When it comes to where to begin with these UK prog greats, read on
Released in October 1969, King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King is widely considered (by those that consider such things) to be the first true “progressive rock” album.
The album’s dark musical ambiance, edgy guitar playing (courtesy of Robert Fripp), and oblique lyrics (courtesy of Pete Sinfield) was unconventional and sounded unlike any other band at the time. The album found an audience, however, inching into the Top 30 on the U.S. charts and kickstarting the prog-rock era.
King Crimson’s unlikely popularity opened the door for like-minded artists. But the band didn’t exist in a vacuum; there had been inklings of “progressivism” in rock music prior to In the Court of the Crimson King. Fellow Brits Yes released their self-titled debut album three months before Crimson’s audacious debut and, although it failed to chart, the band’s 1970 follow-up, Time and A Word, paved the way for Yes’s enormous mainstream success. Genesis took their British folk-rock roots into proggy directions with their early 1969 debut and, back further still, The Nice merged classical influences and rock music on albums like The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack and Ars Longa Vita Brevis in 1968, before keyboardist Keith Emerson left to form prog-rock titans Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
England’s Gentle Giant was among the legion of prog-oriented bands to emerge in the shadow of King Crimson’s surprising success. Formed by the Shulman brothers – Derek, Phil, and Ray, all three multi-instrumental talents – the brothers had been kicking around the U.K. in various British R&B bands, most notably Simon Dupree and the Big Sound, which released a number of singles before scoring with a Top 10 hit with the song “Kites” in 1967. The Shulmans wanted more out of their music than trite psych-pop chart hits, however, and they broke up that band after the release of their Without Reservation album in late 1967.
VIDEO: Simon Dupree & The Big Sound “Kites”
The Shulmans hooked up with a pair of talented multi-instrumentalists – Gary Green (who played anything with strings) and the classically-trained Kerry Minnear (primarily keyboards) – and, along with their former Simon Dupree bandmate, drummer Martin Smith, formed Gentle Giant in early 1969. Five of the band members could sing, and between them all they played dozens of instruments, providing a wide musical palette to work with. From 1970 through 1980, the band released eleven studio albums and a single live set to varying success; although Gentle Giant was never a chart-topping behemoth like Yes or ELP, the band’s complex and intelligent sound found a loyal cult audience, and roughly half of their recordings charted in the U.S.
Fifty years since the release of their debut album, Gentle Giant continues to attract new fans through an aggressive reissue program overseen all these years by Derek Shulman that has kept most of their back catalog in print at any given time. The recent reissue of the band’s first four albums on vinyl on their own Alucard Records label brings these pioneering prog-rock works full-circle, back to the wax where they started. The band’s immense musical chemistry is apparent from the first notes of Gentle Giant (*** ½*), their self-titled 1970 Vertigo Records debut. Although it wasn’t released in the United States until 1972 (and then, for some reason, with the cover from their Three Friends album), the album found a ready audience in France, Germany, and the U.K.
Produced somewhat shabbily by the now-legendary Tony Visconti, who helmed all of David Bowie’s mid-to-late ‘70s albums, Gentle Giant attempted to throw together of the band’s collective rock, blues, and soul influences into a musically-challenging sound. In a 2005 interview with writer Pete Pardo for the Sea of Tranquility website, Derek Shulman said of the band’s songwriting efforts, “it was like this big funnel, really. We all had these varied influences, whether it be pop, classical, jazz, or whatever” and we just came together and created what we did.” The album’s opener, “Giant,” is an ambitious six-minute prog-rock construct built with a myriad of instruments and utilizing whiplash time signatures and syncopation. Derek Shulman acquits himself nicely as a vocalist as the song slides into an eloquent instrumental passage.
With Phil Shulman on vocals, “Funny Ways” displays the band’s more pastoral side, the song’s delightful harmonies and whimsical instrumentation evincing a baroque sensibility. By contrast, the harder-edged “Alucard,” one of the band’s signature tunes (naming their label after it), the song discordant in a King Crimson vein with brother Phil’s bleating saxophone, overall instrumental cacophony, and what sounds like backwards vocals leaping out of a strident soundtrack. “Isn’t It Quiet & Cold?” is influenced by British dancehall with a touch of skewed pop but the otherwise subdued “Nothing At All” provides a showcase for Gary Green’s fierce, blues-rock styled guitar-playing. “The Queen” closes out Gentle Giant with a short albeit memorable instrumental coda.
Gentle Giant’s sophomore effort, 1971’s Acquiring the Taste (****), displays the confidence and maturity of a band that has some shared experience under its belt. More experimental in nature, Acquiring the Taste eschews the meager blues and soul of the band’s debut to go “full prog” in the creation of music that was “unique, adventurous, and fascinating,” according to the record’s liner notes. Working again with producer Visconti, who got a cleaner sound for the band by recording in different studios, Acquiring the Taste represents Kerry Minnear’s increased presence in the band’s songwriting process.
The album opens with the epic “Pantagruel’s Nativity,” inspired by the books of French satirical writer François Rabelais. Musically, the song hints at contemporary influences like Yes and ELP, but also Gregorian chants and Medieval sounds that are punctuated by Green’s razor-sharp fretwork and Minnear’s imaginative use of vibraphone and Moog synthesizer. Featuring Minnear’s lofty, wisp-like vocals and a mind-bending, psych-drenched soundtrack, “Edge of Twilight” takes a distinctive left turn with a fascinating percussion passage arranged by Minnear that sounds like something out of the Frank Zappa playbook.
The brilliant “The House, the Street, the Room” offers muted Derek Shulman vocals buried beneath a syncopated mix of throbbing dual bass lines and Victorian era instruments like clavichord, xylophone, and clarinet; it’s a welcome respite when Green begins channeling his inner Jimi with some devastating guitar solos and uranium-weight riffs. The title track is a short, nightmarish instrumental while the intriguing “Wreck” is a Crimson-esque rocker featuring dual lead vox from Derek and Phil, jagged guitar licks, and eloquent keyboard riffs. Featuring a full string ensemble and better than a dozen instruments (from cowbell to violin and beyond), “Black Cat” offers a sort of classical-influenced avant-garde perspective. “Plain Truth” is a stripped-down rocker by contrast, relying heavily on Ray Shulman’s raging electric violin and Green’s scorching fretwork to anchor the gang vocal harmonies.
By the time that 1972’s Three Friends (*** ½*) album was recorded, Gentle Giant had lost drummer Martin Smith, who they replaced with Malcolm Mortimore from Arthur Brown’s band. The Shulman brothers decided that the band should produce themselves this time out and, writing with Kerry Minnear, they created the band’s first “concept album,” which is about as “proggy” as you could get at the time. The album’s theme is that of three childhood friends who are separated by fate and circumstance as they grow up. They diverge from their once-common interests to become a laborer, an artist, and a white-collar worker as adults. They lose their ability to relate to one another’s lives and, years before The Soprano’s faded to black, Three Friends ends, lyrically, on a “cliffhanger” as the listener has no idea if any of the friends reconcile with one another.
It’s a heady concept, to be sure, and one that’s backed by a miasma of musical styles, ranging from British-styled R&B to symphonic rock that sounds little like the band’s previous work. “Prologue,” the opening track, is all over the place with synths running amok, edgy guitar licks, and momentous rhythms that wash over your ears like a tidal wave hitting the beach. It’s a little too “synthy” for my tastes, with too little attention paid to the vocals (although there are some gorgeous vocal harmonies rising above the din). The whimsical “Schooldays” is no less ambitious, however, incorporating the sounds of a school playground as a bed atop which ride jangly Clavinet and Mellotron notes, overlapping vocal harmonies (think “row, row your boat”), and other curious instrumental additions (harpsichord, bongos, mandolin) which create a dreamy, half-remembered sketch of the past.
“Working All Day” is an unconventional rocker that features Gary Green’s fierce guitar playing, massive keyboard runs by Minnear on his trusty Hammond organ, and an overall syncopated rhythmic track embroidered with Phil Shuman’s nuanced saxophone work. Side two opens with “Peel the Paint,” which begins with a rather muted Baroque-styled soundtrack before exploding with a percussive storm into a hard rock behemoth. Using an echoplex effect belonging to Soft Machine’s Mike Ratledge, Green’s psych-drenched solo really cuts loose and provides the song with an altogether different texture. “Mister Class and Quality?” is an interesting song comprised of different musical passages that range from light-hearted and joyful to dark and pondering while the title track is an epic prog performance, brief but brimming over with instrumental grandeur that showcases the band’s chemistry as an ensemble.
Three Friends became the first Gentle Giant album to hit the U.S. charts, peaking at #197 but setting the stage for future success. The last of the band’s current reissue LPs, 1972’s Octopus (****), is considered by many to be Gentle Giant’s commercial and creative breakthrough. Originally conceived as a concept album, the band chose not to go that route, with Ray Shulman stating in a 2004 interview with Q magazine that, “almost overnight, concept albums were suddenly perceived as rather naff and pretentious.” Instead, the band delved into the worlds of literature and philosophy in the creation of the album’s eight songs, finding inspiration in the works of writers like Albert Camus and François Rabelais. After Malcolm Mortimore was injured in a motorcycle accident, the band brought in John “Pugwash” Weathers (from Wild Turkey) to man the drummer’s seat, a position he’d hold until the band broke up in 1980.
Musically, Octopus was the band’s most ambitious album to date. The album-opening “The Advent of Panurge,” written by Minnear and featuring oddball time signatures, offers up discordant piano-play and syncopated rhythms, broken glass fretwork, and dueling vocals floating in an intoxicating instrumental cloud. Minnear’s “Raconteur Troubadour” incorporates some classicist elements in its construction, including some creative piano and mini-Moog flourishes and wonky cello passages that invoke a magical Renaissance vibe. “A Cry For Everyone” rocks harder than the surrounding songs, with a strident rhythmic bed serving as a foundation for Green’s raging guitar and Minnear’s anarchic keyboards; really, the song wouldn’t have sounded out-of-place on a Yes or Genesis LP at the time.
Inspired by the book of the same name by psychiatrist R.D. Laing, “Knots” is an awe-inspiring work, from the song’s intricate madrigal-styled vocals to the incredibly-complex intertwined guitar and keyboards and the strange, random sounds that embellish the song. Side two’s opener, the instrumental “The Boys In the Band,” is a more conventional rock song but with some neat tricks from Minnear’s Moog synthesizer while “Dog’s Life” returns to the Renaissance era with Phil Shulman’s lofty vocals and Minnear’s use of the regal, a bellows-driven mini-organ popular in the 1600s that provides an entirely alien sound to the song. “River” closes the album with an ear-grabbing burst of syncopation, the song’s percussive rhythms seemingly working at odds with Green’s stellar fretwork and Minnear’s clever keyboards which, themselves, stand crossways from the Derek and Phil Shulman’s ephemeral albeit effective vocals.
The U.K. cover of Octopus featured a Roger Dean painting of of an octopus, the legendary artist bringing the same sort of ‘hipness quotient’ to Gentle Giant that he did to numerous album covers by proggers like Yes and Greenslade. The U.S. version of the album featured a cover illustration by noted African-American artist Charles White displaying an octopus in jar; early versions of which were die-cut into a jar shape. The album grew the band’s stateside audience, rising to #170 on the Billboard magazine albums chart, and opening the door a little more for future releases like 1974’s The Power and the Glory (peaking at #78) and 1975’s Free Hand (hitting #48) to cement Gentle Giant’s legacy as prog-rock innovators.
Like a lot of prog-rock outfits, Gentle Giant didn’t earn a lot of love from staid rock critics of the era still pining for the 1960s. In The New Rolling Stone Record Guide (1983), writer Alan Niester gives mediocre two-star grades to Acquiring the Taste and Three Friends, but only a single star to Octopus, writing that “totally bizarre time signatures make it eclectic, intricate and showy, but not necessarily pleasant,” concluding that the band is “an acquired taste.” In the wake of the popularity of bands like Spock’s Beard, the Flower Kings, and Porcupine Tree – all of whom helped create a new generation of prog fans in the early 2000s – Rolling Stone’s 2015 list of the “50 Greatest Prog Rock Albums of All Time” places Octopus at #16, the magazine’s Ryan Reed writing that “Gentle Giant leave no weird musical stone unturned.”
The 2015 CD reissue of Octopus, featuring Steven Wilson’s imaginative mix, entered the BBC rock chart at #34 proving, as British rock critic Dave Thompson wrote for All Music Guide, that Octopus is “an album that has withstood the test of time a lot better than anyone might have expected.” With the vinyl reissues of the band’s first four albums, Gentle Giant revisits their earliest efforts with a fresh perspective for an antique format, providing a new generation of prog-leaning teens the opportunity to rediscover the band’s enormous musical charms.
***** Excellent, a masterwork by any standard (i.e. pizza & root beer)
**** A very good but slightly flawed album (hot fudge sundae without whipped cream)
*** Meh, an unremarkable album (but still better that a boot to the head)
** A boot to the head
* Really, why was this abomination ever released? (i.e. a root canal by a drunken dentist)