Van Der Graaf Generator - A Grounding in Numbers [Esoteric Recordings - 2011]Modern recording technologies present an interesting problem for musicians with careers spanning decades: all your recorded music is essentially contemporaneous. Unlike composers in centuries before, performances can now be repeatedly played over and over. This means that modern musicians are always dogged by all their recorded performances; an artist’s catalogue is in constant comparison with itself, regardless of recoding date. Time stops (or greatly slows). Composers before the age of recorded music only had a score, with each performance being part of a moment never repeated again, except in imperfect human memory and practice. With cassettes, cds, lps, and various audio file formats performances may now be replayed and scrutinized ad infinitum with only an individual listener’s patience or stamina as limiting factor. Parallel with all this is that we as listeners change with the passage of time. All of which certainly affects the career and relative success of artists, specifically the career of Peter Hammill and his group Van Der Graaf Generator.
Due to the music of Van Der Graaf Generator being available all at once for listening repeatedly their music becomes contemporaneous with itself. An album from 1969 is as culturally consumable as one from 2011; besides production techniques and style (musical/thematic/lyrical) there is little to differentiate music, as product, from one decade or another. Essentially, VDGG are forced to compete with themselves and their releases from decades ago. Pawn Hearts competes for attention (and cash) with A World Record, The Aerosol Grey Machine appeals for listening time along with Trisector. This is in addition to the various solo oeuvres and projects of the musicians involved with VDGG, which are considerable in number. Such is the conundrum of the contemporary music listener and it begs the question “Does the new VDGG album, A Grounding in Numbers, need to be added to my music collection?”
The answer is ‘yes’, although it is an affirmation wholly dependent upon your affection for and/or patience with VDGG after 42 years of music-making. The problem is that "A Grounding in Numbers" must not only compete for attention with other musical productions in the market, but also with quite deservedly admired albums from their own catalogue like "Pawn Hearts" and "H to He", "Whom Am the Only One". It is unfair, in my opinion, to expect bands and musicians to approach music with same fire and seriousness that they did in their youth. Yet, those bands must compete in the marketplace of culture with their younger selves, like it or not. This is as true for VDGG, as it is for AMM or Throbbing Gristle.
The tracks “All Over the Place”, “Bunsho”, “Highly Strung”, and “Snake Oil” do evoke some of the magic to be found on those ‘essential’ VDGG albums of yore but the comparison is facile; the tracks from the new album are just lacking in majesty and power compared to those elder grimoires (“Man-Erg”!) of prog. Moments alluding to VDGG’s previous music are merely gestural and lack the sonic adventurousness of the band’s classic material. The brevity of the new songs also prevents the music from breathing and stretching beyond mere ‘songs’. It all just sounds a little forced; the music and performances on "A Grounding in Numbers" might have worked much better as a Peter Hammill solo record (which it does resemble). Plus, I truly miss Hugh Banton’s crazily overdriven organ sound (he sounds so polite these days) and David Jackson’s squalling saxes (he is not on this album). For me, and others I assume, the VDGG moniker is associated with a greater set of expectations under which it is unfair for this new album to labor. Such expectations on my part may mark me as a grumpy old man of prog, making "A Grounding in Numbers" truly difficult to enjoy, but it cannot be helped. When it comes to Van Der Graaf Generator, one of the mythic prog progenitors (along with King Crimson, Magma, P.F.M., Soft Machine, Yes, etc.), comparisons with the past are inevitable….and unrewarding for all. Best to view “A Grounding in Numbers” as an excellent Peter Hammill solo release and enjoy it as such; time and one’s own canon are not always fair opponents. Bill Too