VdGG Live at Metropolis as reviewed in Phantom TollboothDifficult, yes, but this band still has something unique.

Label: Salvo
Time: 11 tracks / 86 minutes (+16-minute interview on DVD)

When I think of the keyboard sound of the 1970’s Charisma label, Van der Graaf Generator usually comes to mind alongside Genesis and Rare Bird. That keyboard tone, as well as Peter Hammill’s distinctive vocal style, defines Van der Graaf for me.

Of course, the other thing about the band is that they are ‘difficult’ and there is no getting around that. No one is going to ask for any of these tracks to be played at their wedding and very little could be described as ‘fluid’ or ‘melodic.’ Repetitive riffs (“Mr. Sands” and “We Are Not Here”) rarely develop, other than with microscopic jazz-leaning variations, and Hammill often sounds like a posh bloke trying to get the upper hand in an argument.

But the band has great value. David Bowie studied Hammill’s work when he was exploring sounds for his Station to Station album, and Hammill’s lyrics are thoughtful and existential, if somewhat impressionistic and opaque. Many tunes are growers, with the subtleties becoming clearer over time and that is certainly the case here. It is mainly a matter of acclimatization: once you are used to the sound and accept that there will be awkward moments, the rest gradually becomes more tuneful and the complexities turn into qualities.

This set sees the band perform as a trio. Hugh Banton plays organ and pedals, while Hammill switches between piano, synth and guitars. The stage set-up makes them look like two rural doctors who have gone into the church to practice on the organ. In between sits Guy Evans on drums. With bald head, stocky frame and intense stare, he looks like a scary bouncer; but the stare is concentration, the frame comes from muscular drumming and the result is some impeccable timing and extra emphasis in all the right places.

The tracklist includes half of 1971’s superb Pawn Hearts album, the earliest work represented. Both “Lemmings” and “Man-Erg” take two or three themes and interweave them over their twelve minutes, so that they build each other up. The latter is one of the finest prog epics in its studio form and it still works well here, despite the lack of saxophone and knob-twiddling trickery. As its anthemic climax surges with emotion, the track's punky riff echoes beneath it in a perfect pairing. That climax, about the human condition, stays in the head for days: 
     "I, too, live inside me and very often don't know who I am;
      I know I'm not a hero; well, I hope that I'm not damned.
      I'm just a man, and killers, angels, all are these,
      Dictators, saviours, refugees, in war and peace"

While easy tunes like “Theme One” are missing, the wry, accessible and compelling “Nutter Alert” is almost like any adventurous blues, except that it is in 23/8 time. The mellow, hymn-like “Your Time Starts Now” is a meditative song that reflects on making the most of the rest of our lives (Hammill's lyrics really are worth reading). It is one of three very recent works and it is this freshness that helps make this such an interesting release for VdGG fans.

In the set of six releases that Salvo are releasing from the Metropolis Studios sessions, performed in front of a tiny crowd, this is the longest, making it a double-CD-plus-DVD-set. It is unlikely to win the band many new fans, but for existing supporters, this will be a very welcome package.

4tocks Technical input

2nhalf Accessibility

3tocks Overall Content

Derek Walker

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