“One doesn’t so much listen as feel it deep in the bones… their stark inventiveness and originality remain outstanding”: Van der Graaf Generator’s Still Life and Vital reissues

1976 studio album and 1978 live double album return from era of new momentum for Peter Hammill and co

Van der Graaf Generator - Still Life and Vital
(Image: © Esoteric)

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After the shock of VdGG’s unexpected reformation in 1975 and the release of their all-killer-no-filler comeback album Godbluff, the weight of expectation was extraordinarily high as fans eagerly awaited its follow-up, Still Life

Such was the creative surge that sparked their return to active duty, they already had the exultant swagger of Pilgrims and La Rossa’s demented waltz-time exertions held over from the Godbluff recording in the bag as they began work on new material in 1976.

Adding the dark gravity of the title track along with what amounts to the triumphal procession of My Room and Childlike Faith In Childhood’s End, it’s little wonder the album not only continued to drive the band’s momentum but became revered as one of the gems in a catalogue already brimming with more than a few masterpieces. Imbued with a magisterial solemnity that can just as quickly turn into a savage whirlwind of emotional catharsis, it’s lost none of its cohesive force.

Yet despite this success, 1976 also marked the departure of organist Hugh Banton and saxophonist David Jackson after the release of World Record, prompting Peter Hammill and drummer Guy Evans to overhaul the group’s signature sound with the recruitment of original VdGG bassist Nic Potter and String Driven Thing violinist Graham Smith.

Guy Evans’ production work doesn’t get anything like the praise as it deserves

After 1977’s studio effort, The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Zone, the band’s near-feral savagery was brilliantly documented the following year on the live double album, Vital. With a set that draws upon previous material – including a caustic Still Life – the blistering versions of their recent pieces flicker with an incandescent energy.

The mood is belligerent and no-nonsense as the entire band, including cellist Charles Dickie and the haunting sax of a guesting Jackson, teeter along the tightrope between triumph and catastrophe. Topped by the boom of Hammill’s stentorian rant and roar, their white-knuckle journey illuminates the dynamic chasms between Potter’s subterranean bass and Smith’s waspish violin.

Drummer Guy Evans’ production work on Vital doesn’t get anything like as much praise as it deserves. The spiky, overdriven nature of the sound, let alone the tactile qualities of the music itself, means one doesn’t so much listen to it as feel it deep in the bones.

With both reissues receiving a touch of 21st-century audio TLC, their stark inventiveness and originality remain outstanding.

Still Life and Vital are available on vinyl, while Vital is also available in a 2CD set.

Sid Smith

Sid's feature articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Prog, Classic Rock, Record Collector, Q, Mojo and Uncut. A full-time freelance writer with hundreds of sleevenotes and essays for both indie and major record labels to his credit, his book, In The Court Of King Crimson, an acclaimed biography of King Crimson, was substantially revised and expanded in 2019 to coincide with the band’s 50th Anniversary. Alongside appearances on radio and TV, he has lectured on jazz and progressive music in the UK and Europe.  

A resident of Whitley Bay in north-east England, he spends far too much time posting photographs of LPs he's listening to on Twitter and Facebook.