Van Der Graaf Generator have not made a record since the 1970s, when the British band served up the heaviest and most melodramatic progressive rock you never heard. Now reunited, VDGG kicks off Present, their new double CD, with a song that might as well be a sonic wayback machine. “Every Bloody Emperor” begins with organist Hugh
Banton hitting a dark chocolaty chord on a Roland modified to sound like the church organs that Banton now designs for a living. Drummer Guy Evans then sketches some jazzy doodles that invite willowy Soft Machine moves from David Jackson, whose smooth and squonking saxes take the place, delightfully, of guitar solos. Then Peter Hammill opens his mouth, and one of the richest, snarliest, and most uncompromising voices in rock emerges undiminished by time. “Imperceptible the change . . . ” he sings, and the seven minutes that follow do seem barely altered from the band’s classic years. Transcendent peaks of grandeur swell, stirring and pretentious, out of pregnant pauses and madcap arpeggios. Banton’s crunchy organ plays the heavy, and Hammill out-heavies the organ, salting his passionate screed against global empire with phrases like “ad infinitum” and “imperious disdain,” delivered with Shakespearean spit. Hammill sinks to our occasion, the gothic anxiety that once animated his science fiction epics and metaphysical logjams now utterly at home in a world when “the imperial impulse/extends across the screen.”
In 1977, Johnny Rotten singled out Hammill as the one of the few old sods worth keeping around; no doubt the young Mr. Lydon was impressed by the singer’s nihilism and sometimes grating sneer, not to mention the prophetic proto-punk of Hammill’s 1975 album Nadir’s Big Chance, one of the man’s 30-odd solo records. Following “Emperor,” most of the tunes on the first disc of Present showcase this raw side of the band. On “Nutter Alert,” which features a crepuscular electric piano rolling beneath Jackson’s propulsive sax, Hammill slags all the creepy fanboys and energy vampires he’s had to put up with over the years. This is no idle whinging—Hammill’s preening angst, articulate rage, and poor sales figures are the very stuff of dangerously obsessive rock cults. I can personally report that, of the handful of fellow VDGG nuts I have encountered over the years, only the bass player of the late great Geraldine Fibbers can be trusted with a knife and fork.
The ex-Fibber in question also insists that the best tune on the first disc of Present is the instrumental “Boleas Panic,” David Jackson’s lyrical and sometimes driving jaunt through a landscape of thick keyboards and atmospheric wallows. The success of this tune may explain the band’s somewhat puzzling decision to fill the entire second disc with live instrumental jams. VDGG’s music is defined more by lyrics and timbre than by improvisation, but these mini-maelstroms are fresh, loose, and occasionally deep in the groove. In the notes, Guy Evans compares their sonic effect to being locked in a room with the band—a potentially grueling experience to be sure, especially given that VDGG already tends toward the intensely claustrophobic.
Those up for more of such sweet pain will be happy to know that Astralwerks plans to release remastered versions of most of the band’s back catalog this fall—an admirably foolhardy move, given that the VDGG cult has never crossed the pond. Fool’s Mate, Hammill’s first solo record, will also be reissued; this nifty, unabashedly pop record from 1970 includes Robert Fripp solos, silly ditties about zeppelins, and, in the piano ballad “Vision,” the most charming love song ever penned by an overwrought nihilist. But the marrow here lies in the VDGG releases that surround the band’s hiatus in the early 1970s: Pawn Hearts, Godbluff, and Still Life. The sidelong cut “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers,” from 1971’s Pawn Hearts, is rock’s own Rime of the Ancient Mariner; the muscular Still Life, with its extraordinary title song about bored immortals, is a propulsive Nietzschean cry for post-human emancipation. Though as grandiose as any prog imaginable, these records have stood the test of time. They are so over the top that they stand above it all, like lonely towers on an inky shore.