March 26, 2024

All told, this is an album which not only repays repeated listening, but ultimately makes you profoundly grateful to have made that investment of effort, as it has the potential to enrich the soul in the way only the very finest music can do.

Sometimes albums come up for reissue which you’ve always liked. Sometimes ones come up that you’ve never even heard. Sometimes they’re even ones which you never really cared for but a new listen changed your mind. Just occasionally, however, something pops up which has been a hugely important album to you for over four decades. Still Life, for me, is that album, and as such it is a genuine pleasure to try to explain just why that should be.

It wasn’t ever thus, mind you – on buying this album when it first came out in early 1976, having read a glowing live report about the band, but having never actually heard any VdGG before, it went right over the head of my still-developing 14-year-old musical mind. I thought myself a pretty discerning listener (as we all do at that age of course), having already been seduced by the more mainstream likes of Yes, ELP, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. I’d even grown an early appreciation for Tangerine Dream, Hawkwind and Focus. But still I was woefully unprepared for the attack on the senses which Peter Hammill and Van Der Graaf Generator were to deliver. Writing the album off as a failed purchase, I sold it and moved on. For around five years, until when pushed to give it another series of listens by a fan whose promptings have lived long in my appreciation (longer sadly, than his name!), my mental block finally crumbled and I realised what I had been missing. Which is, to my mind, perhaps the finest rock album ever released, and one which has never failed to stir me, and reveal yet more nuances, despite countless listenings.

So, if you happen to be new to VdGG (or even just new to this album), I would urge you not to form a hard opinion of this album on first, second or even third listen – even as a massive fan of the band, I have rarely if ever heard one of their albums for the first time without initially thinking it not up to their best standards, until absorption of the music finds its true level. If the old adage that the longer an album takes to appreciate the more depth and longevity it has contains even a grain of truth, there can be no more ringing endorsement of the music of this extraordinary band. So let’s take a look at the five fairly lengthy tracks which make up Still Life, shall we…

Two of the five songs had already been recorded during the sessions for the previous year’s Godbluff album, though not ultimately being used when the final tracklist was agreed upon. That album’s loss is this album’s gain, as the two tracks concerned are among the very best here, with one of them being the masterful opener, Pilgrims. Opening in relaxed, ruminative fashion with Hugh Banton’s keyboards ushering in Hammill’s reflections on the loneliness and seeming hopelessness of his situation, for a while it seems as if depressive VdGG service has been resumed immediately, but when the chorus arrives, new optimism and a sense of determination to overcome adversity enters, accompanied by a gloriously joyous musical accompaniment. This pattern is followed until the defiant cry of ‘All of us Pilgrims!’ leads into a lengthy coda, featuring some of the band’s most glorious ensemble playing. During this section, listen out for a remarkable drum fill from Evans which, once noticed, transforms the song to another level entirely – I must have heard the track at least a dozen times before I even noticed it, but it is a moment of genuine musical inspiration.

Following this comes the title track which, even for Peter Hammill, contains some pretty dark and hefty lyrical content. The theme of the song revolves around the scientific and medical breakthrough which enables death to be conquered, and is essentially an increasingly stark rumination on the unexpected hell which comes along with this longed-for ‘gift’ of everlasting life. ‘Now the immortals are here’, sneers Hammill mirthlessly, before he continues to lament that ‘boredom and inertia are not negatives but all the law we know’. It’s a strikingly powerful glimpse into a truly terrifyingly dystopian future, as powerful as anything ever conjured by Orwell or depicted on screen, and the complex, labyrinthine and yet perfectly complementary music serves to highlight the mood at every turn. It is simply one of the greatest examples of poetry and music as a symbiotic relationship that one could ever wish to see, as inspiring in its own way as it is concurrently soul-suckingly depressing.

To close the first side, we get the second song completed at the earlier sessions, La Rossa. Anchored back in the present rather than a hopeless future, the very different lyrical meat here sees the protagonist weighing up the strong and valued platonic friendship he has with a woman, and the possible complications should they take it to a physical level. Will it ruin their friendship, and change forever the fragile dynamic that they have between them, he agonises. And should they, knowing this risk, go ahead with it. Well, to save time and issue a spoiler alert, yes they do, and yes it certainly does. The second half of the track is essentially one long outpouring of relief of pent-up frustration coupled with anger at the sure knowledge of what will be lost along with what they gain, and it is astonishingly powerful and even brutal as it hammers along relentlessly. There is no place for fragile introspection here, and neither is it missed, as the floor is given over to raw emotion, red in tooth and claw, and it is draining to listen to.

Flipping over to Side Two (as, of course, this is a vinyl reissue), the mood calms with the languid beauty of My Room (Waiting For Wonderland), which once again juxtaposes the bleak existential lament of the desolate central character with just the right twist of optimism that he might somehow be able to lift himself out of this personal fog and improve his mental situation. Never played by this ‘classic’ version of the band, it has however made a great many appearances in Hammill solo sets, performed powerfully with simply the piano and vocal. In some ways, however, it is merely an appetiser for the main course of the side – and some would say of the album in total. Childlike Faith In Childhood’s End takes perhaps an even more ambitious lyrical base than the title track, being one long treatise on the possible evolutionary fate of mankind. With about 14 minutes of this stuff, it’s safe to say you’re about as far from Def Leppard or The Ramones as the physical restrictions of what can be termed ‘rock music’ are possible to allow. This track has everything – big passages, thoughtfully mellow ones, impossibly triumphal crescendos taking the listener to the heights of what is remotely possible in the potential of mankind, culminating in the final cry of ‘in the death of mere humans, life shall start!’, which even manages to sound like a good thing. There’s also an abrupt left-field shift into a quirkily timed midsection which is as disorientating in its own way as the ‘tea dance’ cha-cha-cha outburst in the previous album’s Sleepwalkers, or even Genesis throwing the Willow Farm section into Supper’s Ready. As in those examples, what initially seems a jarring diversion away from any musical coherence, in time manages to resolve itself so that it becomes impossible to imagine the piece in any other way. Hugh Banton has singled this track out as one of the most remarkable things the band ever produced, and he’s not wrong.

All told, this is an album which not only repays repeated listening, but ultimately makes you profoundly grateful to have made that investment of effort, as it has the potential to enrich the soul in the way only the very finest music can do. This particular reissue dispenses with any bonus tracks or new cover designs, and simply presents a direct facsimile of the original. Apart from the slight regret that it never got a gatefold sleeve first time out, that’s really all it needs. Extra tracks are superfluous, in the same way that a beautifully rendered painting of a luxuriously bushy beard can not enhance the Mona Lisa, regardless of its quality. Talking of the cover, at the time of the album’s release there was some speculation as to what the distinctive image on the front depicted. Theories abounded, from a detail of a brain scan to a heavily treated photo of a fern or river delta, but in actual fact the truth is more literal than that – it is in fact a spark from an actual Van De Graff Generator machine (yes, that is the correct spelling!), frozen in acrylic and captured forever, in still life. In its own way, it is as elusively perfect as everything found within the grooves of this remarkable work. If you have never heard this, or perhaps wrote it off quickly, get hold of it and live with it for a while. Spend time with it, and get to know it. Chances are, you will be very, very glad you did.