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coverpic flag England - Full Moon 227 - 03/05/15

Van Der Graaf Generator
Merlin Atmos - Live Performances 2013
Esoteric Antenna/Cherry Red Records

At the North American tour in 2012 the current VdGG trio included the epic "Flight" in their set. It stems from the band's vocalist, guitarist, piano player and main songwriter Peter Hammill's solo album "A Black Box" from 1980 and is a sidelong (LP format, you know) suite in seven parts that lasts more than 20 minutes. It was performed live in the first half of the 1980s, in solo, duo and quartet format. There's a great version on the double live album "The Margin" by Hammill's K Group released in February 1985. I witnessed him perform it solo behind a grand piano the last day of that moonth, exactly 30 years ago at the time of writing. It was probably the very last concert at Oslo's legendary Club 7 (well, at least legendary to some Norwegians 50 years plus), and Hammill's last performance in Norway (at least so far). Before a short European tour of 2013 the trio decided to go even further and perform the even longer "A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers". The "Plague" is another sidelong piece, doom-laden and divided into ten parts. It stems from the band's classic 1971 album Pawn Hearts, by many reckoned as the band's best achievement ever. The "Plague" was never performed live in concert back in the days. The closest was once in a Belgian TV studio, but it had to be recorded in parts. It was too complicated and really too much for a quartet to cope with at the time. Forty years on and new technology had made it possible for a trio to manage the task.

Merlin Atmos has been released in three different formats. The LP version only includes those two sidelong tracks. There are also two CD versions, a single one with four more songs and a "deluxe" double CD with an additional Bonus Atmos disc that holds seven more songs. This is the second live album since the reformation of the band in 2004, the first being Real Time, the band's comeback concert at The Royal Festival Hall in London in May 2005. There are three songs in common on the two albums, all of them on Bonus Atmos, three classic chestnuts from the 1970s.

Die-hard VdGG-fans eagerly awaited the live premiere of "A Plague" two years ago and their expectations seemed to be fulfilled. Which alone means Merlin Atmos ought to be most welcomed at least for the initiated who didn't make it and as a great souvenir for Sthe ones being present. The original "Plague" was recorded by the quartet with David Jackson (saxes and flutes) in addition to the current trio of Hammill, Guy Evans (drums and percussion) and Hugh Banton (keyboards). When bassist Nic Potter quit the band a little earlier, in 1970, Banton filled his shoes with bass pedals in addition to his normal organ set-up. When Jaxon got the boot by the end of 2005, Banton had to fill some of the gaps left by him in addition. It's a formidable achievement, Banton really is a keyboard wizard, but not of the boasting kind. He carries out his job for the best of the songs, not for personal exposure. But I can't help to feel that especially "The Plague" would've gained a dimension or two if Jaxon still had been aboard. (Though Hugh's ominous lighthouse foghorns that kicks in after three minutes adds something new.) Jaxon was a vital part of the VdGG sound and there is something missing in the songs that stems from his period with the band (1969-77 and 2004-05). He also participated on the majority of Hammill's about 40 studio albums until 2004, including the orignial "Flight". To compensate to some degree, the trio have included six songs off the band's two studio albums after Jaxon left. The problem is that at least a couple of them are not quite up to the standard of the ones of the Jaxon eras. Especially "Interference Patterns" on the bonus disc is only annoying and tiresome to my ears, no matter how many times I play it. Hammill screams his heart out to no avail, methinks. On the other hand, "Bunsho" works great and holds some surprising rock'n'roll guitar playing by Hammill along with dynamic organ. "All That Before" is another goodie with a bit of twinkle in the eye and variations on the characteristic riff and also a bit of the lyrics from The Kinks' "You Really Got Me". My favourite of the album, though, is "Gog" off Hammill's 1974 solo album In Camera. It's one of the darkest and most demonic songs of his voluminous catalogue (only surpassed by the consecutive "Magog" on the same album, not included here):

Some call me SATAN others have me GOD
some name me NEMO... I am unborn.
Some speak of me in anagrams,
some grieve upon my wrath...
the ones who give me service
I grant my scorn.

The beast really gains being performed by a band, in particular Banton's mighty and dramatic organ sounding more perfectly like a church organ than the one of the original recording. (He ought to know; he's had his is own firm building organs mainly for churches for thirty something years.) "Flight" is also up to par with Banton adding something extra with his organ, not included on previous recordings. Though I think the K Group version mentioned above, recorded in 1983, also with Guy Evans on drums, include some more punk energy and sparks. Which is inevitable; the difference between the musicianship of artists in their mid 30s and mid 60s... Still, Hammill's voice has remained remarkably strong, his rougher guitar excesses is a welcomed counterweight to Banton's perfection and the rhythms of Guy Evans is as sturdy and solid as ever.

I lost some of my faith in VdGG after the fall-out with David Jackson and he is sadly missed here. On the other hand, a vital VdGG in trio format is a lot better than no VdGG at all.

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You may also want to check out our Van Der Graaf Generator articles/reviews: ALT, After The Flood - At The BBC 1968-1977, Do Not Disturb, Godbluff, Present, Real Time, Still Life, The Box, The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other + H To He Who Am The Only One + Pawn Hearts.

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