Sunday, 28 February 2021

Van Der Graaf Generator

H To He, Who Am The Only One (1970)

Killer/House With No Door/Emperor In His War-Room/Lost: The Dance In Sand And Sea: The Dance In The Frost/Pioneers Over C

More obviously in the prog rock mould were Van Der Graaf Generator, who, although they only had five tracks on this typically preposterously-titled album, boasted a big, deep sound enhanced by saxophone - something unusual among prog rock bands. Killer, the album's opener, is a fine example of their dark, brooding version of prog rock. It almost sounds like Black Sabbath at times, but with blaring saxophones - a most interesting cornucopia. The old proggy swirling organ is still there, however and the saxophone at the end must have influenced Roxy Music, I'm sure. It is a big, monstrous delight of a track. Actually, it sits a bit incongruously from some of the rest of the album

House With No Door is just lovely - quiet and seductive with a beautiful bass line and gentle drum sound, together with an ethereal, understated vocal. It is prog rock with a soul, if there could be such a thing. I find this a very moving piece of work, in a hippyish, early seventies sort of way. There is something so very early Bowie-esque about it, too, isn't there? Listen to the great organ solo at the end - great stuff.

Emperor In His War-Room is very late sixties, psychedelic-influenced as it mixes wild, psych sounds with low-key, quieter passages in true prog style. King Crimson's Robert Fripp played on this and it sounds quite like some of the stuff on their album from the previous year. There is another melodic bass line to be found here and VDGG seemed to be a band who always utilised a bit of melody in their proggy wildness. 

Lost: The Dance In Sand And Sea: The Dance In The Frost is somewhat bloated in prog style, but the saxophone gives it some rousing moments, as indeed does the drum-keyboard-bass-saxophone interplay around three minutes in. That deep bass line when the sound suddenly goes quiet is truly sublime. The vocal once again sounds so like Bowie at times. indeed, Bowie was said to have been a fan of theirs, as was Peter Gabriel and, that old proggy himself, Johnny Rotten (ever get the feeling you're selling out, Johnny?). Back to Bowie, the use of the saxophone reminds me of the atonal instrumental tracks on the "Heroes" album.

Yes, VDGG were undoubtedly a prog group, but there was an intriguing darkness to their sound, an innovative madness that attracted. Pioneers Over C makes me think of Roxy Music's early stuff at times too, in its haunting, often stark saxophone sound. The bit where the song breaks out around three and a half minutes in is great, but as with all of this sort of thing, it is an acquired taste. It is intellectual music for listeners who want to be challenged. Mostly in music I just want to be instantly moved by something less testing, (sorry if that makes me sound shallow) so this is certainly not something I will listen to over and over, but I can appreciate its brilliance in places, so maybe I'm not far away from the group's intended effect after all. 

Pawn Hearts (1971)

Lemmings (including Cog)/Man-Erg/A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers

After the previous album, which displayed considerable creative potential, this one was a bit of a let-down and a commercial and critical failure. Listening to its three tracks, I can hear why.

Lemmings is a big thumper of a track - overbearing, dark, slightly menacing but in possession of enough heaviness to keep me happy. It is full of churchy organ and a massive drum sound, as well as the group’s trademark discordant saxophone. As is often the case with VDDG’s material, for me, it goes on way too long, and some of the musical passages are superfluous. It needed more cohesion and a concise approach to production, in my opinion. This material is way too sprawling.

Man-Erg is an improvement- slower, more atmospheric and featuring some impressive drums. The vocals are once more very Bowie-esque. Half way through it gets manically loud and heavy and the whining vocals sound like their fan, Johnny Rotten. Maybe this is where he gained some inspiration. The track also features some very Andy Mackay-sounding saxophone around six minutes or so in.  

A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers is basically twenty-three minutes of pretty much interminable prog indulgence. It has been described as a work of “misunderstood genius” and, although it contains a few good parts, their effect is lost in a cornucopia of directionless prog noise. Cut it down to about eight minutes and you might have had something. Despite its excellent sound quality, this one is not for me. 

Contemporary reviewers found it difficult to understand in what direction the group was heading, upon hearing this. It is easy to concur with that point of view. Within a year, the group had split up, citing those good old “musical differences“.

** A notable extra that got a lot of late night Radio One play at the time was the single, Theme One, whose heavy succintness showed just what the group could have achieved.  As with Yes’s single edits, prog rock did not have to be twenty minutes long, did it?

Incidentally, the inner cover image below was intended to be Monty Python-esque, but its Nazi salutes ending up looking a little creepy and tasteless.

Check out more prog rock too :-
Aphrodite's Child
Steve Hillage

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