How the Shulman Brothers foresaw our modern times on their classic sixth LP
Virtually all 1970s progressive rock pioneers prided themselves on elaborate arrangements, elongated song structures and creative exploratory lyricism. However, few matched the ingeniously esoteric yet welcoming chemistry of England’s Gentle Giant.
(Even their somewhat oxymoronic name implies a masterful balance of inviting appeal and intimidating heft.)
The group was formed at the tail end of the 1960s by the Shulman brothers—Phil, Derek and Ray, all of whom sang and played multiple instruments—after their previous band, the psych/soul/pop troupe Simon Dupree and the Big Sound, proved marginally successful but artistically unfulfilling.
AUDIO: Simon Dupree & The Big Sound “Kites”
Between 1970 and 1972, the trio (alongside guitarist Gary Green, keyboardist/vocalist Kerry Minnear and various drummers) issued four immensely distinctive, extraordinary and influential LPs whose standout characteristics—namely, charmingly complex interlocking vocal and instrumental patterns born from wide-ranging influences like folk, classical, jazz, hard rock and more—rubbed off on countless other genre acts over the years. (To name a few: Spock’s Beard, Echolyn, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, The Flower Kings, Beardfish, Sky Architect, and perhaps even Jethro Tull via Songs From the Wood.)
Beyond that, the release of 1972’s Octopus saw the arrival of permanent percussionist John Weathers and the subsequent departure of Phil Shulman (due to various stressors and incompatibilities); naturally, this led to the remaining two brothers and company pushing themselves especially hard to prove how well they could carry on without him. Fortunately, the result—1973’s In a Glass House—exceeded expectations and is considered by many to be their peak up to this point.
That brings us to Gentle Giant’s sixth record, 1974’s The Power and the Glory. It’s their third overt thematic sequence in as many years (after 1972’s Three Friends and the aforementioned In a Glass House). In a 2014 interview with Ultimate Classic Rock, Derek Shulman explains: “The concept for the album was based on the corruption of power and how people on the bottom are affected by the people on top. Money and power will win no matter what and the people that are hoping for the best won’t usually get the best.” (Obviously, then, it has no connection to Graham Greene’s 1940 novel of the same name.)
Pressured by their UK label—Vertigo/WWA—to be more commercial (as was the case with many of their peers at the time), they released an eponymous non-album single—which they despised—to appease them. Ironically, though, it actually foreshadows the direction they’d take on their last two or three outings.
As for The Power and the Glory proper, it’s more or less a perfect melding of the virtuosic, musicianship-for-musicians approach of its predecessors with the increasingly more mainstream and warm sheen that’d truly begin with its follow-up, 1975’s Free Hand (a damn fine effort in its own right, of course). Filled with the sophisticated quirkiness and inventiveness fans have come to expect, The Power and the Glory also leaned closer toward hospitable hard rock than, say, the relatively cold, sparse, and bizarre In a Glass House.
In that same interview, Shulman looks back on the full-length as follows: “A band is born, has a childhood and then goes into adulthood. I think we became an adult on The Power and the Glory. It was . . . the culmination of the best of our musicianship coming together as a band; it was a golden period for the band.” Forty-five years later, it’s hard to disagree.
To be clear, every song on The Power and the Glory upholds the group’s beloved trademarks—so none present a radical departure—but a palpable sense of in-your-face accessibility and/or aggression still reigns over the record. This is evident from the jump, with “Proclamation” introducing faint authority and great suspense by placing a shimmering keyboard treatment beneath Derek Shulman’s characteristically robust and catchy declarations. Clearly, he’s also tapping into the themes of the sequence with quips like “You may not have / All you want or you need / All that you have / Has been due to my hand” and “I think everyone / Not as my nation / For you are my people / And there must be no change.” It grows patiently and precisely to include playfully commanding rhythms, winding guitar riffs, plenty of skillfully zany detours, and even some operatically menacing avowals of “Hail! / To power and to glory’s way!” Its use of dynamics is brilliant as well, as it eventually quiets down to almost nothing before enlarging once again to recall the starting hooks. Thus, it’s a tremendously fetching opener that faultlessly combines their knack for both showy flamboyance and steadfast forcefulness.
AUDIO: Gentle Giant “Aspirations”
Later on, Minnear’s more tender and high-pitched voice does wonders for the lusciously regal “Aspirations,” whose comparatively smooth attitude and timbres—light drums, mellow acoustic guitars, electric piano, etc.—lead to a vibe that just about anyone will enjoy. Afterward, “Play the Game” is undoubtedly one of the most mesmerizingly quirky and fun tunes Gentle Giant ever composed, with an expansive arsenal of instruments (acoustic guitar, marimba, Hammond organ, violin, minimoog, clavinet, and Mellotron) constructing a deliciously vibrant hodgepodge of qualities to complement Shulman’s engrossing melodies. Halfway in, an abrupt but fitting by-pass finds Minnear taking over singing duties to steer another one of his emblematically pensive and sparse contemplations. As usual, though, it’s contrasted cleverly by an opposing style—in this case, Ray Shulman’s funky bass lines alongside a keyboard solo—before getting back on track.
The penultimate “The Face” allows Green to dish out some blues rock fury throughout its treasurable classical zig-zags and hard rock fortitude; from there, “Valedictory” basically acts as a retooled and abridged hectic reprise of “Proclamation.” This sort of bookending continuity was done before—with Genesis’ Selling England By the Pound being a top example—but this instance is surely one of the best in the genre.
Elsewhere, Gentle Giant’s more impenetrable yet rewarding and unique tactics shine through. In particular, the threatening “So Sincere” finds Shulman and Minnear splitting their vocal presence around a score that constantly feels like it should fall apart but instead captivates like an imposing and dissonant jigsaw puzzle. Although softer and brighter, “No God’s A Man” manages a similar sort of cobbled together structural adventurousness—including interlocking voices—that demands as much attentive listening as possible.
VIDEO: Gentle Giant “Cogs In Cogs” live in concert 1974.
Easily the highlight of The Power and the Glory, and perhaps their entire catalog, is “Cogs in Cogs.” Despite being the shortest track, it’s also the most striving in certain ways, with a central motif that unquestionably ranks as one of the most awesomely hypnotic, intricate, and enjoyable passages in all of progressive rock. Its vocals—both lone and entwined—are irresistible, too, and the rhythmic pair of Weathers and Ray Shulman guide it all with frisky finesse. As jovial as it is jaw-dropping, it single-handedly represents everything that made Gentle Giant so inspiring and matchless.
To say that The Power and the Glory still holds up would be a massive understatement. Not only does it rival its predecessors and successors for the coveted crown of being Gentle Giant’s greatest achievement, but it also outdoes much of the work being produced by their peers at the time. Several decades later, countless innovations in technology, coupled with countless new followers trying their hand at the style, have spawned some truly magnificent modern efforts; however, The Power and the Glory still bests the vast majority of them.
As an essentially perfect compromise between their established peculiar trickiness and their gradual turn into a radio-friendly rock band, it’s the best of both worlds in one endlessly fascinating endeavor. Hail to The Power and the Glory indeed.
AUDIO: Gentle Giant The Power and The Glory (full album)