Van der Graaf Generator: The Aerosol Grey Machine album review

Lavish 50th anniversary reissue for VdGG’s elusive debut album

Van der Graaf Generator

For many years, The Aerosol Grey Machine existed as a distant rumour in the VdGG catalogue, a debut album originally intended as a Peter Hammill solo record, and only released in America. Rare-as-hen’s-teeth UK test pressings (in a far superior sleeve to the US version) were out there somewhere, but until Hammill re-released it on his Fie! label in 1997, it was almost a completely unknown quantity to British fans. 

But here it is now, repackaged as a splendid 50th anniversary box. It includes a vinyl LP housed in that elusive UK sleeve and a reproduction of the withdrawn 1968 single People You Were Going To. There’s also their first BBC session and the previously unreleased 1967 demo that got them signed to Mercury Records in the first place, the deal that was responsible for Aerosol’s tangled history and led to the band initially breaking up.

However, when Hammill got ready to make an album in the summer of ’69, he invited his former bandmates to help, and over the course of a 12-hour studio session, it soon became apparent that this was very much a VdGG record. As Sid Smith notes in the accompanying booklet, what’s striking about Aerosol is just how accomplished it sounds for such a young band, with Hammill’s declamatory but earnest voice and his unique way with a melody already fully-formed. There’s no David Jackson in this early line-up, but Hugh Banton and Guy Evans are both energetically present, while bassist Keith Ellis adds some rock’n’roll grit to the sound.

And even on this debut, what an original and individual sound it is, neither psych nor prog but wholly their own. Much of the album’s impact is down to Hammill’s confident songwriting and the sheer conviction of his delivery, with the two tracks recorded at an earlier session – Afterwards and Necromancer – demonstrating the breadth of his ambition, from a beautifully sombre piece of high church balladry to a bracing, if faintly ludicrous, blast of occult drama. But Aerosol is almost as much a showcase for Banton’s keyboard skills, his playing visceral and impressionistic rather than pseudo-classical, from his shivery piano on Aquarian to the ranting squall of his organ on Octopus (even more pronounced on the BBC session version). And all the time, Evans drives the songs along, avoiding the straight beat, but muscular and powerful nonetheless.  

While not quite the equal of their classic Charisma albums, Aerosol is a fascinating insight into what made VdGG such an exciting, elemental force during the 1970s and beyond. 

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VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR - THE AEROSOL GREY MACHINE TRACKLISTING

Disc One

1. Afterwards
2. Orthentian Street (Parts 1 & 2)
3. Running Back
4. Into A Game
5. Ferret And Featherbird
6. Aerosol Grey Machine
7. Black Smoke Yen
8. Aquarian
9. Giant Squid
10. Octopus
11. Necromancer

Disc Two

1. Sunshine (1967 Demo) (Previously Unreleased)
2. Firebrand (1967 Demo) (Previously Unreleased)
3. People You Were Going To (BBC Session - November 1968)
4. Afterwards (BBC Session - November 1968)
5. Necromancer (BBC Session - November 1968)
6. Octopus (BBC Session - November 1968) (Previously Unreleased)
7. People You Were Going To (Single Version)
8. Firebrand (Single Version)

Disc Three

1. Aerosol Grey Machine
2. Black Smoke Yen
3. Aquarian
4. Necromancer
5. Octopus

Disc Four

1. Firebrand

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