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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Van der Graaf Generator

Vital Live

Review by Bruce Stringer

With the recording of this live performance in the care of drummer extraordinaire, Guy Evans, this incarnation of Van der Graaf Generator, as always, speaks volumes in it's work. With his ear, that of a seasoned engineer, the mix is bass-end heavy and has the dynamic control of expansive tension rarely heard on live recordings. "Vital Live's" sound has not suffered the over-dense dramatics that many live acts end up with, cramming the kitchen sink into filling out the obligatory 'wall of sound' which is often illusionary at best. To fit onto it's original CD release missing is "Sci-Finance" and "Nadir's Big Dream", although it is able to retain the essence and purity of the live album. Recorded at the famous Marquee in the late 1970's, here is the often under rated piece of prog rock history that is live, "Vital Live".

With the CD booklet presentation and two missing tracks the only shame here, I am told that EMI are intending to re-master and re-package this unique live offering with extensive liner notes (however I cannot confirm any release details). The figurines on the front of the aforementioned booklet offer a 'still life' in bland-postured black and white, possibly an intelligent message in that some of the vital aspects of this live recording could only be experienced by the audience members at that defined moment in history. Maybe I am reading too much into the image or maybe there are messages to be found if one cares to look. Either way, this is a stand alone release and deserves a thoughtful re-package to bring its relevance into the light once more. It's an excellent album, despite its CD presentation issues.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2004 Year Book Volume 1 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Ship of Fools
With gritty guitar, Peter Hammill tears at it's throat, squeezing those wretched dis-harmonic droplets of decibel-laden distortion, coarsely taking us on this fools journey. His emotional outbursts are securely balanced by Nic Potter's nasty Fender Precision, belting out from his bass rig. Guy Evans lets loose on the skins, and there are some brilliant percussive moments that come from the chemistry of years of working with such creative musicians.
Still Life
Melancholic strains of cello rise from the stage of the Marquee. Hammill's cryptic observations cry through the speakers, subtle and sublime strings rising and diminishing before bursting into the full band riffs. Again, it's Nic and Guy's rhythm section that defines much of the confidence in the moodiness of the grooves. Some interesting violin soloing, haunting and melodic, carries us down to Peter's soliloquy and around 9 minutes in the realm of the "Still Life".
Last Frame
The bass supports the frantic string solo of the classical, the Spanish and the melancholic. relaxing to Hammill's clean guitars and story telling. Then some syncopated drum-bass interaction comes in. Potter's bass playing perpetually is on the verge of improvisation, running round under some wah-violin and the brilliantly mixed drum kit, never missing the changes in mood and highlighted by effects. Pictures, last frames, moments in time; the energy of the band is captured for future reverence. Peter's aggression is heart felt, but "The past is under-exposed". There are so many changes, tightly interspersed to the closing of the curtains and fading to silence.
Mirror Images
Keyboards and violin (again) bring this well composed piece to life with the augmented band line up. Peter Hammill's performance is confident and his lyrical abilities are so thought provoking and tenderly human - way before the human condition became in vogue in music. The guitar is mixed lower to allow breath into the rhythm section, surely an intelligent move with such a composition of great musicians on stage. At just under 6 minutes, the story is told, the journey over.
Medley -
1. Plague of Lighthouse Keepers / 2. The Sleepwalkers
More classic tracks including the brilliant "Plague of Lighthouse Keepers", are arranged here with the 6-piece band that is one of my favourite line-ups. The piano introduction is spacious and edging towards a gradual intensity with wind instrumentation and strings, relieving the listener to the circular "Plague.." theme. Emotionally Peter expresses his feelings, grasping for the words, "I prophecy disaster and then I count the cost" - the inner working of a man in silent monologue. Guy's percussion, again, breaks the piece open and takes the listener on a mind altering journey, in unison with Mr Potter's incredible bass playing and piano riff. The violin and sax add dimensions of theatrics and tension, dramatics and syncopated pulse. Another great riff with piano, bass and drums follows; riffs that are the staple of such amazing compositions from an incredibly well composed band. "The Sleepwalkers" rest.
Pioneers Over "C"
What a riff! This band burns up the evening with some of the most unique, often plagiarised and very under rated riffs. These guys cut it on so many levels; are they prog or are they rock? Punk or jazz? Maybe all of the above, maybe greater than the sum of all. Originally released on "H to He, Who Am The Only One" we are delivered a staggering 17:00 of sonic madness that defies it's contemporaries (i.e. Yes) in sustaining a less compositional response and more of an improvised loose structure. It is this quality that takes VdG(G) out of the late '60's / early '70's prog family; where Yes and ELP moved closer to precision in very structured and sometimes all-too-rehearsed performances these guys constantly broke the mould, changing instrumental line-ups and depleting the boundaries of song to go further forward, experimenting in a similar vein to Hawkwind. This is a standout piece and deserves many a listen to truly appreciate its greatest quality. It sounds totally new each time you listen; there are always new and subtle dimensions to the sound which appear after accustomed listening sessions. This is what I would best describe as 'experiential listening fodder'.

*Please note: "Sci-Finance" is missing from it's position here on this release.
Door
"The next song's a little bit odd.." so begins Mr Hammill and the telling of a tale in a room looking for - you guessed it - the door. Bass and guitar lines, high and low, searching while a violin pans across the room like a echo from a distant past. Looking and looking but forgetting about the door, the riffs are strong and the sound is well mixed by Evans. With a leap in tempo later, there are sirens and weird effects used as sonic outlets of expression, gradually speeding up into a crescendo of the heavy and the fast. A bizarre edit contains the crowd's reaction of this tight search for the mundane and obvious… just where you weren't looking for it.
Urban - Part 1 / Killer (Section) / Urban - Part 2:
"Killer" has been a long-time favourite and harks back to an album way before its time, the gentle yet brooding prog rock release "H to He, Who Am The Only One" and with the book ended "Urban", parts 1 and 2, this composite lasts just on 8:20. It's more of a cool groove, and highlighting the drums and the matching bass-violin riff. Set in an odd time and bouncing around, then positioned with vocals working as an instrument. The words are sometimes less the feature than the overall mood and interaction between the band. There is no denying the tightly performed parts and just when you least expect it "Killer" bursts through the speakers like the beast it is, embracing its murderous self as an instrumental and then a brief "Urban" reality check. Then it's all over, folks: great riffs, solid performance, amazing arrangements and some poetic strangeness.

*Please note: "Nadir's Big Dream" is missing from it's position here on this release.

Notes from this review were assisted by the reminisces of Nic Potter, therefore due thanks go out to him.
 
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