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Van Der Graaf Generator - A Grounding In Numbers CD (album) cover


Van Der Graaf Generator


Eclectic Prog

3.44 | 451 ratings

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3 stars The "Who The Hell Needs David Jackson" experience marches on. While I like this a smidge less than its predecessor (largely because of a single track: more on that later), I nonetheless find myself absolutely fascinated by the notion that a style-specific band (a) could reunite after 29 years, (b) sound exactly the same as did when it left off, (c) lose one of the most crucial parts of its sound, (d) make an album in a style that sometimes sounds exactly the same as before and sometimes sounds totally different, and (e) make a followup album that's committed to the exact same approach (especially in its, um, shaky relationship with directness and memorability). Van Der Graaf Generator in the 21st century might not be a great band, but its place in the grand scheme of things is absolutely unique, and it's hard not to root for them to keep going and going.

When I saw the album title and glanced at the track names, the thought occurred to me that they might have actually made a math-rock album about math (for instance, I thought "Highly Strung" might be about string theory), but only a couple of the tracks reflect my initial assumption. One of them, unfortunately, is one of the lowest points in the VDGG catalogue. Understand: I was a Math major (in addition to my Finance major) and while I didn't have the acumen to pursue it beyond my undergrad (I ended up steering in more of an applied math sort of direction), I have a deep love and appreciation for the field in general. I can take square roots by hand. I can derive the explicit formula for the n'th entry in the Fibonacci sequence. When I get bored, one of my choice doodles is a derivation of the fundamental theorem of calculus. I know how to derive the Pythagorean Theorem on a cocktail napkin. For all this, I can think of few worse ideas for a chorus than the one to "Mathematics," where Peter solemnly sings/declares, "e to the power of i times pi plus one is zero." It's a great fact! A teacher once suggested to me that this was the closest thing to a mathematical proof of the existence of God, and I'm not sure I disagree. But it's a TERRIBLE CHORUS. The only justification I can think for it is that the formula is often considered a sort of poem, and perhaps Peter wanted to substitute this abstract form of a poem in for a more "typical" poem that would go into a chorus. Well, it's a noble effort then ... but in the service of a track that absolutely fails the "Could I play this in front of anybody else and not feel terrible embarrassed" test.

The rest of the album's pretty good, though it works better in whole than it does in individual parts. Only a handful of tracks really stand out: "Highly Strung" is a surprisingly effective straightforward (except in the typical moments of rhythmic spasm) anthemic rocker, and the closing "All Over the Place" builds off a nice foundation of Banton on harpsichord and (I presume) Peter on piano, playing a mildly goofy theme before the track turns a bit gloomy in the middle. The opening "Your Time Starts Now" (aside from the brief sci-fi synths at the beginning) could have fit in well with the moody anthemic organ ballads on Trisector: it's just really interesting to hear the band's approach to sounding old without sounding old, if you get me. "Snake Oil" is probably the closest thing to a "memorable" slow song on the rest of the album, and it's rather pleasant, while "Embarrassing Kid" is a decent companion to "Highly Strung" in the rocker category. Oh, and "Smoke" has to be one of the most weirdly memorable tracks I can remember hearing from VDGG.

The rest is the rest (there are also a couple of brief instrumentals, and they're ok, but they don't make a strong impression). I would say that I could easily understand somebody loving this album (It's so moody! There's so much rhythmic complexity between the keyboards, the sparse guitars and the drums!) but could also easily understand somebody hating it (They sound so OLD! There's nothing classic in the ways they used to make classics! I miss the reeds!). Here, I fall solidly in between with a slight lean towards the like side of things, with an understanding that this was probably the absolute best the band could do at this point. And you know what? There are much worse things. If you liked Trisector, you should get this.

tarkus1980 | 3/5 |


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