Merlin Atmos, Van der Graaf Generator (Esoteric Antenna, 2015)
Culled from live performances in Europe in 2013, the current trio incarnation of VdGG romp through six tracks including two long works, ‘Flight’ and ‘A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers’, both previously whole sides of albums. I’ve never been a fan of ‘Flight’, which originally appeared on the Peter Hammill solo LP of the same name, but ‘A Plague…’ is one of the early sonic masterpieces of Van Der Graaf’s output.
Re-arranged for the remaining line-up of keyboards, drums, vocals and guitar, ‘Flight’ is given a new energy and sparkle, partly resulting from the group dynamic [as opposed to studio multitracking by Hammill] but also from the new version somehow given a brisk re-arrangement which doesn’t detract from the sustained metaphoric lyrics, but does appear to cut some of the previous meandering out. (The track still runs to 21 minutes, so I am probably wrong here; but they’ve done something to it!) Tracks 2, 3 and 4, seem short and sweet, brisk five and seven minute outings, after ‘Flight’, and truth be told they act mainly as a musical pause before the grand event: the wash of tidal keyboards that introduces ‘A Plague…’.
I have no idea, and never have, what this 24 minute opus is actually about, but it continues to amaze and astonish me every time I hear any version of it. Truth be told I miss the honks and squawks of David Jackson’s saxophones here, but only in passing – the keyboards and guitars more than make up for it, and Guy Evans powerhouses through the complex jigsaw of the piece without missing a beat. Hammill is on fine vocal form [when is he not?] and swoops, soars and grunts as his quasi-mysical, reflective text requires. It’s an awesome peformance, perhaps only bettered by the original and the over-the-top version filmed for Belgian TV, where candles and sparklers are used to light the band.
Then it’s on to ‘Gog’, a crazed paen rooted around what sound like double drums but are just Guy Evans in even more manic form than usual, underpinning a ghostly organ riff, both of which wrap around Hammill’s scorching vocals. The music ebbs and flows in response to the shrieks and wails which alternate with enticing quieter passages. This is actually the stand-out track, though I wish the music continued into what on the studio version was a strange ambient horror track called ‘Magog’, full of strange echoing noises and sound effects.
Who would have thought Van der Graaf would not only resurrect but survive a major falling out that would see their sax player depart for good? Who would have thought they could write powerful new tracks for several studio albums as well as tour old and new favourites? Not me, for one, though seeing the original reincarnated quartet at the Festival Hall in London was a real musical treat. As is the bonus CD on the limited edition double CD which doubles the sonic delight with seven more tracks, including the standout ‘Interference Patterns’ (a relatively recent composition), and old favourites ‘Scorched Earth’ and ‘Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End’.
Van der Graaf Generator go from strength to strength, continuing to energetically explore a knife-edge walk along the edges of progrock, postpunk, literary angst and the gothic. Merlin Atmos is a CD highlight in their long and intriguing career.