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Van Der Graaf Generator: Van der Graaf Generator: Merlin Atmos (Deluxe Edition)

John Kelman By

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For a group that has released only three studio albums since reforming in 2005 after a quarter-century hiatus—longer when considering the "classic" lineup with singer/pianist/guitarist Peter Hammill, keyboardist Hugh Banton and drummer Guy Evans was last heard on World Record (Charisma, 1976), and forgetting about 2012's atypical ALT (Esoteric), an album of improvisation-driven instrumentals—Van der Graaf Generator sure has released a lot of live albums in the past few years.

Since the spectacular Real Time (Fie!, 2007)—which documented the group's comeback tour on the heels of its first studio record of the new millennium, Present (Charisma, 2005), and the only pair of records to feature the fully manned classic lineup with soon-to- depart saxophonist/flautist David Jackson—VdGG has released no fewer than two additional live recordings, one each after their subsequent studio albums as a leaner but strangely more effective trio: Live at the Paradiso (Voiceprint, 2009), in support of Trisector (Virgin, 2008); and the CD/DVD set Live at Metropolis Studios (Salvo, 2012), behind the release of A Grounding in Numbers (Esoteric, 2011), the group's best studio album since reforming (though Trisector comes a very close second).

So, with no new studio release since A Grounding in Numbers, why Merlin Atmos, a live album culled from VdGG's 2013 tour and curiously released as both a single-disc edition (with an even more reduced one-LP vinyl edition) and a deluxe two-disc set? Especially since all but two tracks have shown up on Live at the Paradiso and/or Live at Metropolis Studios?

Well, the answer lies in those two tracks, both running in excess of 20 minutes and, therefore, being perfect for the single-LP version while, at the same time, worthy of inclusion in longer CD editions featuring additional material. The first, "Flight," occupied the entire second side of Hammill's 1980 solo album A Black Box (Charisma) and, while Evans played it live with Hammill's K-group back in the day, this is the first time that Banton (and VdGG) has performed the piece. An epic worthy of the VdGG treatment, it shines a spotlight on just how different the material Hammill wrote for his solo albums was—which began while VdGG was together with 1971's Fool's Mate (Charisma) and has continued throughout the decades to last year's career-defining ...All That Might Have Been (Fie!)—to music he composed with VdGG in mind, and just how important Banton is to defining the Van der Graaf sound.

Having seen VdGG in 2009 at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, if it wasn't clear before just what a force of nature Banton is, it became instantly clear then, as he constantly shifted tones and textures with his keyboards while, at the same time, fulfilling the role of bassist with his feet and demonstrating what has been largely unappreciated virtuosity with his hands. Organists who self- accompany with bass pedals are hardly novel, but few are also tasked with meeting the diverse textural responsibilities demanded of Banton, and while his role is largely relegated to organist on the nearly 22-minute "Flight," the demands are almost exponentially increased for the other epic included on Merlin Atmos: "A Plague of Lighthouse-keepers," perhaps VdGG's finest moment from its finest record, Pawn Hearts (Charisma, 1971), and a piece the group had only performed once before for Belgian television in 1972.

So complex is this multipart suite with its numerous meter and tempo changes—along with Banton's most significant exploration of both mellotron and synthesizer (a personally modified organ was his usual instrument of choice)—that the television performance was, in fact, recorded in two halves and, like the album version that was recorded in even more discrete segments, spliced together in post-production.

And so, beyond "Flight"—performed with more of the nightmarish elements that so defined VdGG back in the day—this version of "Lighthouse-keepers" represents the first time the group has ever figured out how to perform the piece in its entirety live, and trumps the Belgian television version thanks to modern technology allowing Banton to more accurately reproduce many of the sounds from its far broader sonic palette.

Hammill's voice is still as capable of melodramatic sweeps as it ever was, and if his range has been somewhat reduced by age his lower register is even stronger than ever—and his ability to effortlessly shift from singing to near-spoken word particularly effective—making it possible to forgive the fact that live, he is a voice alone rather than the oft-times multiple layers he would resort to in the studio. He managed to retain his reputation when the rawer elements of Punk began to signal the demise for at least some classic progressive bands in the mid-to-late-'70s, with The Sex Pistols' John Lydon a longtime fan, and for good reason: few singers in any subgenre of rock music have ever demonstrated the emotional breadth, haunting fragility and visceral rawness of Hammill's vocal delivery. And if he is a more than capable pianist who can handle the complex, two-keyboard interlocking "Interference Patterns" which opens the second disc, Bonus Atmos, after playing electric guitar for decades, Hammill has still managed not to lose his unfettered rawness on the instrument... so unschooled— sometimes so on the verge of being out-of-tune—that few but Hammill could make it work...but he does.

Evans is an unsung progressive rock hero who has only become better with age; now equally disposed towards locking into a groove when required, he is still just as capable of the energetic bursts of thunderous power and almost elegant sense of swing that have so defined him from the very beginning.

And so, Merlin Atmos' primary raison d'être is most certainly "Flight" and "A Plague of Lighthouse-keepers"—the latter building to such a relentless climax of nightmare-inducing chaos that it's almost impossible to believe it's just three people playing—but there's plenty to recommend with the rest of the material, even though this is not the first time any of it has been performed since VdGG reduced to a trio. Bulletin boards are already alight with complaints about the sound of the second, bonus disc, but one look at the production information and it all makes sense.

Banton mixed the main disc that, in addition to "Flight" and "Lighthouse- keepers," includes perhaps the group's most incendiary look at "Gog"—first heard on Hammill's 1974 solo album In Camera (Charisma)—along with music from Trisector (a particularly fiery "All That Before" and "Lifetime") and Grounding (a similarly nuclear "Bunsho"). With the keyboardist's perfectionist tendencies, it's no surprise that it's a cleaner, sleeker mix.

Hammill assembled and mixed the bonus disc, which more fully covers the group's entire career, culling music from all but its first three '70s Charisma albums— ranging from Pawn Hearts ("Man-Erg") and 1975's Godbluff ("Scorched Earth," in a new and perfect segue from A Grounding's "Your Time Starts Now") to 1976's Still Life ("Childlike Faith in Childhood's End") and, from later the same year, World Record ("Meurglys III, The Songwriter's Guild")—in addition to music from Trisector ("Interference Patterns" and the mini-epic, "Over the Hill"). Given Hammill's personal predilections, it's no surprise that his mix is rawer, dirtier and less polished.

Taken as a whole, Merlin Atmos not only finds the current Van der Graaf Generator gaining strength and power, it finds the group demonstrating previously unheard confidence as it tackles not one but two extremely challenging long- form compositions, including one that is, for many fans, its creative zenith. Still, with studio records like A Grounding in Numbers and now sweeping live albums like Merlin Atmos, it's clear that these three musicians in their mid-sixties are as distanced from "dinosaur" categorization as the recently revived King Crimson—and if nobody knows what the future holds, one thing is certain: their best years are far from behind them.

Track Listing: CD1 (Merlin Atmos): Flight; Lifetime; All That Before; Bunsho; A Plague of Lighthouse-keepers; Gog. CD2 (Bonus Atmos): Interference Patterns; Over the Hill; Your Time Starts Now; Scorched Earth; Meurglys III, The Songwriter's Guild; Man-Erg; Childlike Faith in Childhood's End.

Personnel: Hugh Banton: organ, bass pedals; Guy Evans: drums, percussion; Peter Hamill: piano, guitar, vox.

Title: Van der Graaf Generator: Merlin Atmos (Deluxe Edition) | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Esoteric Antenna


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