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Van Der Graaf Generator - Merlin Atmos CD (album) cover

MERLIN ATMOS

Van Der Graaf Generator

 

Eclectic Prog

3.85 | 50 ratings

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Syzygy
Special Collaborator
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars Another VDGG tour, another live album. This is the fourth double live offering from VDGG since 2007, and their third in their trio formation. The three previous live offerings came from tours in support of the current albums, although all feature plenty of old favourites as well. The tour which spawned Merlin Atmos had a different agenda; there was no studio album either to preview or promote. As always the set list varied from night to night, but on every date they played both Flight and A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers in their entirety, with the remainder of the set leaning mainly on more recent material but usually throwing in at least one more oldie. I was lucky enough to see this show at The Barbican - the second time I've seen them as a trio - and it was superb.

The single disc version of Merlin Atmos gives a pretty accurate idea of a typical show on this tour. Flight opens the proceedings, although it was generally the second or third number in the set. It originally took up side 2 of A Black Box, and was played almost entirely by Hammill apart from a bit of sax. A few years later it was a regular fixture on the K Group set list, and a rather muscular version can be found on The Margin. Three decades on, it is finally presented as the great lost VDGG epic and it sounds magnificent. Banton and Evans subject it to a process of Van Der Graafication, replacing the rather wooden drumming and early 80s synth squelches of the original with something much more nuanced, while Hammill glides serenely through the arrangement and breathes new life into the rather complex lyrics. We then get three more recent selections from Trisector and A Grounding In Numbers, although only All That Before really improves on the studio version, before we get to the main event, A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers. Although sections had been played as part of a medley in VDGG's heyday, it had only been performed in its entirety once before. Like A Black Box, it was given a bit of a makeover, not least because David Jackson's sax was such a key component of the original (to say nothing of all the studio trickery). Rather than try to replicate the saxophone, for the most part Banton uses the full sonic potential of his mighty organ to guide the epic through all its twists and turns, with Hammill again turning in a remarkable vocal performance. Age might have diminished his upper register, but his voice is as strong as ever and has become even more expressive as time has marched on. This disc closes with an intense reading of Gog, another Hammill solo piece that has found its place in the recent VDGG repertoire and which was a regular encore on this tour (when I saw them it was Childlike Faith in Childhood's End).

Disc 2 gathers up pretty much everything else that was played on the tour but not included on disc 1. 3 recent offerings kick things off, including a splendid version of Over The Hill, then 4 lengthy old favourites take up the last 50 minutes. All of the songs on disc 2 have been included on at least one other recent live album, and the sound quality isn't great (disc 1 was mixed by Banton, disc 2 by Hammill). It's a nice souvenir if you were there, but otherwise decidedly non-essential, particularly if you have any other recent VDGG live albums.

The single disc edition is a solid 4 star addition to any prog collection; Flight and A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers would have filled a single album in the days of vinyl, and justify the price of the album on their own. The remainder of disc 1 is prime quality and beautifully played and recorded. The deluxe 2 disc edition is a nice souvenir, but the second disc is heading into 'collectors only' territory; if you weren't there, enjoy the single disc version and don't worry about missing out on anything.

Syzygy | 4/5 |

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