Review Summary: After Godbluff, could Van der Graaf Generator strike hard again? The answer is yes.
Van Der Graaf Generator were one of the bands that pioneered the symphonic progressive rock movement in the 70’s. While they never achieved worldwide recognition (which was limited to Europe, especially Italy), they belong on the same platform occupied by the likes of Genesis, Yes and Pink Floyd. Van der Graaf is an intense, jazz-influenced symphonic progressive band with a dark and angry twist. Its musicians are boundary pushing visionaries. In effect, they delivered a one-of-a-kind, effective style of prog. Instead of using traditional instrumentation to lead the fray (a wild and distorted guitar as the lead instrument), Van der Graaf were putting more emphasis on the Hammond organ to form their musical textures, replacing what was famous and more common at the time: keyboard/moog synthesizer and guitars. Their use of guitar was the exception rather than the rule, so the non-riffs are in abundance. There is often little regular bass use on their albums either, although it interplays greatly with the organ: keyboardist Hugh Banton splits between both a bass guitar and bass organ pedals to back him up.
Opposed to that, David Jackson’s woodwind instruments are an essential component of the band’s sound, especially the saxophones that were masterfully used to strengthen the role of organ and sound variety, namely complimenting the vocal melodies. Still Life
is a very organ-dominated album. The saxophone is very subdued here, and plays a much smaller role than on previous albums, except for La Rossa
and My Room
, on wich Jackson delivers some of his most inspired sax parts ever. Guy Evans is a great jazz influenced drummer. While being simplistic, he throws down some incredible percussion that perfectly matches the songs; his most aggressive and pleasing drum work without ever overstepping his boundaries.
Van Der Graaf’s very unique approach and dark nature give the band this distinct feel that puts them on a genre of its own. The theatrical, dramatic singer-songwriter Peter Hammill plays piano and harpsichord, and is the primary composer for the band, but its arrangements were always collective. The music is centred around his distinctive vocal style. There are a few instrumental breaks, but his vocals are up front almost all the time. His emotional, versatile way of singing ranges from sorrowful and introspective to twisted dementia, whatever is needed to serve the mood of the song and the profound, powerful lyrics that are guaranteed to provoke and astonish the listener, as Hammill deals with various topics exploring the realms of existence. The lyrics are deep, poetic and have high literary quality. Hammill is clearly a master with words, weaving them carefully to fit his vision. Still Life
is melodically-based song writing with tight musicianship and compositions, available to Hammill to tell his tortured tales. The album is consistently good throughout like none of their others, with the exception of Godbluff
. Equally diverse as it is consistent, it is reminiscent more than anything else of a Hammill solo LP, of which there are plenty quality examples. The overall mood is more melancholic than usual, as the band toned down the dark and aggressive tendencies. This is most evident in Pilgrims
and My Room
, which are nearly submissive. Still Life
is not the most adventurous of albums, but certainly a most emotional and haunting one.
The group toured extensively from ‘70 to ‘72 (Genesis supporting them in between) and disbanded after the tour for their fourth album Pawn Hearts
, their most complex and challenging work, by many being considered their magnum opus. Noteworthy, King Crimson’s Robert Fripp appeared as a guest guitarist for this album and its predecessor H to He, Who Am the Only One
The musicians still got along, and all played on Hamill’s three quality solo efforts he would release afterwards. Following nearly four years of silence, Van Der Graaf Generator then came back with a mission, and wrought Godbluff
, (opening their ‘Phase II’) one of the darkest and harshest album in progressive rock history. It makes King Crimson’s Red
sound light in comparison.
sessions were a very fruitful and inspired time for the band, and they wrote a lot of songs. Not all songs made their way unto the album and two of them, namely the catchy, anthemic Pilgrims
and La Rossa
(the latter being the hardest and darkest on Still Life), are present here. The band had performed both songs live for a while and really wanted them to be on Still Life
. The three remaining songs are a bit less rough around the edges, and get to their point in more subtle ways, which altogether resulted in a strong and varied album. Their performance on here is a bit more subdued than their generally aggressive style on their previous albums, and due to that, Still Life
is a much more controlled and straightforward album than Godbluff.
Of course, such an album will not appeal to everyone; It batters the human mind down rather than trying to entice it, and just as swiftly it withdraws into its shell, dark and nebulous, demanding real attention and involvement. However, if you are ready for the journey, if you are entrapped by this bleak and maddened atmosphere, there are few experiences quite as ‘enjoyable’. Intensity is omnipresent, ranging from sugar sweet to frightening madness. Music reaches emotional peaks rarely heard. With his dark intensity and uncompromising attitude towards his music, Peter Hammill was cited as a major influence on John Lydon (Sex Pistols) and therefore on punk; yet another example that puts Van Der Graaf Generator into a genre completely their own.