzy Dave Jackson saxophone soloing. It's rare at this time that Hammill allows his band any space, no doubt fearing it'll divert attention away from his nonstop express train of pseudo-philosophical bullshit, but here's a point where it happens, and Jackson makes the most of it. In 1970, all he would've done was go Kaaa-WONK, Wacka-wacka-wacka! like a five year old attempting to perform Ornette Coleman.
Capn's Final Word: Still Life is a decent VDGG album in spite of the advancing Borg cloud of darkness that is Peter Hammill and his unwillingness to shut up or at least speak clearly, but the further I get through it the less I like it. Tread carefully, Pilgrim.
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- Blue Plate 1976
Hammill tempers his mouth diarrhea for a short while and allows this album to be dedicated to Van Der Graaf Generator the musicians rather than Van Der Graaf Generator the guys who play along unobtrusively until Hammill takes a breath then they wang and wank for all their worth until he elbows them aside and starts to rant again'. While Godbluff presented, to me at least, the conflict between Hammill and his band reaching a stalemate resulting in dullness, and Still Life the band attempting gamely to save face while their singer wrested absolute dictatorship over the tape, World Record actually presents a viable third option: give Hammill a guitar to distract him while the band actually gets to play for a bit. Yeah, when Hammill's singing it's still mighty rough going, but there's a looseness, a confidence to the music on this record that's been missing for quite some time. Listen to the sound of the band as the saxophone begins to ride that fonky riff about 3 minutes through 'A Place to Survive' - that's a band enjoying itself, and a band which enjoy itself makes better music than one that's being lorded over with a whip and a chair.
To be honest, this is the first VDGG album I've actually enjoyed since H to He - I respected the hubris on display on Pawn Hearts, and enthusiastically rooted for the band to rise up and throw off their chains on Still Life (only to ultimately be bitterly disappointed as Hammill shouted them down), but here is something I can wholeheartedly get behind. The band here even makes time to explore some new territory. As I said, Hammill plays some guitar, so the ensemble texture is automatically doubled, and the jazz freakout sections (check out the ending to 'Survive' for the first and best example) are enlivened as a result. Again, the emphasis here is on the fact that the groove is allowed to thrive. During the lean years of Godbluff and Still Life, the band had to learn to play coherently or risk being done away with altogether (leaving Hammill to do a capella or...ugh....spoken word solo albums, undoubtedly) and here they show off their new craft. Perhaps it just good feeling from this decent rocking (yeah, I said rocking), but even Hammill's bitching is easier to take here. At times (the savage 'Mask'), I even welcome it. He's still about as uplifting lyrically as watching puppies on fire, but when he says something daft and then proceeds to shut up for five minutes, is what he said nearly as irritating than if he'd expanded on it for ten minutes? Is Saturday Night Live now far less funny than the McNeil/Lehrer Report? You bet your ass, Margaret Thatcher.
Okay, well, so for Van Der Graaf Generator, World Record is damn near a miracle work, but for rock music as a whole it's still not much more than pretty decent. The endless my-best-friend-is-my-guitar jam tune 'Meuerglys III' is by far the best 20 minute song this band has ever done (meaning it's beaten out 'A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers', which is sort of like being voted the All-Time Most Attractive Female US Secretary of State), but it's still true that large portions of it are nothing more than dead air while the band gears up for some more jamming. And no matter what I've said thus far, Van Der Graaf Generator (especially with Hammill on barely competent electric guitar) is still an underwhelming set of instrumentalists. Comparing them to folks like Yes or the roughly concurrent Bruford/Wetton era King Crimson is ridiculous. These guys are closer in their instrumental prowess to people like and Supertramp and Pink Floyd (who they shamelessly ape on 'Moo Glyph 16 1/2' or whatever that thing's called). In fact, they're far below even Pink Floyd, who never once sounded aimless between the years 1971 and 1979, mostly thanks to David Gilmour and his slow-lane lead guitar work. Of course, Pink Floyd is a band that's also had to augment its stage lineup with hired gun backups since 1987 due to their original member's inability to play decently, so I guess VDGG's got them beat there. Anyhow, this is not a band made up of Fripps and Wakemans and Brufords, and that's pretty apparent as they flail to the extents of their abilities on 'Meurglys'. Still, parts of it are truly breathtaking, and for such a long bastard of a track it's surprisingly non-boring. And Hammill? He shuts up. What more can you ask, friends? A blowjob and a six pack of Pearl Light? You'll have to pay more than $14.99 for that, pal.
Capn's Final Word: VDGG gets its jam on, and Hammill does his blubbering with an electric guitar rather than his voice. The result? The best Big Generator since 1970.
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The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure
Zone - Blue Plate 1977
No, no, no, no...NO! Wrong fucking answer. Just as the band (at least from a listener's standpoint) had figured out a fairly enjoyable compromise between complex musicality and Hammill's one-emotion-fits-all vocal bitching, half of the band leaves and we're given an astoundingly embarrassing attempt to commercialize the band with shorter songs and dumber instrumentals. The band (now named just Van Der Graaf after the departure of keyboardist Hugh Banton and saxophonist David Jackson, who apparently were discovered as the ringleaders of a sinister plot to shut Hammill's fucking mouth up by buying him a guitar and rolling him unawares into the studio to record World Record while he's still trying to figure out how to play a minor scale. The subterfuge worked only for so long until Hammill realised someone had released a Van Der Graaf Generator album that didn't totally suck the vomit out of G.G. Allin's asscrack hair, and thus the resulting purge was inevitable. The sax (never my favorite part of VDGG, but somewhat essential to their sound nonetheless) has been almost totally supplanted by an unimpressive electric violin, played by some chump named Graham Smith, a man who displays the musical personality of a bowl of Cream of Broccoli soup. It's telling that nobody on the credits is assigned to take Banton's place - keboards are played by Jackson, Smith, and Hammill himself - indicating that Pete liked it that nobody was sitting there positioning themselves to oppose his megalomaniacal dictatorship of the band.
Maybe 'megalomaniacal' isn't quite descriptive enough 'tool-shed bat brained dog-talking bonkers fucking insane' might be a bit more apt. This album belies the fact that now that Hammill owns the band outright, he has absolutely no idea what do to with it other than drive it into a ditch, leave a turn on the dashboard, and run screaming naked off into the forest. The record, a single LP, was presented as two separate albums, each with its own cover on its respective side, which makes absolutely no sense as the two records sound identically atrocious to one another, other than to trick the denser members of the fanbase (by now, the only ones left, evidently) into buying the same album twice. The second, and far more damaging decision, is to remake Van Der Graaf into a sort of weird prog/disco/new wave hybrid along the lines of Roxy Music, if Roxy Music were made up of retarded schoolchildren instead of excellent musicians. To say that they've simplified their sound is a bit misleading - they still fetishize over unnecessarily tricky non-rhythms just like on Pawn Hearts (check out 'Chemical World', but wait at least a half hour before you do if you've recently eaten), and Hammill still rants like Archie Bunker with his jock strap on fire, so it's not like they've turned into ABBA or anything. Still, something awful has happened. When the musicians play something, it's invariably the stupidest thing you can possibly imagine them playing at that particular time. Is the band desperately trying to find a groove, if even for a moment? Change that tempo, tell the bass player to stop playing, recite the 138th page of Ulysses into the microphone in a Mickey Mouse voice, ANYTHING to nip that sucker in the bud. You realise that cohesive rhythm and harmony is the primordial soup from which band mutinies are made, don't you? Is it a quiet, pensive moment? Why not screeeeeeeech your violin or yell something idiotic into the microphone? Just never, ever say or play anything that makes any sense. Dumbshits like All Music will give it four stars simply because it doesn't sound like the fourth rewrite of Godbluff. And fans? Well, fans like it because it's 'tricky', therefore it's good prog rock, just like how the less actual sound is recorded on an ambient record the more those dumbshits gobble it up. I'm telling you that this is the kind of thinking that killed the dodo, made Patrick Swayze a box office draw, and allowed Gwenneth Palltrow to think it was okay to name her children after fruit and Jewish prophets.
Me? I see through it. This band was done. Deader than the Kansas City Royals bullpen. They gave this album nothing good apart from a few scattered moments that fail to churn the stomach. Apparently all of the scattered victories by this band since the reformation had been the product of one single sneaky keyboard player, because once he was history the band was at the whim of Hammill, who finally realised his dream. That dream? Making an album that is musically every bit as fractured, depressing, grating, and ultimately meaningless as his lyrics have been for years. This is the band that made 'Running Back'?! Has anyone checked to make sure Hammill wasn't replaced by a Pod Person sometime in 1970?
Capn's Final Word: Go ahead, fry my ass for falling headfirst off the Hammill bandwagon. By 1977, the man had total control and this was the best he could come up with.
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Vital - Live
- Blue Plate 1978
Okay, so my MP3 copy of this post-breakup live album resists all attempts to extract it from its plasticene prison, which is probably just as well because I've heard it's simply unlistenable. Hearing the Pleasure Dome band stammer and stumble its way through the likes of 'A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers' sounds like a great opportunity for me to finally give myself that haircut by repeatedly slamming my head in a metal door.
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- EMI 2005
The totally left-field 2005 reunion studio album which continues that fucked up VDGG tendency for their comeback albums to sound exactly how you think they'd have sounded had they never gone away in the first place. Or, in the case of Present, had they never had the unfortunate purge of Hugh Banton prior to the positively vomitessent Quiet Zone/Pleasure Dome. This means, however, that this band is as maddeningly inconsistent in 2005 as it ever was in the 1970's. Once you get past the shock at hearing the band playing in almost exactly the same style as on World Record (this record even has a decent amount of Hammill's electric guitar on it), thus proving that 30 years of inactivity are nothing to these guys, the same old complaints begin to come out - this band has a desperate paucity of texture or color, all the songs essentially sound alike, and almost an hour of Hammill, even as he's mellowed somewhat in his old age, is still like being stuck on a nonstop redeye flight next to a drunken old fool who thinks everyone in the general vicinity wants to hear his treatise on life. Luckily, just like on World Record, the band is no longer taking Hammill's shit. Most every song establishes a considerable amount of rhythmic force, allowing the decision to ignore Hammill completely that much easier. The band has wisely taken on very few of the technological advancements of the preceding 30 years (outside of a few synth tones, I guess), and as such they sound authentic. Jackson's saxophone, Evans' drums...this couldn't sound more like 'real' Van Der Graaf Generator in any way. More than simply tone and production, hey also play with as much heat as they ever did. Check out the peak of 'Nutter Alert' as the drums, bass and organ drive, drive, drive that groove down and Jackson simply wails. This could be 1976, this could be 1969...hell, this is about as good as this band ever got, isn't it? (Excepting 'Killer' and the first side of Aerosol Grey Machine, obviously)
This being a take-no-prisoners, for-the-fans only release (the chances of Van Der Graaf Generator making a commercial ripple in 2005 were about as good as Saddam Hussein being appointed keynote speaker at the Southern Baptist Convention), they don't shy way from getting abrasive, either. 'Abandon Ship!' is as noisy and dissonant as anything in the 16th minute of 'Lighthouse Keepers' (but it sure works better), and the following 'In Babelsburg' is even more venemous and metallic during the verses. 'Every Bloody Emperor' slaps sarcastically at fascist, bloodthirsty 'Democratic' politicians, which strikes me as a bit disingenuous coming from Hammill, who isn't exactly Ghandi with regard to his musical career either, but it's delivered with a sense of sincere anger, rather than the blustery irritation with which Hammill usually pontificates. 'On the Beach' is fucking stupid, though - it sounds like a one-off, unrehearsed demo by a supergroup made up of Kenny G and the B-52's Fred Schneider fronting John Tesh's touring band. With David Bowie singing backup. God's knees, what a terrible way to end the vocal section of this record! I guess Hammill felt a bit guilty for forgetting his Quiet Zone/Pleasure Dome group, and decided to record a tribute to their sound. That must be it. Either that or an undiagnosed brain tumor the size of Charles Barkley's bald head.
The following 72 minutes constitutes an odd but ultimately redeemable choice - to record a series of instrumental jam sessions by Van Der Graaf Generator. Considering they'd only recorded two instrumentals prior to this (one of which was on the first disc of Present, the other being Black Smoke Yen on 'Aerosol Grey Machine'), over an hour of this band showing off its highly specific sound and highly underwhelming chops might be a total turn off, but it turns out this thing is halfway listenable. 'Halfway' meaning I can listen to about half of it before I feel the urge to chew my leg off to escape, but for this group, that ain't a bad score. Plus, keeping Peter Hammill's mouth shut is good policy most of the time, so there's the added benefit of a reduced bullshit factor. They keep things on the jazzy side for the first couple of tracks before turning electronic and buzzy on 'Double Bass' (which, drumwise anyway, is nearly funk metal), and, well...sheeit. It's Van Der Graaf Generator, how do you expect 11 instrumental jam tracks to sound? (You think I'm giving up on this review...of course I'm giving up on this review!) Well, now make that one or two notches better. There ya go...a bonus disc that actually gives us a bonus, and by probably the least likely group of 21st century prog rockers you could think of.
Except maybe Syd Barrett fronting a reunion of the 1969 King Crimson band. That would be pretty fucking hard to bet on.
Capn's Final Word: An odd visit to the time machine, which actually takes us back to a point when this band was pretty darn good.
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