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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Van der Graaf Generator

1 Prophesy Disaster

Review by Bruce Stringer

With a title taken from the epic “A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers,” this compilation was obviously the product of some well researched members of Virgin Records back in the early 1990s. The track listing contains a solid batch of classics and cult favorites, including ‘unearthed rarities appearing on CD for the first time. Upon inspection of the CD booklet, there are some great band photos focussing on The Quiet Zone / The Pleasure Dome era (sans David Jackson) and, what appears to be, a prior television performance (minus Nic Potter). Each album is represented visually, including two compilations that had appeared through the label at that point.

The booklet contains a brief history of the band and song-by-song run down on where each song comes from. Although the recent release of The Box, the 4-CD compilation best of that includes an abundance of BBC live material, may have overshadowed this concise collection it is still a great accompaniment to the official albums and testament to this, one of the first British progressive rock acts.

Overall, this is a great little compilation (although some tracks near the 10 minute mark), featuring some rarities and classic moments. There are a number of obvious tracks missing – “Theme 1,” “Darkness 11/11,” “Killer”, etc – therefore the deduction is that the purchaser already has the key recordings from the band and this serves as a rarities only release. The Box CD set contains different oddities, live tracks and rarities so, with this in mind, I Prophesy Disaster could still be considered an important inclusion to any fan’s collection.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2008  Volume 5 at

Track by Track Review
This is a nice piece with subtle wah sounds on the organ and some light-fingered bass work. The lyrics touch upon Small Faces territory, although with a gospel vocal approach. The drumming is pretty standard fare for a pop vehicle of this type in 1969 but there is an interesting piano solo reminiscent of a real-time “See Emily Play” by Pink Floyd. “Afterwards” focuses on Hammill as singer-songwriter and is interesting in that it shows the roots of a direction VDGG may have taken if they had retained a commercial drive.
Is this an homage to Cream’s “White Room” or an adventure into the esoteric arts? Either way, it is a great early track from The Aerosol Grey Machine album of 1969. It’s a more rock styling for Peter Hammill than what he would become known for and could have, at that time, contended with the likes of Cream, Yes, Pink Floyd or ELP for musical superiority. It’s an excursion into the black craft and has the added bonus of some great little timing shifts, ala Cream. Hammill’s voice is fresh and young allowing him to attempt some uniquely interesting devices. This has scary lyrics!
“Refugees” is an early Hammill classic and is driven by organ, bass and some lightly mixed orchestra. Hammill’s voice is whispery but never out of its place, even when the over-reverberated drums arrive on the scene. Remembering that even though this was a production piece in 1970, there are just so many instruments that fade in, do their thing and then fade away which is amazing considering the limited equipment of the day. It is numbers like this that made the band’s name in the early days.
The Boat Of A Million Years
Introducing a tense, spacious atmosphere (again like early ‘70s’ Pink Floyd) Hammill’s acoustic carries through as foundation to some great tom-tom work from the drumming of Guy Evans. There are brief bursts of David Jackson on sax and the organs of Hugh Banton are quite ethereal, thanks to a big room reverb mix. Lyrical content, based on ancient Egyptian records, is quite eerie, as Hammill’s vocals now have that distinct edge. This is the first song on this compilation to illustrate the serious nature of where VDGG were going.
Lemmings (including Cog)
By Pawn Hearts (1971) the group had found their niche, retaining the Hammond and church organ sounds and Hammill’s now intense vocal strains and multi-instrumental musicianship, with more percussive drumming and maddening saxophone work. There is a whole lot more experimentation going on with stop-start segments and weird effects in the mix. There are moments of jazz – complete with piano solos and triplet sax riffs – and dissonant progressions that in an earlier century might be considered demonic. But the band always comes back to a harmonious resolve. The most interesting thing about the mix is the use of reverb on the instruments and voice, which is quite haunting. It gives the impression that there are far more instruments at play in what sounds like a huge airline hangar.
This was the B-side to the instrumental classic, “Theme 1” (written by George Martin of Beatles production fame). The song deals with estrangement and is moody, yet not too heavy. The main introduction instrumentation surrounds the effected organs of Banton, who was famous for his customized organs. After the acoustic guitar enters the band joins in with a tasty selection of backward effects in the background. Hammill’s vocal vibrato is excellent and emotional. The soundscape that is created by organ and echoed flute is par the course with VDGG’s abilities to haunt the unwary listener. Sadly, the song ends on an abrupt note, lacking the potential that one might expect from these guys, which might be due to the time restraint of the B-side of a 45-rpm single.
From the iconic progressive rock-jazz album Godbluff, “Arrow” manages to build with a high tension that only VDGG could successfully pull off. For the first 1:30 it’s like pure jazz-fusion, and then the song begins with minor-key electric piano and trademark Hammill performance voice. The backing mainly supports the staccato nature of the vocal lines, without actually bursting into a verifiable beat until the second verse. The rhythm is structured with 4/4 and 7/4 sections, varying with 3/4 bars thrown in for good measure. The intensity of “Arrow” is in the building up and then releasing of the darkly surreal themes. Hammill’s voice is, at times, a little high in the mix, but this is offset by the saxophone and dynamic moments on drums.
La Rossa
The organ work, herein, carries the moody themes. This track was from the follow-up to the comeback album, and is in the same vein. Although the elements scarcely changed between Godbluff and Still Life, the view might be that there was a serial nature between LPs. “La Rossa” is another epic and has a far more polished production than previous releases. The break with double time drums is great, and alters the mood somewhat and the more upbeat solo moments are standout. There are even bits akin to the early Yes and ELP records, but these elements seem to be too far apart in this, at times, overlong piece.
Ship Of Fools
This studio version recently gained inclusion on the re-mastered, expanded The Quiet Zone / The Pleasure Dome release after hiding away as B-side to an obscure French single release of “Cat’s Eye.” However, if you were unable to get your hands on a copy of the single this was available as a live cut on the next album, Vital. It is a rough and ready number with strangled guitar playing, possibly in defiance (-or as a direct result) of the punk movement of the day, and has an all round edgy pace. This being recorded upon Nic Potter’s return (and departure of two critical members of the previous incarnation), there is an emphasis on Hammill working within a grass roots style of rock, albeit with multiple vocal overdubs that has tendency to clash. The jammy nature of this obscure track is good fun and it’s great to see that a band like this could take itself less seriously.
Medley (parts of A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers and The Sleepwalkers
Although the studio version of “Plague…” is indeed superior, it is great to hear this with totally different instrumentation. The piano parts are still there but, with a duo on strings, there is a different edge. It is a mature band that appears on this selection from the Vital live album, which may have been necessary for the group’s survival at this time. The balance of violin and cello still work with Jackson’s saxophone (who only appeared briefly with this version of the group), giving the listener a greater depth of theme. Nic Potter’s bass playing works really well with the cello, adding fatness to the bottom end. The instrumental theme with piano and drum emphasis is a real highlight. This takes the track onto its second installment, “Sleepwalkers,” which works quite well segueing without pause. The rhythm work is noteworthy thanks to a great chemistry between these musicians. After the music is brought down from a cacophonic assault on the senses, there is return to the signature piano lines of “A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers.” The new drive and mixture of materials is excellent but, sadly, this Van Der Graaf lineup broke up shortly after this so we may never know what this lineup was truly capable of creating.

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