When old, disbanded groups reform many decades after their heyday, it’s generally to sell a few concert tickets to cash in on nostalgia, and perhaps even record a studio album that’ll inevitably be terrible, not worthy of being considered alongside the band’s previous work. Progressive rock’s dark horse, Van der Graaf Generator has a different story, outlined in this spanking new box set by Esoteric Recordings that covers their journey from 2005 – nearly two decades ago, blimey! – to 2016, when their latest album Do Not Disturb was released. Not content to rest on their laurels, this 21st Century incarnation of the group has been incredibly productive and wants to be taken seriously; you’ll find no less than five studio albums here, and the set lists of the included live albums are increasingly being filled by new songs, phasing out the 1970s material.
I approached this box set with some trepidation, knowing from experience that it wouldn’t all be fun and games. I suppose I originally discovered Van der Graaf Generator in late 2009 when the ‘Great Discovery’ of progressive music happened to me. Though it took a few listens to appreciate the dark, labyrinthine structures of their music, I fell in love with all of their ’70s albums – with the exception of The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome which still seems like such a radical departure for the group.
Excited to see they were coming to Cambridge around my twentieth birthday, I made sure to pick up their then-latest album A Grounding in Numbers, which had just come out. Slipping it into my laptop’s CD drive, I turned the album and was… thoroughly disappointed. “No matter,” I thought, “they surely won’t play many of these at the concert.” Wrong. In fact, of the dozen songs they played, nine of them were from A Grounding in Numbers and the band’s previous album Trisector. Though the remaining three classics (Meurglys III, Man-Erg and The Sleepwalkers) were all bangers, I couldn’t help but feel I had been ripped off by a band deluding themselves that the fans were really interested in hearing their new material.
I was met with a conundrum: in principle, the VdGG reunion could only be taken seriously artistically if they were producing new music and playing it live; on the other hand, the new music was generally not very good (as is usual for bands several decades past their prime) and I only wanted to hear the classic cuts. Does this make me a hypocrite? Not strictly. VdGG have always flown in the face of commercialism and done their own thing, which apparently includes giving fans what they want to hear. There’s a reason why Yes are only playing two songs from The Quest on their current tour: because that’s about as much as they can get away with without disgruntling the fans further. Every band knows this and I suspect VdGG knows it too, but simply doesn’t care. I kind of admire them for that, although I’m still upset about that setlist.
The Interference Patterns box set contains the subtitle The Recordings: 2005 – 2016, although this set doesn’t quite have it all; keener fans than I would surely have noticed that Live at Metropolis Studios has not been included in this set, presumably because Esoteric don’t hold the rights to it. Nevertheless, you get a wealth of material, including six studio CDs, seven live CDs and a live DVD, amassing over 14 hours of content.
Our journey begins with 2005’s Present, which I mistook to be a live album at first. Present was recorded mostly the old-fashioned way, with the band playing live ‘takes’ and selecting the best one, and Present features all the imperfections of a live recording without the applause separating each track.
The album begins with Every Bloody Emperor, a highlight of the set as Hammill laments the large gap between world leaders and their subjects. And this was 2004, George Bush, Tony Blair. I wonder how much angrier this song could have been in 2022 post-Trump, post-Johnson and Truss. Needless to say, the words of the song still ring true.
The tracks on Present’s first disc may have less complexity than their ’70s predecessors, but they are no less dark and difficult. Fans could hardly have wished for anything better, the four core members of the group coming together to make music that had that inimitable Van der Graaf feel. The second disc, however, was a mistake. Sixty-five minutes worth of noodling, directionless improvisations that lasted nearly twice as long as the composed tracks. It was enough to do my head in.
The jewels of the set are discs 3 and 4, comprising the live album Real Time, once again featuring all four members of the group. Saxophonist David Jackson would retire from the group shortly afterward with Hammill cryptically commenting that “he seemed to have difficulty in understanding what we had mutually agreed.” It’s a shame, because the four of them sound great together on this album and do justice to their astounding discography as they play songs from every one of their studio albums up to that point (excluding The Aerosol Grey Machine and The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome, because no one wants to listen to that).
The masterstroke is opening the proceedings with the duo of songs that kick-started VdGG’s second phase, The Undercover Man and Scorched Earth, leading into each other as they do on Godbluff, signalling another fresh start for VdGG’s career. Surprises are to be had in the form of (In the) Black Room, a track from Hammill’s solo album that featured the full band. Thankfully, VdGG kept the celebrations of their new album to a minimum by only featuring its two best tracks, Every Bloody Emperor and Nutter Alert. When the band appears for an encore, we get not one but two closing tracks: a rousing version of Killer and the anthemic Wondering. I can’t help feeling they ended the night on a weak track, but no matter.
Disc 5 presents some bonus tracks that were only featured on the Japanese edition of the album. Perhaps you didn’t know (I certainly didn’t before writing this) that artists tend to release exclusive bonus tracks on the Japanese versions of their albums to encourage Japanese buyers to buy domestically rather than import international versions (which tend to be cheaper). It’s funny how the world works, isn’t it? Anyway, the four tracks that made up this bonus CD have now been made available to western buyers in this set and it includes Pilgrims, one of my personal favourites by the group. The longest track on this disc is a soundcheck improvisation entitled Gibberish. It’s surprisingly passionate, yet dark and complex for a piece that was never meant to be heard by the public, so its appearance here is an unexpected treat. It’s much better than Present’s second disc, anyway.
After this live extravaganza, we follow VdGG back to the studio for 2008’s Trisector, where the title is an indication that the band are now a trio, following the departure of Jackson. This is, in fact, an album I’m already familiar with as I picked it up in a music shop in Leeds about a decade ago. I’m only too glad to finally have an excuse to share my thoughts about it.
To me, Trisector was a perfect album for its time, because it was made for the iPod generation, where you need only to select your favourite tracks from the album to fill your music device with and you can safely leave the rest as digital files, decaying in your computer’s slowly wilting hard drive, where you’ll never have to listen to them again. Trisector has three amazing tracks, and the rest are utterly boring and not worth listening to (although opening instrumental The Hurlyburly almost makes a case for its inclusion on your playlist). The three winners are:
1. Interference Patterns, the namesake of this box set, is an incredibly intricate track that features polyrhythms that most musicians half this group’s age wouldn’t be able to play.
2. All That Before, a hard-rocking track with a comedic tinge that goes full prog in the second half. Hammill playfully listing the pitfalls of getting older is an absolute joy in this setting.
3. Over the Hill, so far, the group’s only return to the epic style of songwriting since their reunion. It’s a masterfully composed tune, with plenty of contrast, light and shade, simplicity and complexity, brimming with memorable lyrics by Hammill. As he sings it on this track, it’s a “rollercoaster ride”.
The rest of the tracks are remarkably one-note and uninteresting, the band filling up space. It’s incredible that these tunes all come from the same set of musicians. The only other track I’d recommend looking out for is Lifetime, as it happens to be featured another two times in the remainder of the box set. Jackson’s departure deprives the band of the hot, unpredictable energy they used to have, leaving only a cool, clean, clinical sound. This works well on tracks like Interference Patterns, but it does take away a critical dimension that the band used to have.
Trepidatiously, the new trio strutted onto Amsterdam’s Paradiso Theatre stage for a concert that was recorded a year before the release of Trisector but was only released as Live at the Paradiso a year after Trisector. If Real Time was a triumphant return to form for VdGG, then Live at the Paradiso is a shambolic step backward. Without Jackson to beef up their old tunes, the trio try desperately to make up for his disappearance by retooling their songs to feature more guitar from Hammill, or extra organ bursts from Banton.
Moreover, I don’t think I’ve ever heard so many mistakes on a live album as I have with this one. The band are constantly going out of sync with each other, Evans repeatedly having to change his tempo to accommodate Banton and Hammill doing whatever they want. Hammill also resorts to simply saying the lyrics – rather than singing them – far too often in this concert; this has been part of Hammill’s vocal style for many years, and is part of what makes him a unique and memorable singer, but on this album it feels as if he’s simply given up trying to sing anything that’s slightly hard.
This happens to be the same concert that is included in the box set as a DVD, which allows the listener to also digest the music visually. Presented with a view of the group, the main spectacle is drummer Guy Evans, devoid of the long hair he had in the ’70s, now resembling a rather menacing bouncer, a sharp visual contrast to the frail-looking Hammill and the geography-teacher-esque Banton. Evans defies any expectations of losing his skill with age as he remains especially limber, his sticks rolling around the drums like water. He is a force to behold.
While the visual aspect of a concert setting does draw some attention away from the band’s mistakes, they again come into sharp focus during All That Before where Hammill pulls out a sheet of paper to place on the stand, presumably containing the song’s lyrics, which he proceeds to get wrong anyway. Oh the irony when, in the middle of this lurching track, adorned with errors, Hammill exclaims “It seems I can’t, I can’t remember, I can’t remember what I’m doing.” I don’t know whether to laugh or be legitimately concerned. The frequent mistakes on this album would suggest that the band really have no business playing them live and charging money for it.
And then we get to A Grounding in Numbers, released in 2011, my first brush with reunion-era VdGG. Time has done the album no favours, although some of the tracks are better than I remembered. Embarrassing Kid has a punk rock sensibility to it that is refreshing while Bunshō and Mr. Sands are suitably weird and complex enough to be almost worthy of the VdGG moniker.
On the other hand, Mathematics is one of the most cringeworthy songs I have ever heard in my life, and I say that as someone who studied maths at university. Specifically, Hammill goes gaga over Euler’s identity, neither explaining how it works nor pointing to the practical ramifications of this equation, just admiring how ‘cool’ it is. The most offensive line is “Mathematics, just so ‘wow’ it brooks belief.” I’ve never felt more sickened by music in my life.
A Grounding in Numbers feels more like a Hammill solo album with the VdGG epithet slapped on in order to make a few more sales. The direction taken on this album is utterly unsatisfying, and it’s no wonder I was so disappointed to be force-fed four of these dismal tracks when I paid good money to see the band live in 2011.
There’s no time for a break with a live album, however, as the band’s next studio album ALT was released just a year later. Controversially, the album featured nothing but improvised instrumental tracks, a bold choice for a group known for Hammill’s vocals and tightly composed music. Unlike Present’s tedious second disc, however, I found myself not hating ALT like some did; it was certainly a lot more interesting than A Grounding in Numbers, after all and showed that the band were still willing to take risks. That said, I can safely say that I have no desire to return to ALT as it has none of the qualities that I look for in VdGG’s music.
The final live album of the set is Merlin Atmos; thankfully, both CDs of the special edition have been included so that listeners can enjoy an extra helping of VdGG. Of these bonus tracks, the ’70s tracks have already been featured on the previous live albums, and we’re left with three tracks from the reunion era. The recording of Interference Patterns is painful to say the least, Hammill spouting unintelligible nonsense as the other two members struggle to keep in time. It’s a shame, as the track’s inclusion on Trisector suggested that the band still had the technical precision they used to have in the ’70s; this live rendition proves otherwise. Fortunately, it’s made up for by a rousing rendition of Over the Hill.
I happened to see the band for this very tour as they had promised a very special evening with the inclusion of two side-length pieces: Flight, from Peter Hammill’s 1980 solo album, and A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers, VdGG’s longest-ever track that had never been played live before. This was certainly a treat indeed, and ensured that at least forty-five minutes of the concert would be guaranteed to be good. In fact, I had a magical evening at the Barbican, which more than made up for my previous experience with the group two years prior.
It’s wonderful, then, that the live recordings of these particular songs have been preserved for future generations of VdGG fans to hear. Flight, which was originally recorded in a tiny studio with Hammill playing all of the parts, receives a massive sonic upgrade as it is retooled for the whole band to play and is hardly recognisable from its original form. This is one of those times where the live version is vastly superior to the studio version and I can’t help but think this is how it was supposed to be heard. A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers, meanwhile, is one of the best features of the whole box set, as the three musicians clearly rehearsed every minute of this dark, labyrinthine piece to perfection. It’s utterly magnificent.
This leaves only the band’s latest studio album, Do Not Disturb, released some six years ago; thankfully it isn’t a dud like Grounding or a weird experiment like ALT. With six of the album’s nine tracks lasting over six minutes (the minimum length of any VdGG track between 1971 and 1976) it seems as if the band finally embraced their roots and took to writing more complex, satisfying, lengthier tunes. While Do Not Disturb won’t necessarily replace any of your ’70s favourites, there is a lot of fun to be had on this album, especially from the sparsely orchestrated, yet hilarious (Oh No! I Must Have Said) Yes to the funky Forever Falling. The album ends with the hauntingly beautiful Go; if this album is to be VdGG’s studio swansong, then they have ended on the perfect note.
Packed in snugly with the fourteen discs is a massive 96-page booklet packed with extensive notes by Sid Smith, who has interviewed the band for this undertaking, as well as lyrics for all of the reunion-era songs, including the artwork from the albums’ original booklets. Smith has been diligent in his study of each album, analysing the band’s every move from studio to tour. If you take the time to read it, you’ll find out why the band took so long to play A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers live. He even quotes comedian Stewart Lee, who I happen to know is a VdGG fan as I met him after the Barbican gig in 2013. Bringing the reader up to the present by mentioning Guy Evans’s passport kerfuffle last year, Smith provides a complete picture of the band’s activity for the last two decades.
A thought experiment: if we considered the Van der Graaf Generators of the 1970s and the 21st Century to be two separate groups, would they even be held in the same league as each other? The answer is quite simply ‘No’. While Hammill and Co. have had a blast making new music and delighting fans young and old with their tours, the cracks have definitely begun to show as the shift towards less complex tunes is evident from their studio releases, and the band’s tightness in the live format isn’t what it used to be. It’s safe to say that any newcomer to VdGG shouldn’t start here but should start with the band’s classic material.
Nevertheless, this box set presents one of the most successful and productive reunions in prog history as evidenced by the sheer amount of material available within it; perhaps only Magma have worked harder! While only occasionally catching the spark that made them so great in the ’70s, the band have nevertheless shown their intention to be taken seriously by recording five new studio albums and playing that material live, a bold and sometimes irritating move. Still performing as a trio in their 70s, the group has never been more stable than it has been for the last 17 years, lasting far longer than any previous incarnation of the group. Interference Patterns gives the listener the opportunity to assess the merits and pitfalls of this lasting reunion in all its comprehensive glory.
Present – Disc One
01. Every Bloody Emperor (7:02)
02. Boleas Panic (6:50)
03. Nutter Alert (6:09)
04. Abandon Ship! (5:05)
05. In Babelsberg (5:29)
06. On the Beach (6:50)
Time – 37:29
Present – Disc Two
01. Vulcan Meld (7:18)
02. Double Bass (6:29)
03. Slo Moves (6:22)
04. Architectural Hair (8:52)
05. Spanner (5:00)
06. Crux (5:50)
07. Manuelle (7:51)
08. ‘Eavy Mate (3:50)
09. Homage to Teo (4:41)
10. The Price of Admission (8:50)
Time – 65:06
Real Time: Royal Festival Hall – Disc One
01. The Undercover Man (8:28)
02. Scorched Earth (10:04)
03. Refugees (6:00)
04. Every Bloody Emperor (7:35)
05. Lemmings (13:19)
06. (In the) Black Room (11:14)
07. Nutter Alert (6:05)
08. Darkness (11/11) (7:21)
Time – 70:09
Real Time: Royal Festival Hall – Disc Two
01. Masks (6:46)
02. Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End (12:33)
03. The Sleepwalkers (10:43)
04. Man-Erg (11:36)
05. Killer (9:53)
06. Wondering (7:02)
Time – 58:34
Real Time: Royal Festival Hall – Disc Three
[Previously unreleased outside of Japan]
01. Pilgrims (Paris 12.07.2005) (7:29)
02. When She Comes (Amsterdam 23.07.2005) (8:05)
03. Still Life (Taormina 15.07.2005) (7:49)
04. Gibberish (Soundcheck – Amsterdam 23.07.2005) (13:37)
Time – 37:02
01. The Hurlyburly (4:39)
02. Interference Patterns (3:52)
03. The Final Reel (5:48)
04. Lifetime (4:46)
05. Drop Dead (4:48)
06. Only in a Whisper (6:43)
07. All That Before (6:28)
08. Over the Hill (12:28)
09. (We Are) Not Here (4:06)
Time – 53:44
Live at the Paradiso 14.04.2007
01. Lemmings (13:53)
02. A Place to Survive (6:53)
03. Lifetime (5:12)
04. (In the) Black Room (11:42)
05. Every Bloody Emperor (7:28)
06. All That Before (7:43)
Time – 52:53
Live at the Paradiso 14.04.2007
01. Gog (7:25)
02. Meurglys III, The Songwriter’s Guild (15:54)
03. The Sleepwalkers (11:03)
04. Man-Erg (11:54)
05. Scorched Earth (9:24)
Time – 55:42
A Grounding in Numbers
01. Your Time Starts Now (4:14)
02. Mathematics (3:38)
03. Highly Strung (3:35)
04. Red Baron (2:22)
05. Bunshō (5:02)
06. Snake Oil (5:20)
07. Splink (2:37)
08. Embarrassing Kid (3:06)
09. Medusa (2:12)
10. Mr. Sands (5:21)
11. Smoke (2:29)
12. 5533 (2:42)
13. All Over the Place (6:03)
Time – 48:47
01. Earlybird (4:01)
02. Extractus (1:38)
03. Sackbutt (1:52)
04. Colossus (6:35)
05. Batty Loop (1:13)
06. Splendid (3:45)
07. Repeat After Me (7:38)
08. Elsewhere (4:19)
09. Here’s One I Made (5:41)
10. Earlier Midnight or So (3:34)
11. D’Accord (2:28)
12. Mackerel Ate Them (4:49)
13. Tuesday, The Riff (2:46)
14. Dronus (10:36)
Time – 61:03
01. Flight (21:28)
02. Lifetime (5:10)
03. All That Before (7:45)
04. Bunshō (5:47)
05. A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers (24:03)
06. Gog (6:38)
Time – 70:54
01. Interference Patterns (4:28)
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 (15:23)
06. Man-Erg (11:39)
07. Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End (12:36)
Time – 71:09
Do Not Disturb
01. Aloft (7:19)
02. Alfa Berlina (6:39)
03. Room 1210 (6:47)
04. Forever Falling (5:39)
05. Shikata Ga Nai (2:29)
06. (Oh No! I Must Have Said) Yes (7:43)
07. Brought to Book (7:56)
08. Almost the Words (7:53)
09. Go (4:34)
Time – 57:03
Live at the Paradiso 14.04.2007 [DVD]
02. A Place to Survive
04. (In the) Black Room
05. Every Bloody Emperor
06. All That Before
08. Meurglys III, The Songwriter’s Guild
09. The Sleepwalkers
11. Scorched Earth
Time – 114:55
Total Time – 12:19:35 (without DVD) / 14:14:30 (with DVD)
Peter Hammill – Vocals, Pianos, Guitars
Hugh Banton – Organ, Bass Guitar
Guy Evans – Drums, Percussion
David Jackson – Saxophones, Flutes, Soundbeam (discs 1-5)
Record Label: Esoteric Recordings
Catalogue#: ECLEC 142810
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 23rd September 2022