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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Van der Graaf Generator


Review by Steve Alspach

The Van is Back! Um, no.

The Graaf is Baack! Oh, brother...

Okay, we'll cut to the chase - after a 28-year hiatus, the famous quartet of Hugh Banton, Guy Evans, Peter Hammill, and David Jackson have reunited to re-stake their claim in progressive rock's firmament. Those of you who are still bedazzled by "Pawn Hearts" or by the mid-70s trilogy of "Godbluff" - "Still Life" - "World Record" will be pleased to know that a generation later, Van Der Graaf Generator hasn't lost a thing. The production and recording is crystal clear, and that alone makes the album worth listening. But it's more the grand vision of the four musicians that carry this new project, one CD of conventional songs and one of improvisations. There are some slight changes - Peter Hammill's voice is slightly weather-worn (and after all this time, why wouldn't it be?), and the songs on the first CD range from the five- to seven-minute range. No "Plague of Lighthouse Keepers" will be found here - in fact, the first CD, at 37:32, would fit quite conveniently on the ol' 12" format.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2005 Year Book Volume 2 at

Track by Track Review
Disc 1
Every Bloody Emporer
Right off the bat you hear the old VDGG trademarks: the "call to arms" lyrics (someone's been reading the papers lately), the soft introduction with David Jackson's flute accompaniment, the anthemic organ, and the build in the middle instrumental section. Think "Pilgrims" or "The Undercover Man" and you get an idea of how this song develops, though "Emporer" packs more of a wallop.

Boleas Panic
I think we found the one kind of song Peter Hammill can't write - instrumentals. This one came from David Jackson. Unlike "Theme One," which had a strong melodic line to it, this is rather jazzy in its explorations around its chord structure. The long coda at the end is a bit reminiscent of the tag end of "Lemmings."

Nutter Alert
Hammill double-tracks himself on vocals, and as in the past his phrasing is slightly off-kilter. There was always some skewed humor with the band's music, and you find it here at the end of the lengthy instrumental section with the band playing around with the main riff.

Abandon Ship!
Hammill and Jackson get down and dirty with this one that features a stop-and-start blues-based riff with its flatted third. Hammill saddles up with the electric guitar. The lyrics are that of "Sloop John B." taken to a disturbing degree. ("And it's difficult to think of anything less magic / then the aged in pursuit of the hip." - But we're not naming names here, are we?)

In Babelsberg:
Hammill keeps with his fuzz-drenched guitar with this track, which sounds like "Abandon Ship Part II." There's the cockeyed time signatures early on in the song before the band kicks in on a hard-driving 4/4, with Banton on bass and Jackson providing, um, rhythm sax, that shows that Van Der Graaf can still flat-out rock if it wants to.
On the Beach:
One of the more intimate-sounding songs since "My Room" from "Still Life". This shows the band in a relaxed sound. At first you hear the guys batting ideas around before the song starts up, then Hammill starts in. The powerful organ sound is not here - Hammill plays electric piano, Banton swings over to bass guitar, Evans employs brushes to soften up the sound and employs light cymbal work in his playing, and David Jackson toys with a phrase or two from Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas." The lyrics seem to be a heartfelt reflection of the reunion of the band. When was the last time Hammill sounded so laid-back as to implore to the listener "Aw, come on! Surf's up!" There's a refrain at the end: "Even the silver surfer agrees." Is this Hammill's reference to himself, perhaps? The song ends with the sound of the waves.

Disc 2
Vulcan Meld
The waves that closed out CD 1 start up CD 2, and the band, after a "feeling-each-other-out" period, flirt with the "Abandon Ship" riff, but then switch to a somewhat swingy mode. Evans' stays the most jazzy of the bunch, and Hammill gets in an electric piano solo towards the end.
Double Bass
I never thought I'd use the word "funk" in describing a VDGG piece of music, but this one has it. David Jackson brings out his inner Bar-Kay to the surface. The synthesizer that was providing much of the rhythm comes to the fore before Jackson comes back in, but at this point the band settles into a groove with nobody really taking a prominent lead.
Slo Moves
This is bit more atmospheric than the other pieces, almost Frippertronic-like in the drone of the notes. Rather than just jamming, one gets the sense that the band was trying out a mood to see if they might parlay it into a full-fledged song
Architectural Hair
Not much to write about on this one - the band goes all out on this 6/4 rocker. Hammill's guitar adds a nice counterpoint to Jackson's saxophone fills and lead lines. Halfway through the piece Jackson is at his most emotive playing, but soon settles down. The piece, though, has a menacing feel to it throughout, much like Miles Davis' fusion explorations.

Evans starts out on the snare as if this was a New Orleans double-time funk piece, but "Spanner" then becomes a slow free-for-all before Evans picks up the pace again.
Switching to a lighter feel, Hammill plays around a two-chord pattern, and Jackson plays what sounds very much like a pre-written lead. Crux turns into a vehicle for Jackson's soloing. Evans' drumming gains in force as the piece goes along.
After a general groove, Hammill starts a very basic riff that the band builds around. Banton finally gets a few lead licks as well, his Hammond organ more often than not laying low during these sessions. (And when he is heard, again it's very much in the feel of early 70s fusion like Miles Davis or Mahavishnu.)

'Eavy Mate
This piece gets off to a strong start, Evans playing a jazzy 6/8 while Hammill's guitar wails like a siren in the background. Again, the piece breaks down into an every-man-for-himself mode before Evans finds a 4/4 groove and the band goes into a rather restrained jam.

Homage to Teo
Per the liner notes, there is "Mystery Instrumental Swappage" between Evans and Hammill on this piece, which may explain the miss-timed cymbal rides and bass drum kicks in the second part of this piece. Again, there's the jazzy intro, but that fades out and Jackson's layered saxophones, sounding like vintage Gentle Giant, serves as a bridge to a free section, and then to the second part, and there are some random noises in the second movement that sound a bit like Jamie Muir-era King Crimson.

The Price of Admission
About halfway through the band go into free-fall mode, then Evans picks up a groove. Hammill's guitar on the first half of this is extremely metallic and atonal. Then, Banton, Evans and Jackson flirt with a more jazzy thread, and the waves that ushered in this CD return to usher it out.

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