It's taken me a while to pen this review because this is a very odd album. But you could say that all the Van Der Graaf Generator albums are odd. They are very British and very mad hatter Charisma, if you get my drift. For more than 30 years the joys of Peter Hammill and VDGG escaped me, despite some familiarity through Peel shows and sessions. I used to think it was music of madness and little charm. Suddenly it has clicked for me and I am exploring the back catalogue at my leisure and at considerable expense!
The madness is still there, of course. But now it has an avuncular twist to it courtesy of Hammill's slightly mellowed singing. Coupled with Hugh Banton's organ fills occasionally gives this new album the feel of a trip into an old people's home. Seriously. Saxman Jackson is no longer in the band, so we have lost his abrasive edge as well. This warm cosiness is typified by opening track "Your Time Starts Now". However, there is some fantastic edgy guitar from Hammill here and there and I wish it were more prominent in the mix.
Some of the material here struck me as weak initially. However, these tracks ("Embarrassing Kid", "Mathematics" and "5533") are real growers. Current favourites for me are "Highly Strung" and "Snake Oil". Hammill seems to be in a nostalgic mood looking back to his youth in several of the songs and the refrains of "teacher knows best" and "I went and let the old school down" are really quite priceless in context.
The band have cut themselves free from Virgin and now license their own product. The lucky label is Esoteric Records who are doing a jolly good job of promoting the album. In a bizarrely hip move a 45 of "Highly Strung" was issued on April 16th for "Record Store Day". I was lucky enough to find a copy of this one day only release. There was also a vinyl LP release with a die-cut sleeve. Not many copies were pressed, and it also appears to have sold out in record time (sic). Which is a pity, as it looks like it would have been a nice item for any collection. For all things Van Der Graaf, check out official Hammill site http://www.sofasound.com/index.htm and also http://peterhammill.com/phx/