Review: Van Der Graaf Generator – Do Not Disturb

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“The follies of our youth are, in retrospect, glorious compared to the follies of our old age.”(Attributed to G.K. Chesterton)

Youth, they say, is wasted on the young. So is Death. Consider Jim Morrison. A capable blues grunter, I’ll grant you, backed up by a kick-ass band… but a poet? For all his preening, posturing and pondering of Death, the best Mr Mojo had come up with by the time he checked out was: “There’s a killer on the road / his brain is squirming like a toad” (roll over Edgar Allan Poe, tell Samuel Taylor Coleridge the news!) It’s now four decades too late for Peter Hammill to join Jim in the 27 club (and he looks significantly older than that in the publicity photos accompanying Do Not Disturb), in the unlikely event that such a palpably intelligent artist could ever conceive such a risible ambition. Instead, Hammill’s seen out the intervening forty years dwelling prolifically on disappointment, depression, disturbance, disillusionment, dissolution and… Death, weathering traumatic marital breakdown and serious coronary infarction while doing so.

He too (when not in equally prolific solo mode) has been aided and abetted by a kick-ass band: Van Der Graaf Generator, boiled down for the last ten years to the hard-core of Guy Evans on drums, Hugh Banton on organ / bass pedals and Hammill himself on guitar, electric piano and of course his trademark vocal alternations of received English and primal howls. The tripartite VDGG has now produced three studio albums (and a similar amount of compelling live documents), of which Do Not Disturb might well be the best so far and (it is darkly hinted) possibly the last.

“Do Not Disturb”… a final testament? A self-deprecating dig from a band, much of whose previous output has made Leonard Cohen sound all woolly warm and happy clappy in comparison? Let’s see… opener Aloft wafts in on shimmering guitars that give way to crunchy Crimsoneque interludes as PH berates his target (as ever, one suspects, himself) for the pride he took in an eloquence now revealed as nothing but “hot air.” Although much of DND is devoted to more obviously autobiographical concerns than Hammill’s previous explorations of Icelandic mythology, maritime disasters and the minds of historical monsters, Alfa Berliner (which, to pursue those Doors parallels, begins with a passage that’s startlingly reminiscent of Horse Latitudes) could conceivably be the memoir of a high ranking Nazi… or possibly not. It’s never easy to tell with Hammill lyrics. Similarly, I can’t quite make out what’s going on in Room 1210 but it’s undoubtedly something unpleasant (nice use of backwards guitars, here.) Forever Falling comes on like a Talking Heads track (before Eno ruined them) but its perky riff is complicated by further Crimson-like time signature contortions before PH crowns his observation of self-dramatising star cross’d lovers in a mutually destructive relationship, spitting out the acid couplet: “What a pair of divas! What a pair of bright sparks!” Shikata Ga Nai is a gloomy instrumental, vaguely reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s main theme to Once Upon A Time In The West, during which somebody blows a mean, melancholic melodian. The riff to (Oh No I Must Have Said) Yes, a misanthropic resentment of time mis-invested in relationships with other human beings, recalls Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With-era King Crimson (them again!)… here Hammill’s vocals are at their most overwrought on the album before the track breaks down into a lounge jazz pastiche and the inevitable re-emergence of that riff. Brought To Book kicks off as an introspective ballad before slipping into another succession of complex time signatures (briefly recapping the most hysterical passage of VDGG’s finest hour, Man-Erg from Pawn Hearts)… meanwhile Hammill declaims: “I’ll face up to the music and, with what breath’s left in my bones, I’ll settle the score and bid farewell to everyone.” Sure, there are lines from any Van Der Graaf album that could be read as valedictions, but this is pretty unequivocal stuff, especially when followed up by the confession of ineffectualness that is Almost The Words (“We are all lost for words in the sweet Sargasso sea of language”) and a dirge-like closer entitled Go.

Rumours of Van Der Graaf Generator’s demise have been greatly exaggerated in the past, but if this really is the end, the final laying down of the burden, who’s to begrudge it to Peter Hammill, a man who has never given less than 100% of his self-coruscating soul to every record he’s ever been involved with? Here he sounds tired if not defeated… not raging against the dying of the light but not exactly surrendering either. Do Not Disturb is the sound of a world winding down without a whimper or a bang but with a shrug of the shoulders and a whispered Shikata Ga Nai (Japanese for… “That’s Life!”)

OZ MANDIAS

www.theozymandiasprogject.wordpress.com

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