Van Der Graaf Generator has been scaring listeners and surprising fans with their darker lyrics thanks to Peter Hammill’s songwriting. With supporters and fans admiring the music including; The Mars Volta, John Lydon, Fish, and Mark E. Smith to name a few, the band have taken us to the dark side with The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other, H to He Who Am The Only One, and the album that would be a risky ride into uncharted territory with their masterpiece Pawn Hearts. Van Der Graaf brought a swarm of screeching saxes and Hammill’s voice as if he was in the asylum ready to attack, keyboards going haywire, and Avant-Garde loops that seemed like something out of a horror film. Cut to 2004 and ’05 when the four members reunited and released Present and performed in Europe and blew the Royal Festival Hall away with their mind-blowing performance. As David Jackson left the band due to creative differences, VDGG was now a trio as they released Trisector which got some acclaim and soon took them to realize that a trio might work according to Hammill. Like an unbelievable swarm of bees as a glorified Punk-experimental album that would have made Lydon squeal like a VDGG fan, A Grounding in Numbers, is Van Der Graaf’s mind-blowing exercise in a ride that makes the mad-scientist into efforts but also makes sure that the band are back with vengeance and getting ready to blow the door open with a hardcore battering ram.
The best moments in Van Der Graaf’s album are not doing the epics in which they did on the eerie suicidal epic, A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers, but it’s almost like a sequel to Pawn Hearts 40 years later with electrifying crescendos, African-tribe percussion momentum, and swirling into a dark pool of hell that is out of this world and would take you to the next direction. The opening melodic ballad of Your Time Starts Now as it deals with moving forward and thinking about not going back to change the errors of your way, but to deal with your future and how you can handle it as Hammill sings, “All that information/all that warp and weft/for all your patient fortitude you’re patently bereft/of clue of hint of notion/of answers, even vague/You’re ploughing forward nonetheless/as through by simple doggedness/the far side’ll see you saved.” The musician’s create almost like a moody atmosphere as drummer Guy Evans keeps the drum pattern very calm while keyboardist Hugh Banton does an emotional momentum on the organ as they help Hammill to calm down to feel the scenery on how difficult for someone to move forward.
The dramatic dooming touch of Mathematics is grasping as Hammill is back in his Acting role in the realm of Edgard Allen Poe as if he was a Mathematician in the realm of H To He, Who Am The Only One as he screams out the algebratic tone of the pi multiplication and subtraction while Highly Strung is almost a requiem for Peter Hammill’s alias character, Rikki Nadir. But with a touch of King Crimson with a punk attitude, as Peter does his take on the Fripp-riffs as if he’s paying tribute to Robert and giving Rikki a Shakespearean finale, he delivers the goods on the guitar. He isn’t like Jimmy Page, nor Steve Jones, but he plays like a mad scientist as it goes through time changes as the band offers a vicious tone in the realm of Lou Reed’s Transformer-era meets King Crimson’s Red. Red Baron is drummer Guy Evans moment to shine.
He does as I mentioned, the African-tribe feel on the drums as Banton and Hammill create a disturbing yet sinister new age sound on the keyboards as Evans goes through different changes through the tom-toms, snare, and the hi-hat and the gong as well. It’s a 2-minute instrumental piece, but he delivers the goods on the drums as Van Der Graaf goes up to 200 on the temperature to give it a high score. Bunsho (Year Name) offers more Hammill giving the middle finger to the mainstream and how the music business has gone down the tubes, as he delivers in-your-face situation on how real good sound is supposed to be done as he describes on how it’s done with: “I’d just done the best work/To fall into my hands for quite some time/Of night oil I’d burned much/Made sue both style and content were sublime/ So I put it forward/to the public forum in anticipation of my due acclaim.” Makes you wonder that if he and Bowie had teamed up together and went on tour as Nadir and Stardust in 1973, it would have been one hell of a firestorm for these guys to sing this composition as a duet between two heroes, the anti-rock star and the rock musician from outer space.
The warped dimension feel of Snake Oil sounds like an alternative soundtrack to Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. At first it starts off like a true calm-like love song as Hammill sings in the realms of the balladry before it descends into a pounding explosive piano chords and explosive drum snares as if the volcano has erupted into massive chaos a-la Lemmings (Including Cogs) style. Splink is a hypnotic folksy slide-bluesy instrumental into a twisted adventure in the realm of Louis Malle meets Tim Burton while Embarrassing Kid is in the touch of Crimson meets P.I.L. as Hammill delivers a roaring addiction to his Nadir disguise about his alias with “It remains pretty strange and uncomfortable territory/where my secrets are hidden, hidden absurd.” You could tell that Hammill is a very private person and doesn’t want to keep stepping in the water of the corporate crime of Hollywood bullshit. The eerie Medusa, will definitely chill the listener to the bone about selling you soul to the devil as you are about to break free from prison and finding out this woman isn’t what you seem to see to be inside her.
Mr. Sands has the band going into a Hunky Dory-era with some heavy duty organ work that Hugh Banton does. The story is almost a mini-rock opera about the life in business as a man named Mr. Sands comes in and the lyrics are almost a warning about who this person is. It has a theatrical setting as if the employees are given the papers and describes the danger of Sands in a messed up way. There’s some time changes in the tune throughout the song, as the characters try to find out a way to get the hell out of the office and go on vacation before all hell breaks loose before going into the funk realm of Smoke.
You can hear Hammill’s spoken ramble as the band go into a Stax free-style fuzzy fusion-sque freak out and the singing he goes into on about how careful you must and choosing your words because you don’t know what kind of shit you might be in as it segues into the numbers guitar chugging futuristic rock surroundings of Frank Zappa’s One Size Fit All-era on 5533. You can tell the band are having fun going into the mysterious numbers of math due to their love of the counting at Manchester University in which the band was formed at. They go into a weird and attacking mode to see who can outrun the singing or the instruments they might go into the finish line before closing the curtain with a 17th century roar on the Harpsichord and drums with the weird and twisted finale, All Over the Place, there’s a moment that everything was recorded at a Gothic Cathedral and deliver the goods from the identity and seeing the real-self to let everyone know it was all just a dream.
There are so many mysterious musical adventures after three listens, it’s hard to see whether you love or loathe Van Der Graaf Generator’s lyrics and Peter Hammill’s vocals. What is very understanding is that the music can be difficult to understand and can disturbed the listener and have them scratch their heads, thinking what the hell have I gone into. Is A Grounding in Numbers an achieving successful record? Given the fact that Van Der Graaf Generator have developed and worked on this album to create a follow-up to Trisector, it’s quite hard to say that it’s one of Van Der Graaf Generator’s best comeback in the darker territory to release the mindless army to attack.