Friday, March 31, 2017

Van Der Graaf Generator - 1977 - The Quiet Zone / Pleasure Dome

Van Der Graaf Generator 
The Quiet Zone / Pleasure Dome

- The Quiet Zone (LP side 1):
01. Lizard Play (4:29)
02. The Habit of the Broken Heart (4:40)
03. The Siren Song (6:04)
04. Last Frame (6:13)
- The Pleasure Dome (LP side 2):
05. The Wave (3:14)
06. Cat's Eye / Yellow Fever (Running) (5:20)
07. The Sphinx in the Face (5:58)
08. Chemical World (6:10)
09. The Sphinx Returns (1:12)

Total time: 43:20

Bonus tracks on 2005 Charisma remaster:
10. Door (Studio version) (3:28)
11. The Wave (Instrumental Demo) (3:03) *
12. Ship of Fools (1977 French Single B-side) (3:43)

* Previously unreleased

- Peter Hammill / vocals, guitars, keyboards, producer
- Graham Smith / violin, viola
- Nic Potter / bass
- Guy Evans / drums, percussion

- David Jackson / saxes (7,9)

Bizarre doesn't even begin to describe this album. A blend of progressive punk and almost pastoral music with a mean violin, vocal stylings that baffle even the Peter Hammill initiated, quirky, though generally brilliant, lyrics... the list goes on, and the bizarre melding of standard musical elements and a freakishly experimental mindset works overtime. Really, there is no way to describe this album effectively, it'll probably take a while to catch on as a whole, and any preconceptions you have about Van Der Graaf Generator probably do not apply to this album. Consequently, it's a bizarrely essential album: I really enjoy it, I appreciate there are a lot of people (particularly the pretty vocals crowd) who probably won't get it (not a bad thing, just different tastes), and I think it was really pushing the barriers in a way that the other classic prog bands had rather given up on by 1977. Graham Smith and Nick Potter give the album a great deal of attack, Hammill's experiments with all sorts of vocal ideas have jumped off into the deep end in a way that you'll either love or hate, Guy Evans is solid as ever, and the pianos and guitars are used with a lot more confidence and detail than most previous Van Der Graaf Generator efforts. I think it's a masterpiece, sure some others take the opposite opinion. Lizard Play exhibits the rather Van Der Graaf Generatorish (well, in this case, Van Der Graafish) of having some sort of anti-catch value. On the first listen, it made virtually no impact on me, either lyrically or musically, but now, I can call it nothing less than amazing. The first Meurglys III notes lead us into a little, slightly jazzy intro a bit reminiscent of When She Comes, before Hammill's light-hearted, very cleverly harmonised vocals come in, using a full range of high wispy overdubs to counterbalance low, gritty multiple vocals. Evans is fantastic, of course, providing all sorts of rolls in addition to some absolutely beyond-belief unusual hollow and tingly percussion inclusions. Hammill's lyrics are metaphorical, assertive and extremely potent once you actually see the whole picture, and allow for a couple of clever spins which you somehow never quite expect even when you know they're coming up. Potter's thorough, thick basslines provide the real backbone for the piece, as well as a sort of bestial feel to the piece. The Graham Smith violin is characteristically unusual, and includes a couple of rather neat subtleties that provide a little more weight to the acoustic. A song full of weirdness, shamanic rhythms, a general refusal to accept the standard terms of what rock is, and a touch of whimsicality that works really well for Van Der Graaf.

The Habit Of The Broken heart is another somewhat eclectic song, moving from a fairly basic acoustic riff to a subtle bitter bit of reflection to a full on burst of rock to a small vocal coda. The lyrics are a touch less sharp than I'd expect from Hammill, though they still contain a couple of great lines, and a basic message, which is more than a lot of bands manage to do. The lyrical vulnerability of the song relative to the rest of the album is more than outweighed by the superb musical content and the rather odd mood in Hammill's vocal. Guy Evans and Nic Potter provide a weird bass-driven riff for a fair amount of the piece. The dashes of organ fit in quite nicely, as does the lush background viola. A lot of the punk ethos thumping in again, along with a few elements of dissonance and the rather curtailed melodies than characterise much of World Record. The conclusion is nicely done. Not an absolutely perfect piece, but a lot of redeeming features, and a particularly top notch performance from Evans.

Siren Song features the album's finest lyrics, and some of the finest lyrics in rock, and the closest thing to a conventionally pretty vocal on there. The piano is absolutely lovely, and supplemented by a tragic violin, Guy Evans' very emotional and delicate percussion and the unusual Potter distorted bass sound. The mood changes of the song are distinctive, involving and feature a rather more upbeat, folk-inspired violin part, as well as an example of just how mobile Van Der Graaf Generator can make a song. Nic Potter never did a weirder bass part than that in the middle of this song, and it pays off fantastically. Anyway, the best way to describe this one is with a bit of a lyrics quote. It has reduced me to tears on occasion, and not many pieces can do that.

Laughter in the backbone laughter impossibly wise that same laughter that comes every time I flash on that look in your eyes which whispers of a black zone which'll mock all my credos as lies, where all logic is done and time will smash every theory I devise

The six minute Last Frame could well be the highlight of the album for a lot of the more prog-by-the-books listeners. A hollow atmospheric introductory solo on viola (I think) from Graham Smith leads us into the song proper, coupled with a couple of very dark, full jabs on bass and a tinkle of percussion, takes us onto the tragic retrospective vocals, coupled with a savagely bleak and determined set of lyrics. Hammill provides an acoustic (on occasion surprisingly unusual in sound) pretty much throughout the main part of the song, which is quite a nice change, and it fits in neatly both at the higher-tempo sections and the more introspective low-key parts. A sort of freakish guitar or violin solo backed up by a dab of Meurglys III riff takes up prime position in the instrumental mid-part. The song's conclusion is particularly awesome, with a distinctly rocking bass riff mixing itself in with dabs of percussion, classy lyrical bite and a distorted guitar. As always, Evans is a solid drummer, controlling his sound, volume and feel quite precisely and adding a slightly human feel through the drumming. Fantastic stuff.

The Wave is probably the most daringly introspective of the songs on this album, with quirky, and yet quite moving lyrics about the point of analysis and the effect of that on nature or feeling. The lush, but quite delicate, interplay between Hammill's piano and mellotron (it's probably actually a viola, listening to it a bit more closely) and the strings is extremely well-written, and Hammill's vocals are simply amazing in a way that only they can be. The tension is available, and a mixture of grandeur, uncertainty, high and low and whispered vocals, and selective self-harmonies adding a sort of ebbing feel to the piece. The rhythm section is again excellent, with Guy Evans' fitting in his own sort of style quite softly, accomplishing a number of subtle cadences that other drummers often seem nervous to add into soft songs, accomplishing the same sort of rolling line with no intrusion at all. It did take a while to catch onto me, as one would sort of expect a soft song like this to simply head for plain lyrics, but in the end the combination seems simply more and more right. Unusual soft songs are one of my favourite features of the classic 70s prog rock bands, and this fits that description perfectly. Masterful.

If one track can be described as driven, it's probably Cat's Eye/Yellow Fever, this piece rivets itself into the mind, frantically and schizophrenically leaping off its own ideas. Hammill's lyrics and vocals have a wonderfully reeled-off-on-the-spot tint, albeit not a lot of conventional beauty to counterbalance that. The jarring aggression of the vocals is in the vein of Nadir's Big Chance rather than Arrow or La Rossa, relying on an innate menace, speed and rhythm over volume or arrangement, and yet they are actually surprisingly fitting for the song, ramming in uncertainty, panic, menace and rage without pausing for breath... a burst of vocal dubs only heightens the frantic mood. The exhausted final vocal line is a complete contrast to this schizoid personality... one of the best worst vocal performances ever. Graham Smith's violin and viola provides truly berserk emotionality, reeling off a pulsing, tense riff as well as an array of off-the-wall solos, counterbalanced by the utter catharsis of the concluding solo. Nic Potter has never sounded better, with pulsating, demanding, insistent bass-lines complete with mixed-in sort of bass groans, as well as a bass-sound or two I haven't heard used in that way before. Even under that incredible violin solo at the end, he fits in a tasteful, obvious bass sound. The guitar is equally superb, providing a sort of picked-electric sound that lends a lot of character to the piece, as well as some blitz-on-the-ear wails. One of the big standouts of this piece, though, is Guy Evans. His combination of sort of trapping drum sounds, solid, aggressive beats, tasteful leaves, hard, flat rock beats and manically fast, yet comprehensible, fills, which sort of overspill all the parameters of the song, providing a sensation of real vertigo and being off the edge.

Anyway, I've gone into a bit more detail than I usually do on shortish songs for this one, but it was entirely worth it. An incredible song, one that really both pushes the parameters of rock and yet builds on existing traditions. As Peter Hammill would say, the 'exciting stuff'. It's a sample at the moment, so take a listen to it on the appropriate volume. If you don't like it, the album might not be for you (there's a wide range of material covered, and the lyrics, here, are probably not as strong as the rest of the album), but if you do, really, the album might be your thing. It's the song that brought me to going beyond the obligatory four VDGG albums.

The Sphinx In The Face is another oddity, complete with a particularly anarchically arranged set of lyrics, a range of rather clever musical quotes from previous pieces incorporated into the main piece. Opening with a cheerful guitar riff, backed up by the appropriate groove from the bass. A couple of rather reggae-ish moments are juxtaposed with a general pushing-rock-feel, amazing mellotron/viola, as well as possibly the most remarkably moving harmony in rock. The musicianship, as always, is incredible, and though the 'concept' of it all... the unifying theme of disunity, of a search... is a bit hard to grasp at first, once it kicks in, it sinks below the surface, and a range of exclamations that first seem trivial become extremely moving. Also brilliant, though I can imagine that the harmony ending won't hit anyone until you've really wrapped yourself in the album.

Chemical World is another piece of particularly good writing disguised by a bit of general chaos, noise, and lyrics which alternate between whimsical and acidic. Aside from a surprisingly Spanish guitar melody from Hammill, the song's softer moments are highlighted by Graham Smith's fascinating sax/flute-'imitation's on violin. The noisy, distorted-out-of-this-world mid-section is probably the high point of the piece, with an explosive Evans and a number of tense melodies and more 'psychedelic' ideas, which perhaps resemble that rather haunting section of Nine Feet Underground a little. Nic Potter's bass is very effective, again, handling a couple of lead guitarish licks on one occasion. Amazing stuff, and extremely progressive.

The Sphinx Returns concludes the album proper, with a rocked up version of the outro to The Sphinx In The Face, somewhat sealing up all the themes of the album in one range of bizarre musicianship and a fade to indicate that they continue.

Onto the bonus material. The Door is another great piece, with a killer riff. Rocking everywhere, a high-range thumping bass and a couple of hilarious keyboard effects. The demo version of The Wave is actually very moving and effective even without the lyrics, and it places a little more emphasis back on the individual music parts. Potter is probably a bit more effective (think it's that he's a lot more conspicuous with a quieter piano) on this one. Anyway, it illustrates that Van Der Graaf really could do instrumental extremely effectively... almost as incredible unpolished as it is finished. Ship Of Fools truly kicks, with a hammering riff, neat lyrics, and a sort of electric fire that reminds me a bit of a couple of the things 80s Crimson and Tull would go on to do. The vocals are truly off the wall, or off the charts, depending on how you see it, and Hammill gives a great guitar burst or two. I'd probably call it hard rock, more so than any of the Deep Purple and Uriah Heep stuff I've heard.

So, all in all, a collection including pretty much exclusively absolutely fantastic songs (The Habit Of The Broken Heart is a bit weaker, but not much so), which I would consider among Van Der Graaf (Generator)'s list of finest achievements, and that really does mean a lot, coming from me. The album is characterised by subtlety disguised as blatancy, which is a pretty standard VDGG feature, so if you don't get H to He or Godbluff or something like that, you probably won't get this. The lyrics are typically . Nonetheless, vital for fans of Van Der Graaf Generator, aggressive progressive music, later, but still very progressive albums, or quirky, obtuse concepts. A masterpiece of progressive rock, and (and I say this even with Starless And Bible Black, and Brain Salad Surgery close in mind) Guy Evans' performance on this is perhaps my favourite percussion on one album ever.

Rating: Five Stars... seems a bit standard fare for VDGG and my ratings, but that's alright... Favourite Track: Very, very difficult choice. Cat's Eye/Yellow Fever or The Siren Song if I had to pick.

(oh, a couple of considerations)... I'm sure some of the times I reference saxalike/flutealike violins it is actually Jaxon, but I think at others they are, in fact, actually violin sounds that correspond to how I'd expect some of the saxes on World Record to sound. I'm not great on violas, so my exact terminology for string instruments may be horrifically wrong. Finally, the cover art, it's amazing, don't you think?

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