Photographs and Review by John Bentley
Van der Graaf Generator have been around since the late 1960s and are one of the few ‘prog rock’ bands to have unquestionably survived the punk era with their reputation fully intact. Even John Lydon seems to like them. So I’m really looking forward to seeing the band perform one of four UK gigs at the Robin2 tonight.
The venue is packed-out from the start and some people have travelled great distances to see the band tonight. Indeed, I kid you not, I meet a chap who’s come all the way from Russia. Not much chance of them touring Russia, he tells me. While never enjoying great commercial success (except in Italy, where they were mega in the 70s, for some reason) VdGG really do have a wide and loyal following.
If you’re not familiar with VdGG’s work, it’s pretty dark, rather gothic stuff, but certainly not comedy gothic. Band leader, singer and pianist Peter Hammill is fascinated by science fiction, mortality and the state of the human mind. Most of their songs are lengthy and complexly structured. They play really loud then really soft, at times they can sound challengingly cacophonous, but then they counteract that by introducing a beautiful melody. Weird, unfashionable but interesting music. While Hammill plays guitar on some numbers, the band’s sound is usually made up of organ, piano and drums. Herculean drummer Guy Evans and versatile organist Hugh Banton make up the rest of the band. Banton has adapted his organ and keyboards to provide an amazing range of sounds, as well as the pedals substituting for bass guitar. Besides the prominent organ, the other main characteristic of VdGG is Hammill’s powerful and apocalyptic voice, which is said to have influenced John Lydon’s singing style.
The band starts with ‘Over the Hill’, one of three tracks tonight from the band’s 2008 ‘Trisector’ album. They have a rich back-catalogue of old favourites from the 1960s and 70s, which they could mine, but they choose to serve-up a mix of songs from across their career, half of which represent the period since their reformation in 2005. Not a band dwelling on a nostalgic past, but still keen to develop.
Second song is a lengthy and meandering rendition of ‘Flight’, a number adapted from Hammill’s prolific solo career. “I always forget how crazy things are, so sometimes it catches me off my guard when they make sense”, sings Hammill. The first part of the song is relatively instrumentally sparse by VdGG’s standards, with Hammill’s piano prominent and an emphasis on the lyrics. Lasting around 20 minutes and lacking an obvious melody or riff, this is one of the more challenging pieces played tonight.
In contrast, we get to more familiar VdGG territory, as Hammill picks up the guitar for the next two songs, including the excellent ‘Bunsho’. “I’d just done the best work to fall into my hands for quite some time; of night oil I’d burned much, made sure both style and content were sublime”, sings Hammill over a riffy instrumental backing. Make of that what you will.
Then we get what many of us were most looking forward to, as we hear the opening piano notes of the 20-odd minute piece ‘A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers’, from the acclaimed ‘Pawn Hearts’ album of 1971. This complicated piece has rarely been performed, but the band has promised to showcase it every night on this tour. It’s the story of a lighthouse keeper, what he experiences in his work and what goes on in his head, maybe as a result of isolation and seeing death and destruction on the seas. The vocals and instrumentation (thundering drums, keyboard effects) evoke the state of the sea and the lighthouse keeper’s state of mind, alternatively calm and stormy. Hammill’s voice growls and really takes off on this piece. This represents the best of VdGG, with cacophony counterbalanced by melody. The piece ends suddenly and dramatically and the audience go wild.
We get a couple more old favourites from the band’s back catalogue to finish off with and then they take a bow before the appreciative crowd. Band and audience seem rather overwhelmed by the whole experience.
So I’m really knocked out by this evening. VdGG are on form. Hammill’s voice is as great as ever. The band’s sound may have lost something of its richness since the departure of sax and flute player David Jackson a few years ago, but Banton’s keyboard playing is superb and he invents parts that flesh-out and compensate for the loss of the woodwind. Ultimately it’s prog rock of course, but VdGG have maintained their credibility throughout, probably because their music was never pastoral or hippy fantasy-based, like some of their prog contemporaries. VdGG were always dark, edgy and sinister. This music will never be widely popular (except maybe in Italy, where the tour now takes them for three dates), but it’s gripping stuff and you’ll never hear anything else like it.
Setlist: Over the Hill; Flight; Lifetime; All That Before; Bunsho; A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers; Man-Erg. Encore: Scorched Earth.
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