Archives for posts with tag: Van Der Graaf Generator

David Cross and David Jackson

So I saw this gig announced a few months ago after I’d spent several weeks listening to almost the entire Van Der Graaf Generator catalogue. David Cross played violin on Starless and Bible Black and Larks’ Tongues In Aspic by King Crimson. Jackson played horns with VDGG for most of their run. So, yeah, two incredible musicians who had each been in the game for more than 45 years. It was a gig I didn’t want to miss. Especially given the recent resurgence of King Crimson, I was quite surprised that the gig was far from sold out. Fine, I’ll take middle front at this relatively small club. (When packed, Boerderij can hold an audience of 750 or so and my guess is there were about 300 there.) To open, Cross and Jackson came out alone and traded a little humour before taking on Starless Loops from the recent Cross/Robert Fripp album of improvisations on the Starless theme, Starless Starlight. After a few more pieces, they played another from Starless Starlight. There’s one ripple of chords from Starless that always gives me the shivers and did again when Cross played it Friday night. My friend Corniel, who joined me for the gig complained that it would have been better for him if they’d just played and not joked around so much. There’s some merit to that argument, as the joking detracted from their sheer expertise. Their duo work owed more to improvisational jazz than to the progressive rock they’re best known for. After a 30-minute set, they took a break before coming back with the full David Cross Band.

In the main set, the band played several numbers from the new (very good) album, The Sign of the Crow including Starfall, the title track, Rain Rain and The Pool. Current vocalist Jin Wilde has a very interesting voice (having come out of a dance music background, it seems) handles the new stuff quite well. His tenor is well suited to the music, generally. The band’s set includes (and if the 2008 live album I bought at the merch counter is anything to go by, has included for a long time) three King Crimson songs: Exiles (from Larks‘), Starless (from Red), and the encore 21st Century Schizoid Man (from In The Court of the Crimson King). The last of these featured Greg Lake on vocals, and the other two John Wetton. On these songs, Wilde doesn’t seem to take ownership. He seems to be trying to sing like Wetton, but his voice is too different. The band, however, quite made up for it. After Exiles, the band left the stage to drummer Craig Blundell who did an appropriately hair-raising solo. (Blundell has played with numerous folks including Steve Wilson.) The band returned playing George Martin’s Theme One (recorded in ’72 by Van Der Graaf Generator) before a slightly ragged Starless. Paul Clark and his Gibson Flying V are very very good and he doesn’t try to be Robert Fripp. After a quick moment back stage they closed with an appropriately wild Schizoid Man. I wasn’t expecting it and was well impressed. (Someone commented on Blundell’s facebook page that Crimson currently has three drummers and was impressed with how well he did his part solo.)

Overall a great evening with a couple of bona fide legends.

And last year’s fine effort brings the Van Der Graaf Generator saga to a close. Clocking in at just under an hour, Do Not Disturb is a curious effort. They three remaining members only worked together on the music for about two weeks (according to the wikibox), but it sounds much like another well-oiled VDG machine.

vdgg-dnd(Oh No I Must Have Said) Yes seems to be a response to the various failings of the electorate in the past year, though the recording was complete before, for example, the Brexit referendum…

But let’s not talk about the old days
except to say the consequences run,
to be plain, what’s over isn’t done
and you thought you were only having fun.

As always, most of the songs seem to contain epics within them, slow movements calmly orchestrated still go measure to measure with slamming drums, weirdly overlaid vocals, and histrionic keyboards, but if they didn’t, we’d question whether we were listening to the right band.

It’s definitely good stuff, but not the gut-grabbing musical assault that we were once used to.

I realised there’s another live recording: Live at Maida Vale, recorded at the BBC in 2010 and released in 2012. It’s not on the band’s Wikipedia discography, but it’s up on Spotify. I’ll probably give that a listen next week.

You’ll note that I skipped one. 2012’s ALT was an interesting enough instrumental album, but nothing really to jump and shout about.

vdgg-maMerlin Atmos, recorded in 2013, is a live album featuring the trio line-up that had recorded ALT, A Grounding In Numbers, and Trisector. A such, it leans on these later albums,  It opens with Hammill’s solo epic Flight from the 1980 release A Black Box. It’s a proper full-side piece in multiple parts in the vein (sort of) of A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers (which takes up side 2 of Merlin Atmos‘ vinyl release).

There were two CD releases – a single and a double. The single includes the two epics and closes with a tight version of Hammill’s Gog, previously heard in a poor 1975 live recording as a bonus track on Still Life.

Disc one also features Lifetime and All That Before (Trisector) and Bunsho from A Grounding In Numbers.

It’s quite an interesting affair, a good balance of the old and the more recent trio work. It’s interesting that both this and Vital were recorded by lineups that weren’t the classic quartet. As such, David Jackson’s horns are especially missed on the older material. On the other hand, the recording is clean and the performances are as intense as one would expect.

The second disc (Bonus Atmos) features:

  • Interference Patterns, Over the Hill (Trisector)
  • Your Time Starts Now (A Grounding In Numbers)
  • Scorched Earth (Godbluff)
  • Meurglys III (World Record)
  • Man-Erg (Pawn Hearts)
  • Childlike Faith In Childhood’s End (Still Life)

They’ve been doing this work a long time and the renditions are generally tight. I think the solos, such as the keyboard adventure in the middle of Childlike Faith, seem a little tightly bound to the original versions. At two hours twenty, I don’t feel driven to compare the live tracks to their studio counterparts in the moment, but these versions are certainly satisfying. Hammill lets his vocals soar in a way he hasn’t on the recent studio recordings. I’d say it’s as good an introduction to their work as you’re likely to find.

A stronger effort in many ways than Trisector, but more lyrical weakness. Lines like ‘Mathematics / Just so “wow” it brooks belief’ (from track 2, ‘Mathematics’) are more common than one would like to admit. On the other hand, there a lot of musically strong numbers – track 3, ‘Highly Strung’ is one of those – Hammill, Banton, and Evans seem to be finding their places as a trio in a way that wasn’t evident on Trisector (even though the three had been playing together for decades).

Opener, Your Time Starts Now, is almost theatrical with sweeping organ fills, and big concepts about how the addressee hasn’t been getting on with it, but now must.

vdgg-agin-cdIt’s a poppier affair, at least in terms of song length. Five tracks clock in under three minutes; only four break five; and only one breaks six.

Snake Oil certainly speaks to the current dystopian zeitgeist, ‘Brainwashed and bound to believe in the orthodox text, slogans on t-shirts, / the punters can’t wait to be told
what to think of next’, from a slightly different angle to 2005’s Every Bloody Emperor.

Side note – I posted that song on FB last week and my mother shared it out. If even my mother (who loves Leonard Cohen, but otherwise listens to musical theatre, classical music, and a lot of NPR) would give Van Der Graaf a try, what would it take to get that song up on the charts?)

Smoke has a funky keyboard opening that slides in and out of something nearly disco (in a good way), but after slipping into something even weirder, they decided not to take it very far. Despite the line ‘You held your inattention’, two and half minutes is as far as they decided to take it before segueing into 5533, another song ostensibly about something mathematical (‘As the primacy of digits ticks the boxes / So the codes that they unlock begin to run’).

A Grounding In Numbers closes with All Over The Place, which might be as good a title for the album as the one they used. The longest track on the album, it leads with a nice harpsichord melody (that might be a counterpoint to the organ of Your Time Starts Now) but the whole song is still a little piecemeal, like they felt they had to do something proggy and multi-sectional.

Okay, this is a weird one. VDG’s first outing as a trio following another departure of David Jackson. It might reward further listening, but I’m not certain.

vdgg-trisector_eclipsed0308_adThe opener, Hurlyburly, is an instrumental which seems to declare in major chords where the band is going this time. One of the melodies echoes the rinky-dink of Freddie Cannon’s Palisades Park.

Interference Patterns is almost a parody of a VDG song – weird rhythms, off-the-wall subject matter, and a howling vocalist, all grinding to a halt for a solo in a different time signature. Lyrically, however, it’s a word salad lifted from a book of popular pseudophysics. Or at least that’s what it sounds like.

The Final Reel is a fairly straightforward song about an elderly couple choosing mutual suicide over slow decline and sounds much like a jazzy 70s rock ballad. It’s strange to hear a story from Hammill so devoid of nuance. This isn’t a bad thing, just strange.

Drop Dead is another song short on the poetry we’d come to expect. In a sense some men are always caught in adolescence / trying to crack the mystery girl cocoon.

Over The Hill is a proper VDG epic – 12 minutes 30 and more lyrics and tempos than usual, and like The Final Reel, seems to be about facing mortality (‘and there’s no time for hesitation as the stations of our lives are passing by’)

(We Are) Not Here, which closes Trisector, is another song about mortality, but one that sounds more like classic VDG – Hammill howling over insane keyboard and guitar noise about, well, things like ‘Light streaming through us blindly / we are not here for long’.

Musically, Trisector is good stuff, but it’s just not as interesting as their other work. I put it down with Godbluff.