Van der Graaf Generator - Still Life

Van der Graaf Generator – Still Life [Remastered]

Esoteric’s approach to reissuing albums on vinyl seems as canny as picking names out of a hat; it’s impossible to predict what they’ll choose next. With stablemates Van der Graaf Generator, Esoteric have selected two rather opposite entries from the band’s storied catalogue: the excellent Still Life which I’m here to review today, and the more ironically-titled Vital, which has to be one of the most painful live recordings I’ve ever had to sit through. The two couldn’t feel more different, and why they’ve been selected first is a mystery to me. Whether Esoteric plans to re-release more VdGG albums on vinyl remains a secret also.

Van der Graaf Generator were pioneers in many ways and were one of the first progressive acts to take a hiatus, giving Peter Hammill a chance to build his solo catalogue and evolve his sound from the psychedelic leanings of Pawn Hearts. By the time Godbluff was released, the band were almost unrecognisable, with a cleaner, more hard-edged sound and even more philosophical subject matter than had come before. Thankfully, there was no decrease in how ‘prog’ the group were, with most of the album’s songs stretching to nearly ten minutes and featuring plenty of technical excursions.

The writing sessions for Godbluff were so productive that two extra songs were recorded but ultimately left off the album. Those songs were Pilgrims and La Rossa; can we all stop for a second and imagine how incredible Godbluff would have been if it also contained those tracks? Thankfully, they weren’t discarded but kept for the next album, Still Life, which explains its hasty release date, just six months after Godbluff. This powerful volume of songs, the second to feature VdGG’s classic Escher-style logo, made it clear that Godbluff was no fluke and convinced many that VdGG’s new style of music was far better than their pre-hiatus output.

The album begins with Pilgrims, which might just be my favourite Van der Graaf tune of all time. The first two verses of the song see some expert rhythm-keeping by the band and vocal work by Hammill as they all pause on a note for two full measures. The absence of rhythm during this time forces the listener to count the time in their head and it’s very satisfying when you realise you’ve counted correctly as the band all come back in precisely when you think they will. If you haven’t done it already, I’d recommend tapping out the rhythm while the band performs these mini-breaks; it’s incredibly rewarding when you get it just right. In the third and final verse, Hammill makes the proceedings more efficient by shortening the break to just one measure, which feels right for the song.

After a quiet bridge where Guy Evans performs an exquisite and thoroughly long drum roll, it’s time for the chorus, heavy on the organ and the drums. The chord sequence is triumphant and compelling and Hammill is at his most passionate here. At the end of the song, the band perform an instrumental version of this chorus that might just bring you to tears with how beautiful it is, Evans particularly taking things up a notch.

It’s then time for the title track which I will admit has never been one of my favourites; please put your pitchforks away. The song is fine but doesn’t really feature the VdGG technicality and difficulty that I crave, except for the fact that it’s difficult to get into. Beginning with a long hymn-like duet between vocals and organs, the piece finally breaks into a full band number in the third minute. The beat and melody are pretty straightforward and it’s not too long before we’re into another verse resembling the first one. The final verse of the song is quite disturbing and Hammill draws it out for maximum effect.

I’ve never been one to pay much attention to song lyrics which can be something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I can fully enjoy songs in other languages as long as the music is great but on the other, I might miss some of the depth that songwriters hope to impart. I think listening to Yes as a teenager is really what divorced me from the notion that lyrics were important to enjoying a song. At one time, I frantically searched for meanings of Anderson’s Close to the Edge lyrics and while I did find one completely overbearing conspiracy theory about them, the more satisfying answer was just that “they sounded cool when sung like that”. And since then, it’s never bothered me when prog artists ramble on about time, space, dreams, demons, fairies or anything else in a pretentious manner because it’s all about the music as far as I’m concerned.

But over time, I’ve learned that there are some songwriters you can trust to write a well-thought-out lyric: Neil Peart’s lyrics for Rush, for example, have always delivered eloquent metaphors in a concise fashion that fits the music perfectly. Peter Hammill is another one of those artists; although he tends to obfuscate his message with verbose lyrics using vocabulary that you might hear from an English professor, figuring out what he means tends to be worth it as he hits on some thought-provoking subjects.

In Still Life, I figured there had to be more to this song, especially with the grim final chorus and I was delighted to find that it was something of a science fiction tale about immortal humans who have become so bored and fed up with life after millions of years that they crave the release of death. I appreciate the intellectual depth here, but it’s not really my style to have to figure out a song’s meaning like a puzzle. I’d rather feel it first, and have the song’s meaning wash over me.

It’s time for La Rossa which I also honestly didn’t get into until I heard The Bath Forum Concert; in my review, I called La Rossa “the biggest highlight”. So I missed out on some of the delights of this song for over a decade! Long, dark, complex and noisy, it’s quite difficult to fathom this one. However, the live version I heard last year brought the song’s climactic outro into sharp focus. The repeating major theme heard in the outro is rather reminiscent of Scorched Earth and I wouldn’t be surprised if they left La Rossa off of Godbluff due to the similarity.

Side two opens with yet another tune that has never stuck with me, My Room (Waiting for Wonderland). Once again, this is a simpler, quieter outing compared to some of VdGG’s more challenging numbers and it just doesn’t electrify me the same way. The song’s outro is very open-ended and jam based, though it doesn’t outstay its welcome like the reggae on Meurglys III (I’d still like to know whose idea that was).

If songs like Arrow and My Room showed the loose side of this new, streamlined form of VdGG, then the album’s epic closer, Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End, showed just how rigorously the band could organise their pieces. Indeed, I’ve always found this piece to be deceptively easy to play along to on the drums as Guy Evans seemed to back away from doing many flourishes for this piece. Even though this is the longest track on the album, the song’s simple-ish structure (compared to La Rossa, at least) makes it go by in a flash.

Filled with contrast, one of my favourite points is when the rest of the group suddenly stop as Hammill screams “SILENCE!”. The rest of the band seem to love this moment too, as they tend to extend the moment when they play it live, something you can hear in the Interference Patterns and Bath Forum Concert sets. While it was a favourite of mine for quite a while, I do seem to have worn this song out a long time ago to the point where I don’t hear anything new in it each listen, even on this newly remastered version. For a 13-minute song, it’s surprisingly not that challenging.

Van der Graaf Generator are one of the most pivotal groups of the progressive genre, and Still Life is an essential work, although I wouldn’t say it reaches the heights of Godbluff or even Pawn Hearts. Esoteric’s vinyl is a decent facsimile of the original single-sleeve release with Hammill’s lyrics for each song on the reverse side as well as the four photographs of each band member’s face taken with long exposure to seem like they have two faces each. It’s an album that I’m sure Esoteric are proud to have in their collection and you should add it to yours too, if you don’t have it already.

Side One

01. Pilgrims (7:13)
02. Still Life (7:27)
03. La Rossa (9:52)

Side Two
04. My Room (Waiting for Wonderland) (8:08)
05. Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End (12:29)

Total Time – 45:08

Peter Hammill – Vocals, Guitar, Piano
David Jackson – Tenor & Soprano Saxophones, Flute
Hugh Banton – Hammond Organ, Bass, Mellotron, Piano
Guy Evans – Drums, Percussion

Record Label: Esoteric Recordings | Cherry Red Records
Catalogue#: ECLECLP2866
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 29th March 2024

Van der Graaf Generator – Facebook | Cherry Red Info