Van Der Graaf Generator – ALT

Although I may have not found myself wholly impressed with last year’s “A Grounding in Numbers”, it was cool to hear Van der Graaf Generator still evolving their sound well into their golden years. Easily predicted, “A Grounding in Numbers” was very laid-back and far from the bombastic madness of their prime. As such, I would have likely expected more of the same from Van der Graaf Generator’s next album; a Peter Hamill-driven collection of reflective songwriting, with the occasional progressive twist to keep listeners on their feet.

For better and worse, “ALT” goes against every expectation. To be honest, it doesn’t even feel like a Van der Graaf record.

Pink Floyd’s black sheep “Ummagumma” was the first thing I was reminded of, minutes into the album. Writing this review, I still think that’s what the band was going for on “ALT”. For an hour, listeners are exposed to a leaking of hyperindulgent experimentation and instrumental noodling. Van der Graaf’s most distinctive element- the voice of Peter Hammill- has been taken out of the mix and replaced by nothingness. Although listeners can still look out for the occasional smattering of guitar and bird-chirping samples, the vast majority of the sound is handed over the Guy Evans’ drumkit and the keyboards. In other words, “ALT” is what Van der Graaf Generator might sound like without Peter Hammill. Was this a hypothetical scenario that many of us dreamt of? Not really.

Of course, taken out of its disappointing context, there is some enjoyment to be had with “ALT”. Meeting at a crossroads between minimalist ambiance and experimental jazz, “ALT” gives the impression of an almost entirely improvised effort, the sort of thing that they may have composed over tea-time and went straight to recording. With that in mind, it’s surprising that some of these ‘songs’ came together as well as they did. Although many of these tracks are immediate throwaways, there are a couple of gems. Van der Graaf Generator execute the jazz style very well here; “Repeat After Me” is brooding and cinematic. “Collosus” is a cosmic romp with texture experiments aplenty. It won’t fit everyone’s taste, and it certainly doesn’t fit Van der Graaf Generator’s usual sound.

Some of their experiments are very interesting, but I found myself often bored. Even when Van der Graaf latch onto something intriguing, they often stick with it too long. One thing that remains consistent throughout, however, is the production. Although this sound is obviously raw and unrefined, the mix is organic and rich; it feels almost like a live performance. For much of this album, drummer Guy Evans is given the spotlight, and he demonstrates some great skill as a fusion drummer. Sadly, the pros are outweighed by the overindulgent noodling, hit-or-miss experiments, and an album length that should have been cut in half. All the same, it might be worth a listen; just don’t expect it to sound anything like the Van der Graaf Generator you know.

Tracklist:

1. Earlybird
2. Extractus
3. Sackbutt
4. Colossus
5. Batty Loop
6. Splendid
7. Repeat After Me
8. Elsewhere
9. Here’s One I Made Earlier
10. Midnite Or So
11. D’Accord
12. Mackerel Ate Them
13. Tuesday, The Riff
14. Dronus

Line-up:

* Peter Hammill – guitar and keyboards
* Hugh Banton – organ, bass pedals and bass guitar
* Guy Evans – drums

Links:

http://www.vandergraafgenerator.co.uk/

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