Vital is a weird one for me because it was the only Van Der Graaf I purchased as a kid. I honestly didn’t know what to make of it. I only knew about Van Der Graaf at all because of references to the 6 Bob Tour (Genesis/VDGG/Lindisfarne – all Charisma Records artists who toured together in ’71) in Armando Gallo’s Genesis: I Know What I Like, which I read cover-to-cover multiple times. So when I finally saw a Van Der Graaf album in the used bins (probably at Rhino on Westwood Blvd, but not sure), I grabbed it. I played it a couple of times but really had no idea. Listening to it now, nothing is familiar from listening to it then. I haven’t recognized any of the songs from delving into the catalog these last few weeks.

vdgg-vAll in all, it’s pretty good stuff. As with most of Van Der Graaf’s work, it’s pretty compelling and there’s no easy entry.

To give the uninitiated an idea of how truly contrary this band was, they opened (the album, if not the gig – one isn’t sure what the original set list was) with Ship of Fools, the b-side to a single (the previous year’s Cat’s Eye) that was only issued in France. Mirror Images would appear on a Hammill solo album the following year. The vocals are far forward in the mix and the arrangement is sparse, enabling better understanding than is often the case with VDGG’s music. On the other hand, it’s another seriously wordy Hammill lyric that requires a lot of parsing.

The album covers music from almost their entire history including a truncated Plague of Lighthouse Keepers (in a medley with Godbluff‘s The Sleepwalkers) and Pioneers over c. The violin and cello bring an interesting new dimension to the older work. Though David Jackson (sax/flute) had left the band during the recording of Quiet Zone/Pleasure Dome, he played this gig and the noise he brings to Pioneers contrasts nicely with the strings, especially in the song’s middle section. This performance opens side 3/disc 2 and received the greatest applause.

Sci-Finance (later released on a Hammill solo album) is a pretty hard track about big business. It’s mostly short on dynamics until the instrumental break which seems to be a competition between a violin, a horn, and a guitar.

Door, another non-album track (a demo version was later appended to Quiet Zone), has a spoken introduction in which Hammill tries to explain the song. It’s odd that it’s the only one on an album with more lyrically challenging pieces that would have been unfamiliar. This is another one with a great improvisational section comprising the second half of the piece. It’s followed by a song titled Urban/Killer/Urban, the middle of which is an instrumental version of the song that opens H To He Who Am The Only One. It’s an interesting way of including one of the band’s more recognizable songs.

And the whole adventure concludes with Nadir’s Big Chance, the punk-ish title track of a 1975 Hammill solo album. Lyrically it bears a disturbing resemblance toMirror Stars by The Fabulous Poodles (who, according to an image in Vital’s CD booklet, played the Marquee the same week Vital was recorded.