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A GROUNDING IN NUMBERS

Van Der Graaf Generator

Eclectic Prog


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Van Der Graaf Generator A Grounding In Numbers album cover
3.42 | 359 ratings | 29 reviews | 16% 5 stars

Good, but non-essential


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Studio Album, released in 2011

Songs / Tracks Listing

1. Your Time Starts Now (4:14)
2. Mathematics (3:38)
3. Highly Strung (3:36)
4. Red Baron (2:23)
5. Bunsho (5:02)
6. Snake Oil (5:20)
7. Splink (2:37)
8. Embarrassing Kid (3:06)
9. Medusa (2:12)
10. Mr. Sands (5:22)
11. Smoke (2:30)
12. 5533 (2:42)
13. All Over The Place (6:03)

Total Time: 48:45

Lyrics

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Music tabs (tablatures)

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Line-up / Musicians

- Peter Hammill / guitar, keyboards and vocals
- Hugh Banton / organ, bass pedals and bass guitar
- Guy Evans / drums

Releases information

Produced by Hugh Padgham
Release date: 14th March 2011

Thanks to Starhammer for the addition
and to Snow Dog for the last updates
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Esoteric 2011
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CD alt ~ USD $15.01
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VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR A Grounding In Numbers ratings distribution


3.42
(359 ratings)
Essential: a masterpiece of progressive rock music(16%)
16%
Excellent addition to any prog rock music collection(38%)
38%
Good, but non-essential (35%)
35%
Collectors/fans only (9%)
9%
Poor. Only for completionists (2%)
2%

VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR A Grounding In Numbers reviews


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Collaborators/Experts Reviews

Review by poslednijat_colobar
PROG REVIEWER
5 stars Seniors' supremacy

Just what an album!? After my little break (or not so little) from writing reviews on PA, I decided to come back in writing exactly with this breathtaking album by art rock pioneers - Van der Graaf Generator. The choice isn't accidental. That pause in writing helps me to get into this magnificent band properly. Undoubtedly there is a new direction in the conception of the band with this album. It's still a trio, without a brass section, but that's substituted very well with different kind of ideas.

Despite the presence of controversial reviews to date, I cannot find anything annoying or embarrassing into A Grounding in Numbers, but only well-arranged, profound and developed ideas in professional manner of production. The album is a fountain of progressive rock music with compact sound and strict songwriting abilities of the band members in varied and dynamic style. It's obvious how the routine of Peter Hammill, Hugh Banton and Guy Evans raise the album to that high level it deserves to receive in fact.

The musicianship is just... special with a word. An album without naivety, insignificance or boredom constructed in not exactly the most familiar VdGG style. People who know what are doing and more importantly - why. That's VdGG nowadays with the release of A Grounding in Numbers. Without a single note on the wrong place.

The last and most significant thing I'd like to comment is the genre of the album or the domain it's produced of. That's strongly art rock oriented album without typical (of the band) dark atmosphere and brass section. With lots of Canterbury sound and space rock motifs and themes connected in faultless psychedelic way. The songs are usually much shorter than most of previous albums' songs. But their ideas are developed precisely and concrete in the short-songs situation. Give little more chance to this professional and hard-digestible album. 4,5 stars will be deserve rating, which should be rounded up.

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Send comments to poslednijat_colobar (BETA) | Report this review (#418039) | Review Permalink
Posted Friday, March 18, 2011

Review by Sean Trane
SPECIAL COLLABORATOR Prog Folk
4 stars Over two years after the release of the fabulous Trisector, VDGG returns with another batch of tracks written and recorded as a trio. Well after the excellent surprise of Trisector, the three compadres were going to have a tough time equalling or topping their previous effort, but then again the Generator always pull up aces from their sleeves when they need to. The least we can say is that A Grounding In Numbers is another worthy album despite the relatively (read too) sober artwork (well the vinyl features a cut-out) and the continued trend to avoid the famous logo.

After a strong Your Time Starts Now (but not equalling the previous openers like Bloody Emperor and Interference Pattern), the album flips to the unofficial title track, dealing with an artificial (IMHO) concept about numbers and maths. Some might consider this "theme" a stroke of genius, but I can't help but thinking that Hammill might have had nothing stronger a thought to deliver to us at the time of writing and recording the album. Musically, the track is a small tour de force, but the weak lyrics bug me. Some tracks (a fair bit actually) are in the fairly basic (and disappointing) verse-chorus mode (well the usual VDGG complexity aside) with a short solo, like Highly Strung, which could've been AC/Roxy/DC-like with an almost tasteless chorus line, if you get my drift. Later on the album, Embarrassing Kid and Mr Sands are made from the same mould and Smoke has an almost new-wave/electro-pop sound (which I really don't think appropriate for them) and segues into another early-80's-ish track, 5533, which sounds a bit like the Talking Heads with a return to the math theme.

There are some brilliant interludes (but not enough, IMHO), which allow for some breathing space, like the haunting instrumental Red Baron (Evans' awesome drumming), duly separating the violent Highly Strung from Bunsho, a quieter track, which seems to evolve from the Baron's descent, and where Peter deals out a decent guitar and very personal lyrics about his creation process. The challenging Snake Oil features a slow crescendo, some abrupt dynamics and then leaves the floor another instrumental interlude Splink, which is definitely not as successful and features some clunky harpsichord over those wild drums of Guy. The album closes on the longest (barely 6-mins) All Over The Place, with Hammill all over the harpsichord and the band finally unleashing mean solos to arouse our intellect. Too little too late, though. I'd love to have received as a bonus the non-album B-side instrumental piece to have taken the place of say that Embarrassing Kid song.

Well if Trisector was quite a successful album that seemed to be over too quickly, I can't really say the same of AGIN, which tends to add up a bunch of fairly similar tracks (despite all having their own life), thus bringing a certain kind of fatigue around the 4/5th of the album. Indeed, what was clicking so well on the previous album was that the longer tracks provided breathing space and more instrumental interplay and moody ambiances. Here, the shorter song format (only four above the 5-mins mark) seems to hamper the song contents to deepen and explore their own soul to the fullest. Don't get me wrong, AGIN is still a very worthy Generator effort, but it won't retain its brilliance as long as its predecessor.

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Send comments to Sean Trane (BETA) | Report this review (#427408) | Review Permalink
Posted Monday, April 04, 2011

Review by AtomicCrimsonRush
SPECIAL COLLABORATOR 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.

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Send comments to AtomicCrimsonRush (BETA) | Report this review (#445174) | Review Permalink
Posted Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Review by lazland
PROG REVIEWER
3 stars The second of the modern albums as a three piece, and one that deals with the relatively easy (!) subject of numbers and mathematics, Van Der Graaf return seemingly in fine fettle.

Certainly, the opener, Your Time Starts Now, is almost commercial, or at least as near to that damning word that the band have ever come to. As with the second track, Mathematics, there is an accessibility that one never really associated with the band, and the three members play extremely tightly backing Hamill on fine form. Especially enjoyable here, as throughout the work, is Hugh Banton's organ work.

However, as ever, it is in the lyrical department that the band will be judged on this album. Hamill is about the only person on this still intact world who could make something as specialised, and, indeed, loathed by generations of schoolboys, as the subject of an entire album's worth of material.

What I will say, however, about this work, is that they miss David Jackson's madcap eclecticism on tracks such as Highly Strung. Sure, it's strong, and the type of music that we all used to enjoy spending ages "getting into", as opposed to the openers, but there is, in my opinion, something missing. Pardon the cliche, but it is almost as if this is eclectic by numbers, rather than the lunatic element that the four piece band used to set them apart from many imitators. Having said that, even here, the chorus is toe tapping stuff. Strange days indeed.

Red Baron, the first instrumental of the album, is a short exercise in dark landscaping that, again, I feel, would have benefited from the more left field approach Jackson would have brought. It is, by the way, very reminiscent of the type of instrumentals Gabriel was experimenting with in the early 1980's.

Bunsho is impressive, and the type of track that would have been quite at home on earlier albums, or much of Hamill's classic solo works. Extremely dark musically and lyrically, the listener is never quite at home or comfortable with this one. In other words, classic Van Der Graaf.

Snake Oil is in the vein of the opening tracks, enjoyable but strangely and instantly accessible at first, but after a few listens becomes rather pedestrian. Again, by numbers rather than fierce and far reaching as I like the band.

Splink is another short instrumental, which finds the band experimenting, with Banton's keyboards especially completely out of synch with all else, set against an almost country & western backdrop. It has filler written all over it, really.

Embarrassing Kid is, I am afraid, well, embarrassing. More upbeat than much else on the album, it nevertheless plods along to a simple guitar riff and is almost a dead ringer for a Blur track, (honestly!)

Medusa is quietly dark, with a quaint keyboard plinking over the main riff. Hamill also, probably unintentionally, sums up much of the album when he sings "what you see is what you get from me", something the band could never really be accused of in the past. Indeed, that was much of their charm.

Mr Sands is almost a return to form, featuring Banton at his best on keys, and Guy Evans at his jazziest on drums. Almost a paeon to earlier works, and certainly deliberately written and performed with a 70's feel in mind, it is good. Now, just where is that sax to round things off?

Smoke, if I hadn't checked the CD inlay, I would swear featured a certain Mr Bowie on guest lyrics, and is a mercifully short piece of repetitive nonsense.

5533 is a lyrically treatise on the beauty and applied form of mathematics, with Hamill lecturing us against a slightly offbeat backdrop. Fun, without ever really threatening greatness.

The album closes with All Over The Place, which starts off as if it wouldn't be out of place on any Blackmore's Night or Renaissance album, such is the medieval feel of the harpsichord used. A more minimalist approach is used as the track kicks in, and it is certainly one of the highlights of this album, at least ending on a strong note both vocally and in the dark feel of the music.

I have listened to this band for many years. Some of their work, Pawn Hearts, Godbluff, and The Quiet Zone especially, rank amongst the finest albums I have in my collection. I am also not one to have a dig at a band simply for attempting to do things differently or in a more modern context, as a glance at any of my reviews of later "classic" band releases will testify.

However, I can only really rate this as a good album at best, and it is certainly absolutely non essential. Much of it feels very formulaic and, in parts, extremely tired. When they are good, the band are still a match for almost anyone, but, the first CD of The Present aside, nothing I have heard from the later albums makes me want to come screaming back for more. I also like it less and less the more I listen to it.

Three stars. There have been, and will be, far better releases in 2011.

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Send comments to lazland (BETA) | Report this review (#450995) | Review Permalink
Posted Sunday, May 22, 2011

Review by Conor Fynes
PROG REVIEWER
3 stars 'A Grounding In Numbers' - Van Der Graaf Generator (6/10)

While many of prog's classic darlings have either disbanded or significantly watered down their sound since the glory days, Van Der Graaf Generator is one of those few that are still up and at it, to some extent. Widdled down to a trio over time, Van Der Graaf Generator may have aged greatly since their golden years as one of the 70s most inventive bands, but as their latest album 'A Grounding In Numbers' goes to show, they still have the music in themselves to keep going. Although this album certainly does not have the masterpiece qualities that some of their earlier work did, 'A Grounding In Numbers' can be appreciated for the fact that even after such a long time that the band has been going, they stay true to the progressive formula. That being said however, the album stays very mellow throughout, and may bore those who want a little more dynamic and vivace from these guys.

Although not necessarily a concept album, 'A Grounding In Numbers' does share some themes that run throughout it. Among these is a fairly down-tempo pace that much of the music takes, and the recurring lyrical topic of numbers and formulas. Both of these are best represented in the album's most memorable track 'Mathematics', in which Peter Hamill croons on about various mathematical formulas; a lyrical theme that is done surprisingly well here, but still verges on silliness and irrelevance. True enough, Hamill's voice is the center of attention here, as most of the instrumentation is too laid back to jump out at the listener. Hamill's voice has always been a point of derision among listeners; you either love it or hate it, and this paradigm is quite important with 'A Grounding In Numbers'. So much of the musicality that drives the album is invested in Hamill's very British vocal style, and while time has taken a strain on his voice, there's still power here that you would not expect out of a man who has already seen past his sixtieth birthday.

The instrumentation is maybe the most disappointing aspect here. Gone is the jazzy inventiveness of earlier albums. Instead, Van Der Graaf Generator gives a very mature, but rather impersonal performance that does not compare to their youth. In terms of the songwriting, things are rather hit-or-miss, but the album as a whole does grow after listens. Some moments that appear boring at first do reveal themselves after the listener has invested some time into the record, but make no mistake; 'A Grounding In Numbers' is no masterpiece like 'Pawn Hearts' or 'Godbluff'. If anything, Van Der Graaf Generator's biggest accomplishment here is that they have still retained their core essence, even though the passion here is much more subtle.

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Send comments to Conor Fynes (BETA) | Report this review (#475099) | Review Permalink
Posted Sunday, July 03, 2011

Review by Mellotron Storm
PROG REVIEWER
3 stars I've been putting off listening to this album for weeks simply because I was afraid I wouldn't like it. I had heard about the shorter tracks and that Jackson wouldn't be participating again.When your a big fan of a band of course your wanting to like what they create but when you know it's going to be different it's hard not to be a little gun shy. Well after many listens I guess the bottom line is that I have mixed feelings. Unfortunately I don't love it but I do really enjoy some of what they've done here. It almost comes across as a solo Hammill record at times. So yes it's different from past VDGG releases but it still has their DNA all over it.

"Your Time Starts Now" is possibly a top three track for me. It's laid back to start as reserved vocals join in. It's quite moving at times with some excellent lyrics. "Mathematics" sounds good each time the tempo picks up in contrast to the relaxed soundscapes. Some floating organ in this one. Probably my least favourite song though. "Highly Strung" is the first track with some energy as the drums and guitar lead and the vocals are more passionate.The drumming sounds great. Organ runs after 2 minutes.

"Red Baron" features drums and atmosphere and is a melancholic instrumental. I like it ! "Bunsho" opens with vocals and a relaxed sound. Guitar and a fuller sound comes in around 2 minutes. So good. It becomes intense and emotional.This is a top three track for me. "Snake Oil" sounds cool with those deliberate sounding vocals. It calms right down around 2 minutes but not for long.

"Splink" is a dissonant but laid back instrumental. "Embarrassing Kid" has some bombast to it. It picks up before 3 minutes to end it. "Medusa" has a dark mood and it's a definite highlight.

"Mr. Sands" is a top three. Instrumentally this sounds really good. Gotta love the organ work too. "Smoke" has a catchy beat with vocals. A real toe tapper. "5533" is intricate and punchy as the vocals join in. "All Over The Place" has some harpsichord in it.This is a pretty good closer especially the instrumental section to end it.

Well I prefer this to "Trisector" but not nearly as much as "Present". 3.5 stars.

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Send comments to Mellotron Storm (BETA) | Report this review (#487965) | Review Permalink
Posted Thursday, July 21, 2011

Review by UMUR
SPECIAL COLLABORATOR Honorary Collaborator
3 stars "A Grounding In Numbers" is the 11th full-length studio album by UK progressive rock act Van Der Graaf Generator. The album was released in March 2011 by Esoteric Records. This is the second album as a trio after David Jackson (saxophone, winds) left in late 2005. "Trisector (2008)" probably challenged a few fans and "A Grounding In Numbers" pretty much continue down the same path albeit with even shorter and more accessible tracks than was the case on "Trisector".

The tracks on "A Grounding In Numbers" are as on the last album centered around the dramatic, paatos filled vocals and distinct voice of Peter Hammill, the jazz/ rock influenced rolling drumming by Guy Evans and the dark organ playing by Hugh Banton. The latter also controls bass pedals and bass. Peter Hammill adds guitars and keyboards to the mix too. There is a good mix of calm and more energetic tracks. Some of the latter display the almost schizophrenic side of Peter Hammill while the former display his dark emotional side. There are some truly haunting and beautiful moments on the album but also some moments that leave me a bit indifferent.

The tracks are generally very well written and consistent in quality, but few stand out as being really excellent in my book. I could have done without the short ambient instrumentals too. Filler material to these ears. Still a 3.5 star rating is deserved.

Im not sure I find Van Der Graaf Generator as relevant as they used to be, but they still release pretty good quality albums that is worth a purchase. They certainly deserve respect for having a distinct sound and for never compromising to achieve something as sordid as commercial success. Van Der Graaf Generator are old fashioned artists in that respect. The kind that starve in the attic, yet paint the most beautiful everlasting art. In the case of "A Grounding In Numbers" were probably not talking the most everlasting art, but as mentioned I think its a solid release.

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Send comments to UMUR (BETA) | Report this review (#505545) | Review Permalink
Posted Friday, August 19, 2011

Review by tarkus1980
PROG REVIEWER
3 stars The "Who The Hell Needs David Jackson" experience marches on. While I like this a smidge less than its predecessor (largely because of a single track: more on that later), I nonetheless find myself absolutely fascinated by the notion that a style-specific band (a) could reunite after 29 years, (b) sound exactly the same as did when it left off, (c) lose one of the most crucial parts of its sound, (d) make an album in a style that sometimes sounds exactly the same as before and sometimes sounds totally different, and (e) make a followup album that's committed to the exact same approach (especially in its, um, shaky relationship with directness and memorability). Van Der Graaf Generator in the 21st century might not be a great band, but its place in the grand scheme of things is absolutely unique, and it's hard not to root for them to keep going and going.

When I saw the album title and glanced at the track names, the thought occurred to me that they might have actually made a math-rock album about math (for instance, I thought "Highly Strung" might be about string theory), but only a couple of the tracks reflect my initial assumption. One of them, unfortunately, is one of the lowest points in the VDGG catalogue. Understand: I was a Math major (in addition to my Finance major) and while I didn't have the acumen to pursue it beyond my undergrad (I ended up steering in more of an applied math sort of direction), I have a deep love and appreciation for the field in general. I can take square roots by hand. I can derive the explicit formula for the n'th entry in the Fibonacci sequence. When I get bored, one of my choice doodles is a derivation of the fundamental theorem of calculus. I know how to derive the Pythagorean Theorem on a cocktail napkin. For all this, I can think of few worse ideas for a chorus than the one to "Mathematics," where Peter solemnly sings/declares, "e to the power of i times pi plus one is zero." It's a great fact! A teacher once suggested to me that this was the closest thing to a mathematical proof of the existence of God, and I'm not sure I disagree. But it's a TERRIBLE CHORUS. The only justification I can think for it is that the formula is often considered a sort of poem, and perhaps Peter wanted to substitute this abstract form of a poem in for a more "typical" poem that would go into a chorus. Well, it's a noble effort then ... but in the service of a track that absolutely fails the "Could I play this in front of anybody else and not feel terrible embarrassed" test.

The rest of the album's pretty good, though it works better in whole than it does in individual parts. Only a handful of tracks really stand out: "Highly Strung" is a surprisingly effective straightforward (except in the typical moments of rhythmic spasm) anthemic rocker, and the closing "All Over the Place" builds off a nice foundation of Banton on harpsichord and (I presume) Peter on piano, playing a mildly goofy theme before the track turns a bit gloomy in the middle. The opening "Your Time Starts Now" (aside from the brief sci-fi synths at the beginning) could have fit in well with the moody anthemic organ ballads on Trisector: it's just really interesting to hear the band's approach to sounding old without sounding old, if you get me. "Snake Oil" is probably the closest thing to a "memorable" slow song on the rest of the album, and it's rather pleasant, while "Embarrassing Kid" is a decent companion to "Highly Strung" in the rocker category. Oh, and "Smoke" has to be one of the most weirdly memorable tracks I can remember hearing from VDGG.

The rest is the rest (there are also a couple of brief instrumentals, and they're ok, but they don't make a strong impression). I would say that I could easily understand somebody loving this album (It's so moody! There's so much rhythmic complexity between the keyboards, the sparse guitars and the drums!) but could also easily understand somebody hating it (They sound so OLD! There's nothing classic in the ways they used to make classics! I miss the reeds!). Here, I fall solidly in between with a slight lean towards the like side of things, with an understanding that this was probably the absolute best the band could do at this point. And you know what? There are much worse things. If you liked Trisector, you should get this.

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Send comments to tarkus1980 (BETA) | Report this review (#506547) | Review Permalink
Posted Saturday, August 20, 2011

Review by 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.

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Send comments to TGM: Orb (BETA) | Report this review (#507581) | Review Permalink
Posted Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Review by Bonnek
SPECIAL COLLABORATOR Prog Metal Team
3 stars After the mildly disappointing 'Trisector' I wasn't exactly looking forward to yet another Jackson-less VDGG installment, and as it turned out, this album isn't far below or above expectations. There's no fire left in this VDGG engine, but on the other hand, the band still follows its own artistic vision regardless of what happens to the rest of the world.

We're off for a difficult start, 'Your Time Starts Now' is a ballad that faithfully follows Hammill's known 90s styling, be it with a mr Banton on the organ. The song nor the playing is anything exciting though. 'Mathematics' is a bit better, it's a soft and subtle song with a kind of dreamy-mystical touch due to Banton's organ and what sounds like glockenspiel. What follows is the most cringe-worthy moment on any VDGG album, the main riff of 'Highly Strung' is the kind of cheesy grand-daddy-rock riff that sound completely out of place on a VDGG album. It reminds me of Hammill's 86 pop album 'Skin'. Dreadful. The songs heads off in a likeable cacophony of time signatures, weirdness and VDGG-ness, only to return to that awful riff for the chorus. What a shame.

'Red Baron' is the first of a couple of short instrumental tracks on the album. It's only 2 minutes long but it offers more excitement and anything that preceded. It's too short unfortunately but at least it leads into a better part of the album. 'Bunsho' and 'Snake Oil' are both deserving VDGG songs showing a band that has aged a lot but that did so with style and class. 'Splink' is the next instrumental but a rather forgettable one this time. Also 'Embarrassing Kid' can't convince as it misses the testosterone levels of old that could make it work. Ballads fit this band better these days, so the gentle 'Medusa' is much more attractive. It leads into 'Mr. Sands', which is the better of the more energetic tracks on this album. Two short little awkward tracks open up for the album's finale 'All over the Place', one of the few songs here that really give me the VDGG feel.

There is little here that reminds of the creative freshness and sparkle of 'Present', and none of the songs matches the better compositions of 'Trisector'. Still, this remains an artistically faithful and deserving VDGG album.

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Send comments to Bonnek (BETA) | Report this review (#507593) | Review Permalink
Posted Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Review by m2thek
PROG REVIEWER
3 stars Although Van der Graaf Generator has never been my favorite of the classic prog giants, I still regard a couple of their albums among my favorites. Therefore, while I was not looking forward to A Grounding in Numbers as much as I was Yes' and King Crimson's new albums, I still had a fair amount of excitement. Given that I enjoyed the former's a lot and the latter's not very much, it seems fitting that Numbers would fall in between the two and be generally pleasant, if nothing great.

The big news for this album was that David Jackson, the saxophonist and likely to be the most favored member of the band (other than Peter Hammill) would not be returning. True, he had usually provided VdGG's more exciting musical moments, but given that the organist, Hugh Banton remains, the sound of Numbers is still very recognizable. Of course, Hammill is also still here to lead the band with his very unique voice, and his voice seems to have been holding up pretty well over the years.

Since the band no longer has a characteristic lead instrument (as the organ usually is reserved for harmonies, and light melodies), Hammill's voice, even more than in the past, pushes the music forward and is the focus of attention. There is singing on all but two songs, and the two instrumentals are more like light, quiet jamming than true instrumental songs. Luckily for me, Hammill's voice is one of my favorites, and although there are only a couple great vocal moments, I still found his singing to be enjoyable for the most part. There are a few songs that are a little too silly for me, and I'm not a big fan of self-harmonies, of which there are many.

The songs themselves are all pretty short, usually staying around the five-minute mark. They are also pretty simple, though the final and slightly longer song does verge into more adventurous territory. Interestingly though, the songs are not strictly verse-chorus structure, but more often modulate between sections built around different vocal melodies, with some being occasionally revisited. The lyrics are interesting enough to carry the short songs and few musical ideas, though maybe it's my background in math, but singing about numbers just isn't all that cool. While there are only a couple bad songs, there are really no great songs, or any that have something special going for them to stand out much.

Since the music is so vocal-driven, the instruments usually just provide the harmony or continue the vocal melody while Hammill takes a break. The few times when this is not true, the instruments are only granted one or two short ideas to repeat for a while. There is at least a cool texture created by the organ, and a much more frequent use of guitar than I've ever heard from the band. The two instruments are used pretty equally, though usually only one at a time. Piano and harpsichord are used a handful of times to spice things up, but not enough to be considered part of the overall sound.

I've always seen Van der Graaf Generator as more of a conduit for Peter Hammill to get his lyrics and voice heard rather than one to make music, and A Grounding in Numbers is no different. While the lineup is almost unchanged and the sound is unmistakable, the real draw here is Hammill. If you enjoy his singing, there's enough good material to keep you occupied for a while. If not, there's really no reason to check this out.

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Send comments to m2thek (BETA) | Report this review (#508465) | Review Permalink
Posted Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Review by Warthur
PROG REVIEWER
2 stars Possibly my least favourite album so far of the Van der Graaf Generator reunion - and none of the reunion albums have especially impressed me - A Grounding In Numbers was the result of an interesting recording process where, aside from a week of studio time together to lay down the basic tracks, the band members worked on their overdubs and editing and banging the compositions into shape remotely.

Whilst such remote working methods are by no means uncommon in the digital age, in this case I feel that it's been mishandled - the mix on the album and the compositions in general feel slightly off, breaking the illusion that all this music is being created in the same room and creating a disjointed feeling which makes it difficult for me to get into the album.

On top of that, the actual material just doesn't speak to me. To be honest, it sounds less like a VdGG album and more like a late-period Peter Hammill solo album with the Van der Graaf name applied to it for the sake of boosting sales; it doesn't have the "spark" I associate with the Generator's raw and primal glory days, and indeed tends to be rather drab and quiet. At this point, I seriously wonder whether I'll bother continuing to listen to the reunited Generator's new releases, because this is their third underwhelming album in a row for me.

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Send comments to Warthur (BETA) | Report this review (#744729) | Review Permalink
Posted Thursday, April 26, 2012

Review by Starhammer
PROG REVIEWER
2 stars Sad face...

This is the third studio offering from Van der Graaf Generator since they reformed in 2005. Although I have not heard the previous two, I find 'A Grounding in Numbers' to be somewhat disappointing. It should be pointed out that I'm not the sort of person that immediately writes off new material from well established bands simply because "it's not as good as the old stuff", on the contrary I find myself trying harder to like it! But this really doesn't make the grade for me.

There are definitely some enjoyable moments, but they also tend to also be the most accessible and I don't really listen to VdGG for their catchy riffs. I listen to VdGG for their dark atmosphere and experimental exploration, but those parts generally sound lethargic and offer little or no interest here. I really have tried quite hard to appreciate this album, but I have to concede its a bit of a dead end. I think the telling tale is that if 'A Grounding in Numbers' didn't have Van der Graaf Generator written on the cover, I probably wouldn't even have given it a second listen.

The Verdict: Just like a real maths lesson, I can't wait for it to end.

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Send comments to Starhammer (BETA) | Report this review (#769809) | Review Permalink
Posted Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Review by Neu!mann
PROG REVIEWER
3 stars As other fans have already noted, this is more like a Peter Hammill solo album unfairly elevated under the Van Der Graaf Generator brand name. The distinction may be negligible, since Hammill writes nearly all the group material anyway, but there has always been a subtle yet very real difference between the band and its founding father: Van Der Graaf was always about the music; Hammill's solo work is more about the songs...or something like that.

In either case this is an older, tamer Van Der Graaf Generator, and hard to accept without the signature snarl of David Jackson's saxophone. Nevertheless, there are certainly moments here that conjure a reasonable facsimile of that old, edgy VDG spirit, in songs like "Bunsho" and "Snake Oil", for starters. And the pair of brief, improvised interludes ("Red Baron", "Splink") show that the remaining trio's creative energies might be dormant but aren't yet extinct.

The biggest hurdle might just be in the sequence of tracks. Perhaps unwisely, the album opens with a ballad, and a lackluster one at that ("Your Time Starts Now", a song better suited as an album closer), followed by the utterly indifferent "Mathematics" and the trite rocker "Highly Strung". In baseball parlance that's like hitting into a triple play to start off the first inning, and while the album improves steadily afterward it never recovers from that initial lack of momentum.

"Highly Strung" in particular, with its big '80s beat and over-reliance on guitar heroics, reveals the conspicuous hole left behind by Jackson's departure. Hammill does what he can to fill the gap himself using his electric guitar, an instrument rarely heard in the forefront of the Van Der Graaf sound. But I think he'd be the first to admit his own shortcomings in that department, preferring the relative freedom of an unplugged acoustic singer/songwriter. Where's Rikki Nadir when you need him?

It's true the remaining players seem more like a backup band than a fully integrated group. But it's reassuring to hear them still active and kicking, even if the effort here feels more like the involuntary spasm of a cadaver on the brink of rigor mortis.

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Send comments to Neu!mann (BETA) | Report this review (#816870) | Review Permalink
Posted Saturday, September 08, 2012

Latest members reviews

4 stars Let me just point out that after David Jackson left the band in 2006 and I first heard "The Hurlyburly" off of Trisector, I had written off VDGG. I just wasn't interested in hearing this aged band anymore without Jaxon and with Hammill playing more guitar. Finally, months after A Grounding In Numb ... (read more)

Report this review (#871418) | Posted by ster | Tuesday, December 04, 2012 | Review Permanlink

4 stars Let's face it, as good as this VdGG album is, it's not going to convert you if you aren't one of the faithful already. For myself listening to it for the best part of a year now I must say, it's a definite grower, not too sure initially, certainly some great bits that get greater with repeated li ... (read more)

Report this review (#544726) | Posted by Gog/Magog | Friday, October 07, 2011 | Review Permanlink

3 stars Although the album consists of relatively short songs, the longest being 6 min., all the typical elements that you expect from this band are there: keyboard oriented complex sound structures with story telling vocals and solid drumming. Real wind instruments are missing a bit, but sometimes a flu ... (read more)

Report this review (#505384) | Posted by Formentera Lady | Thursday, August 18, 2011 | Review Permanlink

4 stars After reading other reviews, I feel compelled to give my two pence about this album. I am a big VDGG and PH fan and I was glad about their 2004 return, which also gave me the possibility to finally see them live (and it was possibly the best concert of my life, that was Milan 2004), but their ... (read more)

Report this review (#451011) | Posted by aprusso | Sunday, May 22, 2011 | Review Permanlink

4 stars Im a VdGG fan since my first acid trips way back in 1970 (H to He). Peter Hammill is one of my great idols of the decade (Hammill for the 70s / John Cale for the 80s / Richard Thompson for the 90s / John Coltrane for the noughties) and I still love his music and especially appreciate his cont ... (read more)

Report this review (#435668) | Posted by bleckbuk | Tuesday, April 19, 2011 | Review Permanlink

4 stars Their return album (Present) had a few great moments but quite a lot of fillers. Trisector also had some great moments but too many things were missing there apart of Mr. Jackson: a better execution at some complex parts, a better degree of arrangement, a deeper sound. I have to say that I was ... (read more)

Report this review (#424259) | Posted by Ziggy | Tuesday, March 29, 2011 | Review Permanlink

3 stars It's been interesting reading the other, personal, heart felt reviews and commentaries on this new VDGG release. I believe it to be quite a compliment to all concerned, especially to Peter Hammill and the band, that there is still this much excitement over a "golden age" era progressive project. ... (read more)

Report this review (#422883) | Posted by tmay102436 | Saturday, March 26, 2011 | Review Permanlink

3 stars In 2005 after an absence of 27 years, one of only a handful of the old school "progressive" rock bands worthy of the over used description, the mighty Van Der Graaf Generator, unexpectedly reformed with the classic line up and blessed the world with "Present" a double cd of superb noise. Where ... (read more)

Report this review (#421506) | Posted by Starless | Thursday, March 24, 2011 | Review Permanlink

2 stars I'm a big fan of Van Der Graff Generator. A very big fan. In my eyes they are one of the best prog-bands ever and I like every album; some more (Godbluff, Pawn Hearts), some less (Trisector, Present). But unfortunately I have to say that the new album of those gods is very weak. As I heared tha ... (read more)

Report this review (#417913) | Posted by Elveeye | Friday, March 18, 2011 | Review Permanlink

4 stars Van Der Graaf Generator is a a band that nevertheless the passing of time maintains its quality and power. Is difficult for a classic prog rock band to maintain its very good line through the years...too much temptations and pressures because of the market. But VDGG now appears with a very ... (read more)

Report this review (#417902) | Posted by robbob | Friday, March 18, 2011 | Review Permanlink

4 stars The question is "what do you expect from van der graaf in 2011??"...to rediscover prog rock?...maybe a new masterpiece like pawn hearts? if the answer is yes , then don't bother with this album. If you simply expect a good album that neither adds nor removes anything from the history of this band ... (read more)

Report this review (#417653) | Posted by rikkinadir | Thursday, March 17, 2011 | Review Permanlink

2 stars While 'beauty is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder', I can not believe that these other reviews call this a masterpiece. This is a truly awful attempt to be relevant and still be labeled "progressive rock". BEWARE: This is not the Van der Graaf Generator of "Godbluff", "H to He" or even "Aerial Gr ... (read more)

Report this review (#416393) | Posted by BRIAN STEFFENSEN | Tuesday, March 15, 2011 | Review Permanlink

5 stars I just purchased the new Van Der Graaf Generator CD, "A Grounding in Numbers", and I am extremely knocked out by what this band has accomplished on this CD. First of all, Peter Hammill, Hugh Banton and Guy Evans have completely outdone themselves with the music and lyrics. VDGG have reinven ... (read more)

Report this review (#416134) | Posted by freshlet | Tuesday, March 15, 2011 | Review Permanlink

4 stars Having just stumbled upon this album a couple of hours after it was released, I quickly snapped it up on iTunes. I was thrilled that I had been able to skip the anticipation, as I had heard rumblings of a new album, but had no idea of a release date. I will get the comparisons out of the way f ... (read more)

Report this review (#415859) | Posted by The Coastliner | Monday, March 14, 2011 | Review Permanlink

4 stars Few days ago was released in Italy the new work of VDGG: Obviusouly I bought it immediatly: the first thing I noted was that there are any epic piece. the longest track is 6'01''. The music is darkest than trisector but there s not the schizoid side of VDGG. Highlist are: - Your time starts no ... (read more)

Report this review (#415263) | Posted by borussia | Sunday, March 13, 2011 | Review Permanlink

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