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


Van Der Graaf Generator


Eclectic Prog

3.44 | 449 ratings

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TGM: Orb
Prog Reviewer
3 stars I'm not even sure I remember how to write these. I think it's mostly about banging two adjectives together and hoping for sparks... anyway...

Your Time Starts Now: surprisingly serene, with Hammill's strange mixture of dignity and desperation as audible as ever before over contemplative organ and drums. The lyrics ache with every detail that Hammill breathes into them and Banton's exquisite sense of texture and convincing flute impersonation send shivers down the spine. A slightly jarring shift into the instrumental section is the only visible seam.

So, introducing itself, a new Van Der Graaf Generator album, featuring Hammill, Banton and Evans still frustratingly unwilling to just repeat themselves and ride the prog rock nostalgia wave.

Mathematics features some deliciously subtle work from Banton (and the rest of the music is none too shabby), but I don't really buy into the concept behind it. You know, maths... great. I'm sure maths is very important but I can't bring myself to care about it ? my loss... I guess. (also, 'just so wow it brooks belief'... come on Pete, that can surely be put better?)

Highly Strung: A pointed mix of uncomfortably smooth punky choruses and jarring, angular guitar driven snarls (in what is, no doubt, some madcap time signature). The bass sound and the pulsing drumming of the latter are superb and as the guitar yelps and the organ snarls, one of Van Der Graaf Generator's best controlled cacophonies is here. I can't say I particularly like the harmless punk (harmlessness always was punk's biggest problem) 'chorus', much as it has a solid thematic purpose.

Red Baron: a wispy background over which Guy Evans drums hauntingly. His control, unusual range of sounds and restraint are at their clearest here; his vocabulary clearly goes beyond the rock and jazz usual around here, but he still knows exactly what he's saying. For me, a skeletal tapestry in a nocturnal desert. For some, I imagine, it'll just be some bones.

Bunsho: Hammill talks to us about the creative process and the issue of reception. The stilted word order is clearly intentional but still sticks a little. As on a lot of A Grounding... when it really catches fire, Banton's picking his chords carefully and occasionally throwing in scything flourishes while Evans juxtaposes long thundering fills with sparse rhythmic work (there's even a superb guitar solo placed tastefully about midway in the mix). The softer parts are held up by Hammill's vocal and contemplative electric guitar.

Well, of the first few songs: bits of the thematic interest seem at odds with the musical interest but the music as a whole is still unique and powerful. The trio employ some atypical instrumentation as well as expanding on the organ/drums/Hammill array from Trisector. New imports from Hammill's solo career include choral vocals and the integrated use of fragments.

Snake Oil: Aside from a rather stiffly spiky interlude, the band works with retentive verses pinned down by Hammill's piano contrasted with saltatory parts driven by Banton's effects and feedback. Musically, it's good. My complaint is more with the lyrics. In a way, I suppose, they're perfectly right, however, they're also vitriolic, categorical and undiluted by any note of wider context, empathy or sympathy. In essence, unless you're in a condescending mood, it's rather hard to enjoy the message of this one.

Splink: These musical interludes seem to deserve more attention than they ask for. Anyway, Evans again provides the narrative, recasting the piece's feel around some yawning guitars and winding organs as well as fragments from later songs.

Embarrassing Kid (Singularity's Idiot Boy and This' Stupid not a million miles away from this, though this is a more developed and far more mordant statement). The band's harsh punk facade (cut down to guitar, bass and drums, surprisingly enough) leaves most of the real material to Hammill's multi-tracked vocals and the cymbals Evans fringes his part with. The conclusion shows the band's aptitude for burning climaxes even without the usual organ/drum fills combination, though it'll be interesting to see if they put out any solid longer-form tracks in this vein.

Medusa: Herpetologist's choice. Anyway, the band seems to have realised that the hypnotic harpsichord melody for this is a winner since it crops up in slightly transfigured form elsewhere on the album. Short form VDGG at their best.

By contrast, Mr. Sands: running around with some of the album's lightest and darkest work and as good an illustration as any of just how Banton's organ technique has developed since the band's supposed heyday, the sense of detail, superb choice of tone and confident slamming chords played off against scything lines of notes ? not to mention the superb bass pedal work. Hugh Banton's idiomatic blend of classical and rock organ is unparalleled and unmatched, and A Grounding In Numbers contains his best work yet. Hammill's lyrics are existential (but not entirely humourless): 'Everything's in code, in a world we barely know, and the truth is only slowly revealed', while Evans, here much closer to his usual hollowed-out jazz style than on the rest of the album, drives the song forwards more by the rhythmic work than the fills.

Smoke: Hugh Banton, again, is magnificent (and apparently on guitar as well). Hammill's layers of whispering and rumour-laden vocals are brilliantly deployed. Another very effective short piece.

5533... same lyrical problem as Mathematics but the musical content is really quite compelling, and the ideas are better delivered, with Evans on top form as well as some curious glockenspiel runs from Banton.

All Over The Place: despite a relatively uncompelling start and a slightly abrupt end, this has the centre of a winding, magnificent, hellfire Van Der Graaf Generator closer (in my view, the benchmark is Trisector's We Are Not Here). Hammill writes and delivers the ghost of an existential horror story with more power, sensitivity and emotion than most singers put out in their careers.

A Grounding In Numbers is a good album and more surprisingly, this is perhaps the album that (even more than Still Life) indicates how far Hugh Banton's organ work has outstripped the rest of the progressive rock genre in terms of subtlety without losing a bit of the ferocity essential to Van Der Graaf Generator. Evans is still holding the band together and puts out some of his most considered work, albeit with perhaps too much self-restraint on the first half.

Anyway, cutting it to this: A Grounding In Numbers is an album that deserves to be taken on its own merits, and one which could not be made by any other line-up. Now, there aren't many new bands who put out albums like that, and there are almost no old ones.

Favourite Song: Medusa/Mr Sands Rating: 3 stars (I'm now working on what is basically four-star system, with 2 rather than 3 as the default grade, so take it as a recommendation)

Trivia: I'm such a fanboy I ordered two copies by accident then kept both of them. I'm also sure I've given 4s to worse albums than this.

TGM: Orb | 3/5 |


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