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Some “Live”s Are Better Than Others – Van der Graaf Generator’s “Merlin Atmos”

Van der Graaf Generator
Merlin Atmos
Cherry Red

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Van der Graaf Generator is nothing if not a band known for its contradictions. Heavy, dark, long, pseudo-prog songs alongside a tongue-in-cheek rendition of Sir George Martin’s composition that became the theme for BBC1 for many years. A box set retrospective titled “The Box.” The sense of humor shines through the gloom. This was never more apparent than in their live performances and yet, curiously, there was almost no official documentation of any of their concerts in either of their two 1960s-70s incarnations, except for a posthumous live album, “Vital,” at which point Van der Graaf dropped the Generator, the lineup changed dramatically, and most of the songs were new and as yet unrecorded in a studio format.

Since VdGG reformed in 2005, they’ve been very careful to document their live performances: their very first reunion show was committed to disc, and two live albums followed to complement the four 21st Century studio albums. The reunion show captures the excitement of a band that hadn’t played together in almost 30 years, but the next two live albums left something to be desired. They didn’t quite capture the “gone for it” abandon and sense of experimentalism that their live shows could promise.

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Happily, this has changed with their fourth live album released since their reformation, an album with the inscrutable title Merlin Atmos. In the last few tours, VdGG have stretched themselves farther than anyone could have expected. They started by playing a song lost to the mix tapes of history; Peter Hammill’s 1980 suite “Flight,” which comprised side two of his 1980 album, A Black Box. Originally written for and performed by a four piece band consisting of guitar, bass, drums, and keyboard, it had to be reworked for the VdGG trio (piano, drums, and organ). As if that weren’t enough, the next year they kept “Flight” in the repertoire and included another album side-long suite – “A Plague of Lighthouse-keepers” from the 1971 VdGG album Pawn Hearts. Significantly, the song in its entirety had only been performed live once, for Belgian TV, and this was done in stages to make it look like a continuous performance.

Merlin Atmos contains killer performances of both of these epics, and (in the bonus two-disc version) a smattering of other songs old and new. There is some unfortunate overlap between the choice of songs included here and in the previous live albums, but the performances here far outshine the others. Here are the definitive live versions of old chestnuts like “Man-Erg,” “Scorched Earth,” and “Gog.” As with the old, there is repetition in the song choice from the more recent albums, but again, these versions leave the other renditions far behind. The sound quality, passion, and perfect alchemical mixture of tightness and looseness make for what finally can be considered a definitive statement of a band that always came to life on the stage in a much different fashion than the performances of the songs on their studio albums