Never averse to taking risks, all incarnations of Van der Graaf Generator were and are as close to the dictionary definition of “progressive” as any other band you care to mention. It goes without saying, but I will, obviously; the 70s versions were at the forefront of the rapidly developing underground music scene that came to be known as progressive rock, and as with all bands of the original era their current guise cannot live up to the earlier versions, and indeed why should it even try? However, Van der Graaf Generator do still make music of great complexity and originality that when added to the incomparable lyrics of Peter Hammill make the band by far the best, and dare I say it, most progressive of the originals who are still extant. VdGG produce an instantly recognisable music that goes beyond comparison, and today they keep up the challenge of the new with this live document of their 2013 European tour.
While their studio output in this century might be beginning to show occasional signs of the law of diminishing returns, it is in a live context where the band are more than willing to sail along on the edge of a self-made precipice. In this instant Mr Cliff Edges is represented by their tackling of two 20-minute epics from the golden era.
The album kicks off with the first of these, Peter Hammill’s Flight from his 1980 solo album A Black Box. Although Hammill has played this piece as a solo artist, both with and without a backing group it has never been played by VdGG. Drummer Guy Evans had prior experience, but keyboard player Hugh Banton had to learn it from scratch. Considering the complexity and sheer cinematic scope of the song, an epic Milton-esque poem about all aspects of “flying”, literally and otherwise, anyone would think that Hugh had been playing it for years listening to this. That can only serve to highlight Banton’s skill as a musician.
Although my and no doubt others’ interest in Merlin Atmos was sparked by the inclusion of the two “new” epics, one must not forget that this is a representation of a setlist, and the other songs do not disappoint. Hammill’s favourite theme, particularly over recent years, as it would be with anyone approaching their twilight, is the passing of time, and the next two tracks take up this gnarly torch and run with it. The introspective Lifetime is followed by the defiant All That Before, the latter with its “Kinks riff put through a prog blender” is one of the better modern-era VdGG songs, and the way that riff is turned inside out always makes me smile. It really gets me every time…ha!
The set is a good spread of songs from all eras, from 1971’s Pawn Hearts epic right up to Bunsho, the only track from the last studio album proper, 2011’s A Grounding In Numbers. That song in this live setting grows wings and becomes something much more than its comparatively rather tame studio forebear. Here, it sounds as if it would fit on to Still Life, which is high praise indeed.
Of course, what we VdGG fans were paying the entrance fee for is the first live performance of A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers, the prog epic to end all prog epics. “I prophecy disaster” sings Peter, but the trio’s performance of this classic piece of music, before this tour only performed once in a Belgian TV studio (available on DVD), is a triumph of ensemble arrangement. So much so that the still missed David Jackson with his double honking saxes is barely noticed by his absence. Hugh in particular, and Peter’s second keyboard and spiky minimalistic guitar plug most of the gaps. Most, but not all, and it is still a bit of shame that they couldn’t persuade Jaxon out of retirement to play this piece, even if only for one gig.
Nowhere does Peter’s declamatory style suit the song more than on this paean to loneliness and paranoia. Unlike some other “non-singers” who claim a parallel to Hammill, The Thin Man can actually sing, and not only that hit the right note. Having perfect pitch, wayward singers are a particular bugbear of mine, but wayward Peter Hammill most certainly is not.
The trio fly along with a sense of danger you would not expect from three guys whose total age must be around 200! Led by Guy Evans muscular drumming, the band careens along in a carefree manner that reflects the obvious fun they are having. Plague…‘s cacophonous Kosmos Tours, leading into the anthemic mid-section of (Custard’s) Last Stand and then way out into the angular and avant The Clot Thickens is extraordinary and quite thrilling, a musical triumph indeed.
With Jaxon’s absence we must consider the ground that Hugh Banton has to cover with his keyboards in this song. As well as operating bass pedals, and if memory serves all without a laptop present to fill in the complicated bits, it is a reminder of his astonishing and oft under-appreciated skills. The last word can go to Guy Evans: “Any doubts we might have had about the wisdom (of playing Plague…) were rapidly dispelled by the audience reaction”. Apparently fans in Dresden brought their own lighthouse – I’m glad I wasn’t sat behind that!
The main CD ends with a great version of Gog, which has been played live by past incarnations of the band. This comes from Peter’s wilfully strange and marvellous 1974 solo album In Camera, which was, in style at least, essentially VdGG in all but name.
If you can, get hold of the 2CD version of Merlin Atmos, as the second disc is an even broader trawl through the discography than the first, and just as enjoyable as the main course. Opening with two songs from 2008’s Trisector, firstly Interference Patterns, and then Over The Hill, the latter a typical and seemingly effortless mini-epic in the grand tradition of mid-70s VdGG, one is again soon swept away into the vivid world of Hammill’s highly personal but simultaneously everyman imaginings, borne aloft by the band’s consummate musical skill.
The first CD is mixed by Hugh Banton, and his more musical ear has produced a warmer sound than Peter’s rougher and more immediate mix on the second disc, the differing mixes reflecting the personalities methinks.
Guy Evans’ superb rhythms come to the fore on a barnstorming version of Scorched Earth, and in the following rendition of Meurglys III… his sense of swing is to the fore as the slow shimmying groove towards the end of the song takes it above being what could have sounded like a reggae pastiche. The stentorian tones of the wonderful Man-Erg again take us back to Pawn Hearts territory and we end with what continues to be a live staple of the current version of VdGG, and a song that would make my personal “Best Of VdGG”, the poetic epic that is Childhood’s Faith…, an example of the highly individual but excellent songwriting skills of the band, and a vehicle for some of the best lyrics from one of the best lyricists these islands have produced in the pop era, regardless of genre.
If you were lucky enough to catch Van der Graaf Generator on their 2013 tour, then you probably already have this, and if not, why not? For those who missed the tour, if you appreciate progressive music, it’s a no-brainer!
It is synchronous that the other truly and consistently progressive band of the original era has also released a great live album this year, and both bands remain at the top of their game, and it will be more than interesting to hear new studio work from both. Watch this space…
CD1: Merlin Atmos
01. Flight (21:29)
02. Lifetime (5:10)
03. All That Before (7:46)
04. Bunsho (5:47)
05. A Plague Of Lighthouse-keepers (24:05)
06. Gog (6:39)
Total Time – 70:58
CD2: Bonus Atmos
01. Interference Patterns (4:27)
02. Over The Hill (12:35)
03. Your Time Starts Now (4:14)
04. Scorched Earth (10:13)
05. Meurglys III, The Songwriter’s Guild (15:24)
06. Man-Erg (11:39)
07. Childlike Faith In Childhood’s End (12:36)
Total Time – 71:13
Hugh Banton – Organ & Bass Pedals
Guy Evans – Drums & Percussion
Peter Hammill – Piano, Guitar & Vocals
Record Label: Esoteric Antenna
Year Of Release: 2015