What the hell is a Van der Graaf Generator anyway? That’s the question a lot of people were probably asking back in 1969, when the first album by a young British band of that name appeared. In fact, a Van de Graaff generator (note spelling) is a device that creates electrostatic energy, but the group named after that machine generated an electricity all their own. By the early ˜70s, after releasing such cult-classic records as He To He, Who Am The Only One, and Pawn Hearts, Van der Graaf Generator had established a musical reputation as the Richard III of U.K. prog-rock bands, reveling in the dark underbelly of the human condition and casting a crooked half-smile upon creation as something slightly sinister simmered in the background.
While the initial incarnation of the band fell apart in 1978, Van der Graaf returned to active duty in 2005 with Present, as a trio featuring original members Peter Hammill, Hugh Banton, and Guy Evans. Incredibly, the 21st century version of the group turned out to be just as vital-sounding as the original ensemble, and they’ve recorded four albums together so far, with the fourth, ALT, out on July 3. Prolific VDGG frontman Hammill also just released a new solo album, Consequences (he’s maintained an active solo career since the early ˜70s), and he’s currently busy touring America with his Van der Graaf bandmates.
The new band album is kind of an unusual one because it’s kind of improv, says Hammill. I know a lot of Van der Graaf is pretty out there, but this is out there even by Van der Graaf standards. That’s coming out more or less simultaneously with the tour, but on the tour we’ll be doing comparatively normal songs. On the new album¦it’s all instrumental for a start, which is not normal for Van Der Graaf, but basically it’s stuff that built up since 2005. Every time we got together for a rehearsal period or for a recording period, there would always be some element of improvisation that was recorded. We’ve got a long track record individually and collectively of doing things that are not really in any rock area, they’re more sort of musique concrete sounds, so that’s more or less what this new record, ALT, is about. Basically, the material built up over a period of years until it reached a kind of critical mass and we went, Okay, actually, this is not our usual stuff, but it’s also part of our story and our history, so now is the right time to put it out.
From high-profile NPR darlings [that’s not a pejorative distinction] like The Decemberists to more underground-oriented acts such as The Globes and Teeth of the Sea, there’s no shortage of current bands banging around whose sound suggests the presence of more than one Roger Dean-designed album cover in their collections. With such a proliferation of second (or even third)-hand prog-rock influences in the air, it should probably come as no huge surprise that there seems to be a lot of activity lately on the old-school front, as first-generation UK art rockers (Great Britain is, of course, prog’s spiritual home) rise up in various formats and configurations to offer up something new to the world that they helped shape.
Of course, music was never meant to be the aural equivalent of a yearbook photo, presenting the same face to the world regardless of how the person in the portrait may have evolved. Classic albums, naturally, remain their own irreplaceable, immutable selves ad infinitum”King Crimson‘s Red, Brian Eno‘s Another Green World and Yes‘s Close To The Edge, for example, will always offer the same sonic satisfaction no matter how many years go by. But the artists who made those internationally beloved, incalculably influential albums have never stopped growing. Unless you go all Star Wars on them and freeze them in carbonite a la Han Solo, or stick them irretrievably onto the oldies circuit, all true artists will keep on changing.
The generation of envelope-pushers (and we’re not talking about stationery salespeople here) who made the aforementioned milestone recordings are suddenly popping up with new albums that showcase a very different sensibility from their firestorming days of old. It’s almost as if there’s been a consensus among those artists to pursue a subtler, lower-key kind of sound circa 2011. Nowhere is that feeling more overt than on the new album A Scarcity of Miracles by Jakszyk, Fripp and Collins. Thinking man’s guitar hero Robert Fripp, has of course, been the driving force behind King Crimson from the beginning, and sax man Mel Collins played with the band in the early ’70s. They joined with singer/guitarist/keyboardist Jakko Jakszyk, who had played with Collins in 21st Century Schizoid Band (an outfit full of former KC members playing the band’s old repertoire) in what’s being billed as a King Crimson “projeckt,” which also includes longtime Crimson bassist Tony Levin and current KC drummer Gavin Harrison in supporting roles. The barnstorming brashness of classic King Crimson (or even more recent King Crimson), however, is completely, and quite purposely, absent. Instead, the album is filled with dreamy, atmospheric tunes full of hushed vocals, delicately textured guitars (hardly any of the old Fripp fire) and contemplative sax solos, having more in common with some of Fripp’s work with David Sylvian than anything that’s ever flown under the Crimson Banner.
Speaking of Sylvian, he may be of a younger generation than Fripp and Collins, but he could certainly be grandfathered in, as it were, to the old-boy network of English art rock. Besides memorably utilizing Fripp’s guitar work on his own albums, he did, after all, have a striking ”if short-lived”duo with Fripp in the early ’90s. But Sylvian’s own new album, Died In The Wool, makes the JFC trio sound like the MC5 by comparison. That’s not to say that it’s unimpressive or underwhelming in any way, mind you, merely that it makes the most of minimalist techniques and super-sparse arrangements, with half the tracks being re-workings of songs inspired by Sylvian’s previous album, Manofon, and half being unheard material from the same sessions.
Of course, Brian Eno, who began his career with original art rockers Roxy Music and created some pioneering duo recordings with Fripp before becoming a vital force as a solo artist, has been treading an ambient path for many, many years, and adjectives like “atmospheric,” “subtle” and even “subliminal” are used in connection with his efforts about as often as “play ball” has been heard in Yankee Stadium. Eno’s new album, Drums Between The Bells, is certainly no exception, but even though it’s full of ambient-oriented electronics, it does contain some more visceral grooves, and even a fair amount of vocal tracks, with Eno himself opening up his mouth on a couple of tunes.
Meanwhile, when he wasn’t busy with the JFC trio, Fripp seemingly found time to join an all-star cast of prog rockers guesting on the latest solo album by former King Crimson singer/bassist John Wetton, Raised In Captivity. Admittedly, this one is much more of an in-your-face outing than any of the aforementioned albums, moving in an AOR-ish direction that has more in common with Wetton’s post-Crimson cash cow, Asia, than anything else. Regardless of what your feelings may be about such things, the record nevertheless features a jaw-dropping array of prog heavyweights”besides Fripp, there’s Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett, current and past Yes keyboardists Geoff Downes and Tony Kaye and former U.K./Curved Air/Roxy Music member Eddie Jobson, among others. Would that the results lived up that stellar guest list, but you can’t have everything.
Naturally, no assessment of art-rock o.g.’s returning to active duty would be complete without the inclusion of Yes, the standard-bearers for classic, symphonic-style prog. Conveniently enough, there happens to be a new Yes album, Fly From Here, just around the corner. It’s the band’s first studio album in a decade, and their first ever with new singer Benoit David, replacing founding member Jon Anderson. It’s the second non-Jon Yes album, though ”1980’s Drama featured a post-Buggles/pre-Art Of Noise Trevor Horn on vocals (and former Buggle Geoff Downes on keys). With Downes returning to the fold for this album, and Horn back in the production chair, this is actually looking like a bit of a return to the Drama era. Hell, Roger Dean even did the album cover. “So, can a new Emerson, Lake & Palmer album be far behind?” we hear you cry. Keep your shirt on, prog-head, we’ll cross that inter-dimensional bridge when Dean paints it.
Let’s face it, Brian Eno is the kind of guy who can make you feel bad about yourself. Now, don’t blame poor old Eno, it’s not really his fault. After all, he’s not setting out deliberately to undermine anyone’s self-confidence, it’s just that he seems to get more accomplished between breakfast and lunch than many people manage in a year. That’s the way it’s been from the beginning for the seemingly tireless, quite conceivably workaholic artist. After helping Roxy Music make rock history, he embarked on an endless flurry of projects that included not only a solo career, but a host of collaborative efforts, production jobs for other artists, and the inauguration his own label”and that’s just the ’70s. From the ’80s on, Eno worked at an even harder pace (if anything) breaking new ground in electronic-oriented music pretty much every time he blinked, but the new documentary Brian Eno 1971-1977: The Man Who Fell To Earth focuses exclusively on Eno’s ’70s “rock” period, presenting a fascinating portrait of an artist in perpetual motion.
As it’s title indicates, the documentary” which is set for a DVD release on May 17 through MVD Entertainment Group”begins with Eno the longhaired, cosmetically enhanced, outrageously attired glam-rock provocateur, presenting a striking figure behind his synthesizer as he electronically treated the sounds of the other musicians in the band and generated some groundbreaking tones of his own. Eno’s solo on Roxy’s “Editions of You,” to name just one, remains one of the greatest, most gloriously unhinged synthesizer solos in all of rock and roll. From there the in-depth, two-and-a-half-hour documentary does a laudable job of following the twists and turns of Eno’s mind-boggling mid-’70s evolution, incorporating commentary from critics, collaborators and in just a couple of instances, Eno himself.
Before turning his attention more exclusively to electronic music and ambient textures”though the groundwork he laid for that in his duo albums with Robert Fripp and his solo release Discreet Music is covered here as well”Eno released four solo albums that still stand apart from anything else ever to come under the umbrella of “rock.” If pressed, you’d be within your rights to label them art-rock, especially since they include contributions from members of King Crimson, Genesis, Matching Mole and of course Roxy Music, among others, but Eno’s blend of the conceptual and the instinctual was unprecedented and still sounds entirely sui generis today. The film sheds some light on the process behind these massively influential works, which have informed the output of everyone from LCD Soundsystem to Moby. It also examines Eno’s equally seminal contributions to Bowie‘s “Berlin trilogy” of Low, Heroes and Lodger, his championing of avant-garde music through the establishment of his trailblazing Obscure Records imprint, his work with krautrockers Harmonia and his production of albums by John Cale and Ultravox, to name just a few items on Eno’s ’70s CV.
It just so happens that The Man Who Fell To Earth arrives at a time when Eno is ramping up for a new release, Drums Between the Bells, set to drop in July on Warp Records, but then, it probably would have been difficult for the DVD to appear at a point when there wasn’t a new Eno project in the offing. Such is the continuing prolific nature of Eno’s output, with more accomplishments being added to the dossier all the time, but if you want a thoughtful, comprehensive look at the works that Eno’s legend was built on, look into this lovingly-detailed doc.