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Van Der Graaf Generator Van Der Graaf Generator
Album: Do Not Disturb
Label: Esoteric Antenna
Tracks: 9

There's no doubting that Van Der Graaf Generator have since 1967 been at the forefront of innovation in rock, progressive in the literal as well as generic sense. And indeed, their stature has been recognised by their receipt of the Lifetime Achievement Award at this year's Progressive Music Awards. VdGG's classic lineup, which lasted from 1970 through to 2006 (with a hiatus between 1978 and 2005), headed by songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Peter Hammill, was completed by keyboardist High Banton, drummer Guy Evans and sax/wind supremo David Jackson. Since the latter departed the band a decade ago, its core trio has enjoyed a renaissance and released four albums (two studio and two live sets). Do Not Disturb is the latest VDGG studio album, and although there have been hints that it might be their final one, this could be a wholly natural inference to draw when one considers the age of the band members (undeniable fact!). The discipline that went into the album's making reflects this, while also noting the band's desire to adopt the "old school" approach of fully rehearsing the pieces before recording, as opposed to touring the music in advance. This method enabled the band members to build on the interpersonal empathy they've accumulated over the years, and all the backing tracks ended up being recorded live in the studio during just one intensive week.

Each track is a model of economy, a concentrated series of meaningful episodes, and nothing seems overlong (or overly prolonged). Such an economy of expression can arguably only be achieved by musicians and creators who are fully conversant with their chosen metier. It's like taking the most productive gestures of 1970s prog and refining and honing them to eliminate excess. On Do Not Disturb, the special achievement of VDGG as a unit is that the demeanour of the music is lithe and supple, cutting just enough slack, while timings are tight and yet nothing feels rushed or perfunctory. And the playing and capacity arrangements leave nothing to be desired - the guys are at the top of their game, and if Do Not Disturb really is to be their final recorded testament, well there can hardly be a better way to bow out.

Do Not Disturb is a thrilling experience, even for the diehard VDGG fan who (in theory) has already been there/done that/bought the T-shirt. The trademark Hammill vocal thrust and parry is there in all its glory throughout, convincing as ever in its declamatory portrayal of the trauma-laden, manic-dramatic ebb-and-flow of his philosophical poetry and fractured love songs. Opener Aloft moves through the moods, from gentle floating eloquence to stabbing organ riffs and reposeful conclusion. The weird concrète-soundscape of Alfa Berlina is disorienting at first, but gives way to an almost orthodox (for VDGG, that is) four-square time-signature for the main argument of what amounts to a regretful cinematic flashback to when the touring band were so "recklessly alive", which in turn is succeeded by a further thinly-veiled critique of the touring experience and its effect on the private soul.

The ever-familiar psychodrama of feeling out of control of a situation is explored in the jittery Forever Falling, and the cryptic questioning of (Oh No! I Must Have Said) Yes after a manic first couple of minutes ushers in a walking-bass-driven jazz break just for a change. There's an even more leisurely brushed-late-night-lounge feel to Brought To Book, with pacey piano chords and cautious rhythm trading off the inevitability of the song's reflections and conclusions before the characteristically tricky mid-way interlude arrives with its naggingly ultra-complex rhythms to divert and upset the pattern of thought (shades of the band's Pawn Hearts glories here, perhaps…). A heck of a lot of ground is covered in the track's eight or so minutes (no undue sprawling here). In contrast of scale, there's the pithy instrumental Shikata Ga Nai (which I understand is Japanese for the concept of "it can't be helped" or "nothing can be done about it" - that recurring theme of resignation again!) which employs the unusual texture of accordion for its unique drifting atmospherics. The author of the ensuing imprecise confessional Almost The Words is indeed almost lost for words, "sounding out the sweet sargasso sea of language (where) we are all becalmed", and the tentative piano-and-percussion accompaniment provides no reassurance; neither does the swollen cacophony of the song's climactic episode. Disc finale Go is if anything even bleaker in prospect, a wearily resigned organ-swollen outpouring resembling a stately, if gnomic swansong-cum-epilogue of considerable hymnal power - yeah, what a way to go…

David Kidman