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Van Der Graaf Generator

  • Aerosol Grey Machine,
  • The Least We Can Do Is
  • Wave To Each Other
  • H to He Who Am the
  • Only One,
  • Pawn Hearts,
    Van Der Graaf

  • Peter Hammill,

  • Album Reviews |

    Van Der Graaf Generator

    the least we can do is wave to each other h to he who am the only one2nd pawn hearts the aerosol grey machine

    ( INTRODUCTION, written sometime during early august, 2006 )

    I wanna take you all on a journey with me and Van Der Graaf Generator. They seem an appropriate band to overtly state within the content of these reviews a little something I do with certain bands and artists. Obviously, like anybody, I have my own existing favourite artists and bands. Occasionally, I get the opportunity to aquire catalogues cheaply through extensive bargain hunting, of which the net plays its part. I’ll then review the albums in order, as I myself listen to them. So, I’ll start a page not having heard the subsequent albums and not really knowing what’s happening, although usually, reading up provides answers before I’ve even asked the questions. Biographical detail and lineup changes are very easy to obtain, for example. Discography information is very easy to obtain. So, it’s not quite the same as being there at the time, waiting for the new releases and of course, a certain amount of context is lost years after the event. With Van Der Graaf Generator, I’m nearly entirely in the dark as I lead myself into this page. Having just loaded their initial eight albums into my MP3 player and stuck it on shuffle for half an hour during lunch, I’m slightly bemused and very scared. Remember, this past half an hour exposure is my very first exposure to the band. Peter Hammill has released what, 50 solo albums, for example? This is going to be a long journey and I need a spark of something, a way in.

    The voice of Peter Hammill, for example. It reminds me of little known modern UK Britpop act David Devant and his Spirit Wife. The same intonation and love of theatrics. David Devant and his Sprit Wife are infused with the pop of their day, yet clearly have loved Van Der Graaf Generator somewhere along the way. Combined to the music of Van Der Graaf Generator, at times, Peter Hammill comes across as a Shakespearian actor fronting King Crimson. These are all my initial impressions, remember. One fact I have learned prior to my listening adventures with Van Der Graaf, the voice of Peter Hammill is the sticking point for many and a way in for others. I think I need to listen more. Oh, oh my god, these lyrics? Very strange.

    So far then, the first song on the first album is stuck in my brain. That’s a good sign, but I’m not quite there yet.

    ( 9.8.06 ) Aerosol Grey Machine( 1969 )
    Afterwards / Orthentian St #1 / Orthentian St #2 / Running Back / Into A Game / Aerosol Grey Machine / Black Smoke Yen / Aguarian / Necromancer / Octopus

    Who said Van Der Graaf Generator couldn’t write pop songs? Who else said this album is merely an interesting curio for already established fans? Not essential? Well, browsing through reviews on various progressive rock sites, a good percentage of fans seem reasonably dismissive of this early LP. I’ve been listening to it non-stop for days now and as a reviewer, such an activity can occasionally be more chore than pleasure. No sir, far more than the bare three or four listens for ‘Aerosol Grey Machine’ – this album has gone some way to capturing my heart. I understand it’s not meant to be a representative album for the group, but then, I’ve not got any further yet. Van Der Graaf Generator ( or rather Peter Hammill? ) hit the ground running artistically and only a chronic mess up upon release and years spent deleted has truly prevented ‘Aerosol Grey Machine’ being more appreciated than it’s been. Very much a cult item, and it’s a cult item that appears to have never truly been re-evaluated. A little bit of history for the young folks like me ( I’m 32! ) now, Van Der Graaf Generator broke up, there was a deal with Mercury records in the offing, a rubbish deal by all accounts. Peter Hammill had decided to release a solo album, Van Der Graaf Generator ended up reforming and Mercury were happier releasing a work by the band in any case. Line-up changes occurred between this and the following release, but that’s another story and shall be told another time.

    Approximately speaking, ‘Aerosol Grey Machine’ contains a few fairly conventional ( although with psych/avant-garde touches ) tunes forming the first half of the album, then a couple of lengthier songs to close. I’ve heard comparisons made to Floyd and Barrett, yet I don’t hear that. Well, both Syd and Hammill have their own particular ways with language. Seeing the lyrics written down in Hammill’s case works equally as well as hearing them sung, which is quite a neat trick. Syd’s lyrics great as they were, definitely sounded better when sung. You could turn this around of course and say it’s because Hammill can’t sing, but I wouldn’t agree with you. His voice is clearly an acquired taste, yet it rings out true and clear. He has about three different notes on a first listen. A high register that rarely wavers, yet 'Afterwards' and other songs here show he can do delicate as well as his usual, strong and clear, seemingly three note vocal range. First impressions, remember, although i've now grown to like his voice. Repeated listens force it into you as the focal point of the band. If you're not able to grow to like or love it, you won't like Van Der Graaf Generator. Anyways, I mentioned 'Afterwards'. The bass melody is strong, the guitar semi acoustic, little piano parts pop up. It's a considered tune, very well constructed and it withstands lots of repeated listens and grows with each one. It doesn't contain obvious melody or obvious lyrics. It's a semi work of art and I love it to bits. Possibly even better is 'Orthentian St', both parts. Van Der Graaf clearly not a bunch of muso's, quite rare for a prog band. A deliriously effective one note piano line repeats pretty much throughout, although the initial minute or two is pure pop, very well done, too. Just to make sure the beginning of this album is flawless, 'Running Back' is art-pop ( rather than art-rock, notice ) done perfectly. It's a glorious tune, again, one you can listen to hundreds of times, because nothing screams at you. Nothing is obvious. The musical backing is delicate to threatening to be noisy and that voice and those lyrics sit in the middle. Like Jim Morrison is to some people, the lyrics and vocals become the absolute focus above the decent music. They become a world to live in. The Peter Hammill lyrics are an acquired taste, as well as his voice, yet again sit inside them with an open mind and they sink in. Am I sounding stupid?

    Elsewhere? Well, there's a couple of very brief, kooky psych pop songs. Then there's 'Aguarian' and the fairly amazing 'Octopus', much more obvious indications of Van Der Graaf to come. The band go all noisy, avant garde and Velvet Underground crossed with King Crimson crossed with Edgar Allen Poe on us. It's a good thing and this is certainly a good album.

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    ( 20.12.06 ) The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other( 1970 )
    Darkness / Refugees / White Hammer / Out Of My Book / Whatever Would Robert Have Said / After The Flood

    Blaring, discordant saxophones. Obtuse melody lines, cutting keyboards and vicious noise. Doesn’t sound very friendly, does it? Why is it Van Der Graaf Generator are always dismissed or easily summed up by the music press to give an impression their music is only for the masochistic? It quite upsets me, you see. This album right here, for example. The bands second album proper, although the 1st to receive anything like proper distribution. This album right here is full of genuinely lovely moments. Beautiful melodic sections and genuinely appropriate and emotional vocals. Sure, there are other less digestible moments too, but the main thrust of this album appears to be beauty over discord. I’m happy with that, as it goes. Oh, a brief aside for a moment and I’m sure regular You Tube users can point me towards relevant footage. The way Peter Hammill sings just makes me wonder what on earth his speaking voice sounds like? When he sings, it reminds me almost of how I would sound like if I took serious singing lessons. My voice isn’t…… very expressive. Hammill’s voice becomes expressive, almost against the odds. Yet, it reminds me of an actor who has learnt how to perform certain tricks with his voice. Thus, Hammill can go through various stages with his voice for ‘Darkness’, effectively managing to sound vaguely menacing. The gorgeous ‘Out Of My Book’ sees Hammill weave a romantic spell over magical, wonderful sounding flute that floats away beautifully. Does it evoke the fluttering of pages in a book? It does in places. It’s a certifiable 10/10 in our house, the aforementioned ‘Darkness’ not too far behind, actually. Maybe a 9? ‘Darkness’ is something of a tour-de-force, the saxophone especially.

    What else? Well, there’s another 10/10, another 9/10. That’s four of the six songs on the album getting a 9 or 10. Why on earth am I grading individual tunes, anyway? I don’t do that. Why am I even reviewing thousands of albums anyway? Am I some kind of idiot? Well, possibly I am, yet the likes of ‘The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other’ by Van Der Graaf Generator is the very reason I do this entire web-site. I trawl through the music archives, visit the library, download new songs. I’d never have sought out Van Der Graaf Generator were it not for the fact I felt I should review them. Little would I realise they’d have something like this up their sleeves. Oh, ‘Refugees’ is almost impossibly ridiculously pretentious and overblown, yet really artful in a way. The lyrics and vocals just take it to another level. The flute and whatever else the guys lay their hands on….. it should all fall apart, yet it stays together and that old suspension of disbelief comes into play. I can’t believe they could create something as great as this, a tune that seems to have been put together whilst constantly wondering whether it could hold itself above water. In the end, it does. Not only that, it starts swimming properly, length after length, like the masterpiece it now implausibly is. The ten minute plus album closer ‘After The Flood’ is one of those songs that once you hear it, fits its title perfectly. Along with ‘Darkness’, it’s a perfect piece to bookend the songs inbetween. Lots of good, manful attempts at virtuoso playing by a group of musicians that largely weren’t as technically talented as a Robert Fripp, a Rick Wakemen or a Steve Howe, yet they go ahead and create something great anyway. I’m sure that’s a lesson to be learned by someone, somewhere.

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    Readers Comments

    great album, im glad to see one of the reviewers appreciate vdgg, especially this album, which has a bad rep. however you didnt mention the one low point (IMO), whatever would robert have said.. just doesnt click... anyways if you thought this was a 9 1/2, god i cant wait to hear what you think of H to He and Pawn Hearts (personal 2 favorites, this is third). also i highly recommend hammill's 70's solo albums (in camera, chameleon in the shadow of the night, silent corner & empty stage). the whole band plays on them anyways, so theyre van der graaf albums in all but name. looking forward to more vdgg reviews...

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    ( 3.3.07 ) H to He Who Am the Only One 9 ( 1970 )
    Killers / House With No Door / The Emperor On His War Room / Lost / Pioneer Over c

    An album that repeats the formula of its predecessor almost exactly, but I’m hardly going to complain about it when the quality is as good as it is here. Indeed, if it wasn’t for ‘Pioneer Over c’ falling flat, I could be talking a certified classic here, but I’m not. Just very nearly. The first two songs for example are stunning and really affect me. Isn’t it great when you hear a band that’s new to you and they just perfectly fit in with your thinking and suddenly seem like the only band in existence? Damn ‘Pioneer Over c’, it’s too experimental and ‘bitty’ for it’s own good. The last song on any album is important but especially so when there’s only four other songs on the thing. So, a X for ‘Pioneer Over c’, big ticks for everything else. The talk of Johnny Rotten being inspired by the vocal stylings of Peter Hammill? Listen to the extraordinary vocal performance throughout ‘Killers’. Stretching his words, ‘dance’ becomes ‘darnce’ and so forth and the content, ‘killers in the sea’ married to a stupendously exciting riff? Does it for me. The avant-garde instrumental section with sax blaring away against the main thrust of the tune is thrilling, also. You know it’s a good song when you find yourself singing along to the parts Mr Hammill doesn’t sing to. So far so good then and ‘House With No Door’ is just as good and, as desperately lonely songs go, absolutely superb. House with no door, no windows, no sound, no roof and he didn’t mind at the time the house is now a wall. Something like that, you understand? The piano sections remind me of Rick Wakeman’s playing on ‘Hunky Dory’ by Bowie and linking Van Der Graaf Generator to Bowie makes sense to me. The artfulness and eccentric nature of both acts pleases me. Van Der Graaf never went supernova and never sold very many records, though. Shame on you the British Public for not buying more Van Der Graaf Generator albums.

    I’ll summarize now. ‘The Emperor’ has scary lyrics, ‘Lost’ features more Van Der Graaf in full instrumental effect. Both songs are stretching out around the ten minute mark and failing to be boring for a single second. Did anybody think I’d like Van Der Graaf Generator in the first place? I’ve read some middling to only faintly positive reviews of them in the past. They don’t have the instrumental prowess of a Yes or a King Crimson, but they’ve got ideas. The singular and lengthy solo career of Peter Hammill is a marvel in itself and testament also to the ideas and creativity Van Der Graaf Generator possessed. Two albums in around a year and both excellent. I’m not complaining, I’m dancing on the ceiling but watching out for ghosts stealing my eyes from their sockets.

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    Readers Comments

    d dzpenner@hotmail.com
    hmm, im surprised you like the least we can do better than h to he. i find h to he to be an absolute masterpiece, and cannot see what you find so wrong with pioneers over c. sure, it is easily the worst song here, but its defenitely no reason to give this album anything lower than a 9 1/2, considering how utterly fantastic the 4 songs are.

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    ( 18.8.07 ) Pawn Hearts( 1971 )
    Lemmings / Man-Erg / A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers

    Helpless cries, utterly bleak. Screeching sax and pummeling organ. A fusion of jazz, hard rock, chamber music, psychedelia, avant garde, poetry, and proto- punk. This is a three song concept album with the closing 'A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers' lasting all of twenty three minutes. 'Lemmings' concerns the folly of blindly following corrupt leaders, 'Man-Erg' reflects conflict, the good and the bad and individuality. The third and closing track has a lonely lighthouse keeper reflecting upon loss, the fraility of humanity before ultimately death brings its own peace. Well, i've tried to piece together the story, it's something like that, at least. Other theories hit upon re-arranging the letters of 'Man Erg' into 'German' and the album becomes a tale of Nazi Germany and Hitler. The lyrics throughout are certainly fascinating and brilliantly artistic in a way few other lyricists have ever been able to manage. Also, even by Van Der Graaf Generator standards, the album is incredibly inpenetrable, even after dozens of listens. You'd have to already be a fan of the group to really be able to appreciate this, I would have thought. The first two songs here both run in excess of ten minutes and both seem to incorporate many of the best elements of previous Van Der Graaf Generator tunes. Thus, 'Man-Erg' is a cross between 'Killers' and 'Refugees'. 'Lemmings' is a conglomeration of organ, sax, Peter Hammil, well, you get the picture. It music for scaring young children and spouse's. The interesting thing is, not even these two pieces or any of the previous two LPs really prepare you for the monstrosity that is 'Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers'. I mean, well. Let's take side long Prog epics by Yes, or Genesis. Both bands would manage, more or less, to make a long twenty minute tune with a story. The song, even though it would last twenty minutes and often be split into a couple of different parts, would still be, in essence, one composition. Unfavourably compared to such things, 'A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers' is split into numerous sections, a lot of which, still doesn't manage to quite make sense to me. I can still suspend my disbelief and get this amazing rush from listening to something quite so avant-garde, intelligent and downright scary and strange, however.

    I adore the first two songs on this LP. They both offer continuation and development from the previous LPs. 'Lemmings' open with a typical Hammil vocal, all drama and theatricality. Fade out for ominous organ and wonderful military drums. Back to the vocals, we rise in tension. Oh, I can't wait! Yep, the one minute twenty nine mark the sax comes in and the song just becomes utterly glorious. Why don't more bands use noisy sax in their songs? I know now why I adore Joe Meek's group The Fabulous Flee-Rekkers. They use noisy sax too! Basically, 'Lemmings' compares favourably to, if not quite topping, the likes of 'Killers'. The first few minutes of 'Man-Erg' compare favourably to 'Refugees' if not quite topping 'House With No Door'. 'Man-Erg' as an entity though becomes one of my very favourite Van Der Graaf Generator tunes. It's got this slower, beautiful section before exploding into avant-garde, glorious, oh so glorious dissonant noise. Controlled dissonance, lovely baby, yeah. 'A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers'. We're hearing the ocean, a sax becomes a ships horn. We have pauses, sections. Some great musical moments, but the whole doesn't quite flow well enough together for me to love it unconditionally, rather I merely admire it. Van Der Graaf Generator, for their part, felt that 'Pawn Hearts' was a major acheivement and the peak of their career. So much so, they promptly split up, imagining it an impossible album to top. They'd reform of course four years later. Time for me to switch to writing Peter Hammill reviews for a little while. <

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    ant lewis lewisfrenzy@btinternet.com
    For me, a Hammill/VDGG fan of some 30 or so years, Pawn Hearts is THE vdgg artistic climax. I love its raw, uncompromising, angsty power. It is wonderfully experimental and seems to sum up everything that the past three albums were aiming for. Sadly, the following three albums (Godbluff, Still Life and World Record) seem tame and conventional by comparison. Fortunately the band reformed as Van Der Graaf and made the superlative Quiet Zone/Pleasure Dome album (an angst pop-rock classic). With Pawn Hearts, VDGG sounded like real outsiders; indie pioneers of their time. I give it a straight 10 because it makes all other prog sound a bit too safe.

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    this page last updated 15/09/07

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