Van der Graaf Generator

Undercover Man
Scorched Earth
Every Bloody Emperor
Nutter Alert
Darkness (11/11)
(In The) Black Room
Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End
The Sleepwalkers

Van der Graaf Generator:
Hugh Banton (keyboards), Guy Evans (percussion), Peter Hammill (vocal, guitar & keyboards) & David Jackson (saxophones & flute)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 6 May, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

If you wanted to write an instruction booklet on how to form a rock band, ensure its long life and success, and create huge album sales, then I doubt if Van der Graaf Generator would be a role model. VdGG first appeared in 1968 and in a matter of only six years there had been numerous changes in the line up, with songwriter and vocalist Peter Hammill and keyboard player Hugh Banton forming the nucleus of the group. The group’s original name had to be changed because of copyright problems, their equipment was twice stolen on tour and huge sales were never really achieved. Also VdGG’s rock credibility wasn’t enhanced by the original line-up all being British University graduates. VdGG disbanded on at least two occasions, disappeared from the scene, yet made several random re-appearances.

However VdGG’s style of long rock-ballads did have a small but dedicated following and about 1500 people turned up at the Royal Festival Hall for this ‘official’ reunion concert – the first since 1978. That the concert was a long way from ideal was in part down to the sound system. VdGG produces some massive sustained bass and treble-heavy climaxes and the combination of the onstage and RFH speakers was truly appalling: the bass was blurred, the treble shrieked and the balance certainly didn’t favour the sax and woodwind parts, but then that was said of the band’s balance back in 1968 so it must be intentional!

You could also hear why Van der Graaf Generator never had a number one hit; many of the songs last over 10 minutes and don’t use short three- or four-bar melodies. The vocalist – and part-time keyboard and guitar player – Peter Hamill has also lost much of the falsetto power that was his trademark in the 60s and 70s, but his voice still has richness and power and he rode the rolling waves of climaxes which characterise so much of VdGG’s music. It comes as no surprise to anyone watching Hugh Banton that he is a classically trained organist. There were moments in “Scorched Earth” where the five-part left- and right-hand chords could have been by Liszt, and there was extensive use of major and minor thirds; I couldn’t help but feel he would have been happier playing Bach! David Jackson, the saxophonist and wind player, used a lot of screaming, dissonant blues-style riffs, which gave many of the textures an avant-garde feel; and the drummer was able, with the help of the amplification, to create dense swirls and blocks of sound.

There is a problem with VdGG though in that a whole series of these long hymn-like numbers can make them sound very much alike. You also get the impression that they are looking for something that they can’t quite achieve. Too often one crescendo would be followed by yet another and the lack of any compensating variation in dynamics lessened the numbers’ impact. These guys are serious musicians and they should trust their audience to listen to and appreciate a wider expressive range.

One thing was irritating: Hamill would go behind the drums to recover from one vocal orgiastic climax before returning for the next. Unfortunately he also took the opportunity to do a lot of swaying and waving his arms about; you can get away with that when you are 22, but not when you are 50+! That said I would certainly recommend anyone interested in the music of that era to get VdGG’s albums: in short doses they are very powerful.

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