England - Full Moon 106 - 05/23/05
Van der Graaf Generator
I first heard Van der Graaf Generator in 1975 or 76. The only thing I remember from that first meeting was shrieking saxophones, howling vocals and an
inner sleeve depicting the four band members in black (fascist?) shirts waving their hands in a nazi salute kind of way. It was far too extreme for a tender
teenager... In the following years I slowly accepted the VdGG sound and some of the songs after coming across some of the albums: Godbluff, The Least
We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other, Pawn Hearts ... The real turning point was to witness Peter Hammill live at Hulen (The Cave - a great an intimate
venue!) in Bergen, Norway in 1983 along with the excellent guitarist John Ellis (ex-Vibrators and a Strangler-to-be at the time). The strength of Hammill's
strong and tender vocals, his vocal range, piano playing, concentration and overall stage presence was one of a kind. I was utterly convinced. In the following
years the music of VdGG continued to grow and the band gradually evolved into my favourite of the 70s, in retrospect. While I followed the solo careers of
Peter Hammill, David Jackson and the others, from a distance.
In one way I was quite satisfied that the members of my special 70s pet were too stubborn or proud or whatever to reunite for a few nostalgic gigs and some
easy money. On the other hand it was hilarious to be eyewitness to the classic VdGG line-up on stage for one unannounced song back in 1996. Apart from one more
surprising song as the encore of a Hammill gig in 2003, let the past be the past, seems to have been the slogan. Yet here is Present with the most classic
of VdGG line-ups: Hugh Banton (organ and bass), Guy Evans (drums), Peter Hammill (vocals, piano and guitars) and David Jackson (saxes, flutes and electronics).
The ageying gentlemen haven't searched for any easy ways out for themselves - or the listeners. Apart from playing the same kind of instruments they used to
treat back in the 70s and showing no will to compromise, there are few obvious links to the previous album the quartet recorded, World Record from 1976.
Present is not meant as a gift to old fans, I guess. It's an album of the present, contemporary stuff. The album was recorded by themselves during an
intensive week's session in February 2004 including a lot of playful improvisations, attempts, mistakes, probably a lot of fun... Disc 1 of the double set
includes five more or less structured songs and one instrumental. The second disc consists of ten tracks of improvised and hard to catch instrumental pieces
Some of the songs were probably written before the gathering of the tribe. The opener "Every Bloody Emperor" is certainly one of them. It starts as a song
off one of Hammill's solo albums of late. A bit anonymous and anaemic, quiet and creeping at first. After a verse of vocals and electric piano it turns into
a full-blown VdGG song with Guy Evan's characteristic drumming, steady and swirling organs, lightweight flutes, hoarse saxes... The melody and Hammill's voice
seem to be pushed forward by the other three musicians. Not bad, not bad at all! David Jackson's jazzy instrumental "Boleas Panic" seems half written beforehand,
half improvised. At times it bears resemblance to Norway's most respected musicians for some decades, Jan Garbarek. A compliment, of course! Though Hammill's
semi-metallic distorted guitar sounds far from the world of Garbarek.
"Nutter Alert" sounds closest to VdGG of the 70s. Dynamic organ, saxophone, vocals and melody, with some controlled, some wild and almost atonal instrumental
parts. It might have fitted onto Godbluff or Still Life with minor adjustments - and different lyrics. The obvious favourite for long-run fellow travellers
like myself. "Abandon Ship!" on the other hand is a brand new direction. Quite hysterical and unmelodic. They're not afraid to challenge. Can white middle-aged
men funk? I think ... not. "In Balbelsberg" is somewhat in the same vein. I cannot find any real melody, only harsh semi-metallic guitar (again) chieseling
the rhythm, shrieking saxophones and hardly any organs. Things are fortunately calmed down with "On The Beach". It seems to have more to do with The Beach
Boys than Neil Young, in spirit that is. Like "Every Bloody Emperor" it starts calmly as something off a Hammill solo album. Partly tender, time for reflection,
Lyrically Present is substantially different from the VdGG of old days. At his best, Peter Hammill used to seek deep into the dark side of the mind
(and the force, of course) supplemented by some uplifting emotions. Now, in some of the songs he seems more like a grumpy old man. Here's discontent in politicians,
democracy, Berlin, ... The only solution he offers seems to be ‘to walk towards the sea, hoping you're still in step with me'. "Nutter Alert" is on a more
personal level, about persons he/we/one does not want to get in close encounter with. It might be some screwed up fan... "Every Bloody Emperor" (who 'claims
that freedom is his cause' and 'got his hand up history's skirt') was apparently written during the early days of the Iraqi war, long before Mr. Bush was
re-elected. Purely incidental Present was released only the week before the British general election where the war was a hot issue.
Disc 2 is even more demanding. The music seems to be somewhere between free jazz (John Coltrane must be nodding contently in the wings) and other undefined
more or less cacophonic musical forms. It's not noise; on the other hand it's far from your average pop tune to hum along to while taking the dog for an evening
stroll. Though "Crux" seems somewhat more structured than the rest. The entire disc - and the funny "Double Bass" and "Architectual Hair" in particular - gives
the impression that the four gentlemen love to play and fool around with their instruments together. It has a kind of 'what the hell, why not let the listeners
get an insight into the preliminary stages of the compositional process as a bonus disc' written over it. As Fairport Convention once said: 'This is what we
did on our holiday'.
Present might have been a stronger album if the group had spent more time together rehearsing and prepared more songs to choose from before entering
a proper recording studio. Instead they met in secrecy, improvised, rehearsed and recorded by themselves in a living room for a mere week. We probably get a
true picture of what happened during that week, warts and all. I give them 6 out of 10 points for the end result and 10 out of 10 for the attitude, the willingness
to still take risks and to challenge themselves and the listeners.
I was one of the 3.500 or so privileged to get tickets for VdGG's very first full public performance in about 28.5 years at the Royal Festival Hall in the
beginning of this moonth. It was an exhilarating and exhausting event. About all my greatest expectations were fulfilled. They only played two songs off
Present, the most obvious choices "Every Bloody Emperor" and "Nutter Alert". I didn't need to worry about doubts concerning Hammill's voice. He sang
a lot better than on Present. The album was recorded only a couple of months after he suffered a severe heart attack. Now 1.5 years had passed. The old
songs, including a few surprises, sounded as fresh and relevant today as ever. The quartet has never released any proper live album. I guess they won't find
a better time to do so than now. Quite a few more live gigs throughout Europe will follow this summer. Do not hesitate if they'll enter a stage near you...
Copyright © 2005 JP