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Van Der Graaf Generator - Still Life CD (album) cover

STILL LIFE

Van Der Graaf Generator

 

Eclectic Prog

4.29 | 1449 ratings

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siLLy puPPy
4 stars The first phase of the existence of VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR proved to be an exhaustive one but produced some of the great classics of the prog rock universe and cemented the band's status as one of the true innovators and boundary pushing bands of the early 70s but also proved to be too much for four mere mortals to sustain. So in 1972 the quartet of Peter Hammill (vocals, keyboards), Hugh Benton (organs, bass, bass pedals), David Jackson (sax, flute) and Guy Evans (percussion) stopped touring and recording under the VdGG moniker and instead remained amicable while they slightly shifted gears as a band for Peter Hammill's solo albums, a rather unheard of situation that i can't find any comparisons. However after a few years of hiatus as the great VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR continued to generate more fans through their classic albums from 'The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other' to 'Pawn Hearts,' the guys started to get the itch for another run.

And so it was that in January 1975 the band regrouped not as the studio session players for Hammill but as VdGG and hit the live circuit playing tracks not even released to rouse the public's interest and after a few months of creative output the band made a comeback with 'Godbluff' which was released in 1975 and found both fans and critics foaming at the mouth as they devoured VdGG's triumphant return to the prog universe. The band had successfully reinvented themselves with less psychedelic meandering and a tighter cohesive sound that continued the vocal singer / songwriter mastery of Hammill. With a successful comeback undertaken, the band was quite keen on keeping the momentum on track and wasted relatively little time creating the sixth album STILL LIFE for the market released in April 1976. While the album was pretty much a continuation of 'Godbluff' with two tracks 'Pilgrims' and 'La Rossa' as leftovers from those recording sessions, Hammill now took up playing the electric guitar and Hugh Banton found a much more prominent role with some of the heaviest organ work of his career.

The opening track 'Pilgrims' initiates STILL LIFE and the connection to 'Godbluff' with a similarly addictive melodic riff that finds Hammill's emotive declarative vocals leading the keyboard rich prog process as the jazzy drumming and sax supplemental effects add the zest. The track delivers the expected tensions that involve a slow ratcheting up of Hammill's vocal intensity with ever accruing heaviness and organ and Mellotron soaked sequences. The track introduces a more melodic and dare i say even commercial approach as the VdGG albums had become almost indistinguishable between the Hammill solo releases since VdGG had greatly reduced the sci-fi fueled fantasy of their early albums as well as the psychedelic escapist meanderings and production tricks. Also noticeable is the low key sax presence of David Jackson as the sax and flute parts take a back seat to the organ workouts and provide a more subdued melodic counterpoint for the vocals.

While the opener almost sounds cheery, the following title track is drowning in melancholy as a mournful intro finds Hammill mumbling around what sounds almost like a funeral organ roll and drags on for over a couple minutes but finally the track erupts into a bristling rocker that actually reminds me a little of what Styx sounded like in the late 70s with a groovy bass and syncopated stabs around the main rhythmic dance. The sax is also more standard and sounds like a clean Supertramp type of melodic display rather than the usual squawk factory from previous albums. One of the weaker tracks for me but still decent. The highlight of the album comes in the form of 'La Rossa' which delivers the most energetic track of the entire mostly subdued album as it finds Hammill in poetic prose enticing the audience into the groove and then the instruments go fairly wild with Banton's bass groove entering more sophisticated prog territory and the melodic drive much more akin to albums like 'Pawn Hearts' with Hammill's lyrical drive flittering all over the place. The track as the most satisfying sequence of chord progressions as it complexly integrates different melodic stages and teases them out into a near ten minute climax of sound. This is the only track where Jackson really lets loose the sax and woodwinds.

'My Room (Waiting For Wonderland)' is the most solo Hammill sounding track and perhaps the mellowest ballad material ever recorded as VdGG. This emotional tug track focuses mainly on Hammill's labyrinthine emotional turmoil. The melody commences in cyclical form but towards the end the sax replaces the vocals. The longest track on the album is the closer 'Childlike Faith In Childhood's End' which is the most complex track on the album as it shape shifts through various stages of development. The track was inspired by Arthur C. Clark's novel and reprises some of the sci-fi themes of yesteryears which melds the metaphysical with ideas of hope and reincarnation and beyond. The track is the most anthemic of the album as it finds Hammill delivering some of the most emotively strong expressionisms of his career as the cathedral organs and stellar percussive drive of Guy Evans are on full display. The track also creates some stellar proggy forays into intense time signature gymnastics and the only other track where Jackson is allowed to really let loose on the horns. Probably the most satisfying of the lot for the hardcore proggers.

While STILL LIFE is yet another gold feather in VdGG's cap, it nevertheless is the first album where the band didn't really evolve into the next level but is almost exclusively a continuation of the album 'Godbluff' which came before. While a followup of this magnitude is hardly a horrible thing, it still feels like something is a little stagnate on STILL LIFE despite the high quality of the compositions and performances. Lichtenberg figures (the image on the album cover) are associated with branching electrical charges that are engaged in a progressive deterioration of the high voltage and much in common with this natural phenomenon is the career of VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR at this point. While STILL LIFE retained the band's status as one of prog rock's greats, the material presented here was the first step down from the series of masterpieces that preceded it and would usher in the band's decline as the musical landscape was forever altered by the punk and new wave artists quickly usurping the soundscapes. While still a phenomenally great album, STILL LIFE fails to match up to what came before but still displays a fiery band cranking out creative gems of sonic delight.

siLLy puPPy | 4/5 |

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