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Van Der Graaf Generator - Vital CD (album) cover

VITAL

Van Der Graaf Generator

 

Eclectic Prog

3.72 | 189 ratings

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AtomicCrimsonRush
Special Collaborator
Symphonic Team
4 stars Van Der Graaf's Live show captured is a vital experience

Van der Graaf Generator's 'Vital' is a concert performance in their last days and as a record of the incredible raw power this band exuded, it is a vital entry into the catalogue of VDGG albums. The double CD is worth getting for the extra 2 tracks and seems to have better sound quality in its remastered version. The live tracks boast the unique sound of VDGG and features lyrics that are dangerously close to the edge and Peter Hammill's vocals are like no other. He can croon smoothly, almost whisper along a minimalist approach that may feature a mere Hammond Organ, or he can scream as a cacophony of sound erupts. The live sound meanders between serene tranquillity to atomic energy.

CD 1 begins with Ship of Fools which is as bizarre a track played live as in the studio. It is easy to see why this band are musical pioneers and boundary pushing visionaries. The energy of the live performance is astonishing. Hammill is turned well up in the mix, perhaps too screechy at times, and the Hammond is let loose along with the soaring sax. Still Life follows, perhaps the best track from the aforementioned album, and is played magnificently, very subtle, almost minimalist in places and then the wall of sound erupts. Last Frame works well enough with the violin, Hammond and percussion; an oddity of musical virtuosity.

Mirror Images is an intriguing piece and then we are treated with the piece de resistance - the medley Plague of Lighthouse Keepers/Sleepwalkers. Both of which are brilliant in the studio from Pawn Hearts and Godbluff, 2 quintessential VDGG albums make no mistake, but they lose something in the live version. Both only clock in at some 13 minutes and are heavily edited. I did not like the way Lighthouse was edited as it's my fave track of VDGG. However it was pleasant to hear this version in many respects. It begins softly and then launches into the maelstrom of sound and verbal music psychosis that is VDGG. The Hammond and sax take us deeper into the abyss and VDGG really let loose with wild staccato riffs and a monstrous finale where everything just explodes into a paroxysm of uncontrolled mayhem. It's a killer track and moves from romanticism with piano elegy only to explode into a doom-laden soundwave with wild saxophones screaming over unfriendly sounds such as Dickie's keyboards and Guy Evan's off-kilter percussion. 'A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers' was the first track I had heard from this amazing band that tells the story of an eyewitness who sees the unspeakable as he feels his body fading in a storm while voyaging on a doomed ship. It reminds one of Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner (check Iron Maiden's take on this poem). The narrator notes "I prophesy disaster and then I count the cost. I shine but shining, dying I know that I am almost lost." The piano gets faster and seems to be falling down an abyss. There is a brief interlude that reminds one of a ship floating on an endless ocean and we hear the lonely saxophone blasts that resemble bizarre fog horns. You can almost picture the image of a ghost ship sailing through fog and there's a genuinely creepy ambience. The song takes on a darker atmosphere and Hammill begins to use his patented gravel tone to sing of spectres that scratch on windows, hollowed faces, and lost mastheads that pierce the freezing dark. There are several parts that flash by until the track moves to Presence of the Night/ Kosmos Tours. Jackson's saxophone really shines in this section and a weird time signature locks in, with Hammill singing "Why can't I let me live and be free, but I die very slowly alone." A beautiful Hammond sound fills the void and the tempo ignites to a frenetic pace where it spirals blissfully out of control. Then it all ends suddenly and the gorgeous piano reverberates to a melancholic contemplative Hammill who asks "Lighthouses might hold the key but can I reach the door?" It's a lovely moment after all the mayhem preceding, then the next section begins suddenly with Hammill's rasping vocals and short jagged spurts of noise from Jackson and Evans. At times the sound seems curiously off kilter, out of tune and rhythm but it all gels perfectly into the tranquil finale. You can take what you will from the potent lyrics but all is sung with absolute conviction which makes the piece all the more intriguing. It is a ballad of gothic grandeur in every sense that constantly surprises with its complex twisting structure.

CD 2 begins brilliantly with Pioneers Over C; at 17 minutes in length it is another highlight. 2 very rare tracks follow with Sci-Finance and Door, that were not released on an album in the 70s and they are interesting but a little forgettable. I love the version of Urban/Killer/Urban that really hits you between the eyes. Nadir's Big Chance is from Hammill's solo album and is perhaps the best he has done. The live version is lacking vocally but the intention is as full of conviction as other Hammill performances.

The album is best purchased in the 2 CD remastered format with a terrific booklet about the live show. The CD has some blazing numbers that really jolt you to your senses. It does not all work perfectly and is chaotic in places but it works as an emotional rollercoaster; brooding, with interchanging time signatures, long and contemplative and experimental to the max. You can hardly hear the crowd and there are some uncomfortable silences but it is compelling listening that draws you in deeper as it progresses. It has the feeling of emptiness or something ending, which is exactly what was happening - the band itself. It is not a starting point for someone interested in discovering the band, but it works as a supplement to the studio offerings of one of the best eclectic psychedelic bands of the 70s. A band that continues to perform live and produce great music to this day.

AtomicCrimsonRush | 4/5 |

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