Van der Graaf Generator: Merlin Atmos

The legends’ live set, complete with A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers.

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It’s unimaginably surreal to think that this April it will be 45 years since this writer first experienced Van der Graaf Generator live.

It’s also quite remarkable to find three of that line-up – Peter Hammill, keyboardist Hugh Banton and drummer Guy Evans – still playing with the kind of jaw-droppingly complex virtuosity and savage intensity that elevated them above any other band then, and still does now.

VdDG’s first live album since 2007’s Real Time is drawn from European dates the trio played in June 2013. Time and again it demonstrates how the departure of David Jackson’s thermonuclear sax only served to draw the remaining three musicians closer together, stoking a telepathic bond which unflinchingly breathes new life into songs dating back to 1971’s tumultuous Man-Erg, which is bewitching and terrifying as monstrous chords pile in like phantoms overrunning the opera.

Long-time fans will be delighted to find the setlist includes the full 23 minutes of A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers, performed for the first time since it occupied side two of 1971’s Pawn Hearts. Its faultless reproduction here is more astonishing because the original, which charted the mental unravelling of a lonely lighthouse keeper, was constructed from sections meticulously recorded separately. Now the band stride confidently between pastoral calm and torrential storms in convoluted time signatures, Hammill venting his schizophrenic rage and Banton wrenching his hot‑wired Hammond into the outer limits. Not only that, but the first track is a mesmerising reading of Hammill’s 20-minute Flight, from 1980’s _Black Box. _

There’s going to be a double vinyl version featuring these two epics. To experience the full set, it’s advised to skip the single-CD version and procure the double incarnation boasting voluptuous renditions of Gog (the cataclysmic tour de force on Hammill’s 1974 In Camera album), Scorched Earth from 1975’s Godbluff, apocalyptic Childlike Faith In Childhood’s End, which closed 1976’s Still Life, and the 15-minute Meurglys II, The Songwriters Guild from that same year’s World Record.

More recent albums Trisector and A Grounding In Numbers are represented by tracks including Lifetime, All That Before, Over The Hill, Interference Patterns, Bunsho and Your Time Starts Now, showing the band still have that intangible inner force, and are still busting with mischief and desire to take this music somewhere it might not have been yet.

While that wide-eyed teenage Van der Graaf Generator fan still glows with the same euphoric entrancement, it also makes an old fan very happy.

Kris Needs

Kris Needs is a British journalist and author, known for writings on music from the 1970s onwards. Previously secretary of the Mott The Hoople fan club, he became editor of ZigZag in 1977 and has written biographies of stars including Primal Scream, Joe Strummer and Keith Richards. He's also written for MOJO, Record Collector, Classic Rock, Prog, Electronic Sound, Vive Le Rock and Shindig!