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Van Der Graaf Generator: Present

John Kelman By

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Progressive rock—that bastion of early '70s music which lost its dominance with the advent of punk in the middle of the decade—has seen a recent resurgence of interest. And so it's no surprise that bands which have long since disbanded are returning for another kick at the can. Some, like Yes, never actually went away; but despite all attempts to the contrary, the group continues to maintain its viability through live performances that are heavily focused on '70s classics like Close to the Edge and Fragile.

Then there's Van Der Graaf Generator. In its ten-year existence it embodied, perhaps most vividly, the bombast and melodrama that represented the worst that progressive rock had to offer. And yet, strangely, its raw power, barely controlled chaos, and almost operatic sturm und drang not only gave it relevance with the more visceral punk rockers to follow, but also allowed lead singer Peter Hammill to evolve a solid post-Van der Graaf solo career, retaining a cult following that continues to this day. And the group's albums, most notably '71's classic Pawn Hearts, remain as discomforting and cathartic as when they were first released.

So when the original VDGG lineup reformed for a week in the studio in '04, the question was: could these players recapture their originality and keep it relevant, or would this be simply another attempt at cashing in? Based on the results of Present, not only is Van Der Graaf back, but with the opening track, "Every Bloody Emperor," it's got a new instant classic—majestic, transcendent... and disturbing.

In an unusual move, the group has delivered two discs with Present. The first contains structured songs that—with the exception of the Jackson-penned instrumental "Boleas Panic," which manages to be both lyrical and powerful—are either written by Hammill alone or in collaboration with drummer Guy Evans and saxophonist/flautist David Jackson. The second is an hour of improvisations described by Evans as akin to "being locked in a room with Van Der Graaf Generator." While the first disc is arguably the stronger of the two, it's interesting to hear the group on a number of jams that, in some instances, seem to organically develop into song-like form and demonstrate the group's uniquely textured complexion. And while Jackson, Evans, and organist Hugh Banton are more accomplished instrumentalists, Hammill's unschooled contributions on electric piano and guitar are essential components of the Van Der Graaf sound.

Less epic-based than the group's earlier albums up to and including Pawn Hearts, and more closely resembling the shorter-form compositions of albums like Still Life, the songs on Present demonstrate how conventional changes can be transformed into songs distinctly Van der Graaf. Banton and Jackson's uncanny ability to create a barely contained and just-the- least-bit outré maelstrom of sound gives even the uncharacteristically funky "Abandon Ship" its own face.

With Present, a series of much-needed remasters of the group's back catalogue, and a summer tour in Europe, Van der Graaf is back with a vengeance, proving that sometimes you can rise again.

Visit Van der Graaf Generator, Peter Hammill, Hugh Banton, and David Jackson on the web.

Track Listing: Disc One: Every Bloody Emperor; Boleas Panic; Nutter Alert; Abandon Ship!; In Babelsberg; On the Beach
Disc Two: Vulcan Meld; Double Bass; Slo Moves; Architectural Hair; Spanner; Crux; Manuelle; 'Eavy Mate; Homage to Teo; The Price of Admission

Personnel: Hugh Banton: organ, bass guitar; Guy Evans: drums; David Jackson: saxophones, flutes, soundbeam; Peter Hammill: voice, electric piano, electric guitar.

Title: Present | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Charisma/Virgin Records UK

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