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23.11.07

Van Der Graaf Generator


vandergraafgenerator-godbluff1975




Van Der Graaf Generator - Godbluff - 1975 - Charisma

Excellent progressive rock album from the neglected Van Der Graaf Generator. One of the few seventies prog. rock outfits who remained faithful to their musical style, and spurned commercialism. Check out their great " H To He Who Am The Only One " album from 1970.

TRACKS

1. The Undercover Man — 7:25
2. Scorched Earth — 9:48
3. Arrow — 9:45
4. The Sleepwalkers — 10:31

BAND

Peter Hammill, vocals, piano, guitar;
Hugh Banton, organs, bass;
David Jackson, saxophone, flute;
Guy Evans, drums, percussion

REVIEWS

Van Der Graaf Generator labored in obscurity virtually their entire career leaving behind one of musicdom's strangest catalogues of sound. Godbluff is a great bit of prog-rock history getting its due. In the early seventies, just around the time that everyone began to go disco crazy, there were a faithful few who refused to give up on the majesty and pomp of their beloved art-rock. Bands like Caravan, Gentle Giant and Strawbs proudly waved the flag of pretension, but it was on Britain's Famous Charisma Label that two of the most overblown progressive rock bands offered up to the masses their gloriously twisted idea of music. One band, Genesis, after a string of brilliant oddball releases, went onto huge popularity when they lost the groups leading visionary, Peter Gabriel. The other band, Van Der Graaf Generator (named after American physicist Robert Van de Graaf's high voltage invention) labored in obscurity virtually their entire career leaving behind one of musicdom's strangest catalogues of sound. The re-release of Van Der Graaf's entire output thus continues with two classics from their middle period, Godbluff, and Still Life. Both contain only a few songs, which average around 8 minutes in length, but they are two distinct and separate steps toward a more mature sound. As uncompromising as ever, mainman Peter Hammill leads his fellow musicians through a quartet of typically dark visions containing all the ear markings of serious prog-rock. Hugh Banton's heavy organ fills and relentless bass lines fight for control over David Jackson's soaring, searing Saxophone. Drummer Guy Evans keeps the whole moving through numerous time changes with plenty of percussive histrionics. On top of it all, of course, are the singular vocal stylings of Peter Hammill. Using his voice like a fifth instrument, Hammill goes from falsetto to growl and back again, punctuating his introspective, searching lyrics with a frightening conviction. Capable of both great tenderness and harsh cynicism, Hammill's voice is the defining element of the Van Der Graaf sound. These are not songs to dance to. They are more like songs to think to. The album opens with Jackson on an echoing flute followed by Banton's familiar keyboards upon which Hammill whispers the opening lines, "Here at the glass -- all the usual problems, all the habitual farce." Somewhat existential, always questioning, these tunes are meant to stimulate the brain, not sedate it. Of course, it isn't long before the music picks up speed growing more insistent. The song drifts seamlessly into "Scorched Earth," another grim view of the world, one that seems surprisingly relevant in today's polarized atmosphere. Hammill and company are nothing, if not prophetic, stretching the boundaries of rock here as no other band had in 1975, except for perhaps the equally challenging King Crimson. Van Der Graaf, however stick closer to the rockier side of progressive music, using jazz timing to spice things up a bit. It is a perfect marriage to the free verse lyrics, which Peter Hammill employs, resulting in a provocative mixture. The current resurgence of "head music" from bands like The Mars Volta and System Of A Down, both of which utilize the jarring staccato effects that VDGG and others perfected over thirty years ago, shows the influence that these progressive pioneers have had. Many of these older groups have dated well, proving their ultimate worth. Art-rock has never really left, being carried on in one form or another through the 80's and 90's. It is only now that this hard-edged classical rock is returning to the forefront. The second half of Godbluff begins with a drum and bass workout slowly leading into a full-fledged jam with Jackson's familiar sax and then Banton's keyboard giving way to the song proper. Hammill's lyrics hint at the human condition, describing the world like some unknown Bergman epic. "We are all on the run, on our knees; the sundial draws a line upon eternity across every number." Although the viewpoint is often grim, the music can be quite moving, even beautiful at times. It seems to serve as a contrast to the more oppressive, angry passages. The final piece from this set, "The Sleepwalkers," jumps right in and marches forward showcasing some of Guy Evan's best percussion. Here again we have a narrator that wonders what the point of living is, making life's absurd condition more apparent. The overall message of Godbluff is the thin veil between life and death, a subject that Van Der Graaf was destined to tackle eventually. As Peter sings, "I'd search the hidden corners of all this world, make reason of the sensory whorl if I only had time, but soon the dream is ended." As a bonus for this CD re-release, two live tracks, "Forsaken Gardens" and "A Louse Is Not A Home" have been added. Not exactly up to the quality of the rest, they are still of interest to hardcore VDGG fans. The vocals are mixed poorly, sometimes overriding the music. The musicianship, as always, is superb. Overall, this is a great bit of prog-rock history getting its due. © Lindsay Bianchi, Copyright © 2007 PM MEDIA REVIEW, www.pmmediareview.com/archives/2005/12/van_der_graaf_g_1.aspx
Summer 1975: I was in London when I happened to read about one of my favourite groups ever, Van Der Graaf Generator, having reformed in their original line-up. And not only that, they were also playing on the Continent. Imagine my surprise when I read that, precisely at that very moment, the group was busy doing some dates in... Italy! (And since we're talking about timing: that summer was the only time that Henry Cow played in my hometown - while I was away...) I tried (in vain) to overcome my disappointment. Sure, on the surface this reformation appeared to be more than a bit strange - just like when practically everybody had been caught by surprise by the news of the group splitting up, three years earlier: right at a time when a dedicated following, hot live dates and a brilliant progression of excellent studio albums - The Least We Can Do Is Wave At Each Other ('70), H To He, Who Am The Only One ('70) and Pawn Hearts ('71) - all seemed to announce that the group was about to break big.
In the end, I was lucky: I attended the (London) New Victoria Theatre gig on August 30th. Definitely known for their not playing by the rules, the group started the concert in almost complete darkness, with just a lone, thin flute playing the intro to The Undercover Man, the opening track of the yet-to-be-released new album, Godbluff. If I remember correctly, the new album was performed in its entirety, with just a few old favourites like Lemmings and Man-Erg being performed; while the group also played a few songs (Forsaken Gardens, In The Black Room and A Louse Is Not A Home) from Peter Hammill's solo albums.
Godbluff was released in October '75. Attentive listening showed that the group had changed considerably, abandoning the aesthetic of their earlier albums - which had been characterized by a meticulous production work with tons of overdubs - in favour of a more direct, streamlined, "live" approach where the musicians' roots in soul, jazz and r&b easily showed. Which didn't mean that the music was now more palatable or commercial; quite the opposite, in fact; and there was a new sense of urgency, a nervous, harder surface.
Godbluff proved to be my favourite Van Der Graaf Generator album from that period (though quite good on its own terms, the 1977 The Quite Zone, The Pleasure Dome is a different album by a very different band). It still is, by the way: 'cause while Still Life ('76) had higher highs, it also had lower lows (my opinion, of course); while Godbluff's four long tracks - The Undercover Man, Scorched Earth, Arrow, The Sleepwalkers - showed a unity of inspiration and appeared as having been cut from the same cloth.
I decided to purchase the new, digitally remastered edition of Godbluff. I'm usually disappointed by digitally remastered editions: too many high frequencies, not enough bass, no "warmth", a terrible, fatiguing sound where cymbal hits threaten to damage one's hearing. I'm quite pleased I can say that the album sounds very good - much better, I'd say, than the tracks that appeared a few years ago on the group's 4 CD box set called The Box. There's nothing really "new" here, but the bass pedals on The Undercover Man, the clavinet work on Scorched Earth and Arrow, the bass guitar on The Sleepwalkers can be more easily appreciated, while cymbals never go "fi-zz...". Two brutal-sounding (and officially unreleased) live tracks from that period - Forsaken Gardens and A Louse Is Not A Home - complete the set.
Listening to Godbluff - an album that I know from memory, and that I hadn't listened to in a long time - I thought about how in those days this kind of quality, this concept of "song-stretching", were taken for granted. While now Godbluff sounds like the precursor to a music that never came. Funny, or what? © Beppe Colli 2005, CloudsandClocks.net | Aug. 23, 2005
After Pawn Hearts, the band happily disbanded, much to the relief of critics who were now free to concentrate on more accessible, lightweight, easy-goin' stuff like A Passion Play and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. Peter Hammill went on with his solo career, which many fans claim to have been just as interesting, if not more interesting, than Graaf itself; and yet, apparently he felt something was still left unsaid, because four years later the band - hah hah - regrouped. With the same lineup, as far as I understand.
And yet, this "Mark II" of Van der Graaf Generator turned out to be a completely different band, apparently, due to huge transformations in Hammill's style along the way. Formally, this music can still be recognized as VDGG: minimal or no guitar, a heavy reliance on keyboards and saxophones, lots of jazzy and avantgarde, dissonant noodling, and Hammill's pretentious singing. But the overall effect is certainly different - for better or for worse. First of all, the production on Godbluff and all of its follow-ups is heavily stripped: very little overdubbing, very few special effects, very low volume level (the first track, 'The Undercover Man', starts almost in a whisper and the record very rarely picks up "true" steam). Apparently, by now Hammill no longer wanted the tunes to possess a certain "universalist", bombastic aspect - and so the elements of 'prog theater' are severely reduced. This is music to listen to late in the evening with the lights dimmed and the mood more contemplative than rocking. Well, we just have to grow older, don't we?
Second, Hammill has very seriously matured as a lyricist - in fact, I'd say that Godbluff finally finds him bravely acquiring the post of one of rock's premiere poets. The lyrics are still hard to get, but they're not meaningless; essentially, he's just continuing the 'pessimistic human theme' which he started touching upon in Pawn Hearts and even before that, but he very rarely relies on cliches and he never steps away from the direct path into a world of obscure and fake fantasies. What's with us? Well, we're all lunatics ('The Sleepwalkers'), we all have a mysterious alter ego ('The Undercover Man'), we are all trailing a senseless and wretched existence ('Scorched Earth'), and we're all condemned to eternal torture anyway ('Arrow'). A very fun and welcome concept, I suppose - of course, there might be other interpretations, but I doubt any of them will be more optimistic. Nevertheless, the album does not give the impression of being utterly depressive: Hammill seems almost to be revelling in his contemplation of man's essence, but not in a Satanic way - rather assuming the part of an 'outside observer'. In the same way certain Chinese philosophers used to make their theories about the original evil character of man: with a tranquil and indifferent expression on their faces. What there is, should always be, I suppose.
In the good old prog tradition, there are only four songs on the album (and the tradition would be carried on afterwards), and, strange enough, none of the four are particularly irritating. It takes much more than three listens to get into any of them, though, and while I can easily see people dismissing this with a wave of their hand, I'd beg 'em to reconsider. It's a clever record. And it's definitely clever in the musical sense, too: Van der Graaf are still a band, after all. 'The Sleepwalkers', I think, is this album's most interesting piece of melody-making: the organ/sax riff which carries the tune forwards is very strange, yet very bouncy, but the main fun starts near the middle when the tune suddenly slips into several almost vaudevillian instrumental passages. It bears a slight resemblance to 'Pioneers Over C', too, and some moments bring up associations with Jethro Tull's Passion Play (although that album could never hope to be as good because of its not making any sense at all). And the stately, gritty section that clocks in at around 5:05 into the song defines the very principles of 'VDGG Rock' for me: a good slab of organ/sax hard rock, catchy, stompy and self-assured.
'Arrow' is also pretty good - the funny thing is that at first I thought the song to be messier than anything else on here, but later on it struck me as the catchiest piece on the entire record. I guess that first impression just had to do with Hammill's singing: I don't like when he's overrelying on screaming, because he's not a very convincing screamer. I far prefer the soft tones in his voice, or at least the "icy cold" majestic intonation of 'Killer'. But that vocal melody can't be beat anyway, and the song embodies a vivid atmosphere of battle and torture just as the lyrics suggest - 'How strange my body feels, impaled upon the arrow!'. 'The Undercover Man' has a cool operatic feel to it - the song should certainly be taken as a free-flowing aria rather than a well-structured rock epic. Funny, I don't really mind the lack of structure here, maybe I'm just falling under the Hammill charm. 'Scorched Earth', then, is the tune that inspires me least of all: it's the closest to the band's Pawn Hearts style, with less introspection and more fake epicness, yet even here there can be found scraps of good riffs and interesting ideas. Occasionally. On occasion. On occasion, I enjoy an interesting idea, and Godbluff certainly has a fair share of these - and it's an album that really makes you think, unlike Pawn Hearts, which only makes you wonder.
Concluding on that intriguing note, I'd also want to warn you that Godbluff is the first, but not the best of Van der Graaf Generator's second period; so don't rush out to acquire it (in case it ever gets back into print, that is) until you have a couple other records that follow it. © George Starostin, http://starling.rinet.ru/music/index.htm

4 comments:

A.O.O.F.C said...

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zappahead said...

Many thanks for this superb album...havent heard it in a long while but am happy to find it again.....cheers.

A.O.O.F.C said...

Howzitgoin' zappahead. Glad you enjoyed album. TTU soon. Cheers!

bullfrog said...

dead link, will you re-post please, thanks