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Van Der Graaf Generator - A Grounding In Numbers CD (album) cover


Van Der Graaf Generator


Eclectic Prog

3.44 | 459 ratings

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Symphonic Team
4 stars VDGG continue to transfix listeners with consistent passion, experimental structures and dark lyrics.

Mathematics was my worst subject at school but Van der Graaf Generator somehow manage to make mathematics fascinating. Their latest release is a study in numbers, and mathematical formulae, structured around ideas that involve descents into madness, losing faith in love, experiencing alienation and intense isolation wallowing in the sadness of feeling worthless. Yet there is no pity, Hammill is just telling it the way it is and demands nothing from his listeners only to understand this is how life can become sometimes. His form of therapy does shine a ray of hope, because as we listen to his heartfelt pleas and warnings we can take from this a lesson not to take what we go through for granted, and to learn that everything has a time and a season, and it's only a matter of crunching the numbers as we sail through life, with its imperfections and disappointments. Along the way on this journey Hammill introduces us to some unpalatable but delightful characters such as Medusa, Red Baron, Mr Sands and an Embarassing Kid. Throughout there is a wicked sense of black humour as Hammill teases and makes double entendres about his weird cynical outlook on life and all its troubles. There is no sign of any Lighthouse Keeper epics, every song fitting neatly into no less that 6 minutes, and 5 songs are less than 3 minutes, acting as short sharp shocks of prog.

Along with the lyrics and symbolism the VDGG trio of percussionist Evans. Organist, bassist Banton and guitarist, keyboardist, vocalist extraordinaire Hammill enlighten us with some of the strangest music they have ever put their hand to. I always missed the sax on the last 2 albums, but somehow the trio are working to perfection overall on this album. It may not be quite the masterpiece of the 70s classics, but "A Grounding In Numbers" delivers a strong blast of prog from beginning to end featuring some songs of absolute genius. It is no mean feat for a band that have been around since 1969 that they are still able to captivate with their unique brand of prog. A track by track breakdown, and lyric samples, may help to capture the greatness of this collection of songs.

'Your time starts now' has some great lyrics; "power so strong, growing stronger, with self belief you've pulled through but you belong here no longer, fly by night it's over, day by day it's done, was it simply oversight that's left you overcome". The slow melancholy pace is tempered by Hammill's menacing vocals. The flute sounds sombre and yet beautiful. The restrained musicianship is minimalist overall and the song is moreover driven by strong vocals.

'Mathematics' has a very slow meandering style of tempo and some of the most adventurous lyrics which are a bunch of mathematics and similar ideas, "here be numbers transcendental, on an imaginary axis spun, decimal places without limit and zero and one", and Hammill goes on to explain the power of Pi and complex mathematical figures. The organ playing has a similar feel to vintage VDGG and the structure is quirky in places, with an odd time sig spun throughout the musical web. The track refers to 'Euler's Identity' which is sometimes referred to as the Mathematical Poem. I guess uni students could use it to remember complicated mathematic formulas.

'Highly Strung' is one of the best and heaviest tracks, with weird time sig, and stronger vocals, the guitars are raucous and barely keep time with the metrical shapes of Evan's percussion and Banton's booming bassline. This is as good as some of the 70s VDGG, and there is a riff that sinks into the system. The keyboards are wonderful and Hammill's spirited vocals have a lot to say; "the beat the heat is astounding, the pressure the tension full blown, the static is crackling around me, I can't hold I can't let go". Wonderful instrumentation compliments the unrestrained surreal lyrics.

'Red Baron' is an instrumental that features tribalistic drums and a foreboding gloomy atmosphere, slowly building and threatening with cymbal crashes, and woodwind. The drums of Guy Evans are the real drawcard of this piece, played to manic perfection.

'Bunsho' has some melodic guitar and strong offbeat structure. Hammill is reflective and sombre; "no one can really tell when their hands been played out well, and I don't even know how my old story goes". The unusual beat is typical of VDGG and appeases any addict of the band who are used to this type of music. It is pleasing to note that VDGG are not commercialised here, and may even be as progressive as some of their classic material of yesteryear. This is a return to form, after some disappointing work on previous recent albums.

'Snake Oil' is one of the best, an exhilarating piece that comes straight in with Hammill following the melody closely with some bizarre lyrics; "here comes the paraphernalia, here comes the cattle refrains, repeat ad infinitum," he mentions such unusual ponderings as 'anal retention', brain washing', and "what's coming next, well nothing is coming and nobody here knows the search for the questions", and "there's only one answer the believers can allow, teacher knows best, let's all put the teacher to the test". Only Hammill can get away with these type of lyrics. The beat is unusual again and progressively shifts into a totally different feel towards the end, focussing on Banton's fabulous organ playing. It returns to the main melody eventually after taking many twists and turns. This is perhaps one of the best songs from the band since the "Godbluff" days.

'Splink' has a pleasant sounding vibrating guitar intro with backwards glass shrieks creating a distinct ethereal atmosphere. The keyboards overlayed are way out of sync and then another keyboard begins out of sync with the main beat, Evans then improvises and the beat is chaotic, nothing blending in yet somehow making the thing work. This is as weird as it gets, the band have a lot of fun experimenting with various sounds and time sigs in a delightful instrumental.

'Embarrassing Kid' is a rocking song with a cool riff and jazzy time shifts, driven by strong drum patterns and multi layered guitars and bass. The lyrics are as bold and cynical as Hammill gets; "Embarrassing kid, try to bang on the lid on the can of worms, it remains really strange and uncomfortable territory where my secrets are hid and are never observed, I can hardly conceal it, where my ashened face got drained of blood, everybody can have a damned cruel laugh." I am not sure what happened to embarrass the kid but it made a lasting impression, as does the infectious melodies of the song. A very good highlight with memorable tune and rocking riffs.

'Medusa' is a creepy slow number with glum lyrics, "Welcome to the coils they're here to set you free, from anguish and dull toil but she says what you see is what you get from me." The crawling atmosphere is dark and foreboding with the strange shifting signature and ascending guitars.

'Mr Sands' is a showcase for Banton's organ and there is a very proggy time sig, Hammill sings to the same keyboard motif. The song changes in style a few times, delightfully slowing and speeding up at will. The lyrics are intelligent and dark, "everything's a cult in a world that is very dull and the truth is only slowly revealed, now Mr Sands is in the house, from the gods the music shouts and echo around the hall, and someone lets the secret out when the safety curtain falls." The piano work is terrific and there is tension and release with volume shifts. It is a great song that exudes passion and the power of the band at their best.

The surprisingly funky 'Smoke' features some weird whispering on the intro and a bizarre sounding musicscape. The funky rhythm continues as Hammill's multi layered vocals warn us to "just be careful" sounding a bit like Bowie in places. The repeated lyrics are a bit tiresome, but the song is saved by the overall distinct feel that is unlike other VDGG.

'5533' has an offbeat rhythm that never settles down. Hammill tells us, "you can make a metric pattern out of almost anything, counting out the football of processional identity and the number is 5533223". He goes on to tell us about other facts of numbers and estranged mathematical musings. It certainly is an attention grabber. Hammill even uses his high falsetto on this track. It is a weird thing to hear him singing about numbers, but it is only a short track and works okay.

'All Over the Place' is a powerful song that is exactly what the title says, beginning with a medieval sounding keyboard with off sync beat and Evan's sparse drums. Hammill tells us about being "driven to distraction by witless revelry, eventually," and then goes on in another section totally removed from the main melody; "he scattered himself all over the place while hiding behind closed doors". The piece is striking for its unusual structure, it slows down with minimalist vocals and keys, until a very strong melody locks in at the end. This certainly is one of the highlights of the album and perhaps one of the darkest excursions into the madness and brilliance of VDGG. It ends with a moody melody that cuts out as if the power has been switched off.

The final word on this is the latest release of the VDGG trio is the best of their last three albums. "Present" and "Trisector" are not quite as good as this album, though they all have excellent moments. "A Grounding in Numbers" is the most consistent VDGG of recent years, every song has something unique to offer with a few surprises, some songs are ferociously experimental, injecting a myriad of styles and quick changes within the frameworks. The songs sit well together with the concept of numbers coming across strongly. The trio sound absolutely terrific, there is passion, and there is that old VDGG magic. I don't think fans of the group would be disappointed if they are looking for some new VDGG with drive and vitality. There are no epics, but the band know how to pour their heart and soul into their craft. VDGG have aged well like fine wine, and Hammill still knows how to stir the emotions, belting out the darkest prog ballads with utter conviction.

AtomicCrimsonRush | 4/5 |


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