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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Van der Graaf Generator

Still Life

Review by Steve Alspach

"At the time it seemed a reasonable course to harness all the force of life without the threat of death, but soon we found that boredom and inertia are not negatives but all the law we know, and dead are will and words like survival."

Hardly words you would find in a rock album (unless Sartre recorded something that I don't know about), but those words came from the pen of Peter Hammill, singer and songwriter for Van der Graaf Generator on this 1976 release. This album is the second of a trio of albums put out in quick succession in the mid-1970s from this English band. Still Life is worth purchasing just for the lyrics alone (if there is a genre for Philoso-Rock, this album is a cornerstone), but the music and arrangements display this band in top form. The disc is also unusual in its sparing use of the guitar and an overall tempered sound that never blasts the listener at any point.

The band for this recording is: Peter Hammill, vocals, songwriter and guitar; Hugh Banton, Hammond Organ and bass; David Jackson, woodwinds; and Guy Evans, drums and percussion.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: The Early Years Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Pilgrims
This song may have come from the Justin Hayward school of songwriting - take an A-B-C form, repeat it, and voila! The track is an optimistic number, telling the listener that we are all pilgrims on our journey and that we should not get discouraged if we feel we are going it alone. The saxophones at the end serve as a call to arms to keep one's head up.
Still Life
This song ponders the possibility of immortality, and Hammill doesn't sound too thrilled at the prospect. This song is a pyramid piece, starting quietly, reaching its peak in the middle, and ending quietly with Hammill singing and a piano doubling the melody. The lyrics quoted at the beginning of this review are from this composition.
La Rossa
This intriguing number really highlights Banton's wizardry on the Hammond Organ. The song addresses the possibility of a love relationship, but Hammill sees himself as an outsider in the relationship and draws an analogy of his predicament to that of an organ monkey. The song moves continually throughout. Considering its length of 9:52, this is no small feat.
My Room (Waiting for Wonderland)
Here Jackson takes center stage with his saxophone playing behind the subdued and relaxed arrangement. The song features a nice extended jam after the last verse, Jackson's solo wisely opting for mood rather than flash, and the composition ends with a feedback-based guitar. It seems to switch from a major to a minor mode without any effort.
Childlike Faith in Childhood's End
This 12:24 diatribe on death and the afterlife is quite an undertaking. Despite its length, there are no extended solos or noodling on this song , that's just how long it takes for Hammill to peruse the issue. The lyrics are not depressing in the Gothic sense. Musically, there are some moments of complicated playing that may test lesser bands, but VDGG handle such segments with ease. The track switches in dynamics, ranging in mood from soft to mid-tempo to rock to majestic. Like the Arthur C. Clarke novel on which the song bases its title, Hammill sees the afterlife as having endless possibilities, as he proudly concludes, "In the death of mere humans life shall start!"

 
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