January 22, 2023

This is not safe music and its creators do not aim to comfort audiences with by-the-numbers recreations…

Well, well, well!’ quips Peter Hammill as the legendary Van Der Graaf Generator wanders onto a stage in Bath in the late winter of 2022. Within seconds they are summoning art from thin air with the dizzyingly complex Interference Patterns (from 2008’s Trisector, their brave first album as a trio). The intensity level is high (and will reach even loftier peaks over the next two hours), but occasional smiles and knowing looks among the three longtime bandmates suggest a brotherly affection and underlying softness rarely evident in the music itself. There’s a tension, though, in all VDGG concerts; this is not safe music and its creators do not aim to comfort audiences with by-the-numbers recreations.

Their upcoming live release, simply titled The Bath Forum Concert, is a spiffy package sporting two CDs, a DVD, and HD video Blu-ray with stunning sound mixed to stereo and 5.1 surround by Stephen W. Tayler. It’s one of the finest live documents of this group’s long history, with a set list that mixes latter-day gems with vintage chestnuts performed to a crowd of ecstatic devotees.

Photo taken from The Bath Forum Concert Blu-ray.

Sadly, VDGG only played about another dozen shows after this one, with Hammill undergoing emergency surgery for a serious and sudden health ailment (a ‘dramatic’ incident, in his own words) while in Europe, ending the tour prematurely. Though he is thankfully recovered, it gives pause for reflection. The years have raced steadily on, and none of us escape the bony fingers of time. But enough of being maudlin… back to the show.

‘In current circumstances, we have absolutely no choice but to play this tune’, Hammill announces before Every Bloody Emperor gradually bubbles to life with Guy Evans’ crisp cymbals fluttering through the center of the keyboardists on either side of the stage. Hugh Banton coaxes sounds from his organ that mingle with Hammill’s piano as the angry piece crescendos and decrescendos, its lyrical message every bit as timely as was implied. For many of us, this song has historical significance, as it was the first new VDGG music we heard after the band took the astonishing step of reforming out of the clear blue sky in 2005, and it remains a welcome inclusion in any live set.

Apart from much of his hair, the septuagenarian Hammill has lost very little over these many years. It’s awe-inspiring to watch him up there, decked out in an all-white outfit he might have borrowed from John McLaughlin, and roaring his impassioned vocals to a spellbound audience. ‘Strange times, eh?’, he casually understates before introducing A Louse is Not a Home, the creepy Poe-scented finale to his 1973 solo album The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage. Minor imperfections only accent its tense and thrilling nature as Hammill somehow fights his way through one of his wordiest pieces ever (and that’s really saying something). ‘Maybe I should de-louse this place…’ he spits in a harrowing whisper at the song’s climax, and the crowd hangs on every word.

Hammill’s dial-breaking range causes hairs to raise as he hurtles from angelic choirboy to shrieking lunatic in mere seconds…

Photo taken from The Bath Forum Concert Blu-ray.

The Graafs next launch into Masks, one of the standout pieces from their 1976 album World Record, which provides Hammill his first opportunity to strap on the guitar. Banton fills the bandwidth with warm textures and rumbling bass pedal while Evans lays down precise and tasty patterns. On the studio records, Hammill often double-tracked his vocals, seemingly uninterested in ensuring they ever matched up rhythmically (or even melodically, in some cases). It’s as though he is incapable of performing anything the same way twice. Live is a similar story; the words flow from him like it’s the first time they’ve traveled from his brain to his lips, and Masks proves a particularly rousing performance. Meanwhile, the hi-def cameras swoop down and around the stage, offering intimate glimpses of the trio amid their modest gear, and it’s our good fortune that the judicious video production never devolves into that jarring modern style of pasting together thousands of flashing two-second snippets.

Wait, did I say A Louse is one of Hammill’s wordiest lyrics? I forgot about Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End, the sprawling 13 minute finale to 1976’s Still Life, which the band delivers with fervent emotion to their delighted faithful. This must be an exhausting piece to play; not the least for Hammill, who belts out verse after intense verse with the stamina of a man one-third his age. The altogether more atmospheric Go, from the band’s excellent (and possibly final) record Do Not Disturb, closes out the first set bathed in Banton’s rich chords, an elegiac piece that provides a calming balance and sonic breathing space.

Wait, did I say A Louse and Childlike Faith were both wordy? I forgot about La Rossa, Hammill’s intimate lovelorn tale which opens the second set and is still one of the most anguished of VDGG songs (once again, amongst stiff competition). Hammill has always possessed dial-breaking range as a vocalist, causing hairs to raise and lips to quiver as he hurtles from angelic choirboy to shrieking lunatic in mere seconds. One forgets his slight frame and gentle off-stage manner as he thrashes jagged guitar chords and pounds on his keyboard, delivering his tortured poetry with hissing venom and staccato blasts of growls. Like a man who knows his remaining days on stage are dwindling, he stretches agonizing questions into demented soliloquies, merely a vessel for the gargantuan music channeling through him.

Photo taken from The Bath Forum Concert Blu-ray.

Banton’s eyes dart from Hammill to Evans and back again, each of the three casting vital glances in a truly compelling bit of footage…

Guy Evans is, as always, the absolute mammoth musician we’ve come to know over these many years. It’s a cliche to refer to the drummer as the ‘backbone’ of the band, but Evans really is. Frequently locking gazes with Banton and Hammill, he dips into his grab bag of styles to anchor these complex arrangements. From jazzy shuffles to heavy rock to clattering avant-garde free-for-alls, he’s consistently brilliant, forever hunched over his drumkit with a look of ferocious concentration as he plays off the others with an innate swagger. What an incredibly musical drummer. What an incredibly musical band. I remember catching them on the Trisector tour, and I was almost literally struck dumb by the power of what I was seeing and hearing. There I sat like a lump, staring with my mouth agape – the way children do when they are transfixed by something they are witnessing for the first time in their young lives.

Photo taken from The Bath Forum Concert Blu-ray.

Three more recent pieces follow in succession, beginning with a brilliant rendition of Alfa Berlina from Do Not Disturb. An amusing moment follows as Banton begins Over the Hill before Hammill is ready, but the moving piece comes out in stunning fashion. Stripped to its core, this is a band built primarily on mutual trust, as all the best live bands are. Such interdependencies are fully on display in Over the Hill’s chaotic middle section, when close-ups show Banton’s eyes dart from Hammill to Evans and back again, each of the three casting vital glances in a truly compelling bit of footage. Then it’s back to Do Not Disturb for one of its strongest tracks, Room 1210, with Evans employing the brushes to great effect. I’ll admit, I was hoping they’d find room for at least one more 21st century track (Forever Falling or Aloft would have been my choices), but of course there’s only so much room in a set list. Either way, this section of the show turned out to be one of its major highlights.

The set closes with Man-Erg, which needs no introduction. Its majesty and unsettling beauty remain powerful and untarnished, and it proves to be every bit the gripping and electrifying piece it was 50 years ago, receiving a roaring ovation as the chaps leave the stage. They’re soon back for the customary encore, and if the face masks dotting the crowd weren’t enough to date this pandemic-era concert, Hammill gleefully proclaims ‘Hooray for shows, hooray for life in these dark times!’ before settling into House With No Door, the oldest song of the concert and always one of the most starkly beautiful in the catalogue. A perfect finale.

It’s heartwarming to watch the beaming trio soak in some well-earned appreciation having just delivered a triumphant gig. And as always, it was on their own terms; without major promotion, hit singles, famous faces, or coattails to ride. Without the aid of video screens, bouncing lasers, or a fancy light show. Playing songs that don’t have mass commercial appeal, prompt anyone to dance, or get played on mainstream radio. And yet, the audiences come. What these three guys stir in the hearts and minds of their listeners via their skill and artistry cannot be overstated, nor can it be duplicated. If indeed The Bath Forum Concert turns out to be the group’s swan song, it sure is a spectacular one; a remarkably impressive late-career release from one of the most original and uncompromising bands in history. There is only one Van Der Graaf Generator, and I can say without a shred of insincerity: I don’t know if they have ever been more impressive – or more important – than right here in the twilight of their career.

So the story’s closed behind us
And the countdown comes in backwards,
That much was always clear,
So when it reaches zero our heroes disappear.

~ Van Der Graaf Generator, Over The Hill

Photo taken from The Bath Forum Concert Blu-ray.