What the hell is a Van der Graaf Generator anyway? That’s the question a lot of people were probably asking back in 1969, when the first album by a young British band of that name appeared. In fact, a Van de Graaff generator (note spelling) is a device that creates electrostatic energy, but the group named after that machine generated an electricity all their own. By the early ‘70s, after releasing such cult-classic records as He To He, Who Am The Only One, and Pawn Hearts, Van der Graaf Generator had established a musical reputation as the Richard III of U.K. prog-rock bands, reveling in the dark underbelly of the human condition and casting a crooked half-smile upon creation as something slightly sinister simmered in the background.
While the initial incarnation of the band fell apart in 1978, Van der Graaf returned to active duty in 2005 with Present, as a trio featuring original members Peter Hammill, Hugh Banton, and Guy Evans. Incredibly, the 21st century version of the group turned out to be just as vital-sounding as the original ensemble, and they’ve recorded four albums together so far, with the fourth, ALT, out on July 3. Prolific VDGG frontman Hammill also just released a new solo album, Consequences (he’s maintained an active solo career since the early ‘70s), and he’s currently busy touring America with his Van der Graaf bandmates.
“The new band album is kind of an unusual one because it’s kind of improv,” says Hammill. “I know a lot of Van der Graaf is pretty out there, but this is out there even by Van der Graaf standards. That’s coming out more or less simultaneously with the tour, but on the tour we’ll be doing comparatively normal songs. On the new album…it’s all instrumental for a start, which is not normal for Van Der Graaf, but basically it’s stuff that built up since 2005. Every time we got together for a rehearsal period or for a recording period, there would always be some element of improvisation that was recorded. We’ve got a long track record individually and collectively of doing things that are not really in any rock area, they’re more sort of musique concrete sounds, so that’s more or less what this new record, ALT, is about. Basically, the material built up over a period of years until it reached a kind of critical mass and we went, “Okay, actually, this is not our usual stuff, but it’s also part of our story and our history, so now is the right time to put it out.”