February 28, 2024

Fascinating and eye-opening… Van der Graaf to the extreme.

I don’t know how many people there are whose first exposure to the Van der Graaf Generator universe was 1978’s double live album Vital, but there must be some. I’m interested to hear what their initial impressions were, and how different those might be from folks who came onboard earlier with something like Lemmings or Refugees. By this time, the Graafs had lopped the ‘Generator’ from their official moniker and shuffled their lineup from the quartet that had produced their classic run of albums, a reinvention first heard on the previous year’s The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome… but it was Vital that presented the darkest, rawest, edgiest Graaf release to date. It’s long been considered a difficult record and arguably not representative of the VDGG sound, what with key member Hugh Banton gone (and that massive organ sound with him), violinist Graeme Smith filling in the space with new flavours, and even David Jackson appearing only in a guest role with fewer lead sax pyrotechnics. The Quiet Zone & Vital period also saw the return of bassist Nic Potter from the band’s early days which added another degree of authenticity, but for some people the classic sound had changed perhaps too radically, with Hammill’s guitar a noisy fixture following its gradual climb to prominence over the course of the band’s more recent history.

This aggressive approach and jagged sound might have been de rigueur in punky 1978, but Vital seemed to be an oddity; sticking out of the catalogue with its chaotic track list and overall coarseness. This was Van der Graaf to the extreme, and though it had its admirers as everything does, one rarely heard it mentioned among the gems of the band’s canon. Of course, it’s worth noting that VDGG always were a raw and sometimes even brutal live band. Regardless, Vital was next-level. Fascinating and eye-opening, then, to revisit this release with Esoteric’s new remastered 2CD edition, going in with fresh ears after not diving deeply for years.

I’ll start with the one disappointment I had, and that’s the fact that the two songs that opened this winter Marquee gig (Cat’s Eye/Yellow Fever and The Sphinx in the Face) were not obtained and slotted in, which would have made this the first edition ever to include them. But it could well be that they were simply not able to be polished to a presentable degree from the audience recordings that have circulated for years. What this spiffy-looking new edition does have going for it is an obvious improvement in sound quality – courtesy of Ben Wiseman’s mastering from the original master tapes – and two restored tracks that were missing from my old Caroline CD from 1989, omitted at the time in order to keep it to one disc. Those tracks (Sci-Finance and Nadir’s Big Chance) may have found their way to later editions, but as I had never upgraded, this new Esoteric set is most certainly an improvement right out of the gate.

Despite being a tad jumbled from the original show’s running order, the track list begins to take shape and make sense as the music flows. The aggressive crunch-rock of Ship of Fools kicks things off, with Potter’s bass giving noticeable oomph to the sound, and perhaps drawing the Graafs more towards a more well-worn path than their otherworldly prog rock epics of the past. With the aforementioned Cat’s Eye and Sphinx the actual show openers, this relatively unknown b-side is left to begin this live document in an unconventional way. But then, this is Van der Graaf, so is that really so strange?

An anxious atmosphere pervades this live airing of Still Life, with Hammill snarling his way though the elevated middle section while Smith colours the piece with frantic violin over top of Potter and drummer Guy Evans’ relentless driving backbone. It’s always interesting to hear Evans working alongside another dedicated rhythm player, and the two mesh well here. Smith delivers a lengthy intro to the menacing Last Frame from The Quiet Zone, with Hammill shifting between vocal gears, Evans bashing away in typically mesmerizing fashion (I could listen to him play 24/7 and never tire of it) and Potter fattening the sound with a thick, fuzzy bass tone.

Hammill’s growling vibrato and operatic histrionics would influence many a famous leather-and-studs frontman in the decade to come…

Charles Dickie tinkles the electric piano in the distinctive opening to the future Hammill solo track Mirror Images, a nicely-played rendition that comes across as one of the highlights here. Following this, a casual piano & violin gradually develops into the opening melody to A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers, the side-long prog rock freakfest that comprised the second half of the band’s 1971 classic Pawn Hearts album. The familiar and welcome saxophone playing of Jackson augments the piece as it carries through the opening section, with Hammill emitting the type of growling vibrato and operatic histrionics that would influence many a leather-and-studs frontman in the decade to come. A bubbling, jazzy breakdown provides a stepping stone to the section titled The Clot Thickens before veering suddenly into the climactic closing movement of The Sleepwalkers from 1975’s Godbluff. (That this mash-up was never officially titled A Plague of Sleepwalkers is a missed opportunity, methinks.)

But the centrepiece of this live record must surely be the bruising and jaw-dropping performance of Pioneers Over C., a 17 minute re-working of the 1970 studio track with a heavier, beefier vibe. In all my years of Graaf fandom, it never occurred to me that this really is the definitive version of this strange and epic piece. It retains enough of the original aspects, including Jackson’s free jazz sputtering and Hammill’s avant-garde explorations of his vocal range, but I think it was meant to rock hard when given the chance. And it does here, almost to a heavy metal degree at times. What a spectacular piece of music!

Sci-Finance is another that would eventually become a Hammill solo number, though that one wouldn’t see the light of day for almost a decade on the album In a Foreign Town, by which time synthesizer and recording technology had undergone such radical advancements that the track was near unrecognizable. Fun, then, to hear this sludgy and rough early version of something that became so brittle and polished come 1987. Another proto-headbanging opportunity arrives with the follow-up Door, with Potter once again coming to the fore with a driving, forceful bassline. Strange early synth noises accompany the track’s headlong lurch into overdrive and whiplash tempo shifts as the piece lands as ‘odd, in its simplicity’, in Hammill’s own introductory words (which there are very few of on this record, incidentally… the music does the talking here).

Yet another curiosity shows up with a condensed instrumental version of Killer, featuring Jackson and Smith on dual leads. This is bookended by an unknown piece titled Urban, which brings a kind of restrained funk-jam vibe for a while before Hammill delivers a verse of lyrics about city life. The typically boisterous Nadir’s Big Chance makes a rousing finale, with Hammill somehow managing to roar the words having already given his pipes a two hour run-the-gamut workout. I have to wonder if he didn’t guzzle a jar of honey before each show (or maybe after!) My throat feels sore just from listening.

Revisiting this beast of a live album turned out to be immensely enjoyable and it was early on in the proceedings that I began to wonder why, as an obsessive fan of this band, did I not seem to know what was coming next? Had I really neglected Vital for that long? Sometimes it takes a new edition like this to prod the listener into reappraisal. At nearly an hour and a half, it’s not a quick listen, but it seemed to unfold rapidly and was over before I knew it. After a breather from the intensity, I made the unexpected move of plunging right back in from the beginning. I can therefore only recommend this new edition, particularly to those like me who had ancient versions in their collections or like to spruce things up now and then. Vital may not be ideal first date or gym workout or even Sunday drive music, but it serves its purpose when the mood strikes, and earns its place in the band’s history as a formidable chapter-closer before their astonishing 27 year hiatus. Furthermore, it cements the notion that if Hammill & co. inadvertently helped invent punk, they also helped invent post-punk. Now if only Esoteric could work their magic on King Crimson’s Earthbound

Vital: Van der Graaf Live remastered 2CD and gatefold 2LP editions are released 29 March.