Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Think of the Children
As you might guess, I’ve made a few trips to A&B Sound for pre- and post-Christmas shopping. Lately they’ve set up big displays that follow
you all the way to the cashier, flaunting impulse buys for every age and taste. One of these shelves is marked “For Mom” and features the Bon Jovi box set, the new Brian Wilson album, and other mom-friendly audio/visual treats. Next to that display are racks of stuff “For Dad”—Sin City, the AC/DC catalogue, and the recent reissue/remaster of Van der Graaf Generator’s The Least We Can Do is Wave to Each Other. You mean people like me actually breed? If you know anyone whose dad asked for that in his stocking, call social services.

The VdGG remasters are actually pretty keen, and if I didn’t already own multiple copies of these albums I’d be snapping them up. The only reissue I’ve bought on sight is their third album, H to He Who Am the Only One (1970). I now own four copies of this record, sorry to say. But the new one has bonus tracks…spectacular ones! The first addition is worth the price alone—“Squid I/Squid II/Octopus” live and unhinged in the studio during the Pawn Hearts sessions in 1971. This is a 15-minute medley of early songs that formed a big chunk of VdGG’s live set up to the band’s implosion in 1972. It’s glorious to hear the band in full blow, just like you might have on the Six-Bob Tour. Listen to mad boffin Hugh Banton’s organ sing to the heavens then puke its guts out, or marvel at how he summons the heaviest sound in the universe for the rush to the song’s end. Reel from the unrelenting Guy Evans at the drum kit, almost willing the whole enterprise to fly apart while shouldering his rhythm section responsibilities with ease. Hammill in manic young man mode screams into the din, but for most of the track he backs off and lets his band do their thing. It’s thrilling to hear them play live in such a high-fidelity environment. Their BBC sessions captured some of the group’s raw energy, but lacked this recording’s ripped-to-the-tits spontaneity, and no bootleg from this era comes close sonically. The last song is an earlier take of H to He’s third track, “The Emperor in his War Room,” a gruesome, spiteful treatise on tyranny where a warmongering politician is visited by the ghosts of those he’s sent to death (“In the night they steal your eye from its socket/and the ball hangs fallen on your cheek”). Other than its spectacular lyrics and “War Pigs” worthy imagery (I think H to He is by far the most Sabbatherian VdGG album), this track is most famous for Robert Fripp’s guest appearance, sitting in on guitar. Although Fripp isn’t on this version, Jaxon lays down some extra flute where the guitar solo eventually appeared, marking this take as a carefully measured run-through for the heavier version that made it onto the album. Not something that’ll make you re-evaluate the larger work, but as an archival curiosity for fans, it’s gold. Keep it in mind for Father’s Day in case the old man really digs that copy of The Least We Can Do…

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Angels of Light—The Angels of Light Sing “Other People” (Young God)
This is an uneasy listen. Michael Gira’s voice demands that you pay attention. He sings/speaks these 12 songs/stories right into your ear. I can’t play this record in the background. It feels rude, like walking out of the room in the middle of a conversation. The “other people” of the album’s title are the subjects of each song—“friends, heroes, and various other entities beyond my control,” says Gira in the liner notes. The people include “My Friend Thor” with his disturbing drawings (one of which lurks behind the CD tray) and alarming sex drive, and Jackie, “dissolving a dream of a world that’s too small for the secrets he keeps,” and, most alarmingly, the apocalyptic spectre of Michael Jackson in “Michael’s White Hands” where Gira rails like a preacher: “Michael bring the truth denied/Michael kill that child inside.” Gira’s backing band here is Akron/Family, a recording act in their own right, who provide consistently surprising arrangements using traditional/folk elements such as mandolin, violin, banjo, slide guitar, handclaps, whistling—and barely any drums at all. Paired with Gira’s acoustic guitar strumming, the music almost steals attention away from the vocals, a third party joining a conversation that gets more rewarding each time I put this album on.