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"Here, at the glass, all the usual problems, all the habitual farce
—"The Undercover Man", from Godbluff
Van der Graaf Generator (sic) is an English Progressive Rock band (although they would deny that) originating in the late 1960s. They operated in four distinct periods and are currently in their fifth, all featuring Peter Hammill, who is the Face of the Band and primary songwriter. Their name is often shortened to VdGG.
Van der Graaf Generator are an unusual Progressive Rock band in that they focus on dark, dreary themes (such as the invasion by the Spanish Inquisition or isolation atop a lighthouse with Cosmic Horror Story undertones) and feature very little guitar/electric guitar in their music. Instead, the sound is dominated by ominous organ work, frenetic screeching saxophones, frenzied jazz drumming and dynamic singing ranging from a crooning whisper to a death metal-esque scream.
For some reason this was the recipe for massive success in Italy.
1967-1969: Band Formation and Psychedelic Era
Peter Hammill, Guitar & Vocals
One album released (The Aerosol Grey Machine), it was meant to be a Peter Hammill solo record but contractual obligations meant that it had to be released under the VdGG name. They were a typical psychedelic band during this era.
1970-1972: Original Sound and Initial Success
Peter Hammill, Vocals & Piano
Three albums; The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other, H to He Who Am The Only One and Pawn Hearts (the latter is considered their Magnum Opus). In 1970 they began to forge their original sound and garner significant attention. Problematic European touring, especially in Italy, caused considerable stress (due to things like neo-fascist organisations turning up at their concerts) and eventually the band decided to temporarily split in order to prevent lasting damage.
1975-1976: First Reunion & Second Period of Success
Peter Hammill, Vocals, Clavinet & Piano
Three more albums; Godbluff (second contender for best album) Still Life and World Record. This period featured a re-emergance of the previous sound. This era was marked by the debut of a slightly more accessable and agressive sound, and the departure of Jackson & Banton at the era's closing.
1977-1978: New Wave Experimentation
Peter Hammill, Vocals & Guitar
Two albums; The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome & the live album Vital. This period was a marked departure to VdGG's established style and a sound that wouldn't really be revisited by the band. The saxophones & organ were replaced by violins, prominent guitar and other electronic gimmickery. After the band split this time, they became dormant for over two decades.
2003-present: Second Reunion and Beyond
Peter Hammill, Vocals & Keyboards
The classic lineup reunited on stage duing a Peter Hammill solo concert in 2003 for a one-off performance, in 2004 they began recording in studio and then released a new album of all-new material in 2005, Present. Soon after Jackson quit, and VdGG continued on without him, releasing the live album Real Time in 2007 and the studio albums Trisector in 2008 , A Grounding In Numbers in 2011 and Alt in 2012. They continue to tour.
Tropes in VDGG's music:
- AcCENT Upon the Wrong SylLABle: Intentional - Peter Hammill's singing has to be heard to be believed.
- The Band Minus the Face: The members of VdGG (minus Hammill, of course) got together to record an album of instrumental music titled "The Long Hello" in 1973. This was followed up in 1981 by "The Long Hello Volume Two", in 1982 with "Long Hello Volume Three" and then "Long Hello Volume Four" in 1983. The album Gentlemen Prefer Blues (Jackson, Banton, Evans, 1985) is sometimes regarded as a sort of Long Hello Volume Five.
- Breakup Breakout: partially averted in that the members of VdGG regularly play on Peter Hammill's solo album; often the entire lineup will play on a Hammill solo album, blurring the line between band and solo artist.
- British Accents: Hammill has a distinctly english (pretty much Received Pronunciation English) vocal delivery, a holdover from his days as a Jesuit chorister.
- BSOD Song: Oh boy... A fair portion of VdGG's material, especially the epic "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers", which fits this trope to a tee. The song "House With No Door" is about a mental patient who desperately wants to be cured, but just can't no matter how hard he tries.
- Careful with That Axe: Not always solely due to Hammill's singing.
- Chorus-Only Song, Common Meter, Common Time: As with most Progressive Rock bands, these tropes are normally averted HARD.
- Concept Album: Averted, funnily enough. All VdGG albums have common themes, such as despair on Pawn Hearts, but they've never explicitly tackled a concept album.
- Cover Version: VdGG recorded a cover of a BBC theme. Holy Hell.
- Cut Song: The CD re-release of Pawn Hearts includes the material that was recorded in order to make Pawn Hearts a double LP, before they changed their minds.
- Darker and Edgier
- Epic Song: Each of the classic VdGG albums had at least two, but everything on Pawn Hearts qualifies.
- Epic Rocking
- A Good Name for a Rock Band: Van der Graaf Generator is a mispelling (but not by much) of Van de Graaff Generator, the static electricity machine that is ofen used in schools to make peoples hair stand on end.
- Greatest Hits Album: Averted, in that they've never had one. More famous prog bands such as Yes and Pink Floyd have had several, but not VdGG. Funnily enough they have had their songs turn up on Prog compliation albums, though.
- Grief Song
- Improv: Disc 2 of Present (2005) is all improvs.
- Incredibly Long Note: Hammill is capable of impressive sustain, showcased on songs like "Killer", "After the Flood", "The Undercover Man", "Arrow" and many more.
- Indecipherable Lyrics: Naturally, considering the strange timekeeping and Hammill's penchant for oddly phrased words and aforementioned syllabic rhythm placements, the lyrics can get... somewhat muddled. Deciphering the lyrics for "The Sleepwalkers" by ear is considered to be virtually impossible.
- Last-Note Nightmare: at least once per album. Particularly well done in the middle of "After the Flood", when Peter Hammill suddenly goes Dalek and the music descends into complete dissonance before restarting.
- "White Hammer" deals with the rise and fall of the Inquisition, and though its influence wanes, the marching feedback at the end suggests that something like it still exists in the modern age.
- Large Ham: If you don't "get" them, they will most likely come off as this.
- List Song: "The House With No Door", aka "The House With No Door/Roof/Bell/Sound/Light".
- Lonely Piano Piece: "Man-Erg". At least, to begin with...
- Hammill has performed some VdGG songs as a Lonely Piano Piece on his solo shows to great effect. "My Room" and "House With No Door" are good examples of this.
- Lyrical Dissonance: Averted as hard as you can possibly imagine.
- Played with in the opening of "Man-Erg" - sad music set to disturbing lyrics? Unusual, in my experience.
- Metal Scream: Hammill made treading the fine line between song and scream an art form, but the best example of a full-on Hammill scream is, well, most of "Arrow". No wonder Johnny Rotten was a fan...
- Minimalistic Cover Art: Godbluff & World Record being the most obvious.
- Mind Screw
- Mohs Scale of Rock and Metal Hardness: VdGG manage to pull off a heavy sound almost entirely without using guitars, which is quite rare.
- Neoclassical Punk Zydeco Rockabilly: You wouldn't think that a saxophone/organ/jazz drums band would or even could sound like this.
- New Sound Album: The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome wasn't well recieved by die-hard fans of the classic VdGG sound.
- Non-Appearing Title: "Man-Erg". Also, the name of the album rarely crops up in any of their songs, and there's never been a 'title track'.
- Progressive Rock: Although they don't think so, everybody else does.
- Sanity Slippage Song: "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers" is probably the best example of this ever recorded.
- Soprano and Gravel: Hammill pulls this off all by himself.
- Stop and Go
- Surprisingly Gentle Song: "Refugees", "House with No Door," "My Room (Waiting for Wonderland)".