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VAN DER GRAAF – VITAL LIVE (2024) (Esoteric)

‘Vital’ was never one of my favourites when first released on the famous Charisma label; I had been spoiled by a series of classic albums you see, and there was no Hugh Banton or David Jackson, although the latter does make a guest appearance on this live album recorded at the Marquee Club on 15th/ 16th January, 1978. We must remember that at the time, punk was rearing its spiked head, and Hammill was undergoing a metamorphosis into Ricky Nadir. But it is certainly in keeping with the times in its naked brutality and aggression (listen to opener ‘Ship of Fools’ from the band’s 1978 studio album “The Quiet Zone / The Pleasure Dome”, Graham Smith’s violin giving more of a HIGH TIDE sound to proceedings). Charles Dickie’s cello adds another interesting alternative to the keyboards and sax, although Hammill does play piano in addition to his increasing use of guitar.

Hearing ‘Still Life to’ a stark string accompaniment still feels a bit weird, but it is an impassioned vocal performance by Hammill, delivering a timeless lyric initially reinvented into a kind of Chamber Rock; Nic Potter’s fuzz bass introducing a maelstrom of Hard Rock quickly dispels that notion. ‘Last Frame’ features Smith doing a fair impression of Vivaldi at the start and turns out to be another hard rocker with fuzzy bass, blazing violins, Evans re-revealing his jazz stylised drumming in terms of flair, Hammill’s guitar appearing in a macrocosm of sound at its conclusion. On the elegant ballad ‘Mirror Image’; David Jackson seems very much in the background which is a pity. Final track on CD one is a medley of “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers/ The Sleepwalkers” and is one which I approach caution, The ‘silent scream’ part is better than the ragged opening, but perhaps the sax could have been higher in the mix; overall, it remains to my ears an uneasy intertwining of tracks from “Pawn Hearts” and “Godbluff” in a reductionist collage that I still find unconvincing.

By contrast the version of ‘Pioneers Over C’ from “H to He…” is a marathon, and one of the more open and impressive interpretations. Part of the motivation for extending it may have been because of the opportunities it offered for a more guitar-based ‘riffy’ approach, the violin performing particularly well in this context. David Jackson’s dreamy sax break is also most effective, before crunching guitars break the reverie (this has been criticised but it works for me) and Nic Potter has fun with the nine-note basic theme. The lyrics of ‘Sci-Finance’ are always worth listening to, a sharp contrast to universal concerns about ‘anti-gravity’ and such to a sing along chorus, “only the money”; the line “You say you are Christian capitalists” and reference to the “Money God” are even more apt today, with apathy, deception and hypocrisy on a worldwide scale. The song would be revisited on Hammill’s solo album “In A Foreign Town”, also recently re-released.

“Door” is, as Hammill explains in a spoken prelude, a “hard in its simplicity” song, in which two people in a room try to answer the absurdist existential question of where the door is. Chaotic, wild synthesiser noises rent the air (That would be Dickie) as the band battles it out towards a climax that is rapturously received.

Again, I was wondering what I would make of re-hearing another medley, “Urban- Killer” (‘Urban’ was never recorded in the studio) which seems a bit fragmented and, while I would have preferred to have heard more of ‘Killer’, the playing of ‘Nadir’s Big Chance’ seems fitting for a time when Peter Hammill was developing a solo career apart from Van Der Graaf Generator. The crowd were certainly in raptures.

This Esoteric version is a remastered 2 x CD edition remastered from the original master tapes with restored artwork, an essay and band interviews.

A fuller review will appear in the next edition of ACID DRAGON.

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