England - Full Moon 247 - 10/16/16
Van der Graaf Generator
Do Not Disturb
Esoteric Recordings / Border Music
The 11th studio album by Van der Graaf Generator (VdGG), the 13th if you include the 1977 album The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome when the band name had been shortened to just Van
der Graaf and the improvised and instrumental 2012 album ALT. Strange that the band has kept going for about 12 years by now, since the resurrection
in 2004. Back in the heydays in the late 1960s and the 70s they only managed to keep together for three years in succession. But the tempo and intensity was of a different kind back then.
It has taken them 12 years to release four song based studio albums while they managed to record eight in six years back then, in between hectic tour schedules. The music is not as intense
nowadays either. Which has to be excused due to time and age. The band members are not in their passionate mid-20s anymore...
At first hearing I was about to dismiss Do Not Disturb because I thought it sounded too much like a Peter Hammill solo album of latter days, only with a bit more organ and as steady
and organic rhythms as can be. The songs didn't get as firm a grip on me as they used to, left me a bit indifferent. The same happened with the two previous songs albums, Trisector
(2008) and Grounding In Numbers (2011), even though I tried really hard to get into them. I tried the same now, and this time it payed off. And when I saw an interview with Hammill
on the Cherry Red pages (Esoteric
Recordings that has released the last few VdGG albums is one of the Cherry Red labels) where he suggested that this might be the final studio album by the band, I tried even harder. And it
payed off even more. In the interview he also mentioned that he is very conscious when writing for the band and when for a solo project; they are different matter. This time they had time
to rehearse the songs before the recordings started, that resulted in more inputs from the other musicians and more experimentation. Listening closer to the songs, most of them surely are
less straight forward with different themes and time signature changes than the average Hammill solo song of recent years. All of them, apart from two rock numbers, tend to start carefully
with only scarce instrumentation, but something happens along the way. Not anything, but surely something. One last matter from the interview: A reason for the members to keep the band going
is to create something new. Old fans might not like it all or as much as the old classics, but at least they manage to develop and don't stick to old success formulas. Which demands respect
from a-greying and balding gentlemen in their late 60s. What I said about different themes and time signatures might indicate progressive rock. And yes, that's two of the characteristics of
the genre. But if you want to stay true to the word progressive, you need development. Otherwise it'll turn digressive, and for the band members we're dealing with here, surely depressive.
Anyways, Peter Hammill has never been happy about his band's music being labelled progressive rock, so let's leave it at that.
My first entrance into the album was the door to "Room 1210", so to speak. About the safety inside the hotel room while on tour, away from the stir and madness outside. It starts with
Hammill alone behind the grand piano with his characteristic piano playing and sound that I love so much. Enter organist Hugh Banton playing the... accordion! Can you believe it? Surely
part of the development mentioned above. It doesn't last long, though, and the entire trio soon kicks in with a massive rocking sequence to go along with the disturbance outside the hotel
room door, led by electric piano, organ and guitar. And Guy Evans' drumming and percussion skills really shines through, before the acoustic piano and accordion return and we're safe and
calm inside the hotel room again. The accordion pops up again here and there, most notably in the funny instrumental "Shikata Ga Nai", representing something really different in the VdGG
cannon. A melancholic and mystic cabaret atmosphere there. Reminds me of something Belgian Aranis might be up to. At the start of "Alfa Berliner" there
are some traffic and ambulance sounds. At first I thought it was about an accident in the German capital. But no, it deals with an Italian car, an Alfa Romeo Berliner, that the band's Italian
tour manager Salvadore (I think) drove them around in, back in the crazy days of the 1970s when 'We were recklessly alive! There's some
delightful passages with vintage organ sound here and a mystic experimental part with more modern and eerie organ sounds over remote and reverbed vocals. A favourite, especially after some
reckless driving in and around Rome myself only a week ago... Several of the lyrics seem to deal with the passing of time and looking back at a life lived, with the experiences, mistakes
and misunderstandings that goes with it. "Room 1210" and "Alfa Berliner" are two obvious candidates in this respect. "Almost The Words" has to do with nor finding the words or the exact
right words to express what you feel or mean. Not easy:
we are all lost for words,
all at last lost,
we are all lost for words.
In "Brought To Book" it seems Hammill stands trial at the end of his life about the mistakes and injustices he has caused. And we might go on. I have only lived with the album for a couple
of weeks by now and I certainly need more time to digest it all, both concerning music and lyrics. And it seems the close encounter with Do Not Disturb so far might stir the interest
to reinvestigate the trio's two previous ordinary studio albums.
This very moonth it's 40 years since the release of World Record, the swan song album by Van der Graaf Generator before Hugh Banton and David Jackson left the band around the end
of that year. Now we might be in for another swan song. Let's hope not. If this turns out to be it, the three men can abandon ship with their dignity intact. My only major objection is the
Esoteric policy to include more or different tracks on the CD version of the album than the LP version. It was the same with ALT and last year's live album Merlin
Atmos. The CD and streaming version include nine tracks, whereas the LP excludes the aforementioned one of a kind instrumental "Shikata Ga Nai" and one of the two guitar dominated
rock numbers "Forever Falling". The latter, along with the other rocker "(Oh No I Must Have Said) Yes" represent the least interesting track for me, so far, although "... Yes" has a funny
improvised partly rock guitar poseur middle part. Well, then all tracks have been mentioned apart from the opener "Aloft" and closer "Go". "Aloft" might work as an initial abstract of the
album, whereas "Go" is the quiet, almost sacral, philosophical last words outro, that fits the last album concept.
Thanks for the ride, at least so far!
Copyright © 2016 JP