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
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.
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.