Issue 2011-011: Van Der Graaf Generator - A Grounding In Numbers - Round Table Review
Round Table Review
Van Der Graaf Generator – A Grounding In Numbers
Tracklist: Your Time Starts Now (4:13), Mathematics (3:37), Highly Strung (3:37), Red Baron (2:24), Bunshô (5:03), Snake Oil (5:20), Splink (2:37), Embarrassing Kid (3:07), Medusa (2:12), Mr. Sands (5:23), Smoke (2:30), 5533 (2:42), All Over The Place (6:01)
Jez Rowden's Review
The long awaited third post-reformation release from Van der Graaf Generator starts on a low-key note with Your Time Starts Now, an organ driven piece that immediately shows that Peter Hammill is in fine form, his cultured and stately vocal delivering a lyric dealing with the ageing process and a determination to move forward given the lack of time remaining – an appropriate theme and a glorious way to start the album. In lesser hands this could have seemed a tad pedestrian given the “Sturm und Drang” that VdGG are renowned for but it is a beautiful piece with a melancholy edge that eases the listener into the new album
An initial inspection of the track listing shows 13 songs, 5 of which run for less than 3 minutes, the whole album succinctly completed in less than 50 minutes. This brevity is a huge surprise given the length of some previous compositions but it is clearly a case of “less is more” to keep things as punchy as possible and resist the temptation to labour songs and extend them with unnecessary noodling. This stripped down approach is certainly more suited to the trio line-up given the lack of available hands and no longer having David Jackson to add extended sax solos.
The album continues with Hammill’s peon to the wonder of numbers, Mathematics. Based around piano with stabs of organ, his obvious fascination with the subject matter oozes from the lyric and is highlighted by multi-tracked vocals. Guy Evans comes into his own on the albums first rocker, the strident and off-kilter Highly Strung which crackles with energy and stress-filled words, the music hinging on madness. Hammill’s guitar is deployed for the first time to good effect and the trio version of the band has developed an identity of its own here after the sometimes hesitant steps taken with 2008’s Trisector.
Red Baron is a brooding and menacing instrumental of atmospheric drums and percussion from Guy which leads into Bunshô, quite possibly the pick of the bunch on this CD, a glorious and powerful song with guitar to the fore and great ensemble work from all. Hammill’s words are superb dealing with the frustration of the artist’s expectations pitted against the public’s perception of his work. The guitar is slightly less raw than usual but still with an edge and Hugh Banton provides some fine, expansive organ, the overall sound being classic VdGG with an up to date feel. This is no nostalgia trip, the band still striving to produce relevant and ground-breaking music built on the heritage of their 40 year history.
Snake Oil is quirky and fiddly, Hammill firing off the lyric challenging slavish, unquestioning devotion in his imperious tone, his piano and Banton’s organ sparking off each other. The mid-section changes the tempo and feel, an air of foreboding building towards a return to the original theme. Splink is another instrumental with a laid-back, almost Western feel resulting from the unexpected slide guitar. The mood changes gradually with Banton’s stately yet psychotic keys – part creepy fairground, part lunatic asylum.
Embarrassing Kid is another rocker concerning the older man viewing the mistakes of his youth that rattles along on changing rhythms and tempos while Medusa is a brief yet menacing track, charged with controlled anger. This is a prime example of a piece that could have been developed into a full-scale VdGG epic but the album would have lost the balance it currently has if that had been attempted. It appears that some listeners regret the lack of extended pieces but for me this album condenses all that I love about VdGG and places it in a new setting.
Mr. Sands sees Banton driving things forward with jaunty organ and changing rhythms, another great track and a key moment on the album railing against the requirement to be preserved in the past rather than continue to develop. Smoke is a stomper dealing with the dangers of careless internet use that leads straight into the more intricate 5533 with numerical lyric, peculiar time changes, slashing guitar and bubbling percussion. The album ends with its longest track, All Over the Place. Interweaving keyboard lines and percussive punctuation set the scene for Hammill to deliver his questioning lyric regarding loss of identity. The mood changes with multi-tracked vocal and a noir feel before building to a gothic ending theme with a sudden climax.
Themes extend throughout the album which is a fine collection of songs lacking any suggestion of self-indulgence. Hammill really is on top form delivering his words, as always, with passion and power, clearly meaning every word he sings. Evans mastery allows him to vary his technique to provide whatever feel is needed from under-stated on the opener to thundering on the rockier moments through to intricate where necessary. Hugh Banton is unique. His schoolmasterly persona providing high calibre classically trained organ one minute and slashing rock keys the next with bass pedals filling out the sound live. He also contributes bass guitar in the studio. The true success of this group is the maximising of individual contributions, the sum being greater than its considerably talented parts, all three striving to raise the material to the highest level.
None of the tracks here would be a disappointment if played at any of the upcoming live dates so, by that standard, this album is nothing short of a resounding success. The whole thing sounds great with outside engineer/producer Hugh Padgham proving his worth in getting the best out of the venerable institution that is VdGG. This is an album that shows how a classic band can grow old(er) with grace and passion and continue to produce work that builds on the glory days of the past.
Hopefully Chris Squire and colleagues are taking note!
Mark Hughes' Review
There is no denying that the reunion of Van der Graaf Generator has invigorated the song writing of Peter Hammill. As a solo artist it seemed that he was starting to lack the spark of inspiration and originality that has long made him such an interesting and essential artist. In addition, his albums were generally lacking in the visceral anarchy that fuelled his best work of earlier years. The reunion album, Present, gave us the first tentative steps of a group re-establishing itself and a couple of future classics in Every Bloody Emperor and Nutter Alert, whilst on Trisector they had to adjust to being a trio but still excelled on numbers such as Interference Patterns and the first reunion 'long-form' number Over The Hill. Importantly, the group, both as a quartet and a trio, proved that live they could still take the audience to places that were unexpected, out on the edge and within the constraints of contained chaos. What is more, they positively exuded enthusiasm to be playing together again.
Three years on we have a new studio album, A Grounding In Numbers, the cover utilising a pun on the title by featuring the electrical symbol for 'earth' surrounded by the digital zeros and ones of digital code. No longer signed to Virgin, the release is in collaboration with Esoteric the first time, if I am not mistaken, the label has issued a newly recorded album. Superbly mixed by Hugh Padgham the album features 11 songs and two instrumentals that cover a wide range of moods and styles, all of which are decidedly VdGG in nature. With a running time just shy of 50 minutes it is obvious that there are no extended workout on the album, but that is of no concern because what is present should be sufficient to satisfy even the most hardened nay-sayers who are happy to dismiss the recent efforts of the band as a pale imitation of their earlier incarnations.
The opening track, Your Time Starts Now is one of the slower numbers on the album and harks back to the glories of the Still Life album, with Hammill, the master lyricist, on fine form with lines such as: "All that information, all that warp and weft, for all your patient fortitude you're patently bereft". Sheer bloody poetry. Mathematics is the first song to relate directly to the 'numbers' of the album title. If non native English speakers have sometimes had trouble deciphering Hammill's lyrics, then non mathematicians will struggle with this one. I mean, eiπ + 1 = 0 hardly trips off the tongue! And yet it is there, as well as a rearrangement of the equation. If it is any help, i is an imaginary number, the square root of -1! Further mathematical intricies are explored on 5533 which utilises a modified Fibonacci sequence to make a matrix pattern, rather obvious really. Musically, the piece is very angular and rather chaotic with Evans pounding out odd rhythms against the guitar (also played by Evans) and organ which battle it out for dominance. Another 'angular' number is Highly Strung which has an opening similar to Crying Wolf from Hammill's brilliant Over solo album. The song is heavy, heavy, heavy and great played loud. To cap it all it possesses a wonderful, and distinctive VdGG chorus. Red Baron is the first of the two instrumentals, and focuses largely on Evans' drums and percussion. The other instrumental, Splink, features a lovely sounding bass, played by Hammill, with Evans again featuring prominently and Banton adding various 'noises' through his keyboards. However, these are mere interludes between the songs, and although within the context of the album certainly add to the proceedings, in isolation they are not so understandable.
Although Bunshō might relate to the 15th century Japanese era, it more likely refers to the Japanese word for writing or recording. Within the lyric Hammill dissects the difference between what he thinks is worthwhile and 'art' as opposed to 'hack work' of cliché and how each is received by a wider audience. Although it is tempting to think he is referring to his own career in an autobiographical song, one suspects that the vision is somewhat wider. Besides, he has too much respect for his craft and his audience to ever dash off hack work! Snake Oil is another song that sets Hammill's piano off against Banton's marvellously growling organ work and a song that I hope will be included in the live set of the forthcoming tour as the structure and form is a delight, changing musical meter with regularity set against a passionate vocal delivery of convoluted intensity. In contrast, Embarrassing Kid features another heavy guitar riff and, lyrically, seems to be a riposte to the elitism portrayed in the previous song. The album continues directly into Medusa and, in many ways, the four tracks from Snake Oil to Smoke can almost be considered sections of one long song. Mr. Sands is vintage VdGG and a marvellous number, although there are parts where David Jackson's sax are sorely missed as they would fit in perfectly. Banton gets to have a go on guitar on Smoke, a quite 'funky' number, well by VdGG standards anyway! Lots of subliminal voices permeate the background of a seemingly opportune tune that acts as a reminder that people have long memories and mud sticks. The album is completed by All Over The Place, and a finer way of finishing off proceedings I can't think of. The initial two chord piano stabs smooth out to multiple layers of vocals with a lyric containing a central theme similar to that of Masks, before expanding into a glorious musical motif that ends far too quickly.
There is no pretending that A Grounding In Numbers is an immediate album, it takes some time and perseverance to lock into the auditory cortex. But that does not mean it is too difficult, too complex or too out of the ordinary, just very VdGG. So much so that it is without doubt the best of the three studio albums that the group have released since reuniting. To return to the mathematics, the curve of improvement is exponential, yet they are far from the zenith.
Jim Corcoran's Review
When I participated in our Round Table Review of Van der Graaf Generator’s Trisector release in 2008, I was hopeful for two things. First, that there would be another release (there is, being reviewed here); and secondly that their next release would see a returned focus on epics (it doesn’t).
So the lack of epic-length tracks on the eleventh VDGG release since their formation in 1967, the perhaps appropriately-entitled A Grounding In Numbers, had me approaching the CD with a diminished enthusiasm and an abundance of caution for this review. The band continues in the seventh line-up of their career, the trio they were reduced to after the departure of David Jackson after they toured in support of their comeback effort Present back in 2005.
On duty for A Grounding In Numbers, we have Hugh Banton playing guitar on one track, organs, bass guitar, harpsichord, piano, glockenspiel and 10-string bass; Guy Evans also playing guitar on one track, drums and percussion; and the great Peter Hammill throwing down Ashbory bass on one track, vocals, pianos and guitars.
On the new CD the band plays tight, song based tunes veering from pastoral to prog to punk. Alliteration notwithstanding, there is a spectrum-wide variety of sonic sojourns on this multi-directional but perhaps uneven CD.
Splink is not a necessary track but maybe a novelty, featuring psychedelic country guitar and the aforementioned Ashbory bass from Hammill, childlike harpsichord from Banton, and off-the-beaten-path drumming from Evans. Evans’ drumming also defies tempo on Snake Oil, which features dark impalements of rhythm wandering through the song in an eccentric, almost drunk waltz.
Bunshō is another clumsy one at first, but it picks itself up, dusts itself off, and by the end of the tune it comfortably showcases an accessible, modern sound for Van der Graaf Generator. Strong cascades of guitar from Hammill and familiar scrambling melodies show a band with a nouveau punk ethic that back in the day could have had them opening for the equally experimental Television at CBGB’s. And if Bunshō is the CD’s backstage hipster, 5533 seems oddly like the kid without proper identification who got turned away at the door, with frenetic doses of guitar and admission-seeking drumming from Evans punctuated by Hammill’s snarling vocal delivery.
Smoke has more of an assured approach, with sugary organ and lightly psychedelic guitar from Banton and a confident rhythm section between Banton and Evans.
With thirteen tracks, eight of which are under four minutes and not much silence or separation between tracks, the continuity of A Grounding In Numbers is not unlike that of Abbey Road by the Beatles. The CD booklet design features a minimal style on the cover and some almost Warhol-style hues in the booklet.
So an adventurous but slightly wobbly offering from the VDGG boys, now veterans of their reunion as it is in their eighth year. To check out more about the band, visit Phil Smart's VdGG site HERE (it’s a well-put-together fan site; an official site does not appear to be out there). Information can also be found at the Peter Hammill websites linked above.
This CD will most likely be subject to debate in the Van der Graaf Generator fan community as to its merit. Purveyors of the hard rock or punk genres may take a liking to the edgier tracks, which personally for me are an area of greater concentration or opportunity for the band.
To paraphrase or echo what I said in my review of Trisector: "for their next release (which I again hope there is) another area of opportunity I see for the band is to go with a seventies prog style vinyl release format, one half or “side” of the release consisting of an epic, and another half or “side” consisting of shorter songs to balance things out".