Album Reviews

Issue 2008-023: Van Der Graaf Generator - Trisector - Round Table Review

Round Table Review

Van Der Graaf Generator - Trisector
Country of Origin:UK
Record Label:Virgin
Catalogue #:CDV 3046
Year of Release:2008
Info:Peter Hammill

Tracklist: The Hurlyburly (4:38), Interference Patterns (3:52), The Final Reel (5:49), Lifetime (4:47), Drop Dead (4:52), Only In A Whisper (6:44), All That Before (6:29), Over The Hill (12:29), [We Are] Not Here (4:04)

Mark Hughes' Review

Almost three years after the long-awaited reunion concert and a reduction in the ranks following the ignominious departure of David Jackson, the Van der Trio are still going strong. More importantly, if the evidence from the latest tour is anything to go by, they seem to be thoroughly enjoying being and playing together once again. What is more, they are also writing together as, rather uniquely for the Graaf, eight of the nine tracks on Trisector are group compositions. Another departure for the band is the inclusion of an instrumental number, The Hurlyburly, which, if memory serves me right, is the first self-penned instrumental the group has committed to tape (Theme One was, of course, written by George Martin). An interesting piece with Hammill sounding like a member of The Shadows who has joined a surf band. However, things really take off with Interference Patterns, Banton and Hammill both playing keyboard lines that weave in and out of each other. Despite being the shortest track on the album, there is an awful lot crammed into the song. With typically erudite, if somewhat obtuse lyrics (just how many VdGG fans will be familiar with Victorian scientists Michelson and Morley who devised an experiment to disprove the existence of the luminous aether?) the song captures the spirit of classic VdGG while still maintaining the originality we have come to expect of the band.

The Final Reel is one of Hammill's typically atypical love songs. What, as a solo composition would have most likely been a simple piano ballad, is lifted by Banton's organ work, adding a different dimension to the song. Similarly Lifetime, the only song written by Hammill alone, is an almost standard love song, if it were not for the seemingly incongruous cymbal tempo bashed out with metronomic ease by Evans at a pace that is at least three times that of the vocal melody and the musical additions that the band contribute and seem to have reassured Hammill that are okay to include. Drop Dead is a bit of a rocker and finds Hammill singing in an angrier tone that he has done in a while. Indeed, the spirit of Ricki Nadir is stamped all over this one, perhaps his last chance was a bit premature?

For anyone who was even slightly disappointed by Present, the 2005 reunion album, thinking that it was a bit on the safe side and only periodically touched on the raw energy and excitement that the original incarnations of the band delivered, then never fear, the last four tracks should go a long way in restoring your faith. Only In A Whisper is the slowest of the four with Evans displaying what an under rated drummer he is as his skills are prominently heard accompanying the minimal other instrumentation of bass and electric piano. All That Before, with the growling electric guitar and organ, is a veritable tirade of frustration over failing memory (an ode to Alzheimer's disease perhaps?). The song was debuted on the first trio tour of last year but the early version did not have the power of the finished version, the ending of which is a real hark back to the quality of the Godbluff days. However, this is no aberration, no one-off, no accidental regression to the past for Over The Hill proves that longer compositions that have the ability to impress and surprise are not something of yesteryear. Initially a slow burner, the song exhibits all that is great about VdGG, the odd time signatures, the refusal to follow a typical or steady structure, the superb interplay between the three musicians and the excellence of the lyric. [We Are] Not Here is another up-tempo song with the uniqueness of Banton's organ sound and bass pedals dominating a fine closing number that addresses the philosophical question of the reality of dreams, the transience of presence and if the 'here and now' is the same as the 'there and then' (or not).

The good ship Van Der Graaf is well and truly back and on great form. With no hint of exaggeration I can honestly say that Trisector lives up to some of the best work they produced in the past. Not that they are re-treading old ground, an idea that would be anathema to Hammill for VdGG have always been a band that sounds quite like no one else, which, naturally, includes themselves.

Jim Corcoran's Review

I am a relatively new fan of Van der Graaf Generator. The first thing I ever heard from them was their 2005 reunion effort Present. After hearing that and liking it, I delved into their back catalogue. My lack of experience as a fan of the band may make me more objective than the other writers contributing to this Round Table review, but perhaps less qualified.

In addition to releasing the album proper of Present, with it the band included a second disc of studio improvs. The first disc, containing six tracks, was a paltry 37:32 in length, so it seems as though the second disc was included as filler or to compromise for the first disc’s brevity. VdGG’s tenth offering Trisector, which features the band’s seventh different line-up since their formation in 1967, is more of a proper, stand-alone release. The line-up: Peter Hammill on vocals, guitars and pianos; Hugh Banton on organ and bass guitar and Guy Evans on drums and percussion.

Trisector starts with an instrumental, The Hurlyburly, which as mere filler could have been left off. Leaving it off would have made a CD of eight tracks and 49:13 in length, with songs averaging a little over six minutes in length and more than enough for a proper release. The fact that The Hurlyburly just fades out at the end only serves to underscore its throwaway nature.

Although the new tunes are on the shorter side, they nonetheless contain all the hallmarks of the timeless, dark VdGG sound. And this is accomplished despite the absence of departed saxophone man David Jackson. This quality is obvious on the bleak shuffle of The Final Reel, featuring the twin keyboard deployment of Hammill and Banton. Banton’s craft at times is similar to that of The Tangent keyboard guy Andy Tillison. Bleakness also haunts Only In A Whisper, which paints a cinematic quality not too far removed from The Doors or Russian neo-kraut band Vespero.

My favourite tracks on Trisector are those that evoke World Record, my favourite release from the back catalogue. Among these favourite tracks is All That Before, of which the driving, hard punk edge dovetails nicely with the lighter stuff on the CD.

Hardcore VdGG fans will gobble up the four-decade old band’s self-mockery of Over The Hill, a twelve minute piece similar in style to A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers and proof positive that VdGG can craft a modern epic.

In my opinion, Trisector is better than Present, and will fit well in the band’s legacy.

The cover of the CD features the trio standing as points of light as a triangle, symbolizing the title. Almost like the prism from Dark Side Of The Moon. This CD will appeal to fans of, well, Van der Graaf Generator and prog in general. The darkness of it may offer some cross-over appeal to those in the Goth scene. It may not appeal to diehard fans of older VdGG or any of the line-ups that included Jackson.

The only room for improvement for Mark 7 I see with future releases (which I hope there are) is to return to more of the lengthier, epic tracks.

Trisector closes with the tight, punkish number We Are Not Here. Does the abrupt, clipped ending of the track signify a closing chapter in the band’s history, or more to come?

Dave Baird's Review

The return of Van der Graaf Generator in 2005 was much anticipated and very welcome but the new studio release, Present, left me a little bit cold after the inital rush had dissipated. Despite being a huge VdGG and Hammill fan it just didn't do it for me although there were a couple of tracks (Every Bloody Emperor and Nutter Alert) that were worthy of inclusion on VdGG albums from their golden era. To be fair, in a live environment (as evidenced by the Real Time release and the German TV appearance) the songs were much better but they still sounded a little too much like Hammill solo pieces rather than a cohesive band effort. When VdGG announced a second round of touring last year I jumped at the chance to see one of my favourite bands of all time live but was filled with chagrin when I heard that David Jackson had departed and VdGG were to continue as a three-piece. That fear was totally misguided - as a live act the new trio was magnificent, full of raw intensity, angst and energy, much like the manic performances of old. This isn't to say that at moments Jackson's distinctive sax wasn't missed but space created by that absence was filled with a mad yet beautiful cacophony that only VdGG can create. A couple of the tracks in progress from the next CD were played and sounded pretty good, suddenly the future looked rather interesting. Unlike some other reformed bands out there just going through the motions to pay their pensions, these guys mean business.

Trisector is finally released one year later and is overall a far more cohesive effort than Present, much more focussed with little or no filler, the band appear to have a renewed purpose and an edge that was missing before. As you would imagine, the absence of Jackson has led to a shift in style, I would even be so bold to suggest that it's akin to the shift that we encountered between World Record and Quiet Zone Pleasure Dome, of course Banton is still on-board so it's not totally comparable but you get my drift. Some may not like it but Peter's got his electric guitar out again, in The Hurlyburly rather prominently so - could be distracting but the powerhouse of Evans' drums and Bantons' probing organ drive the piece along. Interference Patterns will surely go down as a classic VdGG piece with its complex intertwining organ patterns and hi-hat work. Hammill returns to one of his pet subjects - quantum mechanics (see Sitting Targets) and delivers a fine vocal performance worthy of the bands mid-70's purple patch. Interesting there's a restrained madness in the instrumental parts and underlying the vocals that really brings to mind the Pawn Hearts album, we haven't heard this type of thing for over thirty years - great stuff!

Calming it down a bit (a lot actually), The Final Reel is one of those reflective introspective Hammill pieces. This track wouldn't be out of place on early 80's Hammill solo albums but there's smooth melancholic organ underpinning it, another nice track, so far so good. Lifetime is seemingly another solo Hammill piece again with a lot of guitar work which is, just for once, quite listenable; Instrumentally it doesn't take-off but once more nice gentle organ from Banton and busy hi-hat work from Evans. Drop Dead is a real out-take from Quiet Zone Pleasure Dome. Super vocals from Hammill and a nice lyric, even the vocal production sounds late-70's.

Only In A Whisper is the lowest-key piece on the whole CD and perhaps the weakest piece but still not too bad. Electric piano here, I suppose from Hammill not Banton and busy, busy, busy cymbals again. The tempo ramps back up in All That Before, this is more like it, an angry staccato piece about growing old and forgetting everything (Peter, we are there with you mate, really). This is a great piece with thick driving riffs - I'm pretty sure they played this piece when I saw them live, the closest you'll get VdGG to prog metal! Over The Hill is another beauty and could easily have been taken from World Record, especially the Meurglys 5 type intro. We've more of the insane cacophony with soaring organ, introspection and a strong lyric which as you imagine is rather self-refential. Hammill's at his best here and the track will surely be in many people's top 10's at the end of the year. Excellent piece with real sense of purpose and urgency intertwined with all the elements that we loved from VdGG in the past - many elements from the Still Life album come to mind too. Really a good track, did I mention that yet? [We Are] Not Here is another top-notch, immediate in-your-face track, with an urgent organ riff, driving drums and meandering Hammill vocals. Perhaps I'm not so keen on the way it fades out rather than an abrupt end that I think the track deserves but otherwise a super end to a very, very good album.

Conclusion? VdGG returned in 2005 but now they're really back with purpose! This CD is strong enough to hold its own against some of the best that they have done before and it's essential for any fan of VdGG. Further than than it's a pretty good introduction to the group if you've never heard them before. Many of the new bands on the scene could do a lot worse than listen to this bunch of old giffers and hope to come remotely close to their energy and excellence. It's also worth noting that there are no comparisons in this review to any other bands, only to previous VdGG, such is their uniqueness.

MARK HUGHES : 9 out of 10
JIM CORCORAN : 8 out of 10
DAVE BAIRD : 9.5 out of 10

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