AMN Reviews: Van der Graaf Generator – ALT

Van der Graaf Generator – ALT (Esoteric / Antenna, 2012)

By Dan Coffey

Van der Graaf Generator
Van der Graaf Generator (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Few people would expect a Van der Graaf Generator album so soon after last year’s career highlight, A Grounding in Numbers. Even fewer would expect a VdGG album with no lyrical or vocal input from Peter Hammill. No, Hammill did not quit the band – this is just VdGG changing up their game again. ALT is the realization of what many fans have long thought the band capable of, based on teasing snippets recorded at various points throughout their career: a wild, careening, album’s worth of “songs,” soundscapes, and improvisations.

The album opens with “Earlybird,” a pleasant matching of Evans’s percussion and Hammill/Banton-produced birdcalls. The sonics here are so rich and enveloping that a listener might feel as if an airlock has sealed behind them. Sudden barometric change: strange humidity. The world of the “alt” Van der Graaf Generator beckons.

The rest of the tracks range from blips that pass by in under sixty seconds to a few elongated pieces that push the ten-minute mark. Within these recordings, it is fun and satisfying, to a degree, to enter into the “who played what?” game.  (The VdGG/Peter Hammill fan might remember a rather obscure album by Peter Hammill and Guy Evans titled Spur of the Moment, released in 1989, on which both musicians made use of the same sampled sounds, so it was often impossible to tell whether it was Hammill or Evans on “drums” or “keyboard.” A similar effect is produced on ALT. In fact, one of the tracks on ALT, “Repeat After Me,”  would not sound at all out of place on that album.) While there are some passages where it is obvious which band member is performing on which instrument, particularly in Evans’s case, the experience of listening to ALTis heightened when one stops trying to distinguish between the contributions of the members and take in the music as a production of a singular entity.

There are internal and external reference points throughout the album. The second track, “Extractus,” features Hammill’s inimitable confident yet tentative style of guitar playing that sounds as if he’s still trying to find his way out of the 1976 epic “Meurglys III, the Songwriter’s Guild,” with sympathetic organ accompaniment from Banton, and incongruously bright and martial drum rolls from Evans. Things get weirder from there, perhaps no more so than the third track, “Colossus,” which assaults the senses like the soundtrack to a 3D-surround film of an astral rollercoaster ride.  It also features a lot of faux-brass and woodwind sounds – an homage to their former bandmate, saxophonist/flautist David Jackson, who left the band almost as soon as it reformed in 2005? Or a conciliatory gesture to fans? Perhaps even a display of bitterly ironic musical commentary. “Midnite or So” is a tribute to, and a reworking of, the Thelonious Monk classic “Round Midnight.”

As Hammill says in the press release, the closest thing to the music here is the second disc of their 2005 album, Present. But that really doesn’t even come close, as  disc 2 of Present is a series of improvisational pieces firmly grounded in the guitar/keyboard, organ, drums, and brass/woodwind lineup, whereas ALT is comprised of all manner of sounds from a much wider, alien, even, palette.

ALT is another side of a band that is already way out in left field in terms of its approach to songwriting and performing. If you’re looking for a VdGG album packed with riffs, odd time signatures, and the poetic and portentous lyrics and vocals of Peter Hammill, you’ll need to wait for the next one, or revisit the back catalog. This is Van der Graaf Generator reveling in a world that is strange even to them.

This Week at the ISSUE Project Room

From New York’s ISSUE Project Room:

Karlheinz Stockhausens “Musik Im Bauch” in Central Park
Thursday June 21 – 7pm – FREE

Iktus Percussion perform Karlheinz Stockhausens 1975 music-theatre work Musik Im Bauch (Music in the Belly) for six percussionists, at the Naumberg Bandshell, Central Park, Manhattan. Preceding the Stockhausen, New York Virtuoso Singers under the direction of Harold Rosenbaum perform new choral compositions by Danish composers.

A loose narrative defines the transformation into humanity of three automatons, who attack a giant bird-man, named Miron, savagely cutting open his stomach and pulling out 3 music boxes which play melodies based on the signs of the Zodiac. All the music throughout the piece is taken from the melodies of the music boxesa separate work often performed outright, Tierkreisplayed in different speeds and fragmentations.

Co-presented by Goethe-Institut and New York Virtuoso Singers as part of Make Music New York.

Darmstadt 2012:

Gamelan Son of Lion: The Braid Pieces of Barbara Benary
Friday June 22 – 8pm

Gamelan Son of Lion rates among America’s oldest gamelan ensembles, performing contemporary works continuously since 1976. This Friday, they perform the “Braid Pieces” of Barbara Benary, as well as works by GSOL members Philip Corner, Daniel Goode, and David Demnitz.

Between 1974 and 1980, [Benary wrote] a series of Braid pieces for gamelan: Braid Piece, Sleeping Braid, Counter-Braid, Macram, and others. Pretty, slowly changing, steady in momentum, these are more note-specific, based on a diatonic progression of 14 pitches in alternating intervals They involve performers playing the bells of the gamelan in interlocking rhythmic patterns, sometimes proceeding through the pitch-braid at their own pace, sometimes with added free melody, canons, and text. They set the pattern for Benarys music of an underlying static or cyclic structure around which other elements are entwined.” (Kyle Gann)

Darmstadt 2012:

Either/Or + Chris Mann, Object Collection
Friday June 22 – 8pm

A Critic’s Pick from the New Yorker! Either/Or performs the world premiere of Public Works by composer, poet and compositional linguist Chris Mann, on a program with new work by Andrew Byrne and Thomas Meadowcroft. Object Collection presents New York Girls, an exercise in extremes, and a fanfare for the dispersed. False pretenses, controlled feedback, plagiarism, and precisely-placed things. A performance for objects, voices, instruments, and video.

Newsbits: Les Rhinocéros / Can / Zorn / Threadgill / Cherry

John Zorn (cropped version)

Avant-prog group Les Rhinocéros is profiled.

Irmin Schmidt is interviewed about the new Can box set release.

John Zorn will visit Ireland in October.

pfMentum has a new release out from Gianni Gebbia, Matthew Goodheart, and Garth Powell.

NPR is streaming the entire new Henry Threadgill album. How cool is that?

Neneh Cherry is interviewed about her new album with The Thing.

Madison’s Surrounded By Reality improv series changes hands but continues.

Free Jazz Blog Reviews

Neneh Cherry, performing live at the "Are...

From Free Jazz:

Neneh Cherry and The Thing: The Cherry Thing (Smalltown Supersound,2012) *****
Cactus Truck- Brand New for China! (Public Eyesore Records, 2012) ***½
John Surman – Saltash Bells (ECM, 2012) ***½
Harris Eisenstadt – Canada Day Octet (482 Music, 2012) ****½
Harris Eisenstadt – Canada Day III (Songlines, 2012) *****
Ingebrigt Håker Flaten – Steel: Live in Bucharest (Tektite, 2012) ***½
Ingebrigt Håker Flaten – Birds: Solo Electric (Tektite, 2012) **½
William Parker – Centering (No Business, 2012) *** & *****
Craig Taborn – Avenging Angel (ECM, 2011) ****½