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Van der Graaf Generator: Present

Popular mythology has been kinder to Van der Graaf Generator than most of their better known, financially more successful, brethren. Perhaps the fact that Hammill's lyrics and delivery exhibited raw psychosis and the quartet delivered everything with bare-knuckles intensity -- punk aggro before there was such a thing -- allowed the band to depart the scene and not be an easy target for sneering music-journalists in the 80s and 90s. Almost 30 years down the road since the last official Generator album, Peter Hammill and company -- the classic four-piece lineup -- return with what is probably the most anticipated new prog-rock album in at least a decade, maybe longer.

The line-up of Banton, Evans, Hammill and Jackson made its last appearance on World Record in 1976. After that a mutated version of the group built around Hammill, Evans and a returning Nik Potter on bass recorded briefly as Van der Graaf. The new album, Present, fits nicely in between World Record and Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome. Not as complex nor as overtly bonkers as the former, and not as close to a Hammill solo album in disguise as the latter, this live-in-the-studio set of tunes easily recaptures the armed to the teeth spirit of yesterday, while glaring through suspicious eyes at a horizon of dark social malevolence, political malfeasance, and moral ambiguity. In other words, it's business as usual for the home team.

Opening the package for Present is a delight in itself. The front-cover is a black and white silhouette of the band members heads in profile with lettering and color scheme to echo the classic mid 70s album Godbluff. All of them facing to the left hints at the inside cover of Pawn Hearts. Inside the 2-disc set we find that the credits and the disc label show the resurrection of The Famous Charisma Label just for this project. Nice to see the Mad Hatter symbol again. As it should be. Too bad it isn't bigger, however.

Online discussion before the album's release gave away the fact that disc 1 would be the songs, and disc 2 would be a bonus set of improvisations from the album sessions -- sort of a full-band "Long Hello". So what do we have?

First, it's important to understand how the album was created. A one-week bashing session at Pyworthy Rectory was recorded by the group, this being the result. It is very much a band flying by the seat of its pants affair, acting as its own engineer and producer. It's not a great recording -- don't expect a sonic masterpiece a la John Anthony -- with the mix having a slightly muffled quality, especially Evans' drums. It's more like an extremely good set of high-grade demos, where the arrangements and parts have been fully realized, but the overall sound quality isn't top drawer.

Second, these tunes evolved quickly, though some of them might have been brought in by Hammill with a degree of structure in place. They're more song-oriented than vintage generator, shorter and not as prone to time-sig shifts, very quiet/very loud jumps, etc. If one is expecting hyper-prog-rock, one will likely be disappointed.

Third, purists may sniff at the modern digital keyboards in use. On the whole, as a results oriented man, I find Banton's pair of Roland's in burning Hammond and churchy modes to be highly effective organ emulations. But Hammill's DX-7 electric piano and clavinet tones are too pretty and clean. Someone get this man a Hohner, a Wurli, or at least a bad-tempered fuzz-box to push the signal through!

The album opener "Every Bloody Emperor" sets the tone immediately with the band easing into a spot-on Hammill observation about the nature of power and how it corrupts. Timely, without getting so specific that Hammill names Bush and Blair, but its obvious which lying swinish rulers are in his mind as he mournfully intones a litany of deceit, lamenting the destruction of the democratic ideal, and the rise of militaristic jingoistic empire. This is a steady builder, elements adding to the arrangement in much the same way as "The Undercover Man" did opening Godbluff. Right off the bat, as Hammill sets his lyrical gun-sights on big game, it's encouraging to see that each member of the team is more than up to the task of playing his role in the reunion.

Surprisingly, up next is a Jackson-written instrumental ("Boleas Panic"). Crafted around gritty, soulful, sax work and almost Church-like organ, this 6/4 piece, works well continuing the dark mood of the opener. Banton's face surely shone with glee as he cranked the intensity level midway. As good as it is, one can but only wish Hammill had penned some words, given the shortness of disc 1 (37 minutes) and the length of the second (instrumental improv) disc. On further thought, it really is the only place for it, as far away from the rest of the instrumentals as possible, without opening the album.

Track three is the one that grabbed me immediately, positively screaming that it's an instant VdGG classic. Is the protagonist of "Nutter Alert" an acquaintance of Hammill? A blathering fan, relative of an earlier energy vampire? Or is the man singing about himself, seeing something baleful in the mirror that he doesn't like? Either way, as the band swings through the quasi-blues slow rock arrangement, and Hammill snarls his disdain, long-time fans will feel right at home. Banton even manages to drive his Roland virtual Hammond into the kind of dirty-Leslie terrain beloved by heavy organ aficionados.

More 400lb gorilla mayhem follows in "Abandon Ship!", with Meurglys III cranked up, and Hammill wryly commenting on the desperate need for the aging hip to cling to youthful modes of living, expression, dress, etc. Some of it is, of course, self-depreciating in its knowledge that Hammill and company are fighting their own rearguard action against the relentless encroachment of age, memory-loss and infirmity. If it hasn't dawned on the listener before now that these guys are having fun, by the end of this tune it should be apparent that the generator still take music seriously...but not themselves.

"In Babelsberg", the second heavy guitar-led workout, is probably the closest track to vintage prog-rock VdGG output. One has to accept Hammill's playing style and tone, which can be off-putting. It's very garage-prog, and hasn't evolved much over the last three decades. But it serves the shut-up or I'll smack you aggression of the piece. This muscular tune could easily have found a home on one of the mid-70s VdGG albums, fueled by wailing vocals, and more blistering, squonking sax and organ. But it's not a nostalgic piece at all, despite its discussion of events in "another Berlin", being musically as harsh and fierce in delivery as most modern metal bands, just smarter and more cerebral in subject matter.

The last of the songs is perhaps the closest on the disc to a throwaway, being more of Hammill solo tune dressed up in a band arrangement. "On The Beach" is delicate VdGG balladry for cartoons, if you will, with humorous reference to the Silver Surfer, and perhaps a gentle nod to the poignancy of Nevil Shute's epic Cold War apocalypse novel. Perfect placement as a comedown after the lurching violence of "In Babelsberg", letting the rocket ship's engines cool down as the band fades into the tranquil sounds of crashing surf.

I guess that disc 2, the improvisations, will not get anywhere near as much play as the songs on disc 1. It would be fair to say that not many bands have ever managed to successfully do rock-based improv. Really only King Crimson's mid 70s lineup springs to mind. But what's presented here shows that VdGG are quite good at it. Surprisingly so, given the fact that they haven't played together (other than once in a blue moon pickups) in close to 30 years. Most importantly, the improvs show that a wealth of untapped ideas were developed in these sessions that didn't show up in the six songs on disc 1. At one level it's self-indulgent jamming, but on another it provides insight into the creative process that spawned the completed songs. To do this effectively requires not only technical ability but enormous trust in the collective mind. Otherwise the results are in danger of leading to Spinal Tap Mk II's "Jazz Odyssey". Fortunately the quartet knows enough about improvisation to let the two jazzers in the outfit lead the way, which Evans and Jackson do with great aplomb. It's all good in its own way (with the rubbish buried safely in a locked vault one hopes). Outstanding improvs? For me they were "Vulcan Meld", "Slo Moves", "Crux", "'Eavy Mate" and "The Price Of Admission". But the best bit of all was the scorching middle four minutes of "Architectural Hair" which fairly peels the paint.

When all is said and done, Present is a better than hoped for album, though not on par with the best work under the moniker Van der Graaf Generator. It shows a deft acknowledgment of their collective past while offering hope for a possible continued collective future. It is amazing that these guys are pushing sixty, but they're still very much fueled by fire! I'm astonished at how un-mellow these men are, refusing to go quietly into that dark night, instead opting to rant, rave and rock like they're still 25. Amen to that! If you love Hammill and Van der Graaf Generator, and aren't expecting Pawn Hearts part deux you should get a lot of mileage out of this album. I did.

Track List
disc 1 (songs)
01. Every Bloody Emperor (6:58)
02. Boleas Panic (6:48)
03. Nutter Alert (6:07)
04. Abandon Ship! (5:03)
05. In Babelsberg (5:28)
06. On The Beach (6:48)

disc 2 (improvs)
01. Vulcan Meld (7:15)
02. Double Bass (6:27)
03. Slo Moves (6:19)
04. Architectural Hair (8:50)
05. Spanner (4:57)
06. Crux (5:49)
07. Manuelle (7:49)
08. 'Eavy Mate (4:47)
09. Homage To Teo (4:39)
10. The Price Of Admission (8:49)

Hugh Banton: Roland VR760 and VK7 keyboards, bass guitar
Guy Evans: Drums
David Jackson: flutes, saxes, soundbeam
Peter Hammill: vocals, DX7 electric piano, electric guitar

All compositions on disc 1 by Hammill, except track 2 by Jackson,
track 4 by Evans/Hammill and track 6 by Jackson/Hammill.
All improvisations on disc 2 by Banton/Evans/Jackson/Hammill.

Basic tracks and improvisations recorded at Pyworthy Rectory, North Devon, February 15-21 2004.
Engineered and produced by the band.
Edited, mixed, manipulated, overdubbed, melded, sellotaped and mastered at Terra Incognita, The Organ Workshop and Brain Mobile.
Additional on-location surf recording by Hugh Banton at Millook Beach.
Package design and photography by Paul Ridout for Ridart.

Added: June 11th 2005
Reviewer: Steven Davies-Morris
Related Link: Official Van der Graaf Generator website
Hits: 7933
Language: english

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» SoT Staff Roundtable Reviews:

Van der Graaf Generator: Present
Posted by Steve Pettengill, SoT Staff Writer on 2005-06-11 11:02:42
My Score:

Van Der Graaf Generator are back! While Present doesn't quite live up to albums like Pawn Hearts or Godbluff, the unmistakable VDGG sound remains remarkably intact. That's no small feat considering the band's last studio album is nearly thirty years old. From David Jackson's beastly saxophone grunts to Hugh Banton's sinister gothic organ to Guy Evans' crashing drums, the only telltale sign of modernism lies within the occasional digital keyboards or the contemporary if humble production values. Out of the barely controlled chaos comes Peter Hammill's eerie vocal prowess, and his David Bowie-meets-Edgar Allen Poe delivery is nearly as strong today as it was some three decades ago.

Disc one is the studio album proper and contains at least two bona fide Van Der Graaf Generator classics in "Every Bloody Emperor" and "Nutter Alert". On these tracks, all the elements that make VDGG such a unique band come to the fore. Peter Hammill's lyrics couldn't be more timely, particularly on "Every Bloody Emperor", a barely disguised rant against the Bush/Blair dream team. Tracks like "Abandon Ship!" and "In Babelsberg" are nearly as effective and prominently feature Hammill's distinctively unschooled guitar skills.

As excellent as most of the first disc is, it isn't exactly flawless. "On the Beach" is puzzlingly anticlimactic with its overtly cheerful lyrical content and frankly lackadaisical arrangement. Meanwhile, "Boleas Panic" is a fine instrumental and Hugh Banton is firing on all cylinders, but the track comes far too early and somehow conflicts with the otherwise smooth flow (On the Beach excepted) of the CD.

Disc two consists of instrumental improvisations, jazzy interludes and works in progress. While it isn't always to my taste, it does give the listener an intimate glimpse into the band's creative process. The best of the bunch are "Crux", "Double Bass" and "Manuelle" for no particular reason other than that many of the other pieces seem incomplete to my ears.

On the whole, Present is a satisfying comeback album from a band that have been absent for far too long. As inconsistent as it sometimes is, there's enough solid material for the seasoned Van Der Graaf fan. Newbies should probably start with the aforementioned Pawn Hearts, Godbluff or H to He Who Am the Only One. Still, compared to recent efforts by the band's prog rock contemporaries, Present shows that VDGG are just getting (re)started.

Van der Graaf Generator: Present
Posted by Yves Dubé, SoT Staff Writer on 2005-05-29 16:16:13
My Score:

" Give the people what they want" - some famous guy

"Uhh, Yves, you're on after Mr Lincoln. He'll be delivering a little speech he calls The Gettysburg Address..."

Hard to follow the excellent, albeit a tad harsh (3.5 stars ? Damn you're hard to please!) review from Professor Davies, but I'll give my 2 cents on these discs. Should we refer to this particular formation as VdGG mach 4 or 2.5 ? The classic foursome of Peter Hammill, Hugh Banton, Guy Evans, and David Jackson returns with a vengeance nearly 30 years later with "Present". Immediately the long-time fan feels a wave of déjà vu as all the elements of VdGG past are here in spades. Mr Hammill's 'thespian delivering a soliloquy' over-the-top style is front and center. It actually wouldn't be too hard to convince somebody (who's been living under a rock for the last 30 years) that this disc isn't some Dead Sea Scroll from 1976 instead of 2005. Even the lyrics allude to the same problems Hammill was addressing a quarter century earlier. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

It's good to hear that these old farts ( is that a politically correct term?) haven't lost their chops or their 'tude. All the piss and vinegar from classic albums such as "Godbluff" are present (pun intended) . The main beef about disc may be it's length ( I hear the same complaint about disc II but for different reasons) although I respect the ' leave them wanting more' approach of this disc. I hope the band sticks around long enough to push the musical boundaries in new and exciting directions (which may be the case if disc II is any indications of the band's direction). It's hard to pick out a favorite track, yet there are no duds either. However, for this reviewer's tastes, 'In Babelsberg' is the one track that gives me the most personal satisfaction as it seems to encompass that 'organized chaos' approach which I've always enjoyed from this band.

Disc II is a different beast entirely.It appears to have been recorded as a ' let's get musically reacquainted' jam session. The tracks are most likely all one-takes and have a definite 'stream of consciousness' feel to them. This disc provides an interesting window into this foursome's creative process as the individual numbers seem to focus on different aspects of the band's moods and dynamics. The instrumental nature of all the tracks allows the listener to focus more on the superlative chops of the individual members.Although some numbers seem to start nowhere and end nowhere, others, like 'Double Bass' and 'Crux' are more structured and might only be missing lyrics to become bone fide VdGG tracks. 'Architectural Hair' had this jazz fan grinning from ear to ear and demonstrates the musicians' influences of hard bop and free jazz. For all we know, this may be the jazz disc this band always wanted to record. 'Manuelle' sounds like it could have been born during Miles Davis' legendary 'Bitches Brew' sessions. By the final three tracks though, the 'weirdness' meter goes off the charts, although 'The Price Of Admission' does return to a form of cohesive musicality.

This 2-disc release by VdGG is a gift for all the long-time ardent fans but I don't think it's meant to entice any new young proggers into the controlled chaos of Van der Graaf Generator. If you love this band, pick this up immediately. If this band has left you perplexed in the past, just keep walking...

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