After Van der Graaf Generator split up following the release of Pawn Hearts, and while Peter Hammill was off pursuing his solo career, the other three in the band formed an occasional instrumental side project by the name of The Long Hello. Well, if, as Peter Hammill said in his recent interview with Esoteric’s Mark Powell, Do Not Disturb does indeed prove to be VdGG’s swansong, then maybe an appropriate title would have been ‘The Long Goodbye’.
At just under an hour long this album takes a contemplative and occasionally spiky look over its shoulder at the past, reflecting what might have been and what was, while being firmly rooted in the present. Everyone’s recollection of the past becomes hazy with the passage of time, a fact neatly illustrated by the cover art. “I don’t want to talk about the old days anymore” declaims The Thin Man on (Oh No! I Must Have Said) Yes, “but nonetheless the past it casts a shadow on me”, and over a decidedly edgy and even punky backing, a favourite theme of Hammill’s gets an airing. This track is as animated as Do Not Disturb gets, as it is an album of conserved energy with an overriding atmosphere of melancholy, highlighted by the gentle pace of the walking blues middle section of the same song that sees Hugh Banton playing a bass guitar, with Hammill’s flanged guitar giving an impressionistic take of a saxophone. It’s a shame they didn’t get Jaxon involved in what may well be their last hurrah, but them’s the breaks.
VdGG are comfortable in their own collective skin, and this album does not and indeed does not have to push the envelope. If you have been following the band’s latest incarnation you will know what to expect. Some piano-led ballads, some spikier guitar numbers, and a few wilfully difficult phrases and songs included to keep the band as much the audience on its toes. More rehearsed than previous albums, Do Not Disturb sounds more complete as a result, a statement of itself, exuding the confidence of three men who have nothing left to prove to anyone but themselves. “It’s falling through our fingers” intones Peter Hammill on Forever Falling, but you wouldn’t know it listening to the deliberately bamboozling time signature of this particularly tricksy little devil of a song. Indeed the whole album shows that VdGG are still on top of their singular game but this (final?) time all the while an all-encompassing sadness pervades the air.
Peter Hammill’s voice is as expressive as it ever was, now long shorn of its youthful manic edge, the agonised shriek of yore now being replaced by a thoughtful croaky croon enlivened by occasional echoes of the righteous anger of yesteryear. Nowhere does he get more contemplative than on Brought To Book, a glance at the debits and credits of his personal balance sheet of life. It also features some fantastic bass pedal and organ work from Hugh Banton, surely the master at that peculiar feat of multi-tasking.
Another highlight is Almost the Words, the first part of which is an eerie slow-paced ballad with just piano and drums and very subtle electronica illuminating darkly a text of frustration at inability of expression of and frustration with language, another well-honed theme in the Hammill wordrobe. The second part bubbles along and then latterly takes off with a stuttering Hammond-esque solo from Hugh that will have you tripping over the odd beat as you try to shimmy along in your head to Guy Evans’ impeccable skin bashing. It finishes far too soon, and should they play this live, let’s hope for an extended wigout, or what passes as such for a trio of near-septuagenarians.
“You’ve had your fling, you laid your ghosts…it’s time to let go” sings Hammill in closing track Go as it floats away from the gravity grasp of the solar system and off into deep space, its signal slowly, slowly fading. Like an island cut adrift, Do Not Disturb is a melancholic long farewell floating gently away into the ether. Taken as a single event, the album is probably the best of their latest, and as it happens, longest lasting incarnation, and is as complete an artistic statement and full stop as Bowie’s Blackstar. If this is the end, it’s been a great trip, and Van der Graaf Generator will forever be held in great esteem by lovers of real progressive rock. Adieu, mon amis…
01. Aloft (5:50)
02. Alfa Berlina (6:23)
03. Room 1210 (6:47)
04. Forever Falling (5:39)
05. Shikata Ga Nai (2:29)
06. (Oh No! I Must Have Said) Yes (7:44)
07. Brought to Book (7:57)
08. Almost the Words (7:53)
09. Go (4:34)
Total Time – 57:06
Hugh Banton – Organs, Keyboards, Bass, Accordion & Glockenspiel
Guy Evans – Drums & Percussion
Peter Hammill – Vox, Pianos & Guitars
Record Label: Esoteric Antenna
Catalogue#: EANTCD 1062
Year of Release: 2016
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