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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Gentle Giant

Octopus

Review by Julie Knispel

Gentle Giant is perhaps one of the most difficult progressive bands to get into. Their mix of canon and baroque vocal parts, counterpoint and medieval musical arrangements kept them from being immediately accessible. Listeners who take the time to work their way through the incredible complexity will find their work rewarded, however, with some of the most interesting progressive music committed to vinyl.

The sextet was founded around Shulman brothers Phil, Ray and Derek, and on Octopus, they were joined by Gary Green (guitarist), John Weathers (drums, percussion, xylophone) and Kerry Minnear (keys, synths, piano, organ, cello, vibraphone, Moog, percussion, vocals). The Shulmans also contributed vocals, violin, sax, trumpet, mellophone, bass guitar...amongst the 6 musicians, close to two dozen instruments were able to be performed. Concert footage (conveniently available on a pair of official DVDs released by the band) show an ever-changing series of instruments used by the band, often changing instruments within a song. This variety in instrumentation was as much a negative as it was a positive; while it allowed for great changes in mood and timbre and tonal colour, it lent the band's material somewhat less of a singular identity. Add in their insistence on creating incredibly complex compositions, and it is not overly difficult to see why the band remained more of a cult favourite while bands like Yes and Genesis sold boat loads of records.

Octopus was Gentle Giant's fourth album, released in 1972 and following closely on the heels of Three Friends. In many ways, Octopus was the first full sign of what Gentle Giant would offer to progressive music at large; while previous albums had hinted at what the band could do, it was on Octopus that all the elements came together in a fully cogent, coherent manner. Offering up an amazing amount of musical intensity and complexity, it is amazing to realize that the album, all eight songs, clocks in at just slightly over 34 minutes - roughly the average length of a Flower Kings epic. Yet there is as much musicianship and variety packed into that 34 minutes as some bands fit into an entire career.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2007 Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
The Advent of Panurge
Octopus opens with one of the more traditional melodic lines in Gentle Giant's CV, before shifting into more typical GG territory, complete with shifting counterpoint and canon style vocals. Kerry Minnear's vocals are solid here, though this comes with the caveat that his voice is one of the more difficult characteristics to come to terms with in listening to Gentle Giant, as he is far from a traditional lead singer. Gary Green adds some tasty guitar lines here and there, while brass stabs add still more musical colour. Shulman brothers Phil and Derek contribute additional lead and canon style vocals, completing the Gentle Giant musical recipe. This track draws from the literary works of French avant-garde fantasist François Rabelais, specifically his five linked novels under the blanket title Gargantua and Pantagruel (“Pantagreul’s Nativity,” from 1971’s Acquiring the Taste, also draws from these works).
Raconteur, Troubadour
Drawing heavily from the English minstrel tradition, it would not be a difficult stretch to imagine the vocal sections of this piece to be heard at a Renaissance Faire or in a period film. More acoustic, to a degree, than the songs which surround it, with lead vocals courtesy of Derek Shulman, the song is also a showcase for third Shulman brother Raymond's violin contributions, and presents the band's medieval and baroque influences to the fullest. 
A Cry for Everyone
The album shifts to heavier ground on "A Cry for Everyone," a heavy rocker complete with thick, distorted guitar and a driving beat. Lest one think the band is offering up a straightforward rocker, the instrumental breakdowns see complex time changes and shifting tones and moods. Moog synthesizer and dexterous bass guitar (courtesy of Kerry Minnear and Ray Shulman, respectively) are two of the instrumental highlights. Derek Shulman handles the rockier vocals with ease, while Gary Green's fuzz guitar solos often duel with Minnear synthesizer, with no easy victor to name.
Knots
Gentle Giant is perhaps best known for their heavy use of multiple vocal parts, often arranged in canon form. "Knots" is perhaps the best example of this band feature, with layered chanted vocals handled by Phil Shulman, Kerry Minear and Derek Shulman (in that order of appearance). Add in some interesting musical accompaniment, sometimes verging on Zappa/early Floyd musique concrete in the opening phases, and one can easily see how Gentle Giant is considered one of the most complex progressive bands...as well as one of the most difficult to embrace. The shifts in style and rhythm are amazing, as the whole band "grooves" around the 1:30 mark, switches back to short bursts of percussive sounds, then moves into material that would not be out of place on an old Banco album, showing a more symphonic side to their playing. "Knots," in the final analysis, is everything Gentle Giant is known for, distilled into a single 4-minute song.
The Boys In the Band
Band engineer Martin Rushant laughs, spins a coin, and Gentle Giant begins to rip into the album's instrumental track, 'The Boys in the Band." Freed from having to fit in complex vocal arrangements, the instrumentalists (the whole band, actually, as the six members of Gentle Giant play some 16 instruments amongst them) take the opportunity to flex their not inconsiderable chops. Every bit as complex, if not more so, than their vocal material, the song works through a number of changes, including galloping rock, chilled out "blues," horn driven jazz with ice pick lead guitar that'd not be out of place on a King Crimson album, and more. Minnear's synth and Moog lines at the 3:30 mark are particularly nice, and lead into a final visitation of the main musical melody before conclusion. Sadly, the song fades rather than come to an actual conclusion...it'd have been interesting to see where the ride out led.
A Dog's Life
This song moves the band back toward more acoustic territory, with Ray Shulman's violin and Kerry Minnear's cello mixing well with steel string acoustic guitar from Gary Green. Phil Shulman's vocals are pleasant, and, while the lyrics seem to tell the tale of "man's best friend," in fact, the song is a "tribute" to the band's roadies. Reed organ and chamber string ensembles mix as well, creating a buzzy, renaissance vibe. It is just the perfect length at just over 3 minutes, offering a nice respite after the heavy rock workout that preceded it.
Think of me With Kindness
"Think of me With Kindness," as a song, works so well on a multitude of levels. Kerry Minnear's vocals are fragile and plaintive, drenched in longing and loss, while his piano playing ranges from the quiet to uplifting, shifting from single note lines to exultant ascending chords. An exultant band take on the main melodic themes verges on the anthemic, while their typical multiple vocal parts do not detract from the song's fragile beauty. Unlike any other track on an album where no composition is like any other, this one may have become a radio classic had it not the attached stigma of being released by Gentle Giant.
The River
Octopus closes with a return to heavier rock styles on "The River." Organ rests uneasily atop a shifting rhythmic foundation, while Derek Shulman's vocal leads grate slightly, on key but just, keeping the listener on the edge. Phil Shulman picks up the vocal about 2 minutes in with a pleasant tenor, while additional electronics add a sense of spaceiness and atmosphere. Gary Green rips into an extended guitar solo at the 3:30 mark, straddling the line between blues and rock, with a touch of wah pedal seasoning to keep things interesting. Overdubs allow him to battle against himself as multiple lines wind and twist around each other before Minear's synth leads the band back into the main melodic figure. Derek Shulman takes the vocal lead for the final verses, steering the song back out in almost cyclical fashion.
 
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