Album Reviews

Issue 2020-029: Gentle Giant LP Special


Gentle Giant may not have been one of the most commercially successful bands of the 1970s but they were certainly one of the most original and innovative.

Born from the ashes of 60s psychedelic rockers Simon Dupree and the Big Sound, from early 1970 to the summer of 1980 they released eleven critically acclaimed studio albums and a live double LP. They were renowned for their ambitious vocal arrangements and complex musical structures, embracing rock, folk, madrigal, classical, blues, soul, jazz and avant garde.

A versatile, multi-talented sextet fronted by the three Shulman brothers, they could turn their hand to a variety of traditional and non-traditional instruments. This was evident to anyone fortunate enough to witness their dynamic live performances, which usually involved a rotating combination of over 30 instruments.

Gentle Giant's intense musical chops and changes, and use of minor chords presented a challenge to even the most seasoned prog-rock fan. Only occasionally however did virtuosity take precedence over formal structure and melody. Admittedly, Derek Shulman's gravel-voiced vibrato was an acquired taste but this was balanced by rich, counterpoint harmonies. Ironically, they proved to be more popular in North America than they did in their home country, influencing Stateside bands like Happy The Man, Echolyn and Spock's Beard. They also had an affinity with Italian acts like PFM and Banco.

The release of the Three Piece Suite compilation in 2017 marked a renewed interest in Gentle Giant, bringing together tracks from their first three albums. The all-encompassing Unburied Treasure 30 CD box-set followed in 2019 and the initial pressing sold out within a week.

To mark the band's 50th anniversary, the first four albums Gentle Giant, Acquiring The Taste, Three Friends, and Octopus have been reissued on vinyl. Available on the band's official Alucard label, each disc has been pressed on 180 gram vinyl in a gatefold sleeve with the original UK artwork. Together, they chart the band's rise from promising newcomers to progressive rock pioneers.

Gentle Giant — Gentle Giant [LP]

Gentle Giant - Gentle Giant
Side One: Giant (6:23), Funny Ways (4:23), Alucard (6:01), Isn't It Quiet And Cold? (3:46)
Side Two: Nothing At All (9:08), Why Not? (5:31), The Queen (1:40)
Geoff Feakes

Many prog bands at the beginning of the 70s, including Yes and Genesis, struggled to find a producer sympathetic to their music. Gentle Giant were fortunate enough to acquire the services of famed producer Tony Visconti who encouraged their adventurous spirit and helped shape their distinctive sound.

Recorded in the summer of 1970, the self-titled debut album is a transitional work with elements of blues, jazz and hard rock with proto-prog tendencies. Compositionally, the tracks are all credited to the Shulman brothers (Derek, Ray and Phil) and keyboardist Kerry Minnear. The image of the kindly-faced giant on the cover is one that would become synonymous with the band.

The album is as much a showcase for the band member's divergent talents as it is a collection of coherent songs. Opener Giant is a template for later songs, boasting a solid instrumental hook rather than a chorus. Derek Shulman's strident singing (not unlike Family's Roger Chapman) vies with brother Ray's prominent bass riff for attention. Frank Zappa-inspired stop-start passages and a tranquil Mellotron and Hammond sequence, courtesy of keyboardist Kerry Minnear, build to a triumphant peak. In contrast, the elegant Funny Ways features delicate violin and strummed 12-string guitar with sweet harmonies. Following a rock and roll style piano at the halfway mark, it becomes more strident, with a searing guitar break and trumpet fanfares from Gary Green and elder Shulman brother Phil respectively.

Alucard (Dracula spelt backwards) would be later adopted as the name for the band's record label. It's built around a bombastic, fuzzed guitar and saxophone jazz riff with eerie Minimoog effects. In keeping with the title, the processed harmonies sound like they're being played backwards and are reminiscent of Godley & Creme's multi-tracked vocals on the 1977 Consequences album. Isn't It Quiet And Cold? is influenced by the Beatles at their most whimsical. It features such novelties as a medieval-style string ensemble, a jaunty violin motif, a brushed snare drum and a xylophone solo no less!

The acoustic guitar chords that open the nine-minute Nothing At All again brings the Fab Four to mind, although the exquisite harmonies are closer to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Derek Shulman's vocal brings a touch of soul to the table but it's Martin Smith's three-and-half-minute processed drum solo that dominates. Minnear adds improvised piano chords, revealing his classical training, and it builds to a fevered pitch finale, rounded-off by a crashing gong.

The penultimate Why Not? is the album's most retro song. It wears its hard rock credentials on its sleeve with crisp Hammond arpeggios, a staccato riff and bluesy chords. Add the gutsy vocals and it bears a striking resemblance to Tomorrow Night, a UK hit single for Atomic Rooster in 1971. It accelerates into a galloping boogie rhythm with edgy organ and guitar exchanges for the instrumental coda.

This would have made a fitting closer but the band decided to bow out with the instrumental The Queen, a loose interpretation of God Save The Queen. Queen would do the same five years later but here, curiously, the track is credited to the Shulman brothers and Minnear, probably because the original composer is unknown.

This debut is often sidelined in favour of later, more critically acclaimed albums from Gentle Giant, which is a shame. While it displays the band's blues and hard rock chops, its progressive rock credentials are firmly in place. If it has any faults, occasionally too many fragmented ideas are crammed into a single song, where the joins are all too obvious. That aside, it's one of their most fully-rounded and listenable efforts, and as worthy a debut as anything released by their contemporaries.

Gentle Giant — Acquiring The Taste [LP]

Gentle Giant - Acquiring The Taste
Side One: Pantagruel's Nativity (6:50), Edge Of Twilight (3:47), The House, The Street, The Room (6:01), Acquiring The Taste (1:36)
Side Two: Wreck (4:36), The Moon Is Down (4:45), Black Cat (3:51), Plain Truth (7:36)
Geoff Feakes

Tony Visconti was retained as producer for the aptly-titled second album and the sound is tighter, the playing more assured and the arrangements more ambitious. However they had not lost their tastes for melody and heavy riffs, as the opening track displays. Although no two Gentle Giant albums are alike, it provides a foretaste of their creative muse which would be refined over successive albums. To underline the point, the sleeve notes incorporate a defining statement of musical intent. The garish, Monty Python-style cover artwork is very much of its time and the joke quickly wore thin. Giving scant indication of the music contained within, it must have discouraged many potential buyers.

The elegiac Pantagruel's Nativity squeezes in as many ideas as its near-seven minutes allows. An eerie Minimoog intro is followed by a delicious and all too brief guitar hook. Mellotron washes, recorder and trumpet flurries foreshadow Kerry Minnear's falsetto vocal. Strident guitar chords give way to cascading vocal harmonies, and Gary Green's blues-inflected solo is underpinned by a sax riff. The melodic guitar hook from the opening is reprised to bring the song full circle. Minnear again takes lead vocal duties, accompanied by hushed harmonies, for Edge Of Twilight. With the exception of the harpsichord, it's built around an assortment of percussion including tympani, xylophone, gong and side drum.

The House, The Street, The Room contrasts lush harmonies with classical avant-garde textures (shades of Stockhausen) with clavichord improvisation and a heavy, discordant guitar solo. Ray Shulman's nimble bass figure and the rhythmic Hammond chords keep it all locked together. The title track is a Minnear solo instrumental in the classical baroque style. The slight melody is played entirely on Moog synth, reminiscent of the work of Walter (Wendy) Carlos. It's short but very effective.

The full band weighs back in for the uncompromising Wreck. Fuzzed guitar and Moog howls launch the song, with Derek Shulman's histrionic vocal and the heavy riff harking back to Why Not? on the debut album. It's blessed with a surging vocal hook, with violin featured in the tranquil interlude. Mellotron, Moog and guitar combine for the surging instrumental sequence that would have made a fine coda.

Phil Shulman's saxophone overdubs create a suitably moody atmosphere for The Moon Is Down, followed by lush harmonies. Piano, harpsichord and saxes build to a memorable instrumental bridge with a solid bass riff, climaxing with swirling Moog arpeggios and grandiose Mellotron strings. One of the album's standout tracks.

Black Cat is another highlight with pizzicato violin, viola and cello providing a stirring intro. It eases into a mellow jazz groove, with a walking bass line, Phil's haunting vocal and Green's wah-wah guitar imitating cat calls. Add subtle percussive effects, and the arrangement is strangely soothing and unsettling at the same time.

The concluding Plain Truth is for me, the album's weakest link. Despite the vocals, guitar and piano, it's primarily a showcase for Ray Shulman's electric violin skills. A lengthy, improvised solo builds from quiet beginnings into a jam and finally a crescendo, but it takes a long time getting there. Martin Smith's superb drumming, a memorable bass line and inventive chord progressions maintain the listener's interest.

Acquiring The Taste is a worthy successor to the debut album and a firm favourite amongst fans. It remains one of Gentle Giant's most experimental albums, exploring the different sounds and rhythms possible through the variety of instruments at their disposal. The next album would be more cohesive, placing the emphasis on the songs and story telling.

Gentle Giant — Three Friends [LP]

Gentle Giant - Three Friends
Side One: Prologue (6:12), Schooldays (7:35), Working All Day (5:09)
Side Two: Peel The Paint (7:30), Mister Class And Quality? (5:51), Three Friends (3:01)
Geoff Feakes

The third album builds on the strengths of its predecessors. The band elected to produce it themselves, assisted by engineer Martin Rushent, who would become a pioneering producer in the late 70s and early 80s. Drummer Malcolm Mortimore was brought onboard to replace the departed Martin Smith.

It was Gentle Giant's first concept album; the narrative follows the three friends of the title who leave school and go their separate ways, adopting very different lifestyles. Compared with Acquiring The Taste, Kerry Minnear is vocally less prominent, although his Hammond playing stands out. In 2009, the album title was adopted for the GG tribute band formed by Gary Green, Malcolm Mortimore and Kerry Minnear.

A roll across the snare drums introduces Prologue and the album. Apart from Phil Shulman and Kerry Minnear's sparse harmonies, it's mostly instrumental. An angular guitar and piano theme give way to Minimoog and Hammond embellishments. This would be the only album to feature Mortimore, but his articulate drumming is every bit as inventive as his predecessor. His career with GG would be curtailed by a motorcycle accident but he went on to work with numerous other acts.

Schooldays is an exercise in cool restraint with playful Clavinet, electric harpsichord and vibraphone (all played by Minnear) combining for the syncopated rhythm. The intricate in-the-round harmonies are an absolute delight, as is the symphonic Mellotron and piano instrumental bridge.

Working All Day catches up with the first of the three friends who is now a road digger. The song is suitably muscular (sung by Derek Shulman naturally) with jagged power chords placing saxes, bass and Hammond front and centre. An improvised solo on the latter is the song's centerpiece and highlight.

The second friend is an artist and Peel The Paint tells his story. It's a song of two halves, reflecting both his placid nature and the anger that lies beneath. Ray Shulman's double-tracked violins give the first section an orchestral gloss before Derek's strident vocal, a heavy guitar riff and spiky Hammond fills seize the song by the scruff of the neck. Underpinned by Mortimore's explosive drumming, Gary Green's histrionic, echoplex enhanced solo, incorporating distortion and spacey wah-wah effects, owes a clear debt to Jimi Hendrix.

'Mister Class And Quality? relates to the third friend, a rich and manipulative wheeler-dealer. The song has a free-wheeling jazz vibe reflected in the electric piano, bass, organ and guitar exchanges. Green's rampant soloing is once again all over the instrumental bridge before segueing into the majestic title song, Three Friends. Here, Mellotron and Hammond take on a celestial quality, complementing the heavenly choral harmonies and regal bass chords. A fine way to close the album.

Three Friends was Gentle Giant's first album to make inroads into the USA. Stateside audiences would warm to the band's later releases, helped by extensive gigging. Of all the first four albums, it's the one that suffers the most from the constraints of vinyl. At a little over 35 minutes, there's no room for the story to develop, and apart from a few random lines in the final song, the listener is left pondering the fate of the three friends. From a musical viewpoint however, it's a triumph.

Gentle Giant — Octopus [LP]

Gentle Giant - Octopus
Side One: The Advent Of Panurge (4:40), Raconteur Troubadour (3:59), A Cry For Everyone (4:02), Knots (4:09)
Side Two: The Boys In The Band (4:32), Dog's Life (3:10), Think Of Me With Kindness (3:33), River (5:54)
Geoff Feakes

Following Three Friends by less than eights months, Octopus saw Gentle Giant hit a creative peak with a run of classic albums that included In A Glass House, The Power And The Glory and Free Hand. Roger Dean's artwork for the UK cover is probably his most recognisable outside of his work for Yes. It saw another change of drummer, with John Weathers replacing the injured Malcolm Mortimore. Weathers would remain with GG until they disbanded in 1980. Octopus however was Phil Shulman's swansong. His premature retirement was prompted by stress and a desire to spend more time with his family before abandoning the music business altogether.

Like Three Friends, Octopus started out as a concept album with each song relating to a member of the band. Although the idea was abandoned, The Boys In The Band is dedicated to Gentle Giant themselves, while Dog's Life is a tongue in cheek tribute to the band's road crew. Kerry Minnear's Think Of Me With Kindness on the other hand, is a very personal song of lost love. Despite the wealth of musical invention throughout, only the final track River exceeds the five minute mark.

From the opening bars of The Advent Of Panurge, the intricate harmonies for which the band had become renowned are present and correct. They step aside for a jazzy, piano-led instrumental section with organ, guitar and trumpet stabs. Add the rock-solid rhythm partnership of Ray Shulman and John Weathers and you have a song that would have not been out of place on Emerson, Lake & Palmer's debut album. For the aptly-titled Raconteur Troubadour, violin, piano and electric piano take up the medieval mantle. The stately violin and organ march at the midway point, complete with trumpet fanfares, is a welcome twist.

A Cry For Everyone is in a more straightforward rock vein, although there's never anything straightforward about Gentle Giant. Derek Shulman is in fine voice for this strident offering from the pen of brother Ray. A deceptively clever instrumental arrangement features Kerry Minnear's expansive keyboard textures backed by a lively, shuffle rhythm.

The much loved Knots is one of the band's most inventive signature songs. The acapella, counterpoint harmonies and quirky percussive effects inspired a run of songs by Spock's Beard including Thoughts and Gibberish. The instrumental sequence features one of Gentle Giant's infamous xylophone solos, followed by pounding piano and aggressive guitar chords. Simply stunning.

In an album chock-full of standout tracks, the rousing instrumental The Boys In The Band leaves a lasting impression. Hammond, bass and drums lead a merry, if tricky, dance, sounding like a cross between ELP and Frank Zappa with memorable guitar, sax and Minimoog noodling during the bridge. His final album with the band, Phil Shulman leaves behind a splendid lead vocal during Dog's Life. Rippling acoustic guitar, violin, cello and viola combine to create a lush medieval string quartet. The off-kilter rhythmic sounds are courtesy of the Regal, a reed organ dating back to the Renaissance period.

Another of the band's best loved songs, the intimate Think Of Me With Kindness, is almost a solo effort from Minnear. The exquisite piano-led melody features eloquent lines like: 'Why am I using words, no more to say without you'. Only the instrumental hook, a nod to Elmer Bernstein's famous The Magnificent Seven theme, seems a little out of place. The surging organ and mellophone horn bridge on the other hand adds to the song's haunting beauty.

The closing song River is quintessential Gentle Giant. It's high on atmosphere and complex time changes, with a spiky riff driven by guitar, electric violin and organ. Weathers' busy drumming boasts inventive fills and engaging cymbal washes. With over-indulgence kept at bay, Gary Green's bluesy solo, complete with howling feedback, is the most prominent on the album, backed by rhythmic electric piano. After several false stops, River follows the lead of The Advent Of Panurge and ends on an abrupt note.

By 1974, Octopus had been reduced to a medley for live performances but it remained a showcase for the band's technical proficiency. Although Gentle Giant released further critically acclaimed albums, for me it's probably their most accomplished and accessible. Nothing is overstated or overdone, with memorable melodies, hooks and riffs sitting shoulder to shoulder with adventurous musicianship. It set a high benchmark for the band and progressive rock in general.

Album Reviews