In 2005 after an absence of 27 years, one of only a handful of the old school “progressive” rock bands worthy of the over used description, the mighty Van Der Graaf Generator, unexpectedly reformed with the classic line up and blessed the world with “Present” a double cd of superb noise. Whereas most of their contemporaries that were still performing were content to gift a shadow of former glories on new works while peddling greatest hits tours to their ageing audiences, VDGG still had that manic and unpredictable edge, albeit mellowed by time, that made them such a great band all those years ago.
Derailed somewhat by the departure of sax impressionist David Jackson (aka Jaxon) after the Present tour the band bravely decided to continue as a trio, and 2008 saw the release of the somewhat underwhelming Trisector, which sounded more like a Peter Hammill solo album than a group work, and has not been played much chez moi since its release. I will have to dig it out before I see them live soon, as some of its songs will doubtless be played at the gig.
Which brings us to now, and the release of A Grounding In Numbers, a title reflected in the concerns of the album, the passing of time, how life links to mathematical theory, but perhaps also a sly reference to their former sax honker, who, after the “classic” VDGG split the first time round became a Maths teacher – who knows?
The sound is much fuller than Trisector, which suffered by having several large Jaxon shaped aural holes, and for a bunch of guys in their 60s still retains some of the old edginess of old, and Hugh Padgham’s production is unfussy and clear. Do not expect manic Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers like sections though, as, like everyone else, they have mellowed with age. The structure of the album is different from previous albums too. The longest song is only 6’01″, and their are 13 songs in all, spread over 50 or so minutes. VDGG make a pop album?
The album opens with Your Time Starts Now, a slow ballad ruminating on the way time passes at an ever increasing rate as we get older, and their ain’t long left baby, so if you’re gonna do it, do it now. Time is a recurrent Hammill theme throughout his solo career in particular, and is not unsurprisingly reprised these days given his age and his health scares of a few years back, from which he has now thankfully fully recovered.
Next up is the wilfully obscure Mathematics, a gentle hymn to the beauty of the equation it would seem. Only Hammill could get away with a chorus that includes the line “e to the power of i times pi plus one is zero, e to the power of i times pi is minus one” like it was something Jedward might have come up with. It comes from something called “Euler’s Identity”, voted Best Equation Ever by readers of Marvel Comics in 1975, or…..possibly not!
Highly Strung is an autobiographical declamation, sonically a cousin of All That Before, making PH sound a million miles away from the gentle soul he comes across as in interviews. The closest thing to a pop song on the album, the verse lurches along like a man in danger of losing all motor control at any second. Marvellous! Red Baron, the first of two instrumentals on the album, allows one to turn off the lyric decipher control for a couple of minutes, before we’re into Bunsho where the protagonist is too close to his art to be able to get a handle on it. As PH puts it “I can’t see my stream.” If you’ve ever written or created anything, even something as insignificant as this review, you’ll know where this coming from. Is its content ”sublime” or just “workaday”? Musically I could imagine Peter Gabriel coming up with this number.
Following this is for me the best song on the album, Snake Oil, which has all the ingredients of a VDGG epic crammed into its 5’20″, Ensemble rhythmic mastery to the fore, changing time signature on a whim and still making sense. Hugh Banton starts it off with a nostalgic Hammond (or a modern synthesis of that sound) led groove of the old school into a heavy slow stomping middle section, lyrically decrying the need to endlessly repeat a formula to appease the herd, the song seems to end about half way through, leaving the listener hung out to dry. A weird instrumental called Splink follows, some slide guitar with a atonal cyclical harpsicord (?) rising and then fading. Quite eerie.
The possibly also autobiographical Embarrassing Kid is a bit of mess to be frank and on first few listens seems a bit all over the shop. Guitar led it stumbles along in a semi coherent fashion, and being lyrically somewhat trite it’s not the most compelling thing on the album. Medusa sets things back on track with a song much in the Hammill mode of menace. Mr Sands, theatrical code for announcing a fire alarm or similar without panicking the audience, as in PH’s ”Well Mr Sands is in the house, commotion in the stalls” is another highlight. With an intricate time signature, Banton sounds almost Emerson like, but in a far less bombastic fashion, if you can imagine that! Another proto-epic in the making.
Smoke is a cautionary tale about one’s historical trail left on the internet, to an almost funky groove. You could dance to it if so inclined. This leads seamlessly into 5533 to keep in with the mathematical theme. I’ve absolutely no idea what this is about, perhaps someone can enlighten me? The album ends with All Over The Place, a tale of lost identity and disillusion. Musically fairly quiet and reflective, slowly building on the rising keyboards of Hammill and Banton, it provides a sombre end to an album that for VDGG is a somewhat low key effort.
One notices that, like the last two albums, PH’s lyrics on some of these songs are far less intricate, and dare I say it, obscure than those on solo albums over the same period and on VDGG albums pre-reformation. Perhaps he is deliberately attempting to make VDGG more accessible than in the past, although having said that, songs like Mathematics & 5533 are as left field as he ever was. Musically this is as the most restrained I’ve heard the band. Perhaps they are at last comfortable in their own skin rather than itching to get out as in the past?
Don’t buy this if you’re expecting another Pawn Hearts or Godbluff or Still Life. If you look on the 21st century VDGG as a separate entity then you’ll not be over-egging the expectation pudding. Better than Trisector, I’m hoping this will continue to grow on me.
VDGG have a problem, not that they probably see it this way. Fans of the two mainstream mega successful bands who could be said to have reignited the prog rock flame over recent years, Radiohead and Muse, are not going to be buying this in droves. Curious youngsters who delve into their dad’s and (gulp) grandad’s record collections and are intrigued by VDGG may be tempted, but those few aside the market for the new VDGG largely remains with their old fans. Perhaps they are shining examples of that hoary old muso cliché…”We make the the music we like, if anyone else likes it then that is a bonus.” Not that I’m complaining, having missed them first time round, tomorrow I’ll see them live for third time since the reformation, and long may it continue!
1. Your Time Starts Now
3. Highly Strung
4. Red Baron
6. Snake Oil
8. Embarassing Kid
10. Mr. Sands
13. All Over the Place
* Peter Hammill – guitar, keyboards and vocals
* Hugh Banton – organ, bass pedals and bass guitar
* Guy Evans – drums