Van der Graaf Generator
Still Life


4.5
superb

Review

by ProgJect USER (31 Reviews)
March 30th, 2011 | 27 replies


Release Date: 1976 | Tracklist

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.

The Godbluff 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.



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user ratings (116)
Chart.
4.1
excellent

Comments:Add a Comment 
ProgJect
March 30th 2011


37 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

ProgJect finds it appaling that this is the first VDGG review.

Tyrael
March 30th 2011


20884 Comments


ProgJect does it again! Big pos.

Digging: Darkspace - Dark Space III I

greg84
Staff Reviewer
March 30th 2011


7397 Comments


Great review! The band sounds fantastic too.

Digging: Lo-Pan - Colossus

Nagrarok
March 30th 2011


8256 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Greg, if you like Genesis and King Crimson, of which I am pretty sure since you are a progger, you should listen to Pawn Hearts. Thanks guys.

greg84
Staff Reviewer
March 30th 2011


7397 Comments


I'm mad about King Crimson and Gentle Giant actually. I haven't listened to Genesis a lot tbh. I'll check out Pawns Hearts too. Thanks.

Nagrarok
March 30th 2011


8256 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

The biggest resemblance to Genesis is the vocals; Hamill is theatrical in a similar way as Peter Gabriel at times. Instrumentally/composition-wise it has a lot in common with Crimson. Robert Fripp actually guests on it (as read above).

Jruined
March 30th 2011


1300 Comments


Great review. Going to go on a VdGG binge right now I think. Been a while.

Digging: Earth - Primitive and Deadly

cvlts
March 30th 2011


8960 Comments


hey guys, not my area of music but just coming in here to show my support for this.



cheers guys

ConsiderPhlebas
March 30th 2011


6157 Comments


I like how detailed your reviews are. Even though I hate prog, I find it interesting to read about.

Nagrarok
March 30th 2011


8256 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Thanks a bunch guys, also on Jethro's behalf who doesn't seem to be present atm; he's the mastermind, after all. And yet the phantom negger strikes again.

Jethro42
March 30th 2011


12456 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Much appreciated, everyone. Welcome to the dark side of progressive rock.

The biggest resemblance to Genesis is the vocals; Hamill is theatrical in a similar way as Peter Gabriel at times. Instrumentally/composition-wise it has a lot in common with Crimson.

Totally agreed.

Jeez, the dinausor VdGG is still active today. According to Nagrarok, my colleague, they've already done 3 albums since reuniting in 2005 and they've released a new album just this month. Thanks a bunch for your habitual magic touch on the review Nag, mate. Magic touches should I say for the review was initially a tad ...overlong. =]

Ire
March 30th 2011


41787 Comments


this rules

scissorlocked
March 30th 2011


3510 Comments


always hungry for some prog!!

excellent review guys, the band is genius

I own Pawn Hearts in vinyl, it kicks serious ass



Jethro42
March 30th 2011


12456 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Thank's scissor, buddy. Do yourself a favor and get Godbluff asap and this...and, and, and...Everything. =] Each and every albums have some memorable gems to offer, really. And I don't mention Hammill's prolific solo career. No less than 30 quality albums under the belt. The man loves to play music.


Voivod
Staff Reviewer
March 31st 2011


6147 Comments


Excellent and detailed review, a huge pos from me as well.

I always see the band's back catalogue at my local record store, but don't know what to pick, in principle.

I always recognize the cover of Godbluff, though.

Digging: Raven Throne - ???????? ?????????

Nagrarok
March 31st 2011


8256 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Jeez, the dinausor VdGG is still active today. According to Nagrarok, my colleague, they've already done 3 albums since reuniting in 2005 and they've released a new album just this month.


Well, 3 albums including the one released this month, but still it's rather impressive. Most bands their age take more years in between releases, but as you said, Hamill is a busy, busy songwriter. I've been listening to it and it's actually pretty good, might have to give it a review. Also, since VDGG doesn't have any other reviews it wouldn't be a bad thought to return to them with our dear ProgJect.

Thanks everyone.

Jethro42
March 31st 2011


12456 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Thanks Voivod, much appreciated.

Also, since VDGG doesn't have any other reviews it wouldn't be a bad thought to return to them with our dear ProgJect.

I absolutely second this.



JamieTwort
Contributing Reviewer
March 31st 2011


20746 Comments


This sounds intriguing, I may give it a listen at some point. Great review.

Digging: Townes Van Zandt - Townes Van Zandt

CrisStyles
March 31st 2011


768 Comments


Much appreciated, everyone. Welcome to the dark side of progressive rock.

^Makes me curious to listen to this. Very good review.

Jethro42
March 31st 2011


12456 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Thank's a bunch, guys. I'd suggest to get Godbluff and this first. If it's up your alley, get H to HE' and Pawn Hearts. Then, the whole discog. Chronologically is also a good way to go, of course.



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