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Lo and behold, another entirely forgotten progressive rock band. This time, though, the reasons for which it's been forgotten are perfectly understandable, even if that's still no reason to neglect it. First of all, Gryphon never lasted that long - just about four years, and judging by their attitude and recorded output, it's sometimes hard even to accept them as a real 'band. They were more like an academic project, if you know what I mean: a bunch of well-meaning guys with musical education specializing in medieval forms of sound-extracting. They could get together and fall apart and not make a fuss of it. Second, Gryphon never even vaguely tried to be intentionally accessible or pander to public tastes; not while their career was at its peak, at least. They started out as a pure medieval-folk combo, playing acoustic guitars and recorders with no electric instruments at all; then started drawing on contemporary music ideas to mesh them up with their folksy stuff; then, going electric (at least partially), they plunged head first into the world of prog rock and delivered an album that should be counted among prog-rock's most befuddling 'masterpieces' before simplifying their music somewhat, finding out it was too late to do that and disbanding.
Third, these guys are just way too serious, and that doesn't work well with the public. Let's put it straight, though: Gryphon are not serious in the 'pompous' or 'pretentious' kind of way. As I see it, on its way to achieve perfection progressive rock could be faced with two main dangers, all of a psychologic character. First, at times prog rockers would dangerously toy with the public and rely on pompous and technical gimmicks to lure the buyer/listener's attention just because whatever was superficially 'serious' and 'artsy' could be passed on as 'the real thing'. Say, when Keith Emerson indulges in luxurious 20-minute piano improvisations. Or when Rick Wakeman hires an orchestra to play his Arthur suite. You know. That's all nice, but it relies a bit too much on the 'outer' side of affairs to be entirely reliable. Second, even more often prog rockers would just fuck up all over the place because they lacked true understanding of the nature of classical music, or technical skills to put it right - as in the case with most American prog rock bands, but not only that.
In this way, when Gryphon offered their own vision of rock, they evaded both of these mistakes. The band never really showed off - none of the members were outstanding soloists, although all of them were vastly professional in their own field; and the band always, or at least, almost always (I'm still a bit disappointed by Midnight Mushrumps in that respect), knew where it was going and what it wanted to achieve. This is why, although only a very small part of Gryphon's output can be called 'memorable' in the normal sense of this word, I find myself so interested in whatever they were doing. In a certain way I could say that perhaps it was Gryphon, and not any other band, who really managed to effectuate the ultimate synthesis of rock and old classical (medieval) music by bringing the former into the latter and not vice versa. The difference is understandable - most prog bands started out as pop/psychedelic/rock combos, only gradually assimilating classical values; the only meek exception is ELP, because of Emerson's classical background, and ELP never managed that synthesis quite well because whatever you might say, the 'classical' and the 'rock' sides of ELP were still two very different sides. Gryphon, on the other hand, started out as hardcore "medieval folkies", and rock elements in their music are secondary - and yet, on albums such as Red Queen To Gryphon Three they are very much present and do not feel alien. Hence a certain uniqueness of the band and the fact that I like what they were doing even if, by all accounts, I should have hated that.
Line-up: Richard Harvey - recorders, crumhorns, harmonium, pipe organ, pianos, mandolin, glockenspiel, vocals; Brian Gulland - bassoon, bass crumhorn, tenor recorder; Graeme Taylor - guitars, vocals; David Oberle - drums, timpani, percussion. Philip Nester joined on bass and vocals, 1974: the crucial point when the band headed off into 'electric' territory. Nester left, 1975, replaced by Malcolm Bennett. Organist Ernest Hart contributed heavily to several of the band's albums, yet was never an official member.
I carefully listed all these instruments just to let you understand what a serious combo we're really dealing with here. Amazingly, their weakest point are the vocals: none of the band's members really sing well. On the other hand, that might even be treated as an advantage (see the review of Gryphon below to see what I have to say about that further). The essential 'core' of the sound in the early days depended on the dueting of Harvey's recorder and Gulland's bassoon; however, as the instrumentation became deeper and more dense, that opposition slowly faded away.
As far as I know, Gryphon's albums are available both in individual CD format (more rarely) and on those convenient 2-fers that make all the five original Gryphon albums available on but three CDs in all. Needless to say, each of the 2-fers (Gryphon/Midnight Mushrumps; Red Queen To Gryphon Three/Raindance; only Treason has no pair to it, although it alone is worth any selected two of these) are a great buy. But beware - you're in for a tough listen!
Listenability: 2/5. Pleasant
and soothing, but very stingy with their hooks.
Resonance: 3/5. Very touching when they intend to be. Problem is, they don't intend it too often.
Originality: 2/5. Well... did anybody use a bassoon on a pop record before? Oh, yeah, they did.
Adequacy: 3/5. Occasionally Overreaching. Mostly Mature.
Diversity: 2/5. From folk to prog to pop - but the distance is not as far as some would like to think.
Overall: 2.4 = D on the rating scale.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1973
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 11
Engulf yourself in the spiritual emanation of King Henry VIII!
Best song: THE UNQUIET GRAVE
Track listing: 1) Kemp's Jig; 2) Sir Gavin Grimbold; 3) Touch And Go; 4) Three Jolly Butchers; 5) Pastime With Good Company; 6) The Unquiet Grave; 7) Estampie; 8) The Astrologer; 9) Tea Wrecks; 10) Juniper Suite; 11) The Devil And The Farmer's Wife.
Hardcore! These guys are hardcore! Okay, so from the very beginning, the seminal hardcore band Gryphon establishes itself as a bitter, mercyless take-no-prisoners no-bull band with wild guitar tones and lyrics that would make all fair maidens blush...
...er, wait a minute. Slight addition: Gryphon are indeed a hardcore band, but a hardcore medieval-stylized band. The rest all stands (guitars go wild, only they're acoustic guitars, and as for the lyrics, well you know, medieval lyrics would easily concur in obscenity with the dirtiest punks around). But seriously, what Gryphon did was take a listen to people like Rick Wakeman and Steeleye Span playing around and deciding, 'Hey, we can do it better by making it more authentic'. And that's what they do. This music is so dang authentic-sounding it hurts. Sure they do use some instruments that people five centuries ago could not be using, but for the most part it's a recorder (masterfully played by Richard Harvey) and bassoon (for which responsibility is assumed by Brian Gulland). No electric guitars, no cunning synthesizers, no weird production tricks. Nothing at all to give the recorded material a more glossy or commercial appeal.
Goes without saying that this should be, you know, the "next step" after you went through your golden Fairport Convention period. Personally, I like this album a lot. Gryphon have often been compared to Gentle Giant in their prime, but there's a significant difference: Gentle Giant were taking medieval elements as only a single part of their schtick, and they used to frig 'em up in the most inhumanly ways to show off their talents at taking a 'normal' melody and twisting it here and there, as well as letting it through a filter of dissonance and avantgardism. In this way, Gentle Giant don't have any "authentic-sounding" medieval tunes; Gryphon's stuff here all sounds genuine, fresh from King Henry the Eighth's recreation hall. (By the way, one of the short instrumental links on here is actually credited to King Henry in person - nice tribute. Did the Tudors get the royalties, I wonder?).
Anyway, the songs here are more or less equally divided into short instrumental 'suites' and vocal ballads, alternating with each other so that the level of potential monotonousness is kept pretty low. I must confess that the instrumental suites often end up losing me; personally, I love the 'grand' way that Gryphon could arrange similar stuff on Red Queen To Gryphon Three. However, that certainly doesn't refer to the joyful album opener, 'Kemp's Jig', which presents us with the main elements of the band's groove from the beginning as Harvey's recorder duets with Gulland's bassoon. Play it loud and dance to it, and who knows, you might get a vision of Sherwood Forest. (I actually tried using this as a soundtrack for Sierra's Conquests Of The Longbow game. Marvellous). The shorter instrumental links, like 'Touch And Go' (no, nothing to do with the Cars song, hard as that might be to believe!) and the already mentioned King Henry's bit 'Pastime With Good Company', are cute and don't overstay their welcome, either. However, when 'Estampie' and 'Juniper Suite' start re-establishing the same themes with the exact same kind of interplay, it's time for a little bit of boredom. That's the album's main flaw - medieval music never was particularly inventive in its choice of moods.
But hey, at least the vocal numbers all rule. Not that the guys particularly bother about singing; one thing they did not want to establish was a gorgeous vocalization. It might well be that they just didn't have a good vocalist and didn't want to increase their ranks by letting in an outsider, but I actually think that's also an intentional part of the whole shenanigan: be more realistic, you know, down-to-earth and all. How do we know that all medieval minstrels had angelic voices like that of Richard Thompson or Sandy Denny or Maddy Prior? We sure don't know nothing. More probably, they had some people who sang real well and a LOT of people who couldn't sing worth crap. You know, the kind that got bones and empty goblets thrown at them at great dining events. Not that I'm implying the vocals are THAT bad, but they're certainly nothing to write home about.
It's the melodies that rule, and the tales told through them. 'Sir Gavin Grimbold' entrances you with the cute stop-and-start structure and mystical tale of unexplained disappearance. 'Three Jolly Butchers' tells a horrendous tale of betrayal played to a bassoon/harpsichord backing. 'The Astrologer' is simply hilarious as far as smutty thematics goes, and 'The Devil And The Farmer's Wife' is a funny exercise in medieval misogyny that finishes the album on the perfect note. Best of all, of course, is 'The Unquiet Grave', a really chilling little ditty that's the only thing on here to somehow be elevated to a truly epic scale. Which is good - heck, for once we have a bunch of guys that assault medieval music as if it were something real, fresh, full of vital energy, instead of sacralizing it. We all know Anglo-Saxon and Celtic folk the way they were "sacralized" by Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span - here comes somebody to desecrate that stuff. That works for me. If only these guys had bothered about making some of the instrumentals less sterile and more diverse, as well, I would certainly have considered a higher rating. As it is, Gryphon is not a perfect album, but certainly one well worth your money if this kind of music ever interested you.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1974
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 9
The band grows from arrangers and performers into composers. Gradually and painfully.
Best song: ETHELION
Track listing: 1) Midnight Mushrumps; 2) The Ploughboy's Dream; 3) The Last Flash Of Gaberdine Tailor; 4) Gulland Rock; 5) Dubbel Dutch; 6) Ethelion.
A letdown of sorts. All of you bastard great-great-great-great-grandsons of King Henry, why don't you sue the bastards? Here they were doing these nice little arrangements of our forefathers' music, and then, all of a sudden, there's Midnight Mushrumps. See, on the first record all but two of the tunes were supposedly 'traditional' or 'unidentified'. Now I know that in a perfect world, this would simply serve as a nice little trick for not paying anybody any royalties, but in this here case, I suppose they actually had reason to put up those little notes. But starting from the second album, Harvey, Taylor, and Gulland decided that they'd want to be just like their forefathers, also composing something in the genre.
It all started, if I'm to believe the liner notes, with Harvey's commission to write the music to a 1973 theatre production of Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'. Harvey agreed, and based on the music he wrote for the show, he later concocted a nineteen-minute symphonic instrumental piece. For reasons I'm unaware of, he called it 'Midnight Mushrumps'. Then he stimulated the other guys to pen their instrumental compositions. They did. Then they recorded one vocal track for "diversity"'s sake. Then they put on sixteenth century outfits (naturally - they were now the authors, not just post-generation reinventors) and took a photo. Then they issued the album. And it became a fan favourite. Isn't it funny how one good turn predicts another?
Seriously now, in radical contrast with the debut album, large chunks of Midnight Mushrumps just bore me to death. There's one thing I've always been afraid of whenever it came around to modern composers doing medieval music: overcomplication. Certain chord changes and unexpected melody twists on this album reek of avantgarde more than of the medieval spirit; I'm pretty sure that if King Henry actually decided to take a listen to this stuff himself, he'd be shocked and definitely would have ordered a couple more wives to be executed just to calm down his soul. It's the musical college student spirit, see - never satisfied by conventional stuff, we plunge on further into the unknown. Granted, Mushrumps do pave a way towards the far superior and far more beautiful Red Queen To Gryphon Three, but the suite itself and the shorter tracks that surround it are just too self-indulgent to be taken seriously.
I'm not speaking of memorability - it's not as if the tunes on Gryphon were all that memorable, after all. I'm speaking of atmosphere; this album doesn't have a great deal of it. It definitely requires more than one listen, but I gave up after the sixth one, as soon as it became obvious that any further listening would only make me hate this stuff. Because, basically, it's hardly offensive. The instrumentation is still essentially the same, although more emphasis is placed on guest organist Ernest Hart's playing than anything else; this is a very keyboards-oriented album, with acoustic guitars taking second place and Harvey's recorder and Gulland's bassoon now playing more of a secondary, 'embellishing' role. And, of course, the medieval vibe is still present; it's just that the "pure" atmosphere of the debut that I had treasured so much has completely vanished. They've made a step towards really sounding like Gentle Giant at their most pretentious, and it isn't a particularly good step; although I suppose it was good enough to make Yes choose them as opening act for their 1975 tour.
Do not ask me to describe the songs, really. The lengthy title suite goes through several separate 'movements' which never last all that long but never really go all that far. Some slower, chorale parts, some faster martial parts, some moody pompous organ blasts, you know the drift. It's probably possible to extract a few pieces of good music from there, but as a whole, the suite just doesn't work for me. As lazy background music, perhaps. The melodies are way too lifeless and 'pro forma'. The four shorter compositions on the second side aren't much better; note also that for the first time, the band draws away from 'only purely medieval' stylistics - for instance, 'The Last Flash Of Gaberdine Tailor' with its harpsichord passages sounds more like Bach-era music than King Henry-era music. Not that I really care. It's still essentially just a subtle mood piece.
'Ethelion', I guess, is the best of the instrumental tracks on here, adding a little diversity with the strange laughing section in the beginning and featuring a cool and economic drum solo from David Oberle. It's a nice showcase for all the musicians, and it has the thing that's the closest to being memorable on here: a romantic little recorder riff from Harvey that slowly metamorphoses into a romantic little bassoon riff from Gulland and then goes off into a wonderfully-constructed crescendo with all the instruments used by the band's members slowly joining in. It's about the only tune I'd eagerly recommend from the album, although the only vocal number, 'Ploughboy's Dream', is hardly bad either.
But did you think I was going to give the record a six or something? A nine it is. Weak, though. It'll hardly save me from being bashed to hell by Gryphon fans, who'll want to tear me apart with their gryphon claws and vulture beaks once they've learned I dared to put down 'Midnight Mushrumps', but it'll save me from my own conscience which is worse. Gryphon fans are here today gone tomorrow (more often like 'here tomorrow gone today', though), and my conscience will torment me. After all, it was kinda brave from the guys. And it did lead them right away to their masterpiece, want it or not.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1974
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 12
"Symph-rock" par excellence.
Best song: all four parts are equally good. Hard to tell.
Track listing: 1) Opening Move; 2) Second Spasm; 3) Lament; 4) Checkmate.
Score! But I gotta warn you, there's no middle ground for this album. You'll love it or you'll hate it. But either way, it'll be a strange kind of love, and a stranger kind of hate. Lovers of this album will torment themselves with the question 'is this really so good? then why isn't it at all memorable?', and haters will torment themselves with the question 'if it sucks, then why does it sound like nothing else?'.
I do think it's the best album Gryphon ever came up with, and in this way you're presented with a case of me sharing a rare agreement with diehard prog fans (most fans consider this to be the band's pinnacle as well). But, of course, I have my reservations, which I'll be explaining in a minute. First of all, though, I have to say that it's particularly nice that no two subsequent Gryphon albums actually sound the same: for a band with such a short lifespan, this is a real achievement. Red Queen To Gryphon Three is a fully instrumental record, consisting of four long tracks, two per side. Essentially, it is a symphony loosely based around a 'concept' of a chess game, hence track names like 'Opening Move' and 'Checkmate'. I don't think the 'chess concept' came out as anything more than just a retrospect thought, though; in my mind, none of the tracks really associate with a chess game by themselves - only after I attune my senses to the idea, certain associations can spring to mind as an afterthought. But that's not important.
What is important is that this is certainly a far more rocking album than anything they had before. And not just because they finally add the electric guitar to their battery of instruments; in fact, there's not a single electric guitar solo on here anyway, just some mild soft-hearted riffage. It's just because there's a lot of rock energy and bombast here in general. Oberle, for instance, lays off his timpani and assembles an entire drumming kit, which he pounds with enough verve and professional skill to rank up there with the... okay, no, but he does come close at times. There are also synthesizers, with tones ranging from soothing to nasty, all played by Harvey who is able to make them sound downright mean and mind-boggling at times. In all, the arrangements are rockin'.
And yet, the music itself is anything but rock. What is it? I'm not really sure. It's a huge mish-mash; no musical theme lasts longer than three or four minutes, really, and in a certain way they can be said to just carry on the vibe of 'Midnight Mushrumps', but all of these parts are better than 'Midnight Mushrumps', because they're not only more energetic, they're also more diverse and even challenging. Yeah, as usual, I find this album a challenge, a real healthy challenge that I'm glad to accept. I acknowledge these melodies and yeah, I got a lot of problems assimilating this material, but these are the same problems I'm a-havin' with assimilating certain well established classical chef-d'oeuvres, so I don't worry about that much.
The four parts themselves are, as usual, hard to describe, but it does sound like there's a certain mood running through each of them. 'Opening Move' is essentially the 'introduction', which means that it's grand and bright, but not as grand as the finale. It's optimistic in mood, as if it were indeed the start of a chessgame; all about it, from Harvey's barocco paino solo in the beginning to the stern aggressive wall-of-sound synthesizer onslaught of the end, symbolizes vital energy, inrush and, er, well, a certain lustiness, I'd say. 'Second Spasm' is just as energetic, maybe symbolizing the "second part" of the game when all the initial 'predictable' moves have been made and the partners begin planning some real devastating attacks on each other. Its central focus is the medieval martial rhythm that's at certain points underpinned by really spooky synthesizer grunts; the section I don't quite get is that hilarious krumhorn break in the middle, but hey, maybe it's one of the players leaving for a minute to take a pee... (??).
The second side opens with 'Lament' - a milder, more introspective section. Maybe it's the "third part" of the game, either when both of the players get tired and bored and tension is at an all-time low. Or maybe it represents the depression of the gradually losing side. Lord knows. Dominated by the bassoon for the most part, playing an unmemorable but ear-pleasing melody that never grates on you and provides a really relaxing atmosphere. And finally, as expected, we close with 'Checkmate', where the energy is once again regained, but if we're to be honest, it doesn't really happen until the eight minute when these synthesizer loops come out to astound you if you were playing it at high volume. The climax, in fact, could have been much grander; I find it to be a flaw.
But all in all, this really is a very nice experience. Totally unpretentious; there's not a single guy on here who's trying to pull the blanket on himself. Totally unique; there's not a single album in my rock collection that comes close to this stuff. Totally competent; I challenge you to find a single 'mistake' in the stuff they're playing. Of course, you can say - and you will say - and I will agree - that all of this stuff is unmemorable, meaningless and in a certain sense, boring. But to my ears, so is at least half of classical music "chef-d'oeuvres", and I really don't hear that much difference. So what if it isn't particularly 'involving'? Not everything is supposed to be. It's adequate, original and quite melodic, and I'll be happy to have this as background music whenever I'm playing chess. Not that I actually played a chess game since the age of twelve, mind you... tee hee, but that's not meant to be ironic. Oh, and, goes without saying, if you're a prog fan and you don't own this album, your prog collection ain't worth nothing. Take this from a non-prog-fan.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1975
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 11
Branching out? No, really? A strangely diverse listen indeed.
Best song: MOTHER NATURE'S SON
Track listing: 1) Down The Dog; 2) Raindance; 3) Mother Nature's Son; 4) Le Cambrioleur Est Dans Le Mouchoir; 5) Ormolu; 6) Fontinental Version; 7) Wallbanger; 8) Don't Say Go; 9) (Ein Klein) Heldenleben.
Like I said: no Gryphon album ever sounds the same. Their bombastic peak having been reached, Gryphon found themselves kinda at a loss: the earlier 'hardcore medieval' image has been totally ruined, yet apparently they didn't intend to make all their future albums sound like Red Queen, because, heck, that'd be boring. A hint at the reasons of the shift can be seen in David Oberle's liner notes: 'Raindance is a comprehensive mix of all the influences which Gryphon had used, plus a newer feel that the band had been developing whilst performing to much larger audiences than before' (italics are mine). On the Yes tour, that is. Hmm, doesn't that dangerously reek of commercialism? Selling out? Sacrificing identities in favour of the yellow devil?
God knows, and frankly, I don't care. What I do care for is the music. The compositions are now being much shorter, although one of them is still lengthy - the fifteen-minute suite '(Ein Klein) Heldenleben', if I'm not mistaken, this should be translated from German as '(A Small) Hero's Life'. It has nothing in common with 'Midnight Mushrumps' at all; medieval influences do exist on here, but they're more or less on equal footing with rock influences and jazz influences. Whether I like the suite or not is a complex question; one thing I know for certain is that it is very much inspired by Yes, containing lots of solo passages and key changes that remind me of Yes' style. More than that, the powerful, epic synthesizer-led coda is built exactly according to the pattern of 'Wurm' - you know, the repetitive build-up with all sorts of crescendos and wall-rattling guitar solos. But rip-off or no, it's a good coda, and since that same theme also crops up in different other places of the mini-suite, you could call it the saving link which adds a major sense of unity to the composition. Overall, though, I find the whole thing a bit too scattered and 'all over the place'. Maybe it would have helped if they'd label the separate parts with specific names. As nice as the 'main theme' is, it doesn't exactly help to understand what is "going on" - I dare say the hero is born, raised, goes to war (martial rhythms in the middle) and then probably dies, but which is which? Well, anyway, at least it makes up for nice background music.
The 'shorter' compositions are the real gems of the album, though. What they display is an obvious desire to branch out; as if compensating themselves for the lack of variety on their first albums, Gryphon now are ready to try out virtually everything. 'Down The Dog' opens the album, for instance, on a funky note, with jerky Synclavier basslines, before settling it down in a peaceful rustic Camel vibe. The title track drops that vibe completely - to my ears, it sounds as if they were trying to imitate Mike Oldfield on here, with its ambient-sounding synth loops, becalming rain sounds and tranquil flute background. As the song buids up its crescendo, it then unexpectedly transforms into a pretty cover of the Beatles' 'Mother Nature's Son', with Oberle handling the vocals. He's no McCartney, but he's still good - even if it was a nice idea that Paul's 'du du du' vocals be replaced by recorder solos. Of course, the title of best song immediately goes to that stuff - every time a prog-rocker covers a Beatles song it just goes to show how everything prog-rockers do pales and withers in comparison to the true genius of the XXth century. Then again, not any prog-rocker can cover a Beatles tune effectively, right?
From there, we head on into French folk territory with the subtly hilarious 'Le Cambrioleur Est Dans Le Mouchoir', with radio-encoded French vocals and joyful sly acoustic guitar. 'Ormolu' is an equally weird playful acoustic interlude with strange, almost drum-machine like clock-work percussion that can't be traced to any particular style. It functions as an intro to the beautiful ballad 'Fontinental Version'... ballad? It's a beautiful ballad for about thirty seconds, and then it turns into a Jethro Tull-like Elizabethan-style rocker with dirty electric guitar. Going from balladry to rockin' and back and again and back and again until you're all dizzy and really don't know what to think. Strange, strange song.
Then there's 'Wallbanger', which is kind of a cross between a jig and an avantgarde jazz instrumental, and a Gentle Giant-like vocal pastiche called 'Don't Say Go' with an existent, but hard-to-discern melody. And then there's the epic closer.
In all, maybe I didn't provide enough of a credible description, but even from the snippets you may have read I think it's possible to understand what kind of a mess Raindance really is. It has absolutely no kind of conceptual unity like its predecessor(s), the songs are all over the place, incompatible with each other, drawing on all the influences indeed. And yet, I kinda like it. Hey, conceptual unity is not necessarily a good thing - and look at all those wonderful eclectic albums like The Beatles or The Who Sell Out which have nothing to unify them and yet have managed to stand out as classics. Raindance, to my ears, sounds accessible and inviting, and even if, as usual, the melodies aren't particularly memorable, the atmosphere of experimentation, joy, and slight naivete totally redeems for that sin. Plus, there's really tons of great musical ideas on here. Hey, the percussion part on 'Ormolu' is worth a fortune alone.
And I sure rejoyce at the sight of the album placed on one 2-fer CD with Red Queen To Gryphon Three. It makes for a great "breather" after the four complex pieces of the first album. I'd even suggest reprogramming your CD and interspersing the bigger pieces with the smaller ones, but if the idea seems blasphemous to you, just let it rest. Together with this review.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1977
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 12
Treason indeed - now that they have matured to the state of putting no filler on a record, they make it their last one!
Best song: SPRING SONG
Track listing: 1) Spring Song; 2) Round & Round; 3) Flash In The Pantry; 4) Falero Lady; 5) Snakes And Ladders; 6) Fall Of The Leaf; 7) Major Disaster.
Gryphon's Abbey Road. And that's as good a comparison as might be (except that it shouldn't be understood as if I'm equalling the band's songwriting abilities with those of the Fab Four). Remember the way the Beatles chose to go out? In 1969, when their innovative potential was by far exhausted and their personal relations on the brink of a nightmare? They simply took an LP and filled it to the brim with Good Songs. In all styles, all directions, and packed with solid melodies - I'd be hard pressed to pinpoint the 'innovative' or 'revolutionary' qualities of Abbey Road, but that doesn't make it any less of a solid candidate for the Beatles' best album. Same goes with Treason. It's miles away from Gryphon's humble beginnings as a hardcore medieval band. It's even miles away from their 'serious' peak as medieval/Yes-influenced instrumental prog-rockers with the ability of 'ten strong men'.
It's just a collection of seven songs. A pompous universalist epic; a couple sentimental ballads; a weird jazzy instrumental; one or two unabashed pop excursions; and even something of a vaguely 'funky' nature. A typical 'last album' - a band that, one could say, had lost its proper identity and frankly doesn't know where it is heading to, desperately trying to gain commercial success and at the same time trying to preserve a righteous face for the 'hardcore' fans and failing in both respects: Treason alienated many fans, and totally bombed commercially. Or almost totally, I don't have any sales records here with me. Never mind. All the same, it certainly came out at a dang sordid time - with punk galore and all that, it was initially destined to fail. That said, had it come out a few years before and been properly marketed, I'm sure it could have yielded a bunch of smash hits. After all, every single song on here is better than any single song that Styx ever released (I'll be returning to the Styx topic a wee bit later), so what the hell?..
Anyway, the majority of the tracks on here were penned by Harvey, and they're all masterful. 'Spring Song' fully matches its title - it's pretty glorious and does provide some inspiration for those who really need it. The lyrics are a bit silly at times, I'd say, but remember, this comes from a band whose lyrics on the first three albums can all be written on the palm of your left hand, so forgive 'em and just sing along to the beautiful 'spring is the dancer, the lover of men' chorus. It's also the most Yes-ish track on the album; for some reason, the main mid-tempo shuffle that holds up the song keeps reminding me of 'Close To The Edge'. Direct comparisons end right there, though.
Elsewhere, there's plenty of these little sentimental ballads with gorgeous vocal hooks in them. Dave Oberle sings lead vocals on most of them, and does that masterfully; no, the singing isn't of a Greg Lake quality or something, but it's pretty gentle and pretty humble. And that's the big deal: no matter how pompous or pretentious or universalist these guys sound, they still end up being completely adequate. 'Major Disaster', for instance (Bob Foster's only contribution to the album and the one song of the two that Harvey didn't write on here), could be a typical Styx song. But what Styx would do to this song would be fill it with a row of gaseous choking synthesizer overdubs ("hey, we're modern guys after all") and then proceed to wind up Tommy Shaw or Dennis DeYoung so that a simple sentimental ballad would take on the importance of the Mountain Sermon, which is vomit-inducing. Gryphon do none of that, so 'Major Disaster' is a major success despite the ominous title - do you think that's why nobody bought this record? Hmm... Next time your band records an LP, try giving it the name Commercial Bomb. Let's see what happens.
Anyway, speaking of Harvey's songwriting, apart from 'Spring Song' and the beautiful 'Round And Round' and 'Fall Of The Leaf', he also contributes the album's only "rockin'" tune, 'Falero Lady', which is, er, um, ambivalent - I don't have anything against the intentionally ugly lead vocals, but it seems that the song doesn't gel with the rest of the album just as easily. Well, maybe it does, forget that. And then there's 'Snakes And Ladders', that weird jazzy instrumental. The main melody of the number is unbelievable, one of the best instrumental hooks they ever did - and it's really really fun to see the song slowly 'grow up' to that main melody and then go through various 'excourses' into quasi-chaos and dissonance in order to taunt the listener and then all of a sudden break out into the main melody again. Almost symbolic of the album as a whole, you know: confusion is reigning everywhere, yet these guys are able to take up confusion, grab it by the tail and shape it into perfectly acceptable and artistically valid forms.
Throw in Gulland's quirky funky 'Flash In The Pantry' which also doesn't really fit in but is nevertheless finely written, and the mixed bag comes out supreme and menacing. Heck, maybe it was a good thing these guys disbanded - your last album always matters, doesn't it? You may release twenty pieces of sordid crap that you may think of or call 'spiritually free manifestations of the artistic mind', but if your twenty-first and last piece is a masterpiece, that redeems everything. (I'm speaking to you, Ian Anderson!) Where could Gryphon have headed after that album? Heck, they were out of time since their appearance on the stage, and by 1977, they were so badly out of sync with everything else you'd swear every member of the band kept a minor model time machine in his basement. In any case, twenty-five years on, this stuff still stands up proudly, so go and get it everyone who's able to.
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Year Of Release: 2002
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 10
I demand that those responsible for the setlists be courtmartialled.
Best song: RENAISSANCE DANCE MEDLEY
Track listing: 1) Renaissance Dance Medley; 2) Midnight Mushrumps; 3) Ethelion; 4) Wallbanger; 5) The Last Flash Of Gaberdine Tailor; 6) Le Cambrioleur Est Dans Le Mouchoir; 7) Ein Klein Heldenleben; 8) Jigs.
Yes, it gives a certain satisfaction of an almost religious character to learn that such a small, humble, and commercially unfortunate band as Gryphon has not been forgotten in twenty-five years; as hard as it is to believe, some faithful enthusiasts have actually gotten around to scraping a couple old BBC programs off the bottom of the barrel and releasing them spliced on one CD, thus satisfying the need for a live Gryphon album. "As curious as it can be", indeed.
Unfortunately, it's not at all what I expected it to be. When it comes to Gryphon, I really like three of their albums. The debut is ever so hardcore medieval, which is a plus. Red Queen is mathematically constructed and perfectly engineered prog, which is cool tools. And Treason is inspired and deeply emotional art-pop, which is top of the pops. In between, there are a couple other albums which I consider transitional, and, although far from bad, not really representing Gryphon at the top of any of these three games. Well, I sort of like the short stuff on Raindance, but it's still feeble and tentative next to the obvious confidence of Treason. That's me Gryphon opinions, and that's the way they stay.
And of course this live album had to be recorded for 'Radio 1 In Concert' on May 3rd, 1974 (first three tracks) and November 15th, 1975 (everything else), exactly the periods when they were promoting these two records! Given that they probably weren't given that much performing time, there was practically no question of playing something else, meaning that the three 'big' albums are left without a single representative! (Well, Treason couldn't be represented by anything because it hadn't been written yet, but the other two...?). Hence I have to come to terms with the flaws and fallacies of these two records and develop a newly-found liking for them if I'm ever to appreciate Gryphon as a live band. But I don't want to.
Okay then. Gryphon are perfectly oiled when they come out on stage; too perfectly, in fact, as there's little to distinguish their live style from their studio one. (The lineup, by the way, is the same on both halves of the concert, except for the bassist: Philip Nestor for the first half, Malcolm Bennett for the second one). It's interesting that they obviously do not like to sing onstage: the only number with any kind of vocals on it is 'Le Cambrioleur Est Dans Le Mouchoir', and you probably remember the kind of vocals that song requires (see the Raindance review). This, by the way, might explain the reluctance to play stuff from the debut album, which had quite a bit of singing on it. Weird, considering that Richard Harvey's vocal abilities aren't bad. But maybe he just sort of freaked out at the idea of playing the recorder and singing at the same time. Come to think of it, it's not an easy task, as a matter of fact.
For my money, it's the first and last track that really make the experience worthwhile - they open with a short little selection of 'renaissance dances' (I wonder if they ever had dance troops of traditionally dressed Anglo-Saxon peasants for illustrative material?) and close with an even shorter, but quite inflammatory, little jig so as to slightly bring down the 'academicity' level of the evening. The coordination between all the five band members is awesome, particularly considering their quickly launching one melody after another; look at how the guitar, bassoon, and "Yamaharmonium" (is that it?) are having a total gas tracing out the same melody in the last section of the 'Medley'. (The bass I can't really hear, but something tells me it's doing the same thing). And on 'Jigs' they offer us an awesome race-to-the-end, sppeding up to thrash-metal rate by the end of the second minute. Too bad it's so short.
For all of that, we do have to tolerate (or enjoy, in case you like really long, really directionless, really sophisticated-for-no-reason instrumental suites that are neither fish nor fowl) sixteen minutes of 'Midnight Mushrumps', played exactly in the same way as the original. Luckily, they then do my fav off that album, 'Ethelion' (and I'd much rather hear the main theme of 'Ethelion' fifteen times in a row than the roamin' and gloamin' of 'Mushrumps' once), and a couple of short fun instrumentals from Raindance, 'Wallbanger' and 'Cambrioleur'; the acoustic guitar flourishes on the latter are predictably impeccable and the non-radio-encoded French vocals amusing in a cutesy way.
Still undecided about 'Ein Klein Heldenleben', but it does look like this version is a tad more lively and energetic than the studio one, and the electric guitars rock moderately harder this time, so I think I've come to appreciate it. After all, it has a real sense of development and direction, and besides, it comes right off the heels of the Red Queen triumph, so there's no reason why anybody tolerant of at least some prog should discriminate it. Side note: is it just me, or does Bennett adlib a few disco basslines during the coda and certain other sections? And is this an intentional spoof on the genre or just an innocent "experiment"? And was that already featured on the studio version or is this a newly-found gimmick? (Yeah, yeah, I know I can just put on the original, but it saves me time if I just formulate it as a question here and leave it at that). And has anybody noticed that the main guitar riff almost totally coincides with Creedence Clearwater Revival's 'Walk On The Water'? And is that intentional or just a coincidence? See, I like asking questions that will almost certainly remain unanswered. It's the teaser in me.
All in all, this stuff is certainly acceptable, but I'm still waiting. If they have found this kind of stuff (and the sound quality is exceptional - but then again, how could it not be? It's the BBC we're speaking of), I'm sure they can find recordings from other periods as well. Not that I have no idea how these recordings will sound - most probably, ninety percent identical to the studio versions and ten percent different in ways I won't approve of cuz I'm such a hopeless grumbler - but it's a matter of principle, goddammit. Every progressive band is supposed to have its completely useless, but glorious progressive live album, and just because Gryphon lasted for little more than five years doesn't mean they have to be considered an exception.
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