Gentle Giant — Unburied Treasure
Much like a lot of their music, this definitive Gentle Giant box-set is not for the faint-hearted. Running to almost 28 hours of music, the set includes remastered versions of the 12 albums that the band released between 1970 and 1980, along with 16 concert recordings (14 of which are either previously or partially unreleased), a missing BBC session and a full rehearsal recording taped at Pinewood Studios prior to their 1977 tour.
All those treats for the ears are accompanied by plenty of delights for the eyes, including a 136-page hardback book telling the band's story, accompanied by rare photographs and memorabilia; plus a 96-page tour history book with gig and set lists, reviews and tour paraphernalia, a replica poster for the band's debut gig (featuring Simon Dupree!), a poster of The Power & The Glory sleeve, a replica of the booklet that was included in the first 10,000 copies of the live Playing The Fool album, a replica cut-out giant mask originally included with the Giant For A Day album and a replica of the promotional Missing Piece jigsaw (one randomly selected box set actually contains the missing piece enabling the recipient to claim a special prize!).
This review cannot hope to go through all of the albums contained in this set, so by necessity I will provide as comprehensive an overview as possible.
First up, the studio albums sound the best that I have ever heard them on CD. Pete Reynolds has done a superb job in getting the balances right, across the dynamic spectrum that is such an integral part of the Giant sound. There are no bonus tracks, other than the two B-sides The Power And The Glory and Heroes, which have been consistently present on re-issues of their parent albums. All available outtakes and the such, have already been compiled on the excellent Under Construction, Scraping The Barrel and Memories Of Old Days sets.
The live material has been chosen to cover all stages of the band's life. In order to represent the whole career, it is inevitable that some of the recordings will have previously seen the light of day prior to the release. Two prime examples are the first-known live recording from King Alfred's College, Winchester in 1971 and the band's final performance at The Roxy in 1980. Their inclusion is warranted, if only for historical reasons, particularly in the case of the earlier recording given its sonic deficiencies (although still very listenable), and in the case of the latter recording, the fact that the band were still a potent live force that displayed their musical prowess and prog credentials even if the final studio albums had seen the band take a more commercial direction.
The January 1977 Pinewood Studio rehearsals have also been previously released but are again worthy of inclusion because of their quality and because it demonstrates how the band was not content to play the same set on each tour. In spite of their frantic schedule, they had changed things around considerably by the time of their November 1977 gig in Chester, Pennsylvania.
Seven of the live shows are taken from audience recordings. Having heard some of the live bootlegs that have appeared on CD over recent years, I was hesitant about ordering the box set, as a lot of those unofficial releases were rather dire, and in a couple of cases all but unlistenable. Happily, none of those recordings are included. Instead, the band have searched through their own collections and archives and come up with some previously uncirculated audience recordings that have been mastered to the highest possible quality. All are perfectly listenable, despite their less-than-optimum sources.
The jewels are of course the higher quality soundboard and multi-track live recordings. The four 1976 shows in Dusseldorf (23 September), Munich (25 September), Paris (5 October), and Brussels (7 October) recorded for the official live album, provide the highest quality recordings, but it is interesting that none contain a complete concert. Yes, the equipment and power failure in Brussels would have interrupted those recordings (although interestingly Sweet Georgia Brown played during the interruption of the Brussels gig and appearing on Playing The Fool is not included on the source tape) but there are very obvious gaps and cut-outs in the other recordings. It is unlikely that only select sections of each concert were recorded, as that would have been somewhat of a false economy given that the mobile recording studio was following the band around Europe. However according to all sources, the presented recordings are all that exist. A mystery.
In fact, there is a considerable amount of information regarding the recording and touring career of Gentle Giant that does remain a mystery. When looking through the fascinating tour history book, it is astonishing just how much information has been forgotten or not recorded. From queries as to if concerts actually took place, their exact dates and even if the band were headliners or a support act, to the actual release dates of the albums remain unresolved.
From the video of the unboxing of the set by members of the band, it is clear that recording things for historical purposes was never a priority of the group. To that end it is good to have what information is know assembled into one place. Of particular note is the previously unreleased 1972 BBC session that adds to the previously released sessions. The book also details the sessions that remain missing and have sadly been wiped from the BBC archives. Who knows, they may yet be found amongst the fan-base as a result of their identification.
It was somewhat surprising to see that a complete set of masters had been located for the debut album, to which Steven Wilson was able to create a 5.1 mix. On the Three Piece Suite release from 2017 it stated that the full multi-track recordings could not be located, for this as well as the Acquiring The Taste and Three Friends albums. So it is certainly good news that some of the missing tapes have been relocated, which promotes hope that the other missing masters are also available. Although still quite a niche market, Gentle Giant are the perfect band for 5.1 mixing and it would be great to have all of their albums available in such a format (I eagerly await a 5.1 mix of Freehand, so hopefully that will appear soon!).
Overall, this is a brilliant set that effectively encompasses the entire 11-years of Gentle Giant's existence as a performing band. The huge volume of live material is not a drawback, as the band were capable of superb musical interplay and were constantly rearranging and rewriting pieces, sometimes as they performed them. Thus, each of the concerts is different, and even the regularly-performed songs have levels of originality to encourage concentrated listening.
Could this box set have been better? Well, no not really. I suppose including all available BBC sessions and In Concert recordings as well as a DVD/BluRay of television appearances would have been nice but these, as well as all known outtakes have already been released, are presumably in the possession of the hard-core fan base and would have pushed the purchase price up to rather prohibitive levels.
Besides, as the American stand-up comedian Steven Wright once said, "You can't have everything; where would you put it?"!