Van der Graaf Generator – Present

This is the first proper studio album from the progressive rock band that’s respected by all manner of fans from John Lydon of the Sex Pistols to Mark E Smith of The Fall since 1977. The band have pushed out the boat by giving the fans a veritable feast of music, spanning two CDs and 1 hour 42 minutes. The album “Present” is like a football match and is a game of two halves: the first is the CD of studio material and the second is a disc of improvised instrumental music.

The first disc opens up with the song “Every Bloody Emperor” in which Hammill rants and raves against all those meely-mouthed politicians out there. The scary thing is that it sounds like the VDGG boys are back in the seventies and nothing has changed. The song has a nice enough lyric and the music backs it up, but there’s not enough of the Hammill fire that we are so used to and the song deserves. Where’s the vitriol, Pete? This goes into a really good instrumental by David Jackson called “Boleas Panic” and it is a cool, sax lead, slinky slice of VDGG that echoes back to the Godbluff album.

The second proper song in the collection is “Nutter Alert” and here we see Hammill revisiting old themes that he presented with “Energy Vampires”. It’s about those people who turn up, those people who are a few sandwiches sort of a picnic. It has all those manic vocal twitches that we expect from pH and gives you fair warning about all those nutters out there. “Abandon Ship” starts with some spiky guitar chords (guitar and VDGG, surely not?) and it there’s a lot interplay between the six string and the sax again, with lots of call and response going on. It’s a bit loose and I am not particularly impressed with this track. It feels a little half-baked to me.

“In Babelsberg” again starts with a heavily distorted guitar and it sees VDGG returning to that ugly music we all love and hate. It’s pretty standard stuff but again just needs that edge to push it further. I am hoping that the band tears this one up live, because it “feels” more like a live track to me.

“On the Beach” starts with some studio chatter between the band members before going seeing Hammill and keyboard delivering a lilting and sad refrain. Then Jackson comes in with his saxophone again and the song shuffles along before being enveloped in a sea of sound effect waves lapping against the shore. It’s a nice ending to the first CD.

The second CD, which begins with the waves that ended the first disc, is a completely different kettle of fish. Here the band is in improvisational mode. I am not personally a fan of the improvisational VDGG. Like the Long Hello album and the Time Vaults album, the stuff here varies in content. Some of it is pleasant, some of it is a waste of time – the band noodling around, trying to find ideas. This is a shame because the first CD is quite strong and I feel that it is let-down by the second set.

Overall, I really like the first CD of “Present” with “Every Bloody Emperor”, “Nutter Alert” and “On the Beach” being the stand out tracks. My only criticism is it seems to be a Hammill/Jackson album and Hugh Banton doesn’t really find his feet in this collection. Guy Evans is Guy Evans and he can drum his way out of anything so no complaints there. The second CD is a bit iffy. I’ll be honest and say that I don’t like it. I could probably have it on in the background when I was working, but I wouldn’t want to listen to it out of choice. It is worth buying? Of course it bloody is – only so you know the material for the up-and-coming comeback show on 6 May. I’ll be there – I have some good tickets already in my greasy mitts. 😉

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