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I don't like Gentle Giant as much as I'm supposed to. That certainly doesn't mean that I don't like Gentle Giant at all (and to be honest, I now like Gentle Giant at least thrice as much as when I just started out on the treacherous path of reviewing them). And of course, it would be an absolute stupidity to deny Gentle Giant the right to occupy a worthy place in the midst of all the important progressive groups of the early Seventies. Gentle Giant arrived on the scene approximately at the same time as everybody else - in 1970; however, they never really made it big, and it's not difficult to see why. Or, wait, now that I finally braced myself to explaining this, it's actually quite difficult.Let's try it that way: on one hand, the advantages of Gentle Giant and their differences from other prog bands of the time are rather obvious. While the band never had a truly outstanding soloist, neither in the keyboards nor in the guitar department, most of its players were quite gifted, especially such multi-instrumentalists as Phi Shulman and Kerry Minnear, and the ace guitarist Gary Green. More important, they were always bent on playing music; and I should probably not only put these two words in italics, I should have also made 'em bold and underlined and multi-coloured. See, Gentle Giant rarely went for atmospheric build-ups and sound effects, nor did they just fool around with their synthesizers. No, the band was always intent on playing music, and playing it as well, as much and in as many different ways as possible. Their blend of prog is almost impossible to categorize: jazz seems to be the most obvious of influences, but it's only one of the influences. Their work includes short and long passages of classical, folk, rock'n'roll, even punk (in the late stages); mixing up medieval balladeering and heavy metal, or slick pop with church organ instrumental parts is the regular way of life for them. They are reknown for their unprecedented, rarely matched multi-instrumentalism: they say that in concert the band members used to switch between various instruments all the time, so that the stage usually looked as if it were set up for an entire orchestra. And, while they rarely went for creating twenty-minute epics, the sine qua non of most 'classic' prog bands, their songs are really a hard nut to chew on: apparently, the thing that the band liked most of all was switch as many time signatures as possible within the limits of a three-to-five-minutes rock song without making it sound a complete cacophonous mess. In other words, Gentle Giant are unique. The question is: but are they good? Technical skill and loads of complex melodies do not necessarily make up an impressive record. And this is where I come into conflict with the average prog fan. For those who enjoy anything as long as it stays a long distance away from 'pop', Gentle Giant's music is an absolute must - these guys often make Yes sound like the Monkees. But for all their complexity, Gentle Giant have a problem with achieving enough emotional effect through their music: much too often, particularly in the latter days of their 'progressive' career, they just sound like they're playing for the sake of playing, showcasing their skills but having no real feeling in their heart. Apart from their two first (and in my opinion, best) albums, their music is rarely 'atmospheric', either: neither Interview nor In A Glass House don't trigger your imagination to make you wander through medieval landscapes like Genesis did in their prime. Sometimes they engage you, sometimes they don't, but it's understood that their primary purpose is not to engage you: their primary purpose is to create waves and waves of new, complicated sound textures that stream as far from the mainstream as possible. This explains why Gentle Giant have never found a mass audience: they never managed to make the big commercial breakthrough, and not even any progressive rock fan is aware of their existence and importance in the first place. They always had, and still have, a faithful group of followers (which isn't really that large), which have always admired the band's progressive spirit; but for a more 'opened' and eclectic fan like me, there's really far more to dislike about Gentle Giant than to like about them. I do admire the band's spirit and bravery to unleash such a constant stream of hard-to-follow progressive albums from 1970 to 1976, but I'm also very selective about their output. The regular prog audiences apparently thought likewise, and with all their bravado, Gentle Giant never found a way to penetrate the hearts of the critics or even the 'elitist' prog lovers. That certainly does not account for the travesty committed by Rolling Stone, which did not even bother to include Gentle Giant in its performer list; however, it certainly accounts for, well, everything else. Ironically, I feel much better about the very last period of that band's career than most of their fans do. At the tail end of the Seventies, Gentle Giant chose the 'assimilative' tactics and went for a more mainstream sound, steadily making the transgression from complex prog to rather simplistic pop/rock/New Wave. For that, their latest albums are often loathed; yet they did create some minor masterpieces in the process, and their 'pop' products in the late Seventies were infinitely better than, say, similar Genesis products (read in more details on that in my Giant For A Day review). That said, I still find the courage to award the band a C rating, if only for their utmost importance to prog as a genre; plus, the music of Gentle Giant really keeps growing on you with time - as the weirdness and shock factor slowly wears off, you find yourself more and more addicted to some of their best records, whether that's a good thing or not. And, well, whatever, it's quite possible to make yourself a ninety-minute tape of Gentle Giant tunes and consider it one of the best prog tapes ever made. I guess that's what I'm going to go do right now, oh wait, just a minute, lemme give you the scoop on the lineup. Lineup, then: Derek Shulman - vocals; Ray Shulman - bass, violin, percussion, backing vocals; Phil Shulman - brass instruments, vocals; Kerry Minnear - keyboards, vocals; Gary Green - lead guitar; Martin Smith - drums. While the first five gentlemen were more or less constants in the line-up, the drummers for Gentle Giant kept coming and going; John Wethers seems to have been the most important of these.
Listenability: 3/5. One
of the hardest bands to get into, no doubt about that - but once you get
used to their medieval/jazzy vibe, things will get better. A little.
Resonance: 1/5. They don't even take you on to a mystical journey or something, apart from the first two albums, of course. They're "curious". Kinda like King Crimson.
Originality: 4/5. They did borrow a lot from others in their beginning, but the classic GG style is something never tried by anybody else. One of the most unique prog bands in the business.
Adequacy: 3/5. Sometimes they're far more pretentious than they should be ('Knots?' Who do these guys think they really are?), but at least they didn't have a Pete Sinfield write their lyrics.
Diversity: 3/5. It doesn't come to you at first, but... these guys can do ANYTHING as long as it's kinda, er, twisted. And they really incorporated New Wave elements quite fine on their last album.
Overall: 2.8 = C on the rating scale.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1970
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 13
A solid prog-rock album, sharing all of prog's flaws but also apparently unique in its blend of instrumentation.Best song: FUNNY WAYS
Track listing: 1) Giant; 2) Funny Ways; 3) Alucard; 4) Isn't It Quiet And Cold?; 5) Nothing At All; 6) Why Not?; 7) The Queen.
Gentle Giant might have been 'giants for a day', but they were certainly midgets for a year - at least, such a year as 1970. In the fall of 1969, such an album as their glorious debut might have been a sensation. As it was, King Crimson's In The Court Of The Crimson King had already firmly taken the niche in which this album was meant to be inserted, and sceptics and critics might have easily done the mistake of dismissing Gentle Giant as a carbon copy, if not a miserable parody on, prog rock's first masterful statement. Indeed, it's hard to get rid of the 'parody' idea, especially when putting both CD's next to each other and glancing at the covers (remember the Crimson King? If you don't, here's a link.) And as for the music itself, Gentle Giant have certainly taken a prog approach much similar to King Crimson's: relying more on bringing jazz and avantgarde elements into rock music than mating it with classical a la ELP or going into the ultra-complex pattern of Yes and the like. Not to mention the band's impressive instrumental techniques: the Mellotrons, recorders and saxes are quite prominent throughout the record, making it a bizarre, delicious hodge-podge of ideas. Finally, some of the songs sound almost exactly like early King Crimson ('Alucard').That said, Gentle Giant are hardly as impressive, shocking and emotionally resonant as King Crimson, at least, as King Crimson was on the border of the decades. The album sounds dangerously smooth, with relatively quiet, toned down guitar and keyboard parts, and a homely, soft type of production that can't provide any of the tunes with a 'universal', bombastic feel even when they obviously demand one ('Giant'). The instrumental parts, which are many, are not as well thought out as in King Crimson's case, and, while I indeed admire the band members' prowess at multi-instrumentalism, none of the members are virtuoso players. In other words, none of the songs make you burst out of your chair or grind you into the wall: for comparison, just replay your trusty rusty 'Schizoid Man'. But why complain? There have always been first-rate and second-rate bands - and hey, there've been third- and fourth-rate bands, too - and Gentle Giant is simply a terrific second-rate prog-rock band (there I go hanging these labels again; but see, I'm not an anti-labelist as so many people claim to be and think they're so clever and so 'above' labeling. Labels are extremely useful when not over-abused). Anyway, I slowly grew used to this album, though I admit it did take me a while. Many of these songs are really well-written, and kudos to Gentle Giant for not falling into the regular trap and, for the most part, sticking to the 'middle-length' pattern. There's only one nine-minute epic on here, 'Nothing At All', and as is the case with almost any prog epic except the most worthy, it has its moments that suck and other moments that... suck even more. Heh, heh, just kidding. It starts out as a soft folksy medieval ballad, with a very pleasant vibe about it and beautiful vocal harmonies, then becomes quite rockin', with some mighty riffage and mad soloing courtesy of Gary Green, but as you're just settling down it suddenly turns into a pointless electronic drum solo courtesy of Martin Smith (or maybe it's principal keyboard wiz Kerry Minnear that does the drumming? he's credited for 'tuned percussion' on the album) which just bores the very soul out of me. What a waste of space on an album that's quite short by itself. The first four tracks on the album are swell, however (in a relative way - remember, it's a second-rate prog-rock band we're speaking of!). 'Giant' sets the band's entire image, with its 'demiurgical' lyrics and pompous, twisted melody, full of nice guitar lines, sax swirls and grumbly bass lines. Of course, the song immediately brings visions of '21st Century Schizoid Man' to mind: nowhere near as powerful or shocking, though. I must also say that I'm definitely not a fan of Derek Shulman's vocals: he shares the same kind of bleeting tenor that distinguished the 'infamous' Roger Chapman of Family, but unlike Chapman, he never uses his voice in a freakin' perverted way, so it's not even interesting as a novelty factor. Thankfully, he doesn't sing too much on this track: the verses are all short. 'Funny Ways' is the definite highlight of the album. Brother Phil Shulman's vocals are, in contrast, quite gorgeous, sweet and heavenly, and this beautiful ballad, all drenched in acoustic guitars, pretty synth strings and real cellos, is a perfect marriage of progressive ambitions with classical-influenced pop schlock (the latter not taken in a real denigratory sense on here). The mid-section is probably the closest they ever got to a cathartic climax on here, with Green taking a short, but surprisingly effective, hard-rocking lead. 'Alucard', then, is the forgotten gem of this record. If you think that it was Pete Townshend, or Stevie Wonder, or ELP, that first put the synthesizer to a proper musical use, do not think that any more. Kerry Minnear basically makes the song his own, building it on a gruff, gloomy synthesizer riff and exploiting the instrument masterfully throughout. Once again, the song reminds me of King Crimson - 'Pictures Of A City' this time - but this time I'd say it's the Gentle Giant song that's the superior one. The powerful, unforgettable interplay between the synth and Phil's saxophone simply can't be beat: it's quite a rousing experience, and a would-be masterpiece, if not for the particularly ugly vocal sections spoiled by ugly sound effects. Finally, the practice of 'calm after the storm' is carried on to the following track: the brontosauric 'Alucard' is succeeded by the quiet and cold aura of a tune, quite naturally entitled 'Isn't It Quiet And Cold?'. Phil again sings lead here (why don't they let him sing everything on here? His voice is so angelic!), and the song itself is a charming jazzy shuffle with a wonderful cello accompaniment, and hey, what's that in the background? Electric piano? Sounds really relaxing and moody to me. Even the glockenspiel is moody. Ooh, is it moody. Now if only they hadn't run out of ideas on the second side (both 'Nothing At All' and the bloozy 'Why Not?' have their moments, but both also overstay their welcome), I would easily call it the best prog record written by any second-rate prog rock band I've ever heard. As it is, I'll simply call it One of the best prog records written by any second-rate prog rock band I've ever heard. (Hey, have you realized you're dealing with a hopeless scholastic? And have you ever tried to count my average number of parentheses per review?) In any case, I simply don't understand what the hell that last track is doing on there. Is it a mocking re-arrangement of 'God Save The Queen' or what? One and a half minutes more of wasted tape; man, these guys sure have a lot of filler for such a short record. But whatever my complaints are, after all these years I still consider Gentle Giant to be the band's first AND greatest achievements, contrary to what all the prog rock fans might think. I have to warn you - wherever you go, ALL reviews bar mine will always be saying things like 'Well, this is a really good debut, but better things were to come yet'. That depends on the perspective. Yes, Gentle Giant got more complex, more experimental, perhaps a bit more fluent and professional, but for my money, the perfect balance of progressive elements, roots rock and pop sensibility achieved on this album was never superated. And if you want details, never again would Gentle Giant come out with such a killer synth riff as on 'Alucard', or with ballads so moving and charming as 'Funny Ways' or 'Isn't It Quiet Or Cold'. Basically, I consider that any eclectic rock music fan should start here and then wind his way through the later era - as Gentle Giant would become less and less accessible with every following year. Although the problem is, few eclectic rock music fans would really bother with Gentle Giant as a whole, which is why the band is mostly left for diehards and their debut album so reviled. Fools! Fools all you diehards!
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1971
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12
An improvement in weirdness, instrumentation, and production, but not in the sense of purpose OR melody.Best song: EDGE OF TWILIGHT
Track listing: 1) Pantagruel's Nativity; 2) Edge Of Twilight; 3) The House The Street The Room; 4) Acquiring The Taste; 5) Wreck; 6) The Moon Is Down; 7) Black Cat; 8) Plain Truth.
One important warning for the unsuspecting listener. Neither the diehards nor the casual lovers of Gentle Giant never come to any consensus when it comes around to discussing the band's supposed high points. Not only will you hear serious dissention about which GG album is the best (worthy candidates I've heard so far: this one, Octopus, In A Glass House, The Power And The Glory, Free Hand, and even Interview!), but you will also hear serious dissention about which GG album is the more easily accessible (yeah!; worthy candidates I've heard so far: Gentle Giant, Acquiring The Taste, Octopus, The Power And The Glory, Playing The Fool! Plus, of course, all those late-period 'pop' albums which snubby fans despise so much). This is certainly due to the fact that what with all their unabashed avantgardism and experimentation, Gentle Giant never stray too far away from the standard pattern, and it eventually all comes down to more or less minor variations. You like this more, I like that more, and life's just made for fussin' all about it. Eventually, I chose the easy way - I selected their first album as best and most accessible simply because, well, it is the first. So it gets extra points for originality and for one little toe grounded in tradition, which makes songs like 'Funny Ways' experimental and innovatory, on one side, and not too shocking, on the other.However, that does not mean that Gentle Giant seriously superates the subsequent albums as far as the actual quality of the material goes. Acquiring The Taste, the band's second album, plunges them even further into overcomplex structures, dissonance, and wildness, but it is still within the levels of decency, and contains a good load of classic material that you'll only be too happy to digest if you liked the debut record in the first place. Be prepared for this intro, though: 'Acquiring the taste is the second phase of sensory pleasure. If you've gorged yourself on our first album, then relish the finer flavours (we hope) of this, our second offering'. After this comes Gentle Giant's pretentious and thoroughly ambitious claim that 'we have abandoned all preconceived thoughts on blatant commercialism'. A good warning, and probably explains why Acquiring The Taste didn't really sell that well. So yeah, no preconceived thoughts on commercialism indeed. I can openly state that I like - not love, but feel really good about, if you'd like me to expand on that - about half of the album. Contrary to what fans often say, it's not necessarily the most accessible, the most melodic, the most diverse, or the most rocking of GG albums: as usual, the accessible meshes with the ultra-complex, the melodic meshes with the dissonant, the diverse meshes with the repetitive, and the rocking meshes with jazzy-soft. It's just a typical Gentle Giant album - some brilliant stuff, some ugly crap, lots of ambitions and bravery and an overall nice, but hardly spectacular, feeling. It's... well, it's just us acquiring the taste, you see. It's possibly a bit more heavy on diverse instrumentation than its predecessor, but then again, sometimes it does so at the expense of good taste (see my sneering notes on 'The House, The Street, The Room' below). As most Gentle Giant records do, this one opens on a grandiose note - with 'Pantagruel's Nativity', the first one of the two epics that deal with themes taken from Francois Rabelais (a funny question I don't know the answer to: did the band actually take its name through Rabelais or was the Rabelais obsession a later clever invention from the guys? Probably the latter, as there are no signs of Rabelais on Gentle Giant). In any case, 'Pantagruel's Nativity' is a magnificent song, a majestic pseudo-medieval epic with a slightly dark, creepy, mystical atmosphere all around it: the bass, sax, grim wah-wah passages and vibes all seem to be woven together into a very monolithic 'gigantic' pattern. And as if its seven minutes - completely justified - were not enough, it's immediately followed by 'Edge Of Twilight', arguably the band's most atmospheric creation ever. I mean, really, never again would they even try to recapture that kind of sound. Why not, dammit? Were they too afraid of being mistaken for Krautrock imitators? This is gentler and much more romantic than Krautrock! This is more difficult, yet just as impressive as the Moody Blues! All these ominous chimes, dreary little bass passages, echoey vocals, little tasty snippets of acoustic guitar, eerie little cello grumbles, strange martial rhythms... this paints such an excellent picture of The Twilight that I really have to question the guys: where had that musical impressionism disappeared just a year or two later? Throw out that self-indulgent modern jazz crap, boys, give us some musical impressionism! My kingdom for some musical impressionism! Oh, that was just a figure of speech. Don't worry 'bout that. In any case, after those two songs things get worse. I raise my tired little thumbs up for 'Wreck' - the diehard fans naturally dislike it because it sounds strangely out of place, being more of a 'generic pirate song' than anything (with those repetitive 'hey-hey-yo hold on' choruses, it sure sounds like one), but if you axe me, well, I'd be a-tellin' you I ain't hearin' generic pirate songs on progressive rock records every day of my life, am I, so I'm more than satisfied. And I raise the same little thumbs up for the beautiful 'Black Cat' - a continuation of the exploration of the topicalization that had its initialization in 'Isn't It Quiet And Cold', i.e. a song in the similar 'caressing jazz-pop' vein. The song is so charming and innocent that I don't even mind the little dissonant mid-section. Who cares? It's cool! What instruments are making those 'miauw miauw' sounds all the time, I wonder? However, my little thumbs are really too tired to be raised for much else. And there's still a lot. The title track is one and a half minutes of dissonant mockery. Nuff said. 'The Moon Is Down' is definitely no 'Edge Of Twilight Vol. 2'; it has about a tenth part of the former's atmosphere, just a melodyless five-minute bore that goes nowhere. Actually, in pure formal terms it might have even more melody than 'Edge Of Twilight', but it's so monotonous, predictable and ultimately dull (not unlike something like all those super-short Genesis bores on Nursery Cryme) that I just can't appreciate it. Sounds like the Byrds on acid AND cruise control at the same time. (No, that's not a compliment). And the other two lengthy epics both have their moments, but both overstay their welcome. 'The House, The Street, The Room' is the grittiest track on the album - some parts of it rock pretty hard and convey a certain feeling of desperation and... err... claustrophobia, but the song is marred by the dreadful, self-indulgent mid-section where the band shows how well it can handle all of its thirty instruments by playing about four or five notes on each of them. Weirdness for weirdness' sake is not my personal cup of tea, thank you; if it's yours, grab it now and grab it fast (although you'd better check out Interview, I suppose). And 'Plain Truth' is basically there to demonstrate Ray Shulman's talents on "wah-wah violin". Could have made a decent three-minute rocker, but at seven and a half minutes... nah. At least, when such things were played live it was fun to witness the very process; studio techniques just suck out all the fun, especially when we consider that there are way too many 'ultra-quiet' sections where the song is supposed to be 'building up' but is instead just fiddling its diddle, er, sorry, diddling its fiddle, er, wait, fiddle-diddling its violin and that's that. So what's the conclusion? The conclusion is not surprising. This is a deserving and worthy album marred by a bit too much experimentation and a couple really uninspired moments. Is it recommendable? Yes, if you're not afraid of weird stuff. Is it anything special in the Gentle Giant paradigm? Hardly. They are just beginning to acquire the taste, see.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1972
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11
A concept album that manages to have quite a bit of filler for its thirty minutes, but some great tunes and ideas as well.Best song: SCHOOLDAYS
Track listing: 1) Prologue; 2) Schooldays; 3) Working All Day; 4) Peel The Paint; 5) Mister Class And Quality; 6) Three Friends.
For their third album, Gentle Giant decided they were going to expand their conceptual horizons - and ended up writing a mini-rock opera. Not that the album really feels as a rock opera, mind you; for the most part, I sense the concept as merely as an excuse for loads and loads of pleasant, but rather unrelated jamming. The concept itself is rather simple and not all that thought-provoking: basically, they tell the story of three friends (how did you guess?) that were friends in school and later went their own ways, one of them becoming a road worker, the other a painter, and the third a businessman or whoever. Apparently, they never met after school, and that's the way it goes. So there's a 'Prologue' (not an overture), a song devoted to their school experience, a 'personal' tune for each of the friends (why does that remind me of Quadrophenia?), and an epilogue. And the whole thing is just about thirty minutes long; Gentle Giant always made their albums short, that's why there's so many of them.Not that I don't like the album - I consider it one of their best, in fact, if a little misguided and erratic in places. Since there are but six songs, it's rather easy to concentrate on each of them separately, no matter how musically twisted they are. 'Prologue' is really the least interesting of the bunch; starting out as an organ-based jam, it quickly sets 'the background' with half a minute worth of lovely vocal harmonies, and then degenerates back into the same kind of jam with Gary Green taking over the leading role and playing some decent, but still lacklustre guitar. 'Schooldays', though, is nothing short of a GG masterpiece: the introductory duet between Kerry's vibes and Gary's fluent guitar sounds not unlike the kind of music the archangels must be playing for the Lord God above, and the complex vocal harmonies, arranged as a call-and-answer session ('the bell rings - and all things - are calling'), are incredible; I wonder if they ever managed to pull them off onstage. Probably did. While seven minutes might be a little long for this song, I rarely ever feel so: the tune evokes beautiful memories, and it's really a very nice choice to make if you ever want to go back to your childhood. But children grow up, and start going their own ways. 'Working All Day' presents the 'elder brother' who hasn't managed to achieve much; he's represented by a menacing, grumbly fusion-style composition, this time based around guitar/brass interplay, with lots of fat saxes all around the place and a nice organ solo. While the song is not the most impressive on the record, it's at least a compact and memorable composition, so that lovers of order and structure will be attracted to it. Me, I'm more interested in the artist's confession, the multi-part suite 'Peel The Paint'. It begins fairly inoffensive, with a lightweight classical-influenced pastiche sung by Phil Shulman as he sings about all the joys and pleasures of the artist's profession - 'lost in the hush, no need to rush, time waits for him who creates with the brush'. Then, all of a sudden, hoopla! the bassline gets menacing, and the song transforms into an aggressive jazz-rock thunderstorm, with Phil passing over the vocals to Derek who shatters the illusions - 'peel the paint, look underneath, you'll see the same old savage beast'. The song then ventures off into a million directions, all of them fascinating, with Gary soloing like mad and various echo and tremolo effects on the instruments that create an effectively 'evil' atmosphere, not in the Sabbath meaning of the word, but rather in the 'church style', if you get what I mean. Shucks, I don't quite get it myself. 'Mister Class And Quality', then, introduces the most successful of the three friends, and again, the tune is rather throwaway, as compact and short as it is. Even the lyrics are trite. 'The world needs steady men like me to give and take the orders'. Sure thing. So skip it and concentrate on the title track, a kind of 'epilogue' for the album. Again, it's multi-part, and again, it's a good one - strange how I actually like the most complex parts on this album and dislike the simplistic ones. Hmm. Maybe it's time for me to try my hand at a review for those whacko guys at www.prog.net. (Don't go there! You'll get hernia! I warned you!) Anyway, 'Three Friends' again goes from an aggressive jazzy jam to a majestic part with lots of atmospheric synths, Mellotrons and church organs which makes a suitable conclusion for the entire 'concept'. Actually, I don't mind that the idea was such a trivial one; on the contrary, I'm quite glad that Three Friends is a concept album. The concept gives all of the songs a sense - while the general melodies and jams are indeed tighter and richer and more emotionally resonant than the ones on Octopus, it's the concept that really organizes them and breathes real life and content into what would otherwise be a passable set of self-indulgent improvisations. Unfortunately, the boys were not too wild about the concept themselves, I suppose, and they did not venture out to implement the same tactics on their next release.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1972
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12
Too much avantgarde and dissonance for avantgarde and dissonance's own sake. This record goes nowhere, and that's that.Best song: RIVER
Track listing: 1) The Advent Of Panurge; 2) Raconteur Troubadour; 3) A Cry For Everyone; 4) Knots; 5) The Boys In The Band; 6) Dog's Life; 7) Think Of Me With Kindness; 8) River.
Boy, I've certainly come a long way to appreciate this album (and my humble thanks go to all of the worthy commentators in the readers' section who made me pay attention to certain things I'd initially overlooked!). On first listen, I was - and if you're anything like me, you're also bound to be - seriously underwhelmed. Lord knows I simply adore octopuses (or, if we try to be correct and observe the rules of the original language, octopodes), and the All-Music Guide did consider this record to be Gentle Giant's creative peak, together with many of the band's fans; and indeed, if it's pure creativity and originality we're speaking of, Octopus may offer a lot more to you than Gentle Giant will ever do, and if it's complexity you're after, this album will baffle you even more than Three Friends. But that does not detract me from stating that as a whole, the first impression of this record is simply dull - ranging from 'normally dull' to 'deadly dull', in fact.By the end of 1972, the band had all but abandoned 'standard song conceptions'; out of the seven tracks on here, not even a single one has less than two or three different time signatures, and Octopus isn't even such a blatantly 'conceptual' album as Three Friends. Okay, that might be understandable. But not a single one of these songs (except maybe 'River') has even a single instantly memorable melody or 'normal' riff, either! Octopus slaps you in the face like a prime bunch of dissonant, pointless, self-indulgent ditties written for complexity's sake alone, and it's only very, very gradually that you become able to shake off the "chains of bizarredness" and start appreciating the band's writing. What use do we have, for instance, for the ridiculous instrumental 'The Boys In The Band'? I admit the laughter and the flick of the coin in the intro are amusing, but later on the song just transforms into a complex, senseless jazz-rock jam. But a few listens later, you start understanding that the song has some real power in it - it actually rocks, just not in a very ordinary way. The constant tempo changes are only embarrassing as long as you're unprepared for them: after a while, they seem to become a vital and obligatory part of the whole shenanigan. Never monotonous, always changing, the composition sucks you in with its energy. Another scarecrow for me - for quite a long time - was the 'intentionally ugly' dissonant vocalizing paradise of 'Knots'. Technically, I was really impressed by the way the band structured their harmonies (and even more impressed to hear them almost perfectly reproduce that mind-boggling pattern on stage on Playin' The Fool), but their ear-desctructive character never left too much place for enjoyment. It wasn't until the whole story behind the song became clear that I really became able to appreciate it for all its worth: apparently, 'Knots' is the band's take on a 'musical poetic riddle', 'something of a musical jigsaw', as the boys themselves write in the liner notes, inspired by the psychologist R. D. Laing; and indeed, the song really has a "jigsaw puzzle" feeling to it, all composed of these little bits that fall - or don't fall - into another. On a different note, the dissonance itself also wears off after a few plays - you can just follow the main Derek-sung melody which is actually quite catchy in its own perverse way. Some say that on Octopus the band took a 'heavier' approach than on the previous albums. This statement I'll never be able to uphold - if that's the case, some of the previous albums should have been softer than Renaissance (by the way, parts of Three Friends rock out more convincingly than everything on here); the only song that at least slightly approaches 'heavy' is 'A Cry For Everyone', a decent tune that's moderately enjoyable, with Gary Green playing a la Tony Iommi (and no, I don't mean the degree of heaviness, rather the chord progressions). 'Heavy' is also an epithet I've met in conjunction with the album's centerpiece, 'The Advent Of Panurge'; while the very idea of the song being 'heavy' is ridiculous, the song is one of the two or three true Gentle Giant classics songs on the record. Lyrics-wise, it takes an episode from Francois Rabelais' 'Pantagruel' (that of Pantagruel's meeting with the mendicant 'philosopher' Panurges; the theme of Pantagruel is actually carried over by the band from Acquiring The Taste's 'Pantagruel's Nativity') and translates it into lyrical form; melody-wise, it wisely alternates more of that avantgarde jazzy rambling with medieval influence - especially interesting and almost charming, I'd say, are the introductory vocal harmonies. Maybe the band should have simply transformed 'Pantagruel' into a full-fledged rock opera? On the other hand, their more direct attempt at creating some sort of medieval hymn in 'Raconteur Troubadour' don't look all that authentic, but are a total gas nevertheless - the tune is infectious, with its joyful, romantic mood and charming violin passages. A complaint is that the balladeering department is a bit in decline - gorgeous ballads are what had always dostinguished the band in the past; this time around, there's but one ballad on the entire album, and it's hardly their best (the pretty, heartfelt, but never especially climactic 'Think Of Me With Kindness'). Then again, it's not such a big problem, seeing as the song is surrounded by such masterworks as 'Dog's Life' and 'River'. 'Dog's Life' is a witty - and downright nasty, as the "dog" is actually an allusion to the band's roadies - musical rambling, a fun number along the lines of 'Black Cat'. And 'River', with its brilliant guitar/violin duet, is the one song on Octopus that had managed to draw my attention from the very start; not that the melodies on that one are really stronger than anything else on the record, but I was very, very much impressed by that dual attack on your eardrums (ever heard a wah-wah and a violin screech in unison? Makes a groovy sound!) An excellent coda. In all, I can now easily see how Octopus is considered to be the band's peak by so many. Unfortunately, I still can't share that opinion because for me, nothing would ever compensate for the blissful atmospheric days of Tony Visconti's production - the band's first two albums had all this and more. But as far as intriguing melodies and multi-instrumentalism go, this is an excellent place to look 'em up. Strangely, brother Phil left soon afterwards, and without Phil, Gentle Giant stepped into their next phase - even colder and more "soulless" than before; which explains why there are actually some fans for whom Gentle Giant as a great band ceases to exist after 1972. Well, I can understand those 'lost souls' as well.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1973
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11
About as much avantgarde and dissonance as before, but this time it's at least more melodic and more rational.Best song: AN INMATES LULLABY
Track listing: 1) The Runaway; 2) An Inmates Lullaby; 3) Way Of Life; 4) Experience; 5) A Reunion; 6) In A Glass House.
On first listen, I actually liked this more than Octopus, despite the fact that the band mostly follows the same formula. Moreover, they tend to really go over the fence: this time around, there are but six tunes, some of them really really extended and even less concentrated than before, as the band keeps switching in between various themes and tempos. And, unlike Octopus, no particular tune on here really 'sticks out' like you'd want it to: no 'River' or 'Advent Of Panurge' on here.Instead, the band returns to conceptualism - the entire album, so is said, is devoted to the idea that you shouldn't throw stones while living in a glass house. One might interpret that slogan in many different ways; but it should be noted that the lyrics on the album are for the most part pessimistic, condemning both the society ('The Runaway') and the individual living in that society ('Experience'). And overall, the record is kinda grim, starting from the 'grayish', discoloured music and ending with the album cover. However, I do prefer its grimness and pessimism to the overall absurdity and pointlessness of Octopus; at least, on here the boys sound like they really want to make a statement (or two) and not just run around like fools without making sense. The album begins brilliantly - with the sounds of breaking glass which finally develop into a rhythmic pattern, a technology the band doubtlessly copped from Pink Floyd's ringing cash registers on 'Money'. This rhythm fades out, giving way to 'The Runaway', a track that rocks pretty hard but goes on for far too long and has absolutely ineffective vocals; the lyrics, about an outcast and his feelings about the world, are very good - in fact, the album arguably features the band's best set of lyrics ever - but I feel that the band failed to give them more poignancy with an effective vocal workout. Not so with 'An Inmates Lullaby', however - the song is very pretty and strikes me as a near-masterpiece. Essentially, it's supposed to be a confession of a patient in an asylum, and it's both sad and joyful at the same time. Joyful, because they give the impression of a person completely happy and comfortable with his fate: 'Lying down here in the afternoon/In my pretty cozy little cushioned room/I can talk to all my funny friends in here/I was told to rest why... I am not quite clear'. And Kerry sings them in a light, pleasant falsetto, while the only instruments playing are numerous vibes and soft, unobtrusive percussion, giving the impression of 'paradise on Earth'. Sad, because it's a wee bit creepy when you try to put yourself in that place... anyway, the song features one of the most effective and wonderful examples of vibes playing I ever heard. The funny thing, however, is that 'Way Of Life' starts out as a... Dance Tune! Somebody shouts out 'GO' and the band breaks into a fast, disco-ish groove based on a repetitive synth pattern. I mean, I could only qualify that rhythm as disco with a little hint of Latin influences; disco two or three years before it actually took off? Man, that was probably considered pretty avantgarde for its time. Funny, isn't it? The first ever disco song produced by a pure progressive band (who have an excuse, as they probably never suspected it was disco). Apart from that, the tune is not very attractive - once again, ineffective, whiny vocals from Derek and the least interesting vocals on the album. Even the gentle mid-section with all these violins never helps. 'Experience', then, is the second side's best track: a typical Gentle Giant medieval stylization in the style of 'Advent Of Panurges'; nowhere near as exciting, but with some beautiful vocals and interesting lyrics telling us about a person's maturation and reevaluation of his past and present. 'A Reunion' hardly has any distinct melody, but the atmosphere is nice, and violins, once again, are a great touch to the tune. Finally, the title track finishes the album on a good note: the sections gel together, they get some real hard-rockin' parts towards the end of the song, some nice steel guitar, and hey, the violins are still there. Now, to tell you the truth, I look back at my review of Octopus and I really don't understand what made me initially despise that album so much and despise Glass House to such a lesser extent. I'd say it is primarily the feeling of sense in the music. Octopus, to me, was a more or less pointless sound collage that came out of nowhere and headed back to the same place; apart from self-indulgence, it didn't amount to much. In A Glass House, with its vague, but existent, concept, puts Gentle Giant's artsy ambitions on a solid base of 'social philosophy' (in a certain way, it's a return to the aesthetics of Three Friends). It's still rather dull, and has to be listened to really hard and really long before it can be at least partly appreciated, but at least the existence of such a record is justified. You can even identify with it, if you're in the mood. In any case, my rants in this case are hardly of any use to anybody - the record is currently out of print everywhere, not even available as an import. I was lucky to get a pirated CD of it; if you're a Gentle Giant fan, try the used CD stores. It's rather strange, actually, that such an important record as this one is out of print when, say, Giant For A Day (a better record, IMHO, but certainly not a great buy for the fans) is not, but such are small mysteries of life. Speaking of small mysteries of life, how come nobody's yet commented on Brian Eno's Before And After Science apart from my trusty friend, Mr Richard C. Dickison? Didn't I mention that it's one of the greatest albums ever to be put out since the heyday of rock'n'roll? AND YOU HAVEN'T BOUGHT IT YET? Do you think it's fun being a reviewer when nobody ever follows your advices? Tough crowd! Tough crowd!
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1974
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 9
The band begins to seriously lose their musical direction, but don't forget to pick out the less soullessly twisted moments.Best song: PROCLAMATION
Track listing: 1) Proclamation; 2) So Sincere; 3) Aspirations; 4) Playing The Game; 5) Cogs In Cogs; 6) No God's A Man; 7) Face; 8) Valedictory; 9) Power And The Glory.
Easily the least accessible of all Gentle Giant albums - that is, until the even more complex (and far more wretched) Interview came along. This is, of course, the main reason for which so many GG fans proclaim this one as their favourite... curiously, I've also heard fans call this the most accessible GG album, which only further proves the amazing force with which this band is able to boggle one's mind. Anyway, The Power And The Glory was the band's only attempt at making a serious social statement: it is a concept album dedicated to the problems of power and corruption. (Some even have tried to link the concept to Watergate - not an entirely senseless suggestion, it seems). As far as concept albums go, this one is pretty tight and reasonable, too: we start out from a ruler or would-be ruler enticing the crowd with promises of better life, then, at the end, witness the ruler's downfall as the disappointed mob drags him from his throne. Pretty simple, but believe me, the lyrics are good - the band knows how to avoid triteness and cliches, so the end result doesn't look anything like the Kinks' Preservation.That said, while the lyrics are good, the music is really hard to thoroughly get into. Two or three melodies can be called 'established'; the rest of the tracks vary from multi-sectioned, multi-part, multi-melodic, never-ending-to-change-melodies-so-as-to-become-utterly-unmemorable monsters to absolutely and completely dissonant monsters. Repeated (and repeated, and repeated) listens manage to bring some of the tracks 'closer' to your heart, but unless you're just the kind of gent who feeds on dissonance and "untrivial" stuff like that, I simply don't see why one should bother. Not to mention that the guys really showed us all their abilities before - in terms of instrumentation, harmonies, arrangements, stylistics, etc., Power And The Glory adds absolutely nothing to the base already established by Octopus and In A Glass House. It's hardly surprising, then, that out of the eight songs on here, at least three do absolutely nothing for me - the three that don't have an established hook. Villain number one is 'So Sincere'; coming right off the heels of the marvelous 'Proclamation' (see below), it's a terrible, anti-climactic celebration of looseness and dissonance. Imagine something like 'Knots', only (a) without the 'conceptual' purpose, i.e. without the idea of the 'musical puzzle' and (b) with an arrangement that doesn't sound tight, as 'Knots', but instead sounds like it's falling apart every second second. It's one of the worst Gentle Giant songs ever. Ever. Equalled only by some more of that anti-musical dissonant garbage on Interview. It costs the album one extra point minus, that's how much I dread it. The weak points on the second side aren't as disgusting, but they're pretty self-indulgent and useless anyway. 'Cogs In Cogs' pretends to be a powerful rocker, but there's just too much happening in that track... and speaking of 'powerful rockers', where the heck is the guitar? Why is it that we only get Mr Minnear throughout, adding slushy keyboard slime instead of a shining healthy guitar riff or solo? Seems like Gary Green was mostly sleeping throughout the sessions. And 'No God's A Man' pretends to be an atmospheric multi-part ballad with elements of folk and jazz (as usual), but I don't care much for songs which never give the listener anything to hold on to, no thank you very much. Gimme a hook. And if you want atmosphere, gimme back the Tony Visconti production. You gotta remember that all Gentle Giant albums are extremely short - this one's no exception, and the fact that three out of eight songs suck so nastily leaves us with roughly twenty-five minutes of music that's somewhat more solid. It really baffles me, for instance, how a record like this can combine ridiculous pseudo-music like 'Cogs In Cogs' and such an excellent tune as the lead-in track, 'Proclamation'. Funky, catchy, even a wee bit danceable at times, based on solid riffs and even featuring a few tasteful crescendos throughout, it is definitely the highlight of the album (and I can even disregard the dissonant middle part, where the band's chants of 'hail to power and to glory's way' nearly ruin my ears). Kerry's solo break is fluent and inflaming, and on the whole, the tune initiates that 'jiggy' style that would be further explored on some of the tracks off Free Hand. Meanwhile, the band hasn't yet forgotten how to write beautiful ballads - Kerry sounds like an angel singing the gorgeous melody of 'Aspirations'; the track almost sounds out of place here, with its trebley organ and echoey medieval vocals magically recreating that inimitable atmosphere of 'Pantagruel's Nativity' for me, even if only on a relative scale. 'Playing The Game' has a strange playful synthesizer riff that holds all the different parts together and provides a solid basis for enjoying the actual tune. 'Face' has some excellent guitar/violin interplay, like in the good old days, and is in general far more restrained than the nightmare of 'Cogs In Cogs' - catchy even, in spots. Finally, 'Valedictory', in which the ex-ruler waves goodbye to us and explains that all of his deeds had actually been done for the benefit of the people, is a somewhat more rocking and energetic reprise of 'Proclamation'. Not all of these tracks are first rate, but they still manage to provide us a certain compensation for the unstandable atrocities of the soulless, atmosphere-less dissonant zombies like 'So Sincere'. Plus, some CD editions, including mine, end on a hilarious note - they add 'The Power And The Glory', the song which actually wasn't included on the original album because it was a single that Gentle Giant wrote for their record company while being under pressure to write something highly commercial. While the song really has no commercial potential whatsoever, the record company still put it out (!) before realizing their mistake. But it's a good song all the same, a driving memorable rocker with nice overdubbed guitars and stuff like that. Better than 'So Sincere' anyway. Nevertheless - my final recommendation is that this one is one of the last GG albums to buy if you're not a diehard and prefer emotionally resonant substance or real heartfelt atmospherics over awesome musicianship and complexity for complexity's sake. Hey, why not buy Free Hand instead? It has a similar style, but TONS more hooks and tons less unnecessary dissonance.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 2000
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 9
What? Who? Where? Oh, this one! Well, I guess it rules - I just get kinda tired of twiddling the volume up and down, up and down...Best song: FUNNY WAYS
Track listing: 1) Intro/Giant/Cogs In Cogs/Proclamation; 2) Funny Ways; 3) The Runaway/Keyboard Solo/Experience; 4) Knots/Guitar Duet/Advent Of Panurge/Recorder Quartet; 5) Nothing At All/Plain Truth.
An archive release. A blessing for fans. A real treat for elitist critics. I get that. Gentle Giant are an excellent live band - see The Official Live below for some general remarks about their abilities. Good timing, too: by 1974 their catalogue was more or less complete, with tons of excellent first class material (sometimes overshadowed by self-indulgent dissonant crap, but let's be forgiving) and almost guaranteeing them the big time: their last album dented the charts, Europe greeted them with open arms and you know the rest. This record features seventy minutes of first-rate Gentle Giant live material, during which they play three lengthy medleys plus 'Funny Ways' and entertain the croud in a thoroughly gentle and a thoroughly gigantic way, with polyphonic jams, wah-wah violin solos, violent drum battles, and ominous synthesizer symphonies. The only question is......what's the goddamn deal with the recording quality? This is an archive, yet official release, and yet I can not only say that I've heard many bootlegs of better quality, but even that out of any official live releases I have so far, yes, even including old Sixties' releases where the instruments are usually hidden behind the screaming girls, this one's undoubtedly the worst. Rummaging around the Gentle Giant site, I found out that Live Rome 1974 is in fact taken directly from an older bootleg, formerly called Giant Steps Forward. The stupendous thing is, they did nothing with that bootleg - just stamped 'official' on it, changed the title and went ahead. Now frankly, I have to ask myself if anybody ever actually listened to this disc before sending it to CD stores. Even crappy bootlegs can be worked wonders with - you know, clean up the tape, adjust the mix, straighten out all the volume levels, whatever. Nobody gave a damn. No sooner do you put on the record than you're submitted to at least several changes in tone, volume, and frequency. The drums kick in and then suddenly disappear, together with the keyboards. The volume floats as if the mixing board was caught in the middle of a storm. To top it off, an alarm clock goes off somewhere (I'm not making this up!) and goes on buzzing for at least thirty or forty seconds while Derek Shulman actually begins singing. In all, you're in for a real treat. It does get better later on - seems like at some point the engineers finally caught a 'good' positioning of all the switches and tumblers, but that doesn't mean the problems disappear: they just become less obnoxious and more naggin'. You'll be bound to fiddle around with your volume throughout: remember that Gentle Giant were great fans of the 'stop-and-start' techniques, as well as of alternating slow/quiet and loud/aggressive sections, but the mixing board sure can't be taught that. There are periods when I don't hear anything for about a minute - turning up the volume, I find out that they had been playing some interesting musical theme all that time! Curses! I turn it up louder, and then Kerry goes BOOM with a really loud synthesizer passage and I just fly out the window. Bummer. The damn engineers should have been shot, and the creep who decided to let this go without specially preparing the tapes should follow suite. With all these problems, it's no wonder the actual performances kinda just fade away. A pity, that, because Gentle Giant actually played strong on that night (to be precise, November 26, 1974), and there are lots of treats for the fan, most of which are at least partially spoilt because of the quality. The opening jam has an excellent rendition of 'Proclamation', for instance (also, strange enough, the track listing has 'Giant' as part of the introduction medley, but I never really found any 'Giant' on there. Where?). 'Funny Ways' is 'Funny Ways', and will always be; this will probably be my favourite Gentle Giant tune of all time, at least on all live recordings. The Glass House medley is not that hot, but the Octopus medley, bar 'Knots', is fabulous - beautiful acoustic guitar and recorder solos on that one. And the magnum opus of the record, the closing jam (consisting of 'Nothing At All', 'Plain Truth', and lots of Weird Inaccessible Instrumental Stuff), also has its moments, most notably the schizophrenic violin soloing and the engaging violin/guitar battles; however, it also has a prolongated drum solo which suddenly starts being accompanied with shrill whistling. I haven't got the least idea why everything that John Weathers hits suddenly replies with a whistle. Who's whistling? The mixing board? Or is it just Derek Shulman who's got nothing better to do? STOP THOSE WHISTLES! They drive me crazy! Are you still with me? Be off with you then: Live Rome 1974 is only recommendable for the ultimate in diehard fans, and even then, you might wanna pass if you're not collecting Gentle Giant bootlegs. Anybody who wants to have a high quality live Gentle Giant recording are better off with Playing The Fool. Well, at least this one has some cool pictures (I, for one, never could imagine the band was so vivid and active onstage). But I'm still left wondering - if they were so painfully searching for a nice archive release, and if they were so lazy they couldn't give the recording at least a superficial 'cleaning', couldn't they at least have found a better bootleg? This is a real shame...
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1975
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10
Gentle Giant's 'avantgarde-pop' album. Nice, but not tremendously imaginative.Best song: FREE HAND
Track listing: 1) Just The Same; 2) On Reflection; 3) Free Hand; 4) Time To Kill; 5) His Last Voyage; 6) Talybont; 7) Mobile.
Continuing the trend of the previous two albums, Gentle Giant make another step forward to make their music somewhat more accessible to the mainstream audience. But don't think of Free Hand as a true 'sellout'! The true simplification of GG's music wouldn't really happen until two years later. If there is any kind of 'simplification' on here, it's actually a kind of fake simplification. Gentle Giant had already long since abandoned any attempts at becoming a hard-rocking musical outfit like Uriah Heep or a pompous prog monster like Yes. Most of the material on Free Hand can hardly be called anything but 'avantgarde-pop': that is, the songs look fairly complex, hard to follow and sometimes even dissonant on first listen, but on subsequent listens you suddenly find out that the main melodies of these songs are, indeed, quite catchy and accessible. It's just that they aren't following standard pop rules, and this is a kind of 'clumsy' catchiness that doesn't always work at once (for instance, if the song turns out to be in a tricky time signature, like 'Just The Same'). Plus, as if in order to 'apologize' for the simplicity of the main section, the band veers off into experimental madness in the mid-section, which further complicates the process of audition.What mars Free Hand most of all is that the album production has totally gone down the drain - the entire record sounds as if it was indeed recorded within a little glass house or something. Oh, how I yearn for the band's early days, when producer Tony Visconti used to work marvels with their sound on Gentle Giant and Acquiring The Taste! I can only imagine the gorgeous medieval marvel that he could transform a song like 'His Last Voyage' into. Add to this the fact that Gentle Giant hadn't particularly cared for multi-instrumentation, their formerly main schtick, since God knows when, and the main attention is always being paid to Kerry's array of keyboards. No, fortunately, he never abuses synthesizers, like Tony Banks, but it's a very rare case when he actually puts them to some really good use. Some flute and bits of acoustic guitar are on there, too, but Gary Green is mostly absent (not a single electric guitar solo on the whole record? Man!), and all in all, this entire album could well have been recorded by just one or two band members sitting in a little room and tapping away on a couple high capacity electronic devices. That's truly irritating. Nevertheless, all complaints voiced, out of the seven songs on here (continuing the 'short album, short songs' trend) most are good, and did I yet mention that Free Hand was their biggest chart success in America? It peaked at No. 48 or something. Take THAT, Michael Jackson! The first side, in fact, is dang near impeccable, at least, as far as the 'main song impressions' go. You know what a 'main song impression' is? It's when I go like 'I hate the instrumentation, and the length, and the arrangements, and the solos in the song suck, and the lyrics are trite, and the singer has lost his voice, and the producer was in a comatose state, and the engineers were playing blackjack on the mixing board, and my CD had a nasty scratch in the most important spot that made it go zoops, but I kinda like the song still'. So as far as 'main impressions' go, the first three songs are really good. 'Just The Same' and the title track are just the stuff I was talking about in the first paragraph: continuing in the vein of 'Proclamation', they are bouncy and catchy, on one hand, and just a wee bit twisted and twirled, on the other, so that you wouldn't confuse this band with, er, some boozed out Jamaican reggae outfit. It's funny - I can almost hear the band members talking to themselves: "Okay, so what do we have? Good overall structure, but isn't it a bit too accessible? Have to find a way to avoid flames from our hardcore fans and preserve the accessible nature all in once... Oh, I know! On the third line of the verse in 'Free Hand', we'll place a little time delay. Just a teeny weeny little time delay. It'll go like... 'who's gonna take my place in the games you play, in the games you [pause] PLAY!!' That's good! That'll work!" It's hard to believe that, but it actually does work. Plus, 'On Reflection', to me, seems to succeed where 'Knots' failed - present the band at their very best when doing an ultra-complex half-accappella number, showcasing all of their incredible harmonizing. Well, actually 'Knots' was supposed to sound weird, while 'On Reflection' consciously bases itself more on traditional medieval harmonies, and this certainly works wonders for the ear. The second side is patchier, though. More of these bouncy avantgarde-pop compositions like 'Time To Kill' and 'Mobile' aren't exactly bad, but they're not as well thought out or performed as 'Just The Same' and 'Free Hand', and actually, I don't see what makes 'Time To Kill' an improvement over 'Free Hand' whose main pattern it essentially follows. There's also a short and pointless instrumental ('Talybont', just another showcase for Kerry's keyboards), and only 'His Last Voyage' can be counted as a semi-classic for GG. Featuring the only Kerry lead vocal on the album, it's a graceful and stately medieval ballad that slowly grows up to an anthemic state and then falls back again. Like I said, given the helpful hand of somebody like Tony Visconti, it could have easily made it onto Acquiring The Taste, as it fully shares that album's 'gorgeous' vibe. Still, what with all the numerous defects, Free Hand can still be counted a classic Gentle Giant release; it was produced at a time of hope and upraisal (the band had just left their old and annoying record label and switched on to Jethro Tull's Chrysalis records on fairer conditions), it featured a row of solid live standards and it showed that, if they really wished to, Gentle Giant could be 'weird' and accessible at the same time. Unfortunately, the following record - arguably the worst in the entire Gentle Giant canon - deeply shattered that belief.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1976
Record rating = 3
Overall rating = 6
Extremely twisted and dissonant jazzy stuff. Definitely not for me, and probably not for you.Best song: INTERVIEW
Track listing: 1) Interview; 2) Give It Back; 3) Design; 4) Another Show; 5) Empty City; 6) Timing; 7) I Lost My Head.
Now this is some prime crap. I mean, what the hell, it makes In A Glass House sound like the angels' music in comparison. Apparently, Interview was Gentle Giant's response to their trusty fans who'd suspected their music had begun to 'commercialize' on some of the previous albums. 'Commercialize', Bros Shulmans declared? 'We give you THIS!' And they gave out such a mind-and-everything-else-blowing experience that after they'd completed it, there was no further choice for them but to really commercialize their music.Interview is formally structured as a 'conceptual' album - the record begins with the band arriving at some place as if to hold a real interview with a real interviewer, and the songs are interrupted from time to time with bits and pieces of the band's dialogue with the interviewer. However, casting these bits and the lyrics of the title track (which could really be judged as some kind of poetic interview) aside, the only 'conceptual' idea of the album seems to be the universal motto - 'play as dissonant as possible and if you degenerate to 4/4 you're gonna get it'. Most of these songs are horrendous, atrocious garbage, and I'm not afraid to say that. Judging from the pure perspective of 'enjoyability', Interview ranks as one of the worst albums I've ever heard, and it's indeed the kind of record that gives progressive rock a bad name - fortunately, too few people ever heard it to make any serious conclusions. Kill me. Just kill me. I don't even know how to begin trying to describe any of these songs. They are so full of everything - and at the same time, so empty and devoid of any real excitement. Overall, the band adopts a very lightweight sound on most of the tracks, ditching both any attempts at orchestration and their 'heavy' tendencies. The guitars just squeak and prick, and Kerry seems to play his vibes most of the time, neglecting pianos and organs; another prominent feature is the frequent reliance on untrivial, atonal vocal harmonies. Needless to say, the emotional impact of all these exercises is close to an absolute zero, and ninety-nine percent of the instrumentals are deadly dull, in the worst traditions of King Crimson (a la 'Moonchild' and all that). In fact, I can only stand the first and last songs on the album. 'Interview' itself is, more or less, okay. Not that it really 'rocks' or something, even if it really tries; but at least it has some darn drive to it, with Gary pumping out these clever little bouncy guitar lines and Kerry accompanies him on the organ. And the song actually has verses which you can sing along to (a rare luck on such a record); plus, the lyrics, structured as a response to the 'interviewer', are among the band's best; the band does display a bit too much modesty when they chant 'want to be seen rock'n'roll music/don't take us something we're not', but overall the song produces a good, credible effect. And likewise, the album closer, the folk-meets-hard-rock 'I Lost My Head' is quite funny, so that I don't even notice how hard it is to follow the vocals when they don't just sing against the melody, they actually sing, like, despite the melody. I'm no musician, but I have a dangling suspicion that Kerry actually sings and Gary plays in different tempos, not to mention tonalities... Anyway, the song could be quite imaginable as filler on an average GG album; here, it's a definite highlight. Kudos to Mr Einstein. I suppose you know what comes next - venomous, ironic, completely offensive bashing of the other five songs from the album. Well, calm down: I'd really like to bash 'em, but the problem is, I don't remember what they sound like, and my entire organism, starting from the heels, really protests against replaying the album for a sixth time (yeah, and I do think humanity owes me a medal of honour). I only remember that they are all pretty whiny and squeaky, and from time to time the band breaks into a half-cool, but also half-cooked reggae rhythm ('Design'), which only showcases their inability to do anything truly creative with it. I also remember how I used to shiver each time the dissonant, utterly chaotic harmonies of 'Another Show' disturbed my relative peace - hell, they're even nastier than 'Knots'. And I also remember that 'Empty City' was the only song there that came close to grabbing my attention with some particularly loony special synth effects and a certain desperation in Derek's voice that really suited the track's title and pessimistic lyrics. Man, this really takes time, patience, and, above all, a lot of will to appreciate this record. Likewise, it takes a lot of will to appreciate Frank Zappa's Lumpy Gravy and King Crimson's THRaKaTTaK. And there's hardly any significant reason in this world for which I'd want to waste my time on trying to assimilate the meandering and meaningless dissonance of Interview. And don't bother telling me that the record displays a lot of technical mastership - I know what technical mastership really is, heck, I owe all of King Crimson's regular releases. This is, in fact, dull, and was probably intended as dull and esoteric. Is it an irony of fate, then, that Interview was followed by some of Gentle Giant's most commonly accessible albums? Probably not.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1976
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12
Seems like these guys recorded their studio albums in one take - this sounds exactly like 'em, only diversified and with far less crap than usual.Best song: FUNNY WAYS (duh)
Track listing: 1) Just The Same; 2) Proclamation; 3) On Reflection; 4) Excerpts From Octopus; 5) Funny Ways; 6) The Runaway; 7) Experience; 8) So Sincere; 9) Free Hand; 10) Sweet Georgia Brown (Breakdown In Brussels); 11) Peel The Paint/I Lost My Head.
Nyah nyah nyah, this is Gentle Giant's one and only live album released while the band was still alive, and it kicks the shit out of any live Pink Floyd record in existence. Actually, I didn't like it at first, not at all. It has 'Knots' on it, which, as far as I'm concerned, is still the ugliest song recorded by the band, and it was a rather silly idea to pair 'Peel The Paint' with 'I Lost My Head', even if the latter is one of the best numbers on Interview. But most of all, I was somewhat offended by the fact that the tunes sounded exactly like their studio counterparts. We all know that in their prime, Gentle Giant had penned some of the most complex melodies in rock music and spiced 'em up with some of the most intricate vocal harmonies and deeply elaborate arrangements in same genre. The fact that the band could rather easily and without any obvious strain reproduce every bit of these tricky arrangements on stage is amazing - just listen to the way the band harmonizes on songs like 'On Reflection' and tell me if anybody could outperform that in that department. But after a whole hour and more of listening to these flawless, ultra professional deliveries, I kinda get bored and even disappointed. It seems as if Gentle Giant's only aim of being present onstage was to show to everybody that yeah, they did have the galls to play all these miriads of instruments and never make any mistakes in weaving the excesses of their arrangements into the already complex enough main stem of the melody. Well, as if I cared - after all, this was a necessary requirement for prog rock bands at the time: if you didn't know how to reproduce your sound on stage, you sucked among the 'serious' public (example: the Moody Blues, who could never qualify as a prog rock band partially because of their lack of 'prime live' abilities).However, a couple more listens brought me to my senses and now I like this record more than any other in the Giant catalog, maybe with the exception of the debut album. First of all, it's not entirely true that they play the songs in exactly the same way as they were before. They lengthen some songs and shorten others, change around the lyrics, twist the numbers around and arrange them in lengthy medleys, and they even throw in 'Sweet Georgia Brown' at the end as a sweet short interlude (aptly subtitling it 'Breakdown In Brussels'). And the playlist is pretty cool, too: the band never overrelies on one album, even if they were supposed to be promoting their latest releases (Freehand and the dreadful Interview). Instead, they draw on practically every period of their career; only Acquiring The Taste is omitted completely (bar the short instrumental part from the title track in the Octopus medley), but there's at least one track from every other album. The high point, strange as it may seem, is the Octopus medley - while I still can't share the idea that the record was the band's best, arranging all the songs in a medley really works because the result never gets boring. I wonder if that's a real coin they were flipping in the beginning of 'Boys In The Band' or a pre-recorded sound? Flipping a real coin on stage would be cool... Anyway, 'Boys In The Band' works here as a short dynamic opener (in contrast to the somewhat overlong original), then proceed to instrumental insertions from 'Raconteur Troubadour' and 'Acquiring The Taste', then switch off to 'Knots' (again, it's at least interesting to hear the band reproduce their ear-destructive vocal 'disharmonies' on stage), and after some more 'medieval jamming' switch off to the wonderous 'Advent Of Panurge' played in its entirety. It's actually great fun to hear them hop around, switching between harder and softer parts, alternating Kerry's weird synthnoisemaking with Gary Greene's pretty acoustic solos. 'Funny Ways' is another definite highlight... just because it's there, actually: it's one of my favourite GG tunes, and although I mourn the loss of the electric guitar solo, the main melody is still quite heavenly and awe-inspiring. And as for the "sharp feelings", well, you'd have to take 'Free Hand', then, another definite highlight. Ah, that vocal melody... it might just be the most catchy piece that Gentle Giant really managed to write in their 'prime years' of 1972-75. Kerry seems to be playing a million keyboards all at once on that one - how can he really do that, man? The funk hits even harder when Mr Greene puts on the wah-wah and makes the song his own by delivering a red-hot solo of an almost Jimmy Page-like stature. Of course, it's not that I love everything on this album - this could never be. Gentle Giant always walked the thin line between 'complex harmony' and 'complex dissonance', and while songs like 'Proclamation' and 'Experience' fall in the first category, others, like 'So Sincere', would rather fall in the second one. But the main thing is to realize that there is a certain aura about this live recording that makes it stand out in a class of its own. Yeah, these guys do show off, but they're full of vital energy and they demonstrate themselves as absolute masters. I mean, other bands would take their material and drag it around the stage like lead stuck to their shoes; Gentle Giant toss their melodies around as a tennisball, changing them around, improvising at will and making it all sound far more natural and far less strained than in the studio: this, to me, is the ultimate proof to the fact that Gentle Giant made real music, after all, not just piled loads upon loads of senseless chords in order to sound 'way cool, dude'. In other words, the record is indispensable for the 'dubious' gentlemen: it could also work perfectly well as an all-encompassing introduction to the Gentle Giant sound, better than any possible compilation. Although, of course, I can hardly imagine that a serious fan couldn't want it either.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1977
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 9
A not too successful attempt at mainstreaming the sound: too few original melodies, really, and too much of this just plain drags.Best song: MEMORIES OF OLD DAYS
Track listing: 1) Two Weeks In Spain; 2) I'm Turning Around; 3) Betcha Thought We Couldn't Do It; 4) Who Do You Think You Are?; 5) Mountain Time; 6) As Old As You're Young; 7) Memories Of Old Days; 8) Winning; 9) For Nobody.
Missing Piece starts a transitional period for Gentle Giant - a period which, unfortunately, the band was not able to survive. This is also the exact moment where hardcore GG fans usually start bashing the very kidneys out of the band, and for an apparent reason. Gentle Giant were one of these prog bands that preferred to try and 'mainstreamline' their patented sound in the light of the so-called 'punk revolution' rather than to simply disband or to bravely go on with no regards for total loss of commercial success. Therefore, those fans that welcome any kind of music as long as it's twisted and 'elitist' but cringe at the very mention of the word 'pop' find this album and especially its follow-up disgusting. But we the universal lovers, we'll try another approach, right? Let's just try thinking of this album as a record by a pop band with slight prog inclinations, rather than a record by a former prog band with mainstreamish tendencies, and......hmm. Guess that doesn't work. Because, all corrections made and all expectations lowered (highered? altered, in any case), I simply don't like this album very much. Sure enough, there are some good pieces of work here which I'll be discussing in a moment; but overall, the effect is fairly boring. And anyway, why shouldn't it be? Contrary to diehard prog fans' opinions, writing a good 'pop' song isn't any easier than writing a good 'prog' song, and in a certain sense, it's much harder. When you're dealing with the 'serious' stuff, you can get along on atmosphere and/or twistedness alone (as Octopus clearly demonstrates, sometimes it's simply enough to put a couple dozen different time signatures in a song to make it sound 'artistic', yeah, right); but when it's just plain 'pop' you're channelling, you have to put out catchy melodies, and that's a task worthy of a Beatle. In other words, you don't become a good pop band out of nothing. And Gentle Giant's first try is certainly a misstep in that respect. Throwing away the tricky time signatures, the band bravely confronts modern dance rhythms as well as classic boogie woogie and generic balladeering - and one must give them their due, they don't sound as if they are playing all this stuff for the first time in their lives. But apparently they decided that sticking to the 'traditional formulas' was enough for them - did they really think that the melodies and the catchiness would come along with everything else? It didn't. Generic, casual rockers like 'For Nobody' and formulaic power ballads like 'I'm Turning Around' may not be horrid per se, but there's simply no reason for them to exist, much less any reason for them to be produced by such a band as Gentle Giant. Track after track goes virtually unnoticed by me: when they're ballads, they're slow and dragging, when they're rockers, they're... even slower and more dull. 'Who Do You Think We Are?' is pathetic, a braggard, posing, self-indulgent piece dedicated to star life, and there could hardly be anything more stupid in this life of ours than the lyrics to 'Mountain Time', which is essentially a banal lounge ditty that I could possibly expect from the likes of a Ringo Starr (on a very bad day), but not from such a respected band as GG. But don't despair. Hope often comes when you think everything is lost. This time, it comes represented by a couple of short tunes that are fresher and somewhat more invigorating than all the rest on here. The introductory 'Two Weeks In Spain', while it does smell of corny silliness, has such an incredibly attractive, bouncy punch to it (what's that intoxicating rhythm called, I wonder? Is it even Latin American?) that anybody who dares call the song a 'throwaway' will have it up his or her throat from me... virtually, I mean. I really don't like to fight (I'm not even able.) Anyway, I was speaking of good material - well, there's also this terribly short, abruptly-ending piece of boogie called 'Betcha Thought We Couldn't Do It', with lyrics that are quite actual for Gentle Giant's 1977 status: 'I bet you thought we couldn't do it/And if you did we wouldn't try/I bet you thought we couldn't do it/But if we didn't we would die'. Well, they did it, and on this track they did it well - currently the song holds my record for 'best boogie-woogie guitar solo on a 'progressive band' record'. Yeah, ladies and gentlemen, that solo is damn great. Dig it! Go, Gary, go! Show these prog cats some real rock'n'roll! Also, I was able to forgive 'Winning' its unattractive melody because of all the weird King Crimson-ian percussion noises. But the real treat of the album is 'Memories Of Old Days', a long and fruitful nostalgic epic that's possibly the only 'potential prog' material on the record. And hey, maybe the song does not epitomize 'beauty', but it's certainly one of the most poignant and moving odes that the band had ever squeezed out. The acoustic guitars and synths (and later on, the organs) rise in a charming medieval/Easternish harmony, and Derek sings the lyrics with great passion and emotional power. It's always nice to see a super progressive band wax nostalgic, as they usually do it better than your average pop band, and it's even nicer to encounter such a great hidden gem among a sea of mediocre rubbish. At least, it'll give you something not to regret your money about (I suppose I've put an object too many in that last sentence, but hey, it's always nice to stretch the language's possibilities). Of course, one great song and two good ones do not a decent album make. I suppose you all just take the name of the album as a hint and make this your last Gentle Giant purchase, if you're actually interested in the band at all. And yeah, I realize I rated it the same as Octopus, but Octopus is at least interesting from a technical point of view, while there's really nothing that exciting or innovative about Missing Piece. To put it another way, I mostly shake hands with GG fans for this one. But definitely not so when it comes to the follow-up...
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1978
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11
One of the best pop albums of the 'punk epoch', gruesomely underrated by almost anyone. Don't believe 'em, believe me.Best song: ROCK CLIMBER
Track listing: 1) Words From The Wise; 2) Thank You; 3) Giant For A Day; 4) Spooky Boogie; 5) Take Me; 6) Little Brown Bag; 7) Friends; 8) No Stranger; 9) It's Only Goodbye; 10) Rock Climber.
I already see the endless line of flames from 'generic Gentle Giant fans', most of which go like this: 'your tastes are a threat to an intelligent listener. You dismiss this band's greatest progressive masterpieces and have the nerve to praise this pop-slop piece of rubbish? Why don't you spend some more time out of your braindead kindergarten, listening to real music that takes some time and patience to get into, instead of falling for this piece of cheese?..'Heh heh, just made all the ensuing reader comments superfluous. This is quite a strong album, and I could care less whether it's 'prog' or 'pop'. By 1978, Gentle Giant's transformation into a 'pop' band was indeed completed: there's not even a single 'epic' track on the entire record, and most of the songs here can easily be classified as 'pop' or 'rock'n'roll', with a couple minor exceptions. But there are a couple more things that Gentle Giant fans usually omit from view. Actually, they don't really omit 'em, they simply disregard 'em, because even fans have to admit that for a 'pop' album, this is a pretty good one. And that's all I need to know. This is one of the best pop albums of 1978, and it easily beats Genesis' And Then There Were Three, released the same year: the songs are shorter, catchier, more up to the point and undeniably more energetic. (Rumour has it that there was a 'competition' between these two bands for capturing pop audiences, and Gentle Giant finally lost and had to disband. Well, one more pretext to pity the mass audiences' tastes). Out of the ten pieces on here, I actively dislike just one or two, and it shows how much the band has matured in just one year after the 'mainstream transformation'. Perhaps the most noticeable change is that the album really rocks: the tempos are generally faster than on Missing Piece, and there's much more emphasis on the guitars than keyboards. On certain songs, there are even punkish influences to be seen - but, like every intelligent band, Gentle Giant were able to sift through the dreck and fish out the best elements of punk (speed, catchiness and energy) while dissing the worst (monotonousness, unprofessionalism and vulgarity). And the album is much more diverse than the previous one, with numbers ranging from 'prog-pop' to boogie to jazz to power ballads to acoustic ballads to, like I said, 'punk'. I'd say that 'It's Only Goodbye' is the only track here that could rank as atrocious, because in its structure and instrumentation I see the smelly traces of populist arena-rock, with 'artificially cathartic' guitar lines a la Scorpions or late Aerosmith and dumb lyrics that don't compensate for nothing. And the verses of 'Take Me' have always struck me as particularly annoying ('I'm lookin' back, my life is cryin' out/What did I do, what was I all about?'; not that I mind the lyrics, but the way they are sung reminds me of Mother Goose). But the other numbers don't show any signs of wearing out on me - on the contrary, most of this stuff grows and grows! You don't believe me? Just look and see! No better start for an album than with the energetic, encouraging Yes-ish mantraic chant of 'Words From The Wise': yeah, I did say 'Yes-ish', because the song brings up close associations with that band's 'I've Seen All Good People' (which is one of my favourite Yes numbers), and it's just as catchy and memorable. 'Words from the wise, believe in you, all I do is believe in me'. Wonderful lines. Great atmosphere. Cool stuff. Even fans usually like it. Then there's 'Thank You', a plaintive, sincere, heartfelt acoustic ballad that's at least three times better than Led Zep's number of the same name. The fans usually see this as a farewell song, judging by lyrics like 'thank you for staying around so long, I know it's been hard'. They may be right, too, but so much the better, as it gives the song even more emotional impact and Derek's worn-and-torn vocals even more authenticity. Pretty stuff. How can one hate this? And the title track? Heh heh. I love that song. It sounds absolutely, totally stupid - like a cross between a Chuck Berry rocker, a Clash protest song and a Spanish guitar improvisation. Drummer John Weathers almost steals the show with his precise, bombastic crashing, but the guitars embellish the song magnificently, and the weird vocal harmonies, amusing lyrics and the pulsating drive of the keyboards underpinning the song all contribute to a nearly unique experience. While not the best song on the album, 'Giant For A Day' is definitely a unique exercise in combining musical styles and must be recognized as such. Bizarre stuff. 'Spooky Boogie' is a great jazzy instrumental, with a powerful drive and a carefully constructed, engaging melody (mighty stuff); 'Little Brown Bag' rocks along like a drunk elephant, with fresh, clear and exciting guitars all around (rousing stuff; and hey, don't you think that the vocal melody in the verses is copped from the Kinks' 'Tired Of Waiting For You'?); 'Friends' is yet another sincere, attractive acoustic ballad, this time featuring John Weathers on vocals (moving stuff); and 'No Stranger' is just a nice, pleasant shuffle with Derek adopting a strange 'consolating' intonation that makes the song incredibly warm and homely (soothing stuff). Hmm? Oh yeah. The album closes with 'Rock Climber', a pop masterpiece that's bound to take its place in my Top 10 Gentle Giant songs, no matter what albums I'll hear next. The contrast between the odd, almost reggaeish verses, and their climactic transformation into the all-out rockin' refrain - 'Rock climber/Good timer/ Backstager/All-nighter...' - is truly addictive. Add to this the delicious electric piano introduction and the energy-filled guitar solos, and there you got it, the ultimate pop-rocker you ever needed in your entire life. Well, I suppose I've really ran out of things to say, so I'll just state that, in my humble opinion, this is one of the most severely underrated rock'n'roll albums I've ever heard. I can see why 'progressive fans' hate it, but the only reason I can see for the All-Music Guide to have given it one and a half stars is that the dude who gave out the rating was either a 'progressive fan' himself or that he never actually listened to it, drawing his 'inspiration' from other people's opinions. Now if only Gentle Giant were a band as highly recognized as, say, Genesis, the album would be given enough praise, simply because more people would have listened to it. As such, I suppose I'm the only 'prog-pop listener' in the world that gave the record a careful listen, and so should everybody else, instead of just complaining of 'slop-pop' and 'pop-slop'. Let's hope history reinstates justice. Also, I don't understand what is there so offensive about the original album cover, which featured a real mask that had to be cut out of the sleeve and worn on your face so you could be 'giant for a day'. To me, sounds fun. I mean, I hate masks, but there sure are people that love 'em. Carnivalesque. Groovy. Tasteless? Just don't get it. Sorry.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1980
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10
Not a bad way to go out - with some quirky New Wave sounds...Best song: ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT
Track listing: 1) Convenience (Clean And Easy); 2) All Through The Night; 3) Shadows On The Street; 4) Number One; 5) Underground; 6) I Am A Camera; 7) Inside Out; 8) It's Not Imagination; 9) Heroes No More.
Good stuff! After Giant For A Day served its function of shocking the audience and leaving Gentle Giant without any serious fan support (worst of all, it never found them any new audience among the youngsters of the day), it was obvious that the band wouldn't hold on any longer. Yet for a couple of years they went on, actually, and with Derek Shulman now managing the band and trying to desperately lead them forward into uncharted territory, they managed to put together this deeply strange album. Even hardcore GG fans aren't quite sure of what to do with it. Whereas Giant For A Day was an obvious pop record, the kind of thing diehard prog fans constantly train themselves to despise, this is not so obviously a pop record. It features more complex, atmospheric, darker melodies, although it never really comes close to Gentle Giant's classic style. Apparently, Civilian was very much influenced by the 'newer' sounds of the day, primarily New Wave and the slowly arising synth-pop; this is, if you wish, Gentle Giant's analogy of Yes' 90125, albeit far less commercially oriented.Prog fans are usually deeply confused and almost at a loss when a 'classic' prog band suddenly goes New Wave (a confusion that is most easy to detect while reading their opinions on King Crimson's 1980-84 New Wave period), and so Civilian is usually not much talked about, but isn't completely and utterly dismissed either. Me, I kinda like the record, though I admit it has its share of filler and monotonousness. Yet on the whole, it sounds very promising, and God knows how well the band might have progressed in this direction had they not finally decided to throw in the towel (not that I can't understand them - when you've spent an entire decade working your butts off before just a small bunch of dedicated followers and can't get any serious financial satisfaction at all, it's positively hard to try and come up with your defining masterpiece). The emphasis here, as usual, is on Kerry's keyboards, which are now being used as keyboards, not as battle arrays of a thousand sound-producing machines. That is, it's just a standard hi-tech synth sound, better than your average synth-pop band but not particularly illuminating. However, Gary Greene is given ample space as well, and he steps to the challenge with some leaden, typically-Eighties heavy metal riffs and a few moments of acoustic inspiration. Derek takes all lead vocals, bar one traditional Kerry 'soft' vocal spot ('Shadows On The Street'). So far, so good. It should also be mentioned that the album is clearly a concept one - a concept not wholy unfamiliar to the Kinks, as it's all about the grey pedestrian everyday life [cf. the album cover], the problems of the small common man, the mechanization and dehumanization of society, etc., etc. The bad news is that we've heard all those ideas before. The good news is that the music really fits the ideas - it's grayish and pessimistic and dull at times, but this is intentional dullness. It is, in fact, an extremely pessimistic album for Gentle Giant to end their career with; almost some kind of ironic, self- and others-mocking farewell to the soulless public and equally soulless music industry. I even feel sorry for them. As for the actual songs... well, most of them are rockers, and you'll meet some extremely well-organized rockers on here. 'All Through The Night' is the definite highlight, a rip-roaring, desperate stomper based on a monstruous riff and featuring that catchy chorus from Derek ('...all through the n-n-n-niiiiiight!'..) that some might find annoying, but I find excellent. Just a desperate, confessional song that does sound mainstreamish and conventional, but it's a good mainstreamish song. My second favourite is the equally desperate and depressing 'Underground', which almost sounds like some long-lost Police song: jerky guitars, quirky drumbeats, and above all, Derek's plaintive vocals squealing 'on the wheels in motion, underground, just the locomotion, underground'. I can't really tell you how that cry of 'underground!!' really sounds - it's tear-jerking, and really makes you feel sorry for all the people lost in the 'underground', ah well, I'll leave the sentimentality to somebody else, and instead I'll just dryly remark that there's a very interesting 'locomotive' drum pattern used on that track. Clever. From the emotional point of view, none of the other songs are particularly impressive (the ballad 'Shadows On The Street' is nice and well-written, but can hardly be called inspiring), but a few of them do contain decent hooks that make up for interesting listening. 'I Am A Camera', for instance, has a really catchy chorus (and, for the record, the song has nothing to do with Yes' 'Camera Camera' - although, strange enough, both songs came out exactly in the same month. Actually, 'I Am A Camera' reminds me more of Elvis Costello than Yes, so go figure...). And even the songs that aren't particularly memorable, like the closing 'It's Not Imagination', at least have enough energy, skill, professionalism and understanding put into them that nothing on here makes me go 'ooh, some more old progressive farts trying to fit into the new generation pattern'. Moreover, even though their chosen style is so blatantly mainstreamish, nothing ever sounds cheesy or completely generic - somehow, they found that perfect balance between the metallic guitar and the hi-tech synthesizer which allows us to take both in perspective and never be pressed to concentrate on the atrocities of either of them. This, taken together with the standard golden rule - short album, relatively short songs - makes up for a fully satisfactory listen. I can't say they're really that good at sounding all Eighties and stuff, and there's not enough hooks on the record to thrill me so much, but it's still a decent effort that can be well-recommended. I hardly suppose diehard GG fans will have any other use for it than that of a coaster, though.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1996
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10
Well, at least their last American concert was an inspired one. Not that the inspiration ever passed to the recording equipment.Best song: ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT
Track listing: 1) Convenience; 2) All Through The Night; 3) Free Hand; 4) Knots; 5) Playing The Game; 6) Memories Of Old Days; 7) Giant For A Day; 8) Inside Out; 9) It's Not Imagination; 10) Underground; 11) Five Man Drum Bash; 12) Band Intro; 13) For Nobody; 14) The Advent Of Panurge; 15) Number One.
Look, somebody got to take some friggin' care of these boots. Yet another release from the vaults, yet another release of absolutely abysmal audience-quality. Yeah, so, I know some is better than none, but still, couldn't something be done about it? Bring Derek's vocals a bit higher and put the goddamn audience a bit lower? Every time some drunk bastard farts I hear it much better than when Gary Green makes a particularly breathtaking complex guitar passage. And I know both 'Free Hand' and 'Underground' could not have sounded so terribly loose. You bet your ass it's all to do with uneven volume levels and such. They simply sound as if they were playing in different rooms. Nah.I do care about that, especially considering that the show in question was very good. The liner notes, as well as Derek himself in a short speech, inform me that 'this really was the last time the band played in America' (checking the band's concertography, I'm tempted to suggest the show was held at the Roxy Theatre, LA, on June 16th), and, as is usual, when it's your last night, you try to do everything especially well. I really have few complaints - outside the sound quality department, that is. In fact, had the sound been even moderately better, I could have defended the concert down to the last of my guts as being on par with The Official Live. Yes, despite the fact that this is indeed the Gentle Giant of the Giant For A Day and Civilian period rather than the 'classic' Gentle Giant. Naturally, as every reasonable band, they dedicate much of the time to promoting their last album - which is fine and dandy by me. I like most of these songs, and obviously, the band members like them as well, because 'All Through The Night' is delivered with a vengeance: Gary simply tears through the strings, and that weird, depressive feeling I got when listening to the studio version hits even harder for the live performance. 'Convenience', 'It's Not Imagination', and 'Inside Out' more or less match the studio counterparts; 'Number One' is used as the show closer where it eventually transforms into a raucous blues jam with Gary, once again, obliterating the rest of the band. And 'Underground' - gee I'm so glad they performed 'Underground'! - for some reason leads into an infamous 'Five Man Drum Bash', which is just what it bills itself as. The "bash" must have looked fine (hey, I remember when I saw Yes doing a similar thing, I was thrilled, for a few minutes at least), but the problem is, such things translate on to record very poorly, and when you got a recording the quality of a village shithouse, there's no real talk of any 'translation' at all. Going back in time, we have only one track from Giant For A Day - the title one, which Derek apparently was performing with his mask on. Again, poor recording quality totally "dismatches" Derek's vocals with everything else, but on the other hand, Kerry's keyboards are much more prominent, and the drum parts are really ferocious. And don't tell me, all ye "pop period detractors", that the audience was peppering the band with rotten tomatoes and broken copies of Giant For A Day while they were playing this. Uh-huh. They were cheering and burst into applause at the end of the song. Nobody cared about the genre of the songs played, everybody cared for the quality. And the quality of 'Giant For A Day' is good! It's fun! Going still back in time, from The Missing Piece we have the best song, 'Memories Of Old Days'. Alas, shitty recording quality nearly kills it off - no wonder, as it's a quiet acoustic-based piece. However, not even the shitty quality can make such a humble and pretty tune go completely rotten. The spectators are polite enough to quiet down as Gary slowly settles into his idiom, and we even get to hear Kerry's ultra-hushy vibes whistling the main theme before Derek takes it over. A bit overlong, perhaps, just like in the studio, but still a touching moment. We also have one song I really have little use for - 'For Nobody'. Apt title, really. Well, at least it's fast. Which leaves us with just four numbers from the really good old days to appease the progressive appetites of those present. (Provided somebody at the Roxy Theatre in 1980 still had any progressive appetites). Yet these are good songs! Of course, there's very little space to incorporate everything, but hey, you want solid renditions of golden oldies, you go back to The Official Live. Apparently the "golden oldies" were only meant to serve as 'breathers' in between the new material, and I fully accept that point of view. Fortunately, the performances are good. 'Playing The Game' inspires no special pieces of writing from me, but 'Free Hand' really rocks, with Gary hitting it off with his wah-wah, and 'Knots' is really titanic on here - they begin it with a sort of "monster stomp", building up the tension, and then, as the tension is finally relieved with the familiar bombastic introduction, the audience goes wild. Heh, I wish I could go wild over 'Knots', do I? Actually, for these fifteen or twenty introductory seconds, I can. And, of course, no show can get it on without 'The Advent Of Panurge' - isn't that song something of a 'Satisfaction' for the band? In short, I think The Last Steps demonstrate one important thing: namely, that there's no unbridgeable gap between the proggy past and the poppy present. If they wanted to evolve in that direction, they had every right to do so, as long as something creative would come out. And they had no qualms about setting 'Advent Of Panurge' next to 'Giant For A Day', and I salute 'em for that. Now if only they'd recorded this concert themselves instead of extracting old worn tapes from unwilling fans by means of extreme dental torture, everybody's fortune would be a good deal brighter. Yet they never did, and that is why today we are forced to endure the rule of George W. Bush, Vladimir Putin, and the Farrelly Brothers.
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Year Of Release: 1998
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 9
Track listing: CD 1: 1) Radio Bit; 2) Freedoms Child; 3) Hometown Special; 4) Weekend Cowboy; 5) Bringing Me Down; 6) Nothing At All; 7) Rondo/Playing The Game; 8) DVS Guitars; 9) Robin Hood; 10) Interview Whispers; 11) Interview (live); 12) Timing (live); 13) Unreleased Civilian Track; 14) You Haven't A Chance; 15) Sample Archive;CD 2: 1) The House, The Street, The Room; 2) Prologue; 3) Schooldays; 4) Peel The Paint Demo; 5) Peel The Paint Studio; 6) Mr Class & Quality; 7) Advent Of Panurge; 8) SHH; 9) An Inmates Lullaby; 10) Way Of Life; 11) Experience; 12) So Sincere Demo; 13) So Sincere Studio; 14) Intro 74; 15) Cogs In Cogs; 16) Intro 76; 17) Just The Same; 18) Free Hand; 19) Time To Kill; 20) Interview Demo; 21) Give It Back; 22) Design; 23) Another Show; 24) Empty City; 25) I Lost My Head Demo; 26) I Lost My Head Studio; 27) Convenience; 28) Freedoms Child Demo; 29) Kerry.
It took them almost twenty years to come out with the obligatory voluminous collection of demos, outtakes, and rarities, and all they can offer is this?Okay, well, it's not the worst archive release ever released from the archives. And to be fairly frank, the very name - Under Construction - should serve as a primal warning. This is stuff that is "under construction" - not simply unpolished versions of the classics, which one might really find enjoyable and, in some particular cases, even prefer to the final product for added rawness and spontaneity, but bare skeletons of songs, and sometimes even less than skeletons; shinbones, maybe, or tibias, but hardly anything resembling a completed structure. The entire collection is spread over two seventy-plus-minute CDs. Disc 1, subtitled "Entirely Unreleased Material", is the more listenable of the two (or, more exactly, "the listenable of the two"). It consists of rare outtakes that did not make it onto the albums, plus a couple of live performances and some oddities (see below). Disc 2, subtitled "Demos and Outtakes", is the unlistenable of the two. Its 29 tracks are, for the most part, short and compact, but that doesn't save them from being, essentially, demonstrations of the creative process behind the fine output of Gentle Giant as opposed to any sort of result. The vocals are absolutely minimal, and most of these are just inaudible Derek/Kerry mumblings or the obligatory one-two-three-four counts. Usually it's just a barebones guitar or organ rhythm looped over and over again, with minimal variation, around which the band members would later construct the rest of the song. I admit that as a "demonstration", this stuff does it job. If you're a music student and you're bedazzled by the complexity of Gentle Giant, these raw "basics" might help you to understand at least the angle from which you can approach the sonic analysis of their songs. It is interesting that the majority of these "demos" date from the 1973-76 period - the one time in these guys' lives where they seemed to be much more obsessed with rock music as a rigid mathematical organism than a special form of emotional expression. Listen to something like the guitar melody in 'Cogs In Cogs' and you'll most probably see a vision of Gary Green sitting not on a stool with a guitar in his hand, but at his desk with a pocket calculator and a logarithm table. But I don't see how even the most open-minded creature in the universe could sincerely enjoy listening to this stuff. Not even the Blob. Nah, well, I think everybody will admit that Disc 2 is specifically targeted to musicologists. Disc 1, however, is a different matter, and is well recommendable to any fan of Gentle Giant. Sure, it isn't perfect. It's got two live performances of two songs from Interview, for Chrissake. Fortunately, the first one is the title track, which was by far the most tolerable song on that album (even if I still insist it doesn't do anything that 'Free Hand' did not do much better); and the second one is 'Timing', which is just as pointless as in the studio version, but at least it has enough sense to "degenerate" into a raucous violin jam in the second part and end on a "Mein Lieber Augustin" note or something like that. Then there are really weird things on that album, things like the 'Sample Archive', which is, truly enough, an archive of samples: nine minutes of drum, organ, bass, guitar, and other snippets that the band had used in their songs - extracted from the originals, separated from each other with pauses, and offered to the audience. "Sample it, use it, and feel free to construct your own Giant Track!" the liner notes say. Gee thanks. What next, Gentle Giant puzzles? Or maybe Gentle Giant slot machines? Whatever. Anyway, I'm not into music-making, so maybe I can't appreciate the idea enough. I would, however, employ the 'Alucard' riff to use it as the Windows opening theme. IMHO, it reflects the "Beware! Your life is in danger!" sub-message of the system much better than the Brian Eno-penned one-liner. But let me get on to the good stuff. The good stuff, which really makes the collection worth owning, are the five album-opening demos that were recorded in February 1970 and August 1970 - as the liner notes state, the February session was the band's first time with Kerry. 'Freedom's Child' is a fine'n'dandy sissy psychedelic ballad, rather atypical of Gentle Giant's usual balladeering style (it was written by Kerry as early as 1968) and more reminiscent of, I dunno, early Barclay James Harvest. But it still manages to avoid the cheese whiff by featuring excellent violin work and a more-than-memorable chorus; and if you're the proverbial falsetto lover, you'll dig it seriously. The band's jazz roots are well reflected in energetic shuffles such as 'Hometown Special' and 'Bringing Me Down' - but the former already hints at their weird identity when the shuffling is from time to time interrupted by collective harmonizing on the 'hometown special, hometown special!' chorus. And that's where you get to hear a fresh young energy-full Gary Green rip the house down with his passionate soloing. 'Bringing Me Down' is slightly more traditional, but it's definitely my favourite song on here: filled with desperate paranoia, it's probably the saddest song ever recorded by the band (well, 'Memories Of Old Days' was sad too, but they're absolutely different, so let's settle on that). And 'Weekend Cowboy' is probably the only time they ever tried tackling a country motif - although, to be frank, their "country" music is no more "country" than Sergio Leone's "westerns" are "westerns". Finally, the last of these tracks is a demo (a real demo, not a scapula) of 'Nothing At All' from their debut. The drum solo is as useless as always, but I've always loved the song otherwise and this is a good early version. One other really useful and intriguing rarity on the album is a 1979 outtake called 'You Haven't A Chance'. In style it is perhaps most similar to 'Giant For A Day' (the song), but it is essentially better - darker, broodier, and featuring a rapid-fire vocal delivery that puts it, both in regard to the lyrics and the vocals, next to Chuck Berry's 'Too Much Monkey Business' and Dylan's 'Subterranean Homesick Blues'. One of the rare cases when Gentle Giant allowed themselves a straightforward piece of social commentary, I'm not sure if it was intended to serve as a bit of propaganda, with Gentle Giant trying to ride the coattails of the punk movement, but whatever the reason was, it's still fun! And in that demo form, the sonic gloominess seems to convey an almost J. J. Cale-ian feel. Even in the context of an album like Civilian, the song would be a total 'wonder of the world'. Overall, these and a few other tracks are well worth hearing - but in order to do that, you'd have to waste some ammo on Disc 2 as well, and sitting through that one is a job worthy of an IQ-devoid alien. Too bad; I sort of hoped they had more interesting stuff in the vaults. Still, I didn't blow too much cash on it, and ended up with a few neat little gems. Could have been worse. At least Gentle Giant never lived long enough to deconstruct the Ghostbusters theme.
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