Tag Archives: Van der Graaf Generator

Instrumentally Yours: The Saxophone

Damn, do I love me some saxophone. I keep trying to put my finger on what it is that draws me to it such readily, and the only thing that I can come up with it that it sounds more ‘alive’ than any of the instruments in standard rock, as it’s driven by breath – comin’ from the very inside of a human being rather than stemming from the extremities. As flowery as that sounds, it means that no two notes are really the same, as the smallest change can make the timbre sound totally different and you can really hear the effort welling up behind the note, whether it be a quiet toot or a wailing peel.

Used at the low end, it usually has a lot more texture and character to it than just a pluck of the string . There’s a little wildness around the edges as it blasts the low notes into your gut; a feeling that you could just fall right into the gaping hole the sound creates. A little goes a long way. Simon & Garfunkel’s “Why Don’t You Write Me?” doesn’t use it to replace the bass entirely, but does have an irresistible baritone sax part at the break, honking away at either side of your ears and sort of relishing in the deep tones by playing mostly the same note but with a funky rhythm. On his recent album, The Next Day, David Bowie’s opens “Dirty Boys” with the sleaziest, slinkiest bari sax line, barely able to keep itself above board through the verses of the song as Bowie recounts his times of debauchery with the lads. Near the end, it begrudgingly offers up a solo as it crawls towards the finish, no doubt hungover and pissed off and eager to get on with the next night’s activities.

As a lead instrument, it can open up a crazy amount, as you can go through all kinds of timbrel changes even around just the same notes, twisting your mouth or playing with your breath. It’s more akin to singing in that way, as it feels varied and articulate at points. I’d be lying if I said that my adoration of Van der Graaf Generator did not have a major influence on my selection of this subject. Using the sax as their main lead instrument, they’re caught right in the middle of wresting it from the hands of jazz circa 1970. In “Killer”, David Jackson lays down the main riff of the song alongide the organ (playing two saxes simultaneously, might I add), but quickly jumps at the chance to squonk and scronk away atonally – very much echoing the sounds of jazz but in the name of the energy and aggression of rock. The movement from order to chaos exhibited on the sax is awesome – the note becomes completely irrelevant and inaudible as he channels rage into the reed until settling back down at the return of the verse.

Pop music is also unable to resist the dalliances of that sweet sweet horn – it’s something I’m hearing more and more of and I’m getting excited about it. Lady Gaga uses a sax solo for the break in “The Edge of Glory” on Born This Way, and it creates an interesting contrast – hearing that sax wail about against Gaga’s usual bank of synths and drum machine seems like it would make the natural sounds of the sax seem out of place, but it actually fits in better than you’d think. The boisterous sound of sax actually fits in with the carefully tweaked synths that surround it – it has that thickness and character than we want out of synths nowadays, as we’ve long rocketed past the tinny sounds of the Casio. The synthesizer is supposed to sound like a synthesizer, not anything else. As such, it hangs quite nicely as another varied tone in the bunch – just as complex, timbre-wise as anything else in the bunch and  ripping notes to shreds left and right.

And then there’s “Baker Street”. I don’t think I could possibly come up with enough superlatives to describe the sax riff alone. After several listens, I’ve discovered that it actually has verses and a guitar solo, and they’re actually pretty good. But the sax. It plays that eight-bar riff over and over and gives it a different flavour every time – a little more gusto, a little micro-second longer note. It’s transcendent. Just listen.

And putting it all together is Colin Stetson. Often Arcade Fire’s hired gun, Stetson has put out three solo albums now playing only bass saxophone and with no overdubs. He instead has many, many microphones placed all over the instrument to capture every nuance of every little sound he can get it to make. Here’s “Judges” (and here, Colin breaks it all down). He’s playing low, high, the percussive aspect of slapping the keys and using some of his breath before he even gets to the freakin’ sax, which he needs a hell of a lot of to power the beast that is the bass sax. It sounds primal and visceral and otherworldly. The same instrument provides so many different facets at the same time, it’s dizzying. Provided, Stetson has an insane talent, but I really didn’t even know it was possible to do that and have each portion of it sounds satisfying as if each part were given to a different person.

Sax is on the rise, and I couldn’t be happier. Anytime I can turn on the radio and hear some really brassy woodwindy gusto, I’m super pleased. Possibly the reason I can watch this for hours (also because dude’s got serious moves):

P.S. I know it’s a meme – I could not find a video that looped the actual footage of the dude moving that didn’t have dumb text all over it. So I present the whole song because it owns anyhow.

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When the Beloved Bandmember Goes Solo

Lately, I’ve been re-listening to a lot of the Peter Hammill catalogue that I have, and the reason for this is two-fold. Firstly, the idea of being ‘really into’ a particular singer-songwriter with such a large body of work appeals to me greatly (as of 2014, Hammill has 35 solo albums to his name, and shows no signs of slowing down) – there’s quite a huge world to get lost in there, and enough to cover every mood and whim once I get a basic familiarity with it. The other reason, is that, quite, simply, I want more of the band that Hammill famously fronts, Van der Graaf Generator.

Van der Graaf has been my (co-)favourite band since I first heard them five or six years ago, and I have, quite simply, pretty much worn myself out on a large majority of their work. There is lots of stuff there for me to revisit whenever I feel the urge, but I’ve listened to it all many, many times. The particular albums I’ve been giving attention – Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night, The Silent Corner & The Empty Stage and In Camera – all stem from the 1972-1974 period where Van der Graaf was on hiatus, and so features a lot of actual collaboration with David Jackson (sax), Hugh Banton (organ) and Guy Evans (drums), each including one lengthy VDGG-style harrowing final track. Three new ten-minute tracks is a lot to gnaw on in terms of the band, so that itch has more or less been scratched. I do find myself, however, stricken by the same problem I had when entering Peter Gabriel’s solo oeuvre.

The Peter Gabriel era of Genesis is what got me into progressive rock in the first place, and I very much had the same pattern. I listened to the albums they put out during that time incessantly, but the point eventually came where I needed to find something else. Considering my main anchor for that stretch of albums was Gabriel’s voice, I decided the next place to turn was his solo stuff. If he’s the same guy, and he’s following on from this kind of pedigree, it must be similar, right? Wrong. Gabriel’s first album is a tour of styles, including the jangly “Solsbury Hill” and very much has Gabriel trying to write much more melodic and varied stuff, which baffled this dude hoping that the supply of ten-minute organ based epics was not ever going to run out.

Up and down the discography I went, always hitting the same block with “but this isn’t Genesis” rattling in my head. I would listen to it occasionally, but never quite got the same pleasure out of it that I would hope for. It wasn’t until coming back much later, having shaken the pure-prog yoke that I could approach this stuff with a new perspective and appreciation for what he was doing, rather than what he wasn’t. Even with that being said, I find Gabriel’s stuff takes a few listens to get into, but knowing that going in, it’s easier to reap the rich rewards for doing so (especially on the superb Us).

How then, do I get used to Hammill’s solo acoustic guitar songs, when he’s tearing the house down in a mad organ-drenched frenzy two songs later? It’s not that that composed a majority of his work either – he seems to relish the chance to use most instrumentals at his disposal with equal fervour – it’s just that hearing Hammill with only acoustic guitar as accompaniment still sounds oddly jarring to me, like it’s weirdly displaced after getting to know him as the eye of the storm of VDGG. I want to reach a place where I am not just trying to suck the Van der Graaf out of it, and am actually appreciating it for what it is, but that may take some time or just some listens. Such is the quandry of the solo artist post- or outside of the band they are more famous for. It’s a shadow that looms across the solo career of many (not necessarily for the negative, but often pigeonholing), but the jump fans make from band to artist can just as easily open their ears up given the one thing they are familiar with in a new context. Either way, it’s going to be a helluva ride. Despite some of the strangeness or strange-in-its-normality tunes that Hammill provides on his albums, I have yet to find one that’s been boring.

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A meme made long.

I’ve been dragging my heels on this meme (conferred on me by the incomparible Alex Gunning), so I thought I’d make up for it by elaborating on it in blog form.

The 12 albums that have stuck with me:

(All images from wikipedia.org)

The Who – Quadrophenia

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A key part in the 1970s wave of double albums with black and white covers, Quadrophenia has been, for quite some time. The recurring musical themes established in the title track and their reprises with key phrases lend that grandiose and classical feeling to the proceedings, yelling the story of the mod named Jimmy. The quartet have never been better technically as they were on here, at a confluence with just the right amount of songwriting prowess and self indulgence in Pete Townshend’s head. They popularized the rock opera with Tommy, but perfected it here.

Tracks to check out: “The Real Me”, “The Punk and the Godfather”, “Love, Reign O’er Me”

They Might Be Giants – Lincoln

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Back in ’88, fewer people were enjoying the indie rock sound, but when they did, they often would turn to two guys named John from Brooklyn to get their fill. Lincoln runs the gamut from power pop on “Ana Ng” to the weird jazzy bellow of “You’ll Miss Me” to the martial beat of “Pencil Rain” and demonstrates TMBG’s knack on only their sophomore effort for writing catchy tunes with bizarre wordplay. Spread across 19 short songs, Lincoln is a lesson in accessible eclecticism and is just loads of fun to listen to.

Tracks to check out: “Ana Ng”, “Cage & Aquarium”, “They’ll Need A Crane”, “Kiss Me, Son of God”

Egg – Egg

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Deep in the mists of prog can be found a short-lived project with only three albums to its name and three members to its roster – Egg. Having seen the infancy of prog begin, they immediaty dove headfirst into baffling time signatures, symphonic aspirations sonic experimentalism with their organ-bass-drum trio and exploded onto the scene with their self-titled debut. Barely organized chaos is the order of the day as bassist Mont Campbell attempts to bring some sort of order with his airy vocals. The album is rough n ready and has a sort of urgency and live feel to it that gives you a pretty good idea of what it was like to see them live and feel as if you were part of something new happening.

Tracks to check out: “Fugue in D Minor”, “The Song of McGillicudie the Pusillanimous”

Genesis – Genesis Live

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I was waffling back and forth on which Genesis album to put on this list, as my interest in early Genesis got me not only into prog, but also a good portion of the music I listen to today. Problem is, I find each of their early albums to have their hits and misses. Except for this one. All killer, no filler, Genesis Live is the only live album released during Peter Gabriel’s tenure with the band and features their best tracks from the previous three albums (save one omission), with the players just on fire on all counts. Gabriel’s stage banter is brief but witty, and these live renditions of the longer songs in their oeuvre have a great deal more energy to them than their studio counterparts – not to mention guitarist Steve Hackett and drummer Phil Collins getting to put their own stamp on the thunderous closer, “The Knife”, which was released before they joined the band.

Tracks to check out: “The Return of the Giant Hogweed”, “The Knife”

Elvis Costello and the Attractions – This Year’s Model

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Costello’s acerbic wit combined with his snotty snarl and his backing band at the height of their punky game makes his sophomore album one of the best I’ve ever heard. While Punk’s poet laureate offers a treatise on the nature of love and celebrity worship (with lyrical barbs like “You want her broken with her mouth wide open/’cause she’s this year’s girl” and “Sometimes love is just a tumor/You got to cut it out”), the Attractions are busy laying the frenetic groundwork on top of which it all sits (I swear, the rhythm section took out every rest they had on “Lipstick Vogue”), while creating enough earworms to have you bopping long after you’re done listening. To be honest, I stopped for the most part with Costello after this album, because he got it perfect with this one.

Tracks to check out: “This Year’s Girl”, “Pump It Up”, “Lipstick Vogue”

The Decemberists – Picaresque

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Strangely enough, all of my top favourite Decemberists tracks are on other albums, but none of them are quite as consistent as Picaresque, which shows them in all their jaunty glory. You get bombast on “The Infanta”, an epic sea shanty on “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”, a quieter lovelorn paean on “The Engine Driver” and some sort-non-specific old-timey stomp on “The Sporting Life”. Every song takes place in its own enjoyable world, rich with little words and sonic details that evoke that particular atmosphere, as well as an undoubtedly catchy melody and a few terms you’ll have to look up after the fact.

Tracks to check out: “The Infanta”, “16 Military Wives”, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”

Van der Graaf Generator – Godbluff

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2 sides, 4 songs, roughly 10 minutes each. This symmetrical layout provides the framework for my favourite of the many Van der Graaf albums that I love. Though they always employed a somewhat unusual instrumentation, this album features the usual organ-drums-sax trio with the addition of singer Peter Hammill on clavichord, which provides plenty of rich menacing counterpoint. The album documents the horrors of war over top of wailing sax riffs, gnarled organ and the bellowing and caterwauling of Hammill stretching his voice in any direction it will go, each song having plenty of time to establish its own particular haunting narrative, lyrically and sonically.

Track to check out: “Scorched Earth”

Neil Young – Live at Massey Hall 1971

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One man, an acoustic guitar and a piano onstage at Toronto’s Massey Hall is all it took to make this one of my favourite live albums. With no back-up and a single instrument to sing along to, Young’s songwriting is on full display from the word go, as he runs through his early catalogue and (then) new songs that would appear on his blockbuster Heart of Gold. His self-effacing stage banter is effortlessly Canadian and charming, and every performance beautiful in its simplicity and allowance for the melodies to shine through.

Tracks to check out: “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”, “The Needle and the Damage Done”

Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid

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A fine showpiece of modern songcraft. Each song is quintessentially British and has many little studio touches that catapult them from good to fantastic. Guy Garvey’s husky croon touches on love of all kinds on this album: past, present, future, unrequited and platonic; all of this is backed by the appropriate somber piano melody or orchestral bombast that evolves as the song’s story goes on and on. One of the most consistent track-to-track albums I’ve ever heard that tackles as many different moods as this one does.

Tracks to check out: “The Bones of You”, “Grounds For Divorce”, “One Day Like This”

Muse – Absolution

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From the introduction consisting solely of military stomping and incoherent orders being yelled, I knew that I was listened to something that was going to be right in my wheelhouse. A concept album based around the theme of different people’s experiences of the end of the world with some of the craziest and most piercing riffs I’d ever heard in my life, with a falsetto to put Raine Maida’s to shame? Hell yes.

Tracks to check out: “Stockholm Syndrome”, “Hysteria”, “Butterflies & Hurricanes”

Radiohead – Kid A

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This one my first Radiohead album proper, but I actually skirted around Radiohead for sometime, using Thom Yorke’s solo electronic effort, The Eraser to kind of get in through the back door. When I was done with that, I wanted more Yorke and more electronic stuff, so what better way to turn? Radiohead’s cryptic masterpiece is unrivaled in the intense and paranoid atmosphere it creates with some beats, some synths, a studio and virtually no guitars. One of those albums that teleports you completely to another world.

Tracks to check out: “Everything In Its Right Place”, “The National Anthem”, “Idioteque”

Our Lady Peace – Naveed

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Probably the album on this list that’s been with me the longest and still one of my favourite rock albums ever. from the dizzying insanity of “The Birdman” to the intro to “Neon Crossing” which, at 15, was the craziest thing I’d ever heard up ’till that point, Naveed is a wonderful piece of alternative rock that always seems to zig when you think it’s gonna zag. Guitarist Mike Turner’s riffs seem to emanate from a different planet, Raine Maida caterwauls and bemoans the human condition while Jeremy Taggart fills in every conceivable space with unreal drum fills (especially impressive considering he was only 18 at the time).

Tracks to check out: “The Birdman”, “Starseed”, “Denied”

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