Tag Archives: Close to the Edge

The Best Bands You’ve Never Heard of: Van Der Graaf Generator: “Camps of Panolply and Majesty-Meet Tortured Soul and Refugee”

Image result for van der graaf generator band

Van der Graaf Generator is another band that is criminally unknown is the common era. Even among neo-prog twenty somethings, their name usually elicits blank stares. It isn’t until you hit rock kids that are tipping in at the late forties early fifties end of the spectrum will you be greeted with knowing nods and slow smiles. Because those people still know what has now become a bit of a secret-Van der Graaf Generator were one of the most challenging and influential bands in the world in the early and mid 1970’s. One of the big ones. But they seem to be slipping from the zeitgeist of musical gatekeepers. This needs to be addressed.

Name checked by a wide variety of artists (John Lydon of the Sex Pistol/PIL, Marc Almond of Soft Cell, Graham Coxon of Blur,Mark Smith of the Fall, John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden and Julian Cope of general psychedelic fame. Even Geddy Lee of Rush mentions them briefly in an interview) Van der Graaf made an imprint on rock in four very short years from 1969-1972 that is still reverberating through music today. How could a band this unknown have influenced such a wide variety of bands, and how have they seemed to have flown under everyone’s radar?

One reason is the lineup– having no guitar player in a rock band in the late sixties or early seventies was not something that would play to your benefit. Electric guitar is the heart of rock, right? How about no bass player AND no guitarist? Unthinkable. So the line up of the classic quartet of Peter Hammill, Guy Evans, Hugh Banton and David Jackson? Piano, drums, organ and sax.  What? But the people who were watching music closely (ya know, the folks who could correctly tell you King Crimson was a much more advanced proposition than Yes or Genesis, and why) could tell you that this band was something special.

Iconoclasts in philosophical bent, lyrical bent and certainly in musical ideas-Van der Graaf was a loose collective of ever changing musicians trying something new in a field of musicians currently defining what new was. Rock was really changing big time in early 1967 London-Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Cream, Traffic? You could walk into clubs and see them playing to crowds of a hundred or so. A Beatle or a Rolling Stone or two might be in that crowd. Pop fluff was being scattered to the winds, and an intellectual wave of literature, philosophy, drugs, mysticism, ufo investigation and science fiction imagery had bubbled into rock. The Hammill led band proceeded in an organ driven Arthur Brown vein, but the next two years saw them shuffling line ups, guitarists, bassists, hiring session men who would become band members, getting signed to Charisma (future home of Genesis), and putting out a solo Peter Hammill album out as a Van der Graaf Generator lp…they stopped to assess things in 1969. Band equipment stolen, contract hassles with labels (Mercury, Charisma, Polydor)-things needed to settle. With the departure in 1970 of Nic Potter, Banton began bashing away on bass with both feet on organ pedals while using both hands to create most of the meat of the song-saxophone and drums barking in reeling consonance.

Image result for pawn hearts inner sleeve

Image result for pawn hearts sleeve

The quartet era of the band from 1970-1972 is the stuff of legends. (their 1975 reunion is also worthy as is their work up until this day). Their master piece, Pawn Hearts in 1972 is the quiet cousin  of King Crimson’s better work. Fripp actually dips in for some of his most inventive session work in his career for these guys The inner sleeve of Pawn Hearts was something I didn’t see for a while (the US version wasn’t gatefold), and it is unsettling in a dada-esque tableaux. An unsettling vocal jazz version of a King Crimson-esque approach to music supported by drums, organ and sax is an unlikely combination for a band that could inspire riotous fan behavior, but this band certainly did, especially in Italy in 1972, where three tours supported this album. Hugh Banton playing bass with his feet on organ pedals upon Nic Potter’s departure, Peter Hammill a genius of vocal histrionics, and able to twist the throat of a phrase and make it spit out some truth was worthy of the poets of a brit century ago, hey stir in some eloquent piano and slashing acoustic guitar as well.

A good introduction to the band is with their last work with their bass player Nic Potter in 1970, Pioneers Over C, all 12 minutes of it:

 Van der Graaf Generator are also one of the big finalists in the ‘best side long song ever’ -prog rock is usually understood here-among the best of the best. Close to the Edge? Supper’s Ready?
The third choice is usually A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers, side two of Pawn Hearts. Never performed live (except once in pieces and repieced for Belgian TV right before they broke up). Below is that Belgian appearance of Plague (I urge you to watch this in its 24 minute entirety to understand how this song is one of the big ones-
Nice epitaph to a civilization teetering on the edge of breakthrough from 45 years ago in Manchester. These guys are one of the best of the best, yet somehow have slipped through many cracks. You like Yes? King Crimson? Magma? ELP? Genesis? Area? PFM? Freaky pre-goth vocals okay? I might have your band right here. Lyrically, there’s more angst in a single Van der Graaf song than two full Nirvana albums. This is an overload of powerful psychic outburst that might fry the fragile subwirings of delicate millenials, yet showed up in 75% of their core stuff. Insanely essential rock band, one of the best of the early seventies by a long shot.
             Image result for the least we can do is wave van der graaf          Image result for h to h van der graaf     Pawn Hearts (Van der Graaf Generator album - cover art).jpg
Get all three of those albums, immediately. If King Crimson scared the Moody Blues out of signing them to their label in 1969 as reported, then this is the only band that could scare King Crimson.
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Image result for van der graaf generator live  Image result for van der graaf generator live  Image result for van der graaf generator live https://carwreckdebangs.files.wordpress.com/2016/12/34eb0-van2bder2bgraaf2bgenerator.jpg?w=604

This is the stuff of legends, legends that some now haven’t even heard of, which is disturbing. One more time:  grab all THREE of these albums right now. Sure, there was a 1975 reunion, with Godbluff and Still life in 1975 and 1976 respectively nearing the bar set so high in 1972. But this article is about the big three from 1970-1972.  More angst than how many Nirvana albums? In a field of bands that are almost literally undefinable in sound, this band defies description. You up for a challenge in your listening diet? This kind of band is what happens when you actually pay attention to everything that has come before, a quantum leap in creativity can create a break with the predecessors.

Camps of panoply and majesty, what is Freedom of Choice?
Where do I stand in the pageantry…whose is my voice?
It doesn’t feel so very bad now: I think the end is the start.
Begin to feel very glad now:
ALL THINGS ARE A PART
ALL THINGS ARE APART
ALL THINGS ARE A PART.

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Steven Wilson and the Remix Mania-Stop the Madness!

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This will be a quick one–Rant? Polemic? More of a warning to the unwary. It was inspired by running into Jethro Tull’s Passion Play in a store today, remixed.

Remixing other people’s work, in particular especially beloved works, is very dangerous territory. It is like tampering with someones childhood memories, their primal brain wiring–unsettling and ill advised. So, an important question: just because you can, does it mean you should? This brings us to the spate of reissues that have been remixed by Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson.
crimson court
I had first noticed the remix game being played with In the Court of the Crimson King, King Crimson’s majestic debut. Seeing Steven Wilson’s name was intriguing, he can work wonders with his own band in the studio. Yet there was a nagging question-did this album really NEED to be remixed? After all, this whole album, from recording to artwork to final mix, is a product of 1969. A time capsule if you will. All part and parcel of what the artist considered a single body of work, a document of the time and space it was created in. Should someone come bounding into the room and proclaim they are able to improve on it?  For that is the underlying message, because if it cannot be improved upon, why should anyone attempt it in the first place? (this is ignoring the 5.1 mixes that have been created for sound systems so equipped. If it was created in stereo, leave it that way is my take, I know others that are delighted by 5.1 discs surround sound effect, but I have yet to meet one that doesn’t feel ‘artificial’) Overall the Court reissue was somehow not quite right. Too clean. Not warm. Perhaps this was the only experiment. I was wrong. He was planning to remix every important Crimson, ELP, Tull and Yes album of the early 70’s. This needed watching.

Modern technology can work some miracles (see article here on the resurrection of the Velvet Underground acetate by Universal), but there is a point where modern technology loops back in on itself, and brings diminishing returns. But when factoring in an important aspect, the analog vs. digital debate, then the argument gets a bit clearer. The albums Wilson has remixed are full analog creations of the seventies (60’s for Court), and converting the whole work to the digital domain is the first step towards sterility. Analog breathes, has life and tension, real sound waves recorded as they happened to be created. Digital is an approximation, very close but an approximation that is clean, motionless and somehow gets cleansed of the emotion inherent in the music. 80’s and 90’s works created solely in the digital domain usually have this sonic flaw. Some call it the “ProTools” syndrome. ProTools is a computer program used in many modern recording studios that isolates every part of every multi-track so it can be processed individually. The results are precise, clean and crisp. And often sterile. Unfortunately this is not how music sounds when it is created live, and much of the life of the music is sapped when transferred this way. Analog has a very different quality when overdriven (recorded in the red, ironically see King Crimson-Red). Harmonics appear, and the sound can produce qualities that no one has expected, but are delightful artifacts. Digital however, produces nothing but nasty glitch sounds when overdriven. Butch Vig was a big mover and shaker in the ProTools style of production (interestingly, Dave Grohl flat out refused to have the Foo Fighters last album with Vig recorded on anything but analog tape, threatening to firebomb any computer in the studio).
But Vig’s work, however huge sounding it is, can tend to a samey feel, big sound but ultimately lifeless. This is the process that Wilson uses to remix the classic albums of the 70’s, dump them into the computer, digitizing them, and start fiddling. Akin to cutting a small child into 40 pieces and then reassembling it carefully, then wondering why it doesn’t act like it used to. The records he has worked on were all created with analog microphones, recording desks, tape machines and mastering. The sound was reproduced on an analog record on an analog turntable through analog speakers. The path stayed pure analog.

A quick side note: without getting too technical, many remixes often use compression. This is a technique that makes ‘everything as loud as everything else’. The recent Genesis remixes suffered from disastrous compression. Comments like ‘hey I never heard that little tingly bit before that used to be in the background’ are tempered by cymbals crashing to be heard over lead guitar with bass fighting for the attention….you get the picture, ZERO dynamics. Quiet bits were meant to be quiet, loud surges were meant to be loud. Compression means that every single instrument and every single passage is fighting for your attention at essentially the same volume.
Lets’ first look at the list of what has been done so far: Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Jethro Tull, Yes…the big guns of progressive rock in most people’s collections. More obscure contemporaries like Hawkwind and Caravan also got the treatment. (Hawkwind’s remix is unsettlingly clean and very un-Hawkwind) These were also the ummm important gods of the time for many. Tampering with icons of people’s past is getting into a grey area of good vs bad.
close to the
Close to the Edge by Yes is one album that is a sonic benchmark. Highly dynamic, it captured Yes at their peak and is usually agreed to be the highlight of their career, both sonically and compositionally. The Wilson remix tries to keep the feel of the original, but is essentially dry and flat sounding. Wilson said that some of the overdriven parts of certain albums needed to be addressed, with the overdriven artifacts in mind. Many fans disagreed. Clarity? Yes, there is plenty of that. Some vocal bits are higher in the mix than they used to be.(some oddly are pushed to the background). But warmth and life are far more important than clarity. Ultimately this comes down to one thing-what is more important, clarity and cleanness of a mix or the emotional feel and warmth of the music? The power inherent in the music lies in the latter not the former. This is an important part of the equation that Wilson has missed. One basic fact remains–analog tape is not very suited for digital remixing. All of the Wilson remixes I have heard suffer from the above traits, cleaner but ultimately emptied of emotion.
Remixing albums is like tampering with a work of art. It comes back to the original question: does it really need to be changed? Another troubling point is that this project smacks of wayward hubris, a dangerous motivation. It takes balls to think you can improve on the work of people from decades ago, rock visionaries who created musical works far superior to anything Mr. Wilson has ever come close to. One does not indirectly try to tell another artist what they should have done in the studio, one appreciates the work as it was created. So what is the motivation here? Is it for us, or is it for his own gratification? Put in a different way-“Hey Mr. Picasso! Come over here! I fixed all the noses on your paintings!! They didn’t quite ‘look right'”.

star wars star wars 1

Film makers learned the problems with this trick when George Lucas added special effects to the original Star Wars movies, to the universal disdain of purist fans. Even Lucas realized he had made a mistake. A work of art is static, captured in time, not a continually changing piece that is always in flux. And that’s where all of this is headed. Stop the madness.