October 30, 2022

As a reminder – or even a realisation – of just how much great material the band have produced in this twilight portion of their career, this set is an absolute treasure. There are pieces of music produced by the band in this post-reunion, post-Millennial era which are good enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with the towering achievements of their rightly-lauded heyday – and this box contains them all.

This massive FOURTEEN disc box (thirteen CDs and a DVD) is not only a superbly curated set, but also a timely reminder of the amount of quality work the post-Millennial, reformed Van Der Graaf Generator have put out. Much is (rightly) written about the masterful work produced by the band in the 1970s (and very late ’60s as well, to be precise), and those recordings have been oft-repackaged and celebrated. But look at this set – starting with the first reunion album, Present, in 2005, and finishing little over a decade later in 2016 with the most recent (to date) album Do Not Disturb, what we get here is five studio albums and three live albums, which is comparable with the amount of music produced by the band in their halcyon days of yore. And yet many still tend to brush over this period with a comment such as ‘I haven’t really listened too much to the recent stuff’. Note that I also include myself in that, as although I have heard all of these albums (save a couple of the live ‘bonus discs’) before, I have certainly given them nowhere near the endless hours I have lavished upon that ‘golden age’ catalogue over the years. That is a fine reason why this set is an important release, and one which can only restore the perspective between the twin VdGG eras. It’s a lengthy swim through this pool of idiosyncratically splendid music, so let’s waste no more time and dive in at what, in some ways, is very much the ‘deep end’.

In April 2005, a month before the initial reunion show took place in London, the album Present was released, featuring the ‘classic’ line-up of Peter Hammill, Hugh Banton, Guy Evans and David Jackson. Somewhat surprisingly, the album emerged as a double, with the first disc being the album ‘proper’ and the second being an hour-long collection of improvisations by the band, so let’s look at the first one, logically, first. Containing only six tracks, and coming in at just under 40 minutes, Present has very much the feel of an old-school vinyl release, with the traditional ‘two sides’, and almost being like a follow-up to the last album by this foursome, 1976’s World Record. All of the key elements are, to use the unavoidable pun, present and correct, with Peter Hammill’s caustic and dense lyrical wordplay and incomparable vocal style backed up by Hugh Banton’s peerless and freewheeling organ, David Jackson’s anarchic and effects-laden saxophone and (occasional) flute, all backed up by the brilliant and scandalously underrated drumming of Guy Evans, simultaneously driving things along and also filling in the spaces as needed. The opener, Every Bloody Emperor, is classic Van Der Graaf, a drama-soaked political polemic declaimed in sardonic bitterness by a rejuvenated Hammill as the band hit their finest juggernaut-style backing. From there it becomes far less predictable, however, with Jackson’s Boleas Panic being, very unusually, an instrumental (the first on a mainstream Van Der Graaf album since 1969’s debut The Aerosol Grey Machine, if one does not count Theme One, added to the US pressing of Pawn Hearts). It’s a shame they waited so long, frankly, as this is a splendid track, driven naturally by the Jaxon sax, but displaying all of the band sounding on joyous form. The third track, which closes the would-be ‘side one’, Nutter Alert, is the only one apart from Every Bloody Emperor to make it into the ongoing live set-list, and it’s easy to see why. With another classic Hammill lyric, it is a track which, if such a thing could be said about a VdGG track, actually swings. It’s rhythmic, dramatic, ebullient and utterly irresistible. For a comeback this has been one of the finest 20 minutes of music you could wish for.

The ‘second side’ is also no slouch, though the somewhat dense and uncompromising Abandon Ship! could be seen as perhaps the weakest link on the album. The following In Babelsberg ploughs a similar furrow but with significantly more aplomb, and is another clear highlight. The closing track, On The Beach, is a far more relaxed affair; described by the band on the studio chatter snippet left in at the start as being like ‘a mixture of cool jazz and Surfin’ Safari’, that is actually as good a way as any to describe the track which, albeit in a most un-Van Der Graaf-like manner, manages to soothe the listener’s savage nerves and deliver a sort of aural yoga session, only emphasised by the ambient wave sounds closing proceedings. I would never have expected a track like this on a Van Der Graaf album (Hammill solo, perhaps…), but it works superbly.

From there we get onto the second disc, which is where things become much more divisive among the fanbase. The album is routinely looked on as a partial success, with the excellent first disc spoilt by the ‘unlistenable’ experience of the second, and while I can see the origin of such views, I must beg to differ. Certainly, the disc is not intended to be a polished diamond of a listening session, honed into studio perfection; the opposite is in fact true, as it exists only in the moment of creation. Which isn’t to say that it could not still have been dreadful, of course, as many ghastly ‘improv’ experiences at the hands of such aural torturers as King Crimson and Eno over the years have attested to. To these ears, however, the pieces on this disc are entirely dependent on how they are consumed. If you think ‘ah, it’s a nice afternoon, I shall put an album on the stereo and while away a pleasant hour’s listening’, chances are you’re not going to have a good time with this. What I did, however, was to go out for walks very late at night, with wireless headphones ensuring that this music bouncing around my brain was my only companion along with the cold, the dark and the stillness of the night. I also limited this to around 20 minutes per session, so that ‘improv fatigue’ did not set in, What I found wat that, shorn of all distractions, and almost cocooned with the music in my solitude, it clicked into focus extremely well. True, there are parts here which spectacularly fail – but that is unavoidable. There are also moments where the indefinable Van Der Graaf magic suddenly clicks into place – midway through the opener Vulcan Meld, for example, or the remorseless groove of Slo Moves. Tracks such as those, and others like Architectural Hair, Crux and the closing The Price Of Admission (ending on those waves again) could easily, with a little editing, been made into instrumental pieces extending the main album. Bonus disc it may be, but in the right environment it is a fine, and valuable, contribution to the VDGG legacy.

Following on the heels of this came the inevitable live album drawn from that first reunion show at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Containing the whole show from that night, the album Real Time was spread over two discs, but here we get this increased to three with the addition of a Japan-only third ‘bonus’ disc. As a listening experience it is rather hard to assess, as separating the actual quality of the music from the sheer sense of occasion – which even comes across in the audio here – is almost impossible. Essentially, we are listening to history in the making, and yet in the interests of those who might not share the same lengthy bond or sense of contextual affinity with the band, we must look at how the music translates to a purely audio experience in the comfort of one’s own home (or car, or headphones, if you like). To be honest, given the sheer complexity of this material, the decades the band spent away from each other, and the fact that this was the first show back, much of this is still remarkable. The likes of Scorched Earth, Darkness, Refugees, Every Bloody Emperor, Sleepwalkers, Masks and Killer are particularly good. However, there are moments when things get a little ragged; Man-Erg struggles to keep on the rails at times, while the closing encore of Wondering, while marvellously apposite for the occasion, and truly sublime at some later performances on the tour, really fails to achieve its true quality and emotional heft here. Altogether, it is a good recording of a great occasion. The third disc, however, is definitely much more for completists only, containing only four tracks, all recorded at later shows. Pilgrims, while hugely welcome as it was rarely played by the reformed band, is a somewhat clunky execution, perhaps demonstrating why it never made its way back into the regular set – and When She Comes is even more so, coming across as something of a sonic car-crash at times. Still Life, however, is far better – not the best they would ever play it live, but certainly the finest track on the disc by some distance, while making up the numbers is Gibberish, a title given to a lengthy improvisation performed at a soundcheck. Like the bonus disc with Present, it has some excellent moments in it (Van Der Graaf play the blues at one point!), but it isn’t really essential.

Coming up next is 2008’s Trisector, the first studio album recorded by the new ‘trio’ line-up following the departure of Jaxon. Many fans (guilty, your honour!) were rather skeptical of the prospect of the remaining three being able to successfully compensate for the huge sonic loss of a quarter of the band without any new musicians being brought in to fill the void. Trisector is the first part of the band’s emphatic dismissal of those doubts – it is a tremendous album, far better than most would have dared to expect, and taken as a whole may well stand as the best studio recording the 21st Century VdGG have made. Opening with another instrumental, The Hurlyburly, the album is chock full of excellent tracks with nary a weak link to be found. The sound here crosses all of the VdGG boundaries, from the restrained and delicate Lifetime to the almost heavy metal assault of Drop Dead (the closest thing here in spirit to the Vital live album), in the space of two songs. All That Before is a spiky and urgent railing at the forgetfulness of increasing age, while the closing (We Are) Not Here is a marvellous sign-off. Pick of the bunch, however, is the epic, 12-minute Over The Hill, taking a classic Hammill lyric about the frustration of the aging process and the attendant loss of our own inspirational heroes, and matching it to a twisting, turning beast of a composition which easily rubs shoulders both in style and quality with the best the band have ever come up with. Trisector, quite simply, was and remains a triumph, and one of the most profound ‘statement records’ to silence the naysayers ever produced.

Part Two of that mission to prove their continued worth on record was yet to come however, with the first recorded evidence of how they could cut it in live performance. Released in 2009 on both DVD and CD, Live At The Paradiso was a document of a show in Holland back in 2007, predating the release of Trisector. Here we get it on two CDs plus also on DVD as the 14th and last disc of this box, but let’s look at the audio, as that is the only fair way to compare this with Real Time and, though it might be an unfair comparison, 1978’s Vital. The first thing that must be said is that the recording overall is an absolute triumph, the sound remaining in the slightly ‘cleaner’ territory of Trisector, and yet still managing to cover for the Jackson parts during the vintage material. As a part of this rearrangement, Peter Hammill plays much more guitar. Dirty, distorted and heavy guitar, for the most part, filling in for the missing, equally distorted, sax parts in a surprisingly seamless way. Hugh Banton also steps up remarkably – already having been playing the bass parts on organ foot-pedals ever since Nic Potter’s departure during the recording of H To He in 1970, here he manages to conjure up extra keyboard lines, also often in a distorted and powerful way. Playing two different keyboard parts and also a third part with one’s feet at the same time makes my head spin even to think about it – walking and chewing gum at the same time is about my limit – and his performance is remarkable. The already complex and jazz-influenced playing of Guy Evans also grows to fill the spaces in the sound, as he manages the seemingly impossible trick of driving the band along with percussive power and also embroidering the gaps. All in all, this is the sound of three remarkable musicians with a seemingly telepathic link at times.

And you know what? Whisper it softly, but for my money Live At The Paradiso is a better live album than Real Time was. It isn’t faultless – the opening Lemmings sounds a little ragged, with Hammill’s guitar seemingly skirting the very edges of being in tune, but A Place To Survive sees things getting more on track, and by the time we have had a beautifullly executed Lifetime and an almost definitive (In The) Black Room, things are only getting better and better. All That Before is more powerful still than its as-yet-unreleased studio counterpart, Gog (from Hammill’s In Camera album) is startlingly intense, while Meurglys III could arguably be described as definitive. Man-Erg far outstrips its Real Time counterpart, while the closing Scorched Earth could also be argued to have never been better. It’s a shame there is no room for anything from Still Life, but nonetheless this is an utterly essential live album, putting the lid on any doubts about the future of VdGG.

Come 2011 and it was time for the next studio recording from the by now fully settled trio line-up, and A Grounding In Numbers duly arrived. Consisting of 14 short tracks, with only three over five minutes and only one of those reaching six, the album came in for some initial criticism from fans, with many considering it to be too ‘safe’ and lacking depth. While I agree that it is probably the least successful of the post-reunion recordings, I do feel that the ‘safe’ claim is an unfair and unfounded one. There is plenty of variety within the album, ranging between laid-back melodicism, spiky almost-metal workouts, brief almost-improvised-sounding experiments and a few more traditionally involved prog workouts. That said, not all of these experiments are successful, and there is some notable filler material, especially towards the end of the album. Embarrassing Kid is a spiky, punkish workout with slightly clumsy lyrics and perhaps the least successful track here, while Splink, Smoke and the Discipline-era King Crimson feel of 5533 also fail to engage. However, in the plus column, there are great tracks here also. The opening Your Time Starts Now is a beautiful and lyrical ballad to open things, while Bunsho, Snake Oil and perhaps the album highlight Mr Sands all call to mind the classic Van Der Graaf spirit in a wholly successful way. The closer All Over The Place (the longest at 6.03) begins in a fairly unpromising way, yet manages to build to a magnificently stirring conclusion. All in all, while not a great Van Der Graaf album, it’s certainly very good, and perhaps only needed a little editing and perhaps a couple of tracks stretched out a bit more to be truly excellent.

Appearing the next year was the truly divisive Alt, which was the point at which a large proportion of the fanbase voiced serious complaints. Another wholly improvised album, in exactly the same format as the Present bonus disc, this time out it is not quite as successful as that one and, more to the point for a number of people, it was released as a stand-alone album. Many who had failed to enjoy the Present second disc, yet excused it as the bonus that it was, this time baulked at the fact that such a niche recording was put out as a ‘regular’ album. In truth there is merit to that argument, and the disc might well have been more sympathetically received had it taken the form of a second, additional, disc bundled in with A Grounding In Numbers. The listening experience is very much the same as that Present disc, but the sparser instrumentation makes it somewhat less involving, though there are plenty of excellent moments sprinkled throughout its 14 ‘pieces’ (such as they are). The most enjoyable and ‘fully formed’ tracks are Repeat After Me (which, appropriately, does reward repeated play) and Here’s One I Made Earlier – both of which are meaty and substantial, and last for a nice running time of between five and six minutes apiece. The closing track, Dronus, is indeed based on a sort of ambient drone pattern, with drums rising and then falling in the mix, but at a running time of almost 11 minutes, it is something of a testing listen.

Following this, we get another live album – the oddly titled Merlin Atmos, recorded in 2013. Originally the album came out both as a single CD and also as a two-disc edition including a second disc entitled Bonus Atmos. By this time, the trio had honed themselves into a lean and mean live unit – so much so that they deemed themselves ready to take on their biggest challenge yet. They elected, for the first time since the original recording in 1971, to perform the epic A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers in its entirety – something once thought virtually impossible to do as a four-piece, yet now being attempted just with the three of them. As if this wasn’t enough, they also took on Hammill’s epic 20-minute solo piece Flight, which originally appeared on his 1980 album A Black Box. Both of these appear on the main Merlin Atmos disc, with Flight actually opening it, and it is a superb rendition – amazingly so considering that, while Guy Evans had performed it three decades previously as part of Hammill’s K Group line-up, Hugh Banton had never even heard it and had to learn the whole thing from scratch. If anything it hangs together more cohesively than it had ever done, even when recorded live on Hammill’s solo The Margin album back in the ’80s, and translates perfectly to a VDGG piece. We move to more recent fare after that, for magnificent versions of Lifetime and All That Before from Trisector, and a somewhat meatier Bunsho from the most recent A Grounding In Numbers album. These could ordinarily have been highlights of the disc, were it not for the astonishing half an hour to which we are about to be treated, as first Lighthouse Keepers and then Hammill’s solo track Gog are unleashed. The former is an incredibly good version – this may be counted as heresy, but there are times when I think that I might just prefer this to the original. The numerous parts flow together brilliantly in this arrangement, while the climactic section of the track in particular is immense, and the band entirely deserve the huge ovation they receive. Anything following this would normally struggle not to come across as an anticlimax, but such would be to reckon without the terrifyingly intense performance of Gog which they hurl at us, with Hammill himself sounding almost possessed in the unhinged intensity of his delivery. Nothing could top the performance of Lighthouse Keepers, but this gets as close as humanly possible, and closes a disc which, start to finish, ranks to these ears as the finest VdGG live recording bar none. The second disc (mixed by Hammill whereas the main disc was courtesy of Banton, and left slightly rawer sound-wise) is also excellent, but is rightly thought of as a bonus, as it cannot help but be the slightly weaker sibling in this double set. There are real highlights – Over The Hill is as sublime as ever, while Your Time Starts Now segues brilliantly into Scorched Earth, in a way which sounds for all the world as if they are two parts of the one piece, while there is an excellent take on Meurglys III. Man-Erg and Childlike Faith, however, are a little looser, both containing a mix of superb sections and more ragged parts. Taken over the two discs, though, Merlin Atmos is undeniably essential.

Bringing the set to a close (at least in the audio sense – there is also a 14th disc which is a very welcome DVD of Live At The Paradiso), we get 2016’s Do Not Disturb, at time of writing the most recent Van Der Graaf studio offering, and very possibly (as hinted at by the band) the final recording of new material. While this hopefully will not prove to be the case, if Do Not Disturb were to serve as a definitive full stop to the astonishing career of VdGG, it would stand as a worthy sign-off. With just nine tracks this time, some of which stretch to the 7-8 minute mark, it is a more cohesive listen than A Grounding In Numbers and, taken overall, probably the stronger album. It starts and ends in particularly impressive style: the opener Aloft is a superb piece with which to begin proceedings, while the following Alfa Berlina is even better. Inspired by the Alfa Berlina car in which the band travelled, back on their celebrated Italian excursion early in 1971, it is an almost perfectly judged piece – the music and lyrics both combining beautifully to evoke a sense of nostalgic reflection and, indeed, wonderment at when we were all so much younger and life seemed to be laid out at our feet. Track three is very different but no less impressive, being the unsettling yet atmospheric tale of the mysterious occupant of the titular Room 1210, which will haunt your thoughts after if concludes if you allow it to. This is the strongest triple-punch opening to a Van Der Graaf album since World Record, to these ears, and remarkable that the band still, by this juncture, have this level of creativity in them. Almost all of the material here is full of merit (the only real miss to me being the overlong (Oh No! I Must Have Said) Yes, which has a somewhat plodding riff-driven part bookending a rather drawn-out ambient-jazzy mid-section), but the other real standout is the poignantly emotional finale Go, which seems to look at the possibility of the band signing off as a recording entity and delivers a virtual farewell to the listener. Extremely simple, yet all the better for it, this minimalistically beautiful song has only eight lines, yet manages to say all it has to, ending on the final ‘It’s time to let go’. The band performed this track on their most recent 2022 tour, and there were more than a few people moved to tears. It manages the same feat as Wondering did on closing World Record, and bringing down the curtain on the ‘classic foursome’ in the ’70s, and is the perfect closer both to the album and this box. Sublime!

As a reminder – or even a realisation – of just how much great material the band have produced in this twilight portion of their career, this set is an absolute treasure. There are pieces of music produced by the band in this post-reunion, post-Millennial era which are good enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with the towering achievements of their rightly-lauded heyday – and this box contains them all. The presentation is also excellently done – a 98-page book (it can hardly be called a mere ‘booklet’) is informative and beautifully illustrated, containing interviews with the band telling the story of these years, and also collecting all of the lyrics. There is also a small fold-out which came with the Real Time release, and all of the albums are presented in nice replica sleeves, with gatefolds where appropriate. For any fan of the classic era who has yet to fully embrace or investigate this latter series of chapters, this set is an absolute godsend.

We will most certainly seldom see their like again.