Hmmm… a Van der Graaf Generator instrumental album eh? For a supposed ‘prog’ band, Van der Graaf Generator have never really gone in for lengthy instrumental passages, preferring to fill their convoluted songs with Peter Hammill’s densely-packed words. Then again, The Graaf, as they’ve seldom affectionately referred to, have never really gone in for the usual ‘prog’ behaviour.Of course their biggest ‘hit’ “Theme One” was an instrumental, but that was a cover of a George Martin piece, so hardly counts, and the less said about the lacklustre Long Hello series the better, except to be grateful they weren’t released under the group name to tarnish the reputation. 2005’s triumphant reunion album Present came with a second disc of improvised instrumentals, a disc that tended to remain firmly in the case while disc one dominated the CD player. The two instrumentals on last year’s A Grounding in Numbers, while good, hardly made everyone clamour to suggest that Hammill keeps his mouth shut in future. Certainly Banton and Evans are extraordinary musicians, but both have a great aptitude for playing exactly what’s needed rather than dazzling us with party tricks, and what’s needed is almost always the perfect setting for their crazed front man’s unhinged rantings. So… not a lot of bated breath expended on waiting for Alt - a series of instrumental pieces recorded at various rehearsals and soundchecks over the past few years, particularly when drummer Guy Evans describes some of them as being “execrably recorded”. But… against all odds, it’s rather good, catching the trio having fun and trying things that would be off-limits on a regular VdGG album. Most noticeably, organist (NOT keyboard player!) Hugh Banton actually selects the orchestral patch on his instrument on “Colossus,” apparently to isolate a fault rather than out of choice but then takes off into Varèse territory when Guy Evans thunders in with some freeform percussion, resulting in six and a half minutes of psychotic atonal orchestration.
Elsewhere, both “Here’s One I Made Earlier” and “Dronus” could pass as lost krautrock pieces, e-bow guitar and cosmic organ melding into huge floating clouds of toxic mist on a far away planet like something from Tangerine Dream’s Zeit, or in the latter’s case, maybe even something from one of Popol Vuh’s Herzog soundtracks. Of course with a project like this it’s going to be a bit hit or miss, and both “Elsewhere” and “Midnite or So” sound a bit jokey and throwaway with bits of lounge jazz pastiche popping up, and “Repeat After Me” is a bit, well, nice. Even these pieces have their moments though, and it certainly sounds like the guys are having great fun.“Extractus” sounds like the formative idea for an interesting song riff, as does “Tuesday, the Riff,” the latter almost approaching Southern Lord territory, although presumably such potential songs have already been discarded for these snatches to turn up here. Opening track “Earlybird” on the other hand appears to be Guy Evans improvising along to a bird singing outside the window.
Just about the only sound absent from Alt is the sound of progressive rock musicians showing you how well they can play. For that alone, it comes pretty highly recommended. It’s genuinely refreshing to hear three sexagenarians still reaching out for new and stimulating sounds rather than falling back on old habits like the majority of their contemporaries. Alt will disappoint those looking for a Van der Graaf Generator album a bit like the others, but to those fans who appreciate the spirit rather than technique of the group, it should prove a positive delight… and probably something of a surprise.