Round Table Review
CD 1: Songs Every Bloody Emperor (7:03), Boleas Panic (6:50), Nutter Alert (6:11), Abandon Ship! (5:07), In Babelsberg (5:30), On the Beach (6:48)
CD 2: Improvisations Vulcan Meld (7:19), Double Bass (6:34), Slo Moves (6:24), Architectural Hair (8:55), Spanner (5:03), Crux (5:50), Manuelle (7:51), 'Eavy Mate (3:51), Homage to Teo (4:45), The Price of Admission (8:49)
Van Der Graaf Generator really need no introduction. An uncompromising band that rampaged through the 1970s making no concessions and taking no prisoners. The group has reunited on occasion over the years, although as Hammill notes on his own website (www.sofasound.com), "in recent years we'd all met up more frequently at the funerals of our past road crew members than at ordinary social events." Following on from a performance reunion at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in February 2003 (where they played an excellent rendition of Still Life), offers were put on the table for a full reunion. After the inevitable "shall we/shan't we" discussions, the group met in September 2003 and decided it was worth at least giving it a go at playing together. Hammill's heart attack three months later put a temporarily spanner in the works, but, following a remarkably quick recovery, the band reconvened in February 2004 for a week of playing, writing and recording.
The result is Present, a double CD released on the Charisma label, which Virgin have resuscitated specially for the occasion. With one CD of new songs and a second of improvisations, the album lives up to the multitude of meanings imparted by its title: Present as in a gift to all the long-term VdGG fans who have hoped for a reunion over the years; Present as in the here and now, the sound of VdGG in the 21st century; and Present as in an introduction and bringing to the public attention. So, after an absence of 30 years, what have the four old friends come up with to entice the buying public?
Any fears that the band would play it safe and be a watered down facsimile of the original group are firmly pushed aside by opening track Every Bloody Emperor. The attempts at various groups through the ages to ape the classic VdGG sound are all reduced to nought as, casting aside the intervening years, the group sound just as VdGG are supposed to sound. Hammill has rediscovered a bite, attack and anger lacking in a lot of his recent solo work. The unique blend of Banton's organ and bass pedals, Jackson's mellifluous sax and Evans' percussive sensibilities is perfect yet strangely contemporaneous - yes the trademark musical signature is present but there is also a freshness and inventiveness by is so sadly lacking in a lot of modern recordings. Continuing straight into Jackson's instrumental, Boleas Panic, the band hit a groove that seems to ooze the joy that the musicians have found playing together as a band once again. Second song Nutter Alert maintains the high quality, easily on a par with some of the classic material from earlier years.
Abandon Ship! proves that Hammill is one of the finest and most intellectual of lyricists that the UK has ever produced. Who else would even contemplate opening a song with the line "Oh, the heptagenarians got behind the decks while the skeleton crew went through the motions." On this and following track In Babelsberg, the group tred on the edge, seemingly in danger of collapsing into cacophony yet managing to hold things together by sheer momentum. The Evans/Hammill collaboration of Abandon Ship! cavorts with jazziness, while one feels that In Babelsberg is truncated too early, the instrumental ending could, in the spirit of 70s excesses, have gone on for, oh ten more minutes or so! Final song On The Beach, lowers the tone and is the only ballad on the album. One is tempted to consider the lyrics as being autobiographical in the context of the band: "We could have thrown in our cards when the going got hard but evidently we went on interminably"..."All joking apart, let's play it from the heart". But this dreamy, almost floaty piece can also be interpreted as a more standard love song.
Disc two offers a full hour of improvisations taken from their week in North Devon refamiliarising themselves with group playing. An energetic collection of 10 individual pieces, the whole hour may be too much for regular consumption. However, broken down into smaller segments the improvs offer an insight into the group dynamic and display a musical openness and comfortness shared by the four protagonists. Perhaps not of the same quality as Zappa or Crimson, but then one wouldn't expect that, after three decades apart.
Present sees a welcome return of one of the UK's most idiosyncratic rock groups. The live return at the Royal Festival Hall is highly anticipated with tickets selling out in hours and reportedly fans from 27 countries around the world travelling to the concert. If they perform with the same passion as they have put into the recording it should be one heck of an event.
Of all the 70’s classic/progressive rock bands who are, or are rumoured to be, reforming, Van der Graaf Generator’s rebirth after 28 years has probably been the least hyped, and most welcomed, even by some of the UK’s more trend-led mainstream press. Its’ not hard to see why: VdGG always ploughed their own furrow, and although they were often lumped in with the progressive rock crowd, to be honest this was for the sake of convenience more than anything; their unique sound in reality could be labelled a variety of different things. A name-check from Johnny Rotten probably enhanced their credibility back in the late 70’s and stopped them being lumped in with all the other ‘dinosaurs’, whilst Hammill’s prolific solo work has rarely shown signs of conforming to the mainstream, meaning that they still have that cult credibility many more famous bands would kill for. That doesn’t mean that high expectations amongst their sizeable fanbase didn’t exist for this new set, however.
Present is composed of a couple of discs, one of six newly composed tracks, and one of what the band probably accurately calls ‘improvisations’.
Of the six new tracks, there are two obvious standouts (unsurprisingly chosen by the band as the two new tracks aired at their recent [brilliant] performance in London), namely Every Bloody Emperor and Nutter Alert. The former is a strident, rather world-weary song, which features some scathing lyrics (about the untruths that proliferate in politics – rather timely given that there has just been a very bitter and divisive general election fought in the UK) delivered in Peter Hammill’s trademark (although now slightly tempered) biting and versatile delivery. The song is quite conventionally structured by VdGG’s standards, driven mainly by Hugh Banton’s pulsing organ and David Jackson’s flute, and proceeds at a stately pace. It incorporates a typically fine instrumental section, which sees Jackson contribute a stylish sax solo. Nutter Alert (great title!) has a big sax-led opening before the song develops around a melody which I found curiously similar to the old standard House Of The Rising Sun! Once again strong vocal lines and a great instrumental section combine to produce another fine track.
Elsewhere, Boleas Panic is a Jackson-penned number, which, defying its title, is actually quite laid back and mellow (by VdGG standards at least!); at times it even comes perilously close to jazz-lite, but is soon steered from these waters by Jackson’s typically powerful performance and by the inclusion of some refreshingly discordant jams. Abandon Ship! rides on a slow twisted jazz-blues riff, produced by Banton’s keys and Hammill’s electric guitar working in tandem. Hammill’s vocals seem strangely muted and almost in the background here, although the old aggression is present and correct on what passes for the chorus. Although the main groove is an attractive one, this track does meander a little aimlessly towards its conclusion. In Babelsberg has a more experimental feel, with the main (rather grungy) riff this time coming from a combination of guitar and saxophone. The use of the electric guitar (pretty much a first for VdGG!) actually gives matters something of a modern King Crimson feel, whilst Hammill’s vocals on the chorus have a hint of recent Bowie about them. The first CD ends with On The Beach, a balladic number which develops from a sparse piano and sax-dominated opening into a lazy, laid back groove. The lyrics are rather nostalgic; not what you’d usually expect from Hammill. The whole track has a sort of ‘sun kissed’ holiday vibe, with the effect enhanced by the sound of crashing waves as the track ends.
Long-term Van der Graaf observers may be surprised by the relatively conventional feel of these tracks; with nothing much over the 6 minute mark, the songs rarely delve into the more experimental pastures of yore. These fans should fear not however, as there’s a whole slew of ‘improvisations’ to get their teeth into over on disc two. Described by drummer Guy Evans in the liner notes as akin to being ‘locked in a room with Van der Graaf Generator’, newcomers may want to make sure they take a key in with them, but for the connoisseur there’s plenty to get their teeth into.
In general the band lock into a particular rhythm and let this dictate the direction the music takes. Thus, Vulcan Meld has something of a middle eastern feel which informs the playing, particularly that of Jackson, whilst Double Bass seems to give the nod to the 70’s jazz fusion era. Elsewhere, Slo Moves is something of a mood piece, with an ethereal feel, with Jackson’s flute taking the dominant role; Evans’ percussive skills are particularly noteworthy in the latter sections of this track. Spanner has a manic energy very reminiscent of the early seventies VdGG sound, whilst Architectural Hair is a quirky track which again has a slight modern King Crimson feel about it, with the rhythm having a particularly convincing kick to it.
Obviously by there very nature these pieces have an unfinished feel; personally it would be interesting to see whether the band can utilise some of the stronger sections and work them into something more complete. The absence of Hammill’s vocals also counts against this disc having the ‘true’ Van der Graaf feel, but overall it is a fascinating glimpse into the band’s working methods.
Overall, then, Present is a very welcome return by Van der Graaf Generator, and one that I’m sure will meet all but the most demanding fans’ expectations. Speaking personally, its unlikely to supplant the likes of Pawn Hearts and Still Life in my personal favourites list, but the fact remains that this is a strong work that certainly rewards repeated plays, and show that there is life in the old dog(s) yet.
I’m not about to try and convince you that a heart attack can ever be said to be a good thing, but as Peter Hammill’s misfortune last year was at least in part the catalyst for the reunion of Van Der Graaf Generator, then it is clear that there can be some positive effects in the most dire of events.
It was hearing VDGG in 1974 that set me off on a lifetime quest for the best in progressive rock, and VDGG/Hammill have been one of my favourite groups ever since. This should be borne in mind when reading my review. I’m not making any effort to remain impartial, I’m just rejoicing at the opportunity to be hearing fresh recordings by this group, in pretty much the classic style, in 2005. Of course, Hammill has released a steady stream of recordings over the years, often with the help of Jackson and/or Evans, so it may seem strange that there is such a fuss over this "reunion", but wait until you hear it- this is no act of paying “lip service” and resurrecting the name only, it really does recapture the sound and spirit of the mid 1970’s output. It’s not just the presence of Hugh Banton on organ and bass pedals, but of course that does go a long way to help recapture the mighty fury of the original band.
Of course, they’ve all got older and Hammill’s voice in particular, has changed somewhat over the years, but they’ve lost none of the fire, passion, anger and angst that fuelled so many classics. Much of the material on the first disc is firmly in the archetypal VDGG vein and it’s like hopping a ride in a time machine.
After the tentative beginning to Every Bloody Emperor, the track soon picks up steam and on my first listen, it wasn’t long before a grin a mile wide was plastered firmly on my face. All the ingredients of classic VDGG are present; Guy Evans’ skittering, manic percussion; Hugh Banton’s inimitable organ (God, it’s good to have him back!); Dave Jackson’s superb sax and flute; and Hammill’s commanding vocal presence – not to mention the lyrics. In my opinion, Hammill is one of the very best lyricists of this or any other time. His words often stand up as poetry in their own right, with multilayered meanings and ultra-crafted wordplay; they are elevated by the power of the music to heights seldom equalled by any other contemporary performer – only Peter Gabriel comes anywhere near to this standard on a regular basis.
Boleas Panic provides a little breathing space, being a Jackson-led instrumental. It’s a nice little number, similar to the stuff on the Gentleman Prefer Blues album by Jackson, Banton, Evans, with a little extra bite from Hammill on guitar. Jackson always was one of the best rock saxophonists on the planet, and his skills remain undiminished.
From the opening notes of Nutter Alert, it is clear that here we have a true classic – this one is extremely powerful and captures perfectly the feel of Sleepwalkers or Scorched Earth from the mighty Godbluff album. Banton and Jackson are in their element here. There’s even a hint of the Pawn Hearts sound – it’s uncompromising stuff and I love it!
Abandon Ship, whilst not quite as good, still packs quite a punch, with sardonic, barking vocals and squarking sax. The complex rhythms threaten to fall apart at any moment, but somehow the track arrives home in one piece.
In Babelsberg is another fantastic track, up there with Nutter Alert. The sound is a little more stripped down, with some of the angry, punkish, fuzzed up vibe of the Vital Live album. For a reunion album to contain a track that may be counted as a classic is pretty rare. With EBE, Nutter and Babelsberg all vying for position, that makes Present a bloody miracle!
Things end on a more subdued note, with the Smokey, Jazz Club feel of On The Beach sounding like it would belong on one of Hammill’s solo efforts - it’s the weakest song on offer, being only very good, whilst the others range from great to absolutely bloody marvellous.
If that was it, I would be well pleased with this disc, as would any VDGG fan, but there’s more in store. A second disc presents 10 opportunities to hear raw, unrehearsed instrumental jam sessions, the sound of the band letting it rip in relaxed and exploratory mode.
Naturally, this is often ragged stuff, faltering and patchy, but it’s a fascinating glimpse into the nature of the creative process and is sure to have diehard fans drooling. At its best, the more together moments (usually the middle sections of the tracks) sound like the instrumental breaks from as yet unwritten songs – if you liked the long meandering break in Meurglys III you’ll be right at home with this disc.
The band’s free jazz tendencies are allowed free rein here too, pushing their already quite extreme sound into even wilder territories. Its great to hear how tunes morph and mutate as the players lead each other into uncharted territory, occasionally locking into a powerful groove. Architectural Hair (great title!) and Manuelle are two of the more consistent pieces, but there are good moments on all the tracks.
I found this to be an intriguing insight into the band, well worth a few listens, but its unpolished, fragmented nature makes it more of a curio for occasional listens than a fully formed album (as of course is the intention), one for the hard core fans. As powerful and absorbing as the band is as an instrumental unit, I always feel there’s something missing without the vocals of Hammill. Not that I’m complaining – Present is an incredibly satisfying CD and the 2nd disc is just the icing on a very rich cake.
Present is a stunning recreation of the classic group sound of the 1970’s. It would have slotted in nicely between Still Life and World Record, and shares much in common with the classic Godbluff. Even the mainstream media seems to be sitting up and taking notice (which is amazing considering how little attention they attracted the first time around). I would hope that this means the group will gain some new fans, but the intact, uncompromising sound of the band means that if you really disliked them before, there is unlikely to be anything here that will make you change your mind.
For fans of the band, this fabulous double set cannot fail to please. If you treat disc one as the album proper, and the 2nd disc as a freebie, offering an uncommonly intimate view of the band in the act of creation and discovery, it’s very hard to fault.
It’s destined to be in my top ten of the year, and is the best reunion disc bar none...