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Celebratory Passion and Complicated Glee – Van der Graaf Generator’s “Do Not Disturb”

Van der Graaf Generator
Do Not Disturb
Cherry Red

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With a preceding reputation that the years seem unable to dispel despite evidence to the contrary in live shows and interviews, Van der Graaf Generator are not solely purveyors of existential gloom. So, the first thing to keep in mind when approaching the band’s new album, Do Not Disturb, is that they are having fun. A hell of a lot of fun, in fact, and it’s contagious. The album celebrates the pinnacle achievement of an avant rock band playing tunes that are full of celebratory passion and complicated glee. Current core members Peter Hammill, Guy Evans, and Hugh Banton obviously relish the thrill of taking on and shaping an abstract musical challenge into an audible object that can be ridden like a sonic roller-coaster. As frontman-by-default Hammill has often said, the band’s raison d’etre was to engage in “serious fun.”
This album, by turns and often at once very serious and a hoot, is full of such roller-coasters. Almost every song – with the exception of the instrumental intermission and the closing track – change radically throughout their duration. This is perhaps the VdGG collection with the most shape-shifting set of songs to date, including the 1970s recorded output as well as the more recent 21st century releases. Whittled down to a trio including Hammill on vocals, guitar and piano and Evans on drums and percussion, it is keyboardist/organist Banton who surprises with the sudden widening of his palette, bringing in accordion and glockenspiel as well as playing bass guitar instead of his usual bass pedal manipulation on his organ.
The album opens with “Aloft,” a song that begins and ends with calm, breezy guitar chords and gentle vocals from Hammill, but builds up to a headwind by the middle part. Reminiscent of both language and communication (in fact much of this album has a lyrical preoccupation with that topic – how we try to make our thoughts and feelings known and so often get it wrong), and with flight, hearkening back to Hammill’s epic solo suite from 1980, “Flight,” which was resuscitated by VdGG for live performance in recent years. In “Aloft,” the words provide the fuel and ultimately the downfall for a figurative hot-air balloon, and Hammill sings at a frenetic but measured pace that gives one the feeling that the vocals really are all that’s keeping [the subject of the song] in the air, even as they morph from “eloquence” to “hot air.”
The strangely nostalgic “Alfa Berlina” comes next, and for once there’s not much room for metaphor or speculation – it really is about a ride VdGG took in such a car while on tour in the early 1970s. It’s here as well as in other songs on the album that another recent lyrical preoccupation of Hammill’s, mainly in the work he’s written for the band as opposed to his solo material, memory and aging, comes into play: “I’ve got a lifetime’s library of unreliable mementos,” he sings dryly before launching into the description of the ride in the titular car. The song thunders along jauntily enough, but soon is thrust into sonic territory that VdGG haven’t really explored since long before their 21st century reunion. Low, menacingly treated guitar tones mingle with disturbing organ drones to conjure up a shamanistic scenario of driving through a portentous scene in which forever seems to be glimpsed in the present moment… and then it’s back to the driving (pardon the pun) melody.
Eerie and less like a short story than a fictional sketch, “Room 1210” comes closest to a song that might well appear on a Hammill solo album – in fact it bears a bit of a resemblance to “Perfect Pose” from the 2012 solo album Consequences. This one features the most prevalent use of Banton’s accordion, and the song stretches from periods of relative laconic calmness to the band’s trademark frantic and off-kilter miniature sonic maelstroms.
“Forever Falling” could do well as a single in an alternate universe. One of the shorter songs on the album, it nevertheless manages to fit in a few distinctly different sections before returning to the final iteration of the chorus. Banton and Evans are playing at high speed and Hammill is on fire with his uniquely warped and aggressive guitar playing. This is another nostalgic piece, though its place in Van der Graafian history is much more open to speculation.
“(Oh No! I Must Have Said) Yes” is a fierce reminder that VdGG are a rock band. Seriously tongue-in-cheek, Hammill rips into this riff-monster of a song with heavy guitar, spitting the words, “I don’t want to talk about the old days any more” and the band roars on like, well, maybe an Alfa Berlina, until the brakes are hit and the VdGGmobile coasts into a swinging blues groove with Hammill playing the out-of-left-field grumpy and defiant guitar licks that gave such a distinctive sheen to the classic VdGG song from the 70s, “Meurglys III.”
“Brought to Book” and “Almost the Words” bring the listener close to the end of the album, and they deal with, respectively, personal responsibility and (a constant Hammill lyrical preoccupation) the shortcomings of language and communication. Both of these songs seem to be almost micro-suites, considering the number of complete stylistic change-ups that occur in the seven or eight minutes allotted to each, and each section is just long enough to be breathtakingly intense in their own way.
The album’s closer, “Go,” is a beautiful piece of musical restraint from the band, with lyrics that read somewhat like a Zen koan. It’s the perfect closer to what Hammill has intimated may well be the final Van der Graaf Generator album. As 1976’s World Record closed out Van der Graaf Generator’s run of excellent albums with a relatively small number of strong, complex, well-written songs brimming with equal parts brutal noise and gentle balladry (well, maybe not quite equal; the former carried more weight), so too does Do Not Disturb open and close the door on an hour’s worth of completely engaging and enthralling music made by a musical trio that has made the jump from empathic to telepathic.