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A dark classic of English Progressive Rock
on 2 June 2005
The recently rejuvenated VDGG has met with unparalled interest and critical zeal. All the daily newspapers seem to have run articles on them and their place in the history of progressive rock. Whether this is a reflection on the popularity of all things prog today, or the media trying to latch on to an 'acceptable' example of the genre from the 'golden age' in light of the recent progginess of acts ranging from Radiohead to The Mars Volta is open to conjecture. I don't think even in their heyday did VDGG develop such mainstream interest. But it is more than warranted as can be seen from this first batch of back catalogue remasters which peaks here with "Pawn Hearts". This album is without doubt a classic of progressive rock in its purest sense. Nothing else at the time sounded like VDGG. Evolved around the musical vision of Peter Hammill, the band went solidly against the grain of prettiness and positivism that pervaded a lot of post-hippie prog rock. Theses guys were making gloomy, brooding soundtracks to the darkest recesses of our psyche. With Hugh Banton's gothic keyboards and David Jacksons squalling saxes, their chamber rock was declamatory and full of foreboding.
"Pawn Hearts" is made up of 3 monumental tracks; "Lemmings", "Man Erg" and the hugely epic "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers". For me, "Man Erg" is one of my favourite VDGG pieces. Lyrically this is quintessential Hammill. He doesn't write basic songs about the usual states of love, happiness and sadness, here he digs much deeper and ruminates about our innermost motivations and one that strikes such a singular and in some ways disquieting chord. No other lyricist expounds so eloquently or bares his wounds so openly or deeply!
Musically this album is VDGG at their most complex. Using multitracking to its limits, the band and producer John Anthony produced a breathtaking musical collage. Using disparate musical elements including rock, jazz, musique concrete and choral music all mixed together into their own style they produced a musical brew that at once was tonal and atonal and had a hymn like quality in its dark grandeur. The listener was never sure whether the music would at any minute fall apart under the weight of these heavy, complex arrangements. They always rode at the edge of melody, sometimes pushing it right over.
There is so much detail in the arrangements and this remaster does bring out all the nuances in the mix which were buried deep in the murkiness of the original CD releases. However, these new digital transfers have somewhat exposed the limitations of the recording technology of the day and the possible delicate state of the original multitracks. The sound is still pretty good though.
The booklet is excellent, with the usual informative notes by Mark Powell that we have come to expect. The extra tracks are worthy, especially "W" and "Theme One", though the more extemporaneous pieces which were recorded for a proposed double album version of "Pawn Hearts" can at best be viewed as showing how the band were willing to experiment.
The other two titles in this first batch of remasters are also worth getting and admirably reflect the burgeoning development of this individual and innovative band that are now rightfully being recognised as one of the most exciting and crucial forces to come out of the early 70's English progressive rock scene.