Album Reviews

Prog-Tober 2020

Issue 2020-079: Day 9 — On Track with Dream Theater, 10CC, and Gentle Giant

October 2020 sees the 25th anniversary of DPRP.

A quarter of a century of uninterrupted reviews, interviews and features across the progressive genre is quite some landmark. To celebrate the occasion, we shall publish one review edition every single day during this month - 31 editions!

Welcome to Progtober!

In addition to our usual in-depth, independent reviews, our team has compiled a collection of interviews, artist features and several of our ever-popular Duo and Round Table Reviews. Over 40 different albums will be covered.

As ever, thank you to all our readers for your ongoing support, as well as all the artists and labels who create the music we love, and not forgetting the hundreds of people who have written and contributed to this website over the past 25 years.

Jordan Blum — On Track: Dream Theater - Every Album, Every Song [Book]

Jordan Blum - On Track: Dream Theater - Every Album, Every Song
Geoff Feakes

It was only a matter of time before the world's premier prog-metal band became the subject of a book in the ever growing On Track series from Sonicbond Publishing. Regular DPRP readers will know the drill by now, each studio album and every song by the artist or band in question is individually discussed. In the case of Dream Theater, that's 15 studio albums in a career spanning 35 years.

The 'Introduction' provides a brief history of the band, although their trajectory is covered in more detail as the book progresses. In addition to other illuminating facts, it sheds light on why since their formation, Dream Theater has replaced a singer, two keyboardists and most famously, founding drummer Mike Portnoy in 2010. Following a chapter dedicated to each studio album, there is a round-up of live and video releases, compilations, bonus tracks and official bootlegs. The photos in the 16-page colour section, chart their development from hair-metal hopefuls in the mid-80s to masters of elaborate stage shows in the 2010s.

While the format remains mostly the same, what I find most interesting about the On Track books is the individual style of each author. This is Jordan Blum's second publication in the series, his first focused on Jethro Tull. He has also written for several prog and metal journals and teaches English in America.

Like all the authors in the series, his approach is very methodical and, perhaps unsurprisingly given his background, his writing is very stylised. He discusses the musical structure, and not just the background and subject, of each song in elaborate detail which I particularly like. If by the end of the book, the reader is in any doubt regarding his preferences, Jordan provides his 'ultimate Dream Theater playlist' and 'albums ranked from best to worst'.

This is another excellent addition to the series which has already set high standards in the appraisal of rock acts and their music. While I would not consider myself a diehard Dream Theater fan, I found it both entertaining and informative. Jordan's persuasive writing has also encouraged me to revisit their albums and I can't think of a better recommendation than that. It goes without saying that for devotees of Dream Theater and progressive metal in general, it's an essential purchase.

Peter Kearns — On Track: 10cc and Godley & Creme - Every Album, Every Song [Book]

Peter Kearns - On Track: 10cc and Godley & Creme - Every Album, Every Song
Geoff Feakes

As a teenager in the early 70s, my insatiable appetite for rock music was satisfied by the likes of Yes, Genesis, ELP, The Moody Blues, Deep Purple, The Who, King Crimson, Black Sabbath and Queen to name just a few. The UK pop chart on the other hand, with a few exceptions, was pretty abysmal. One such exception was 10cc. Yes they had hit singles, but more importantly, between 1973 and 76, the original line-up (like Queen) released four classic albums worthy of the finest that prog-rock had to offer.

This recent addition to the On Track series of books from Sonicbond Publishing covers those first four albums in depth, along with the subsequent releases from 10cc and Godley & Creme. The latter pair left the band in 1976 to forge a more experimental direction which eventually led to a career as directors of pioneering music videos. It's also gratifying to see the inclusion of pre-10cc group Hotlegs whose only album (a rarely heard gem) I managed to unearth circa 1975 after trawling the record shops around Leicester and Birmingham.

Author Peter Kearns hails from New Zealand and as well as being a journalist, he's a recording artist and producer in his own right. He's also responsible for the excellent Elton John 1969-1979 book I reviewed in 2019. If anything, this is a more rounded portrait of a musical collective in their formative years. 10cc skillfully balanced sonic experimentation with a knack for writing a good tune and witty lyrics. At one time, they seemed like the only true heirs to The Beatles. All four members were singers, songwriters and producers and such was their musical ability, they were not averse to swapping instruments for the recording of each song.

The book follows the trusted On Track formula of dedicating a chapter to each album and then examining every track in detail. They are in chronological order, so the post 76 10cc albums are intermingled with those by Godley & Creme. Non-album tracks such as single A and B sides are included, and along the way, Kearns charts the development (and demise) of the band. His musical background is evident in the song descriptions, where chord progressions and key changes are often dissected in minute detail. Such is his knowledge, he also has a canny ability to identify specific stylistic traits common with other acts.

Although 10cc were never particularly fashionable, especially with the music press, they produced some of the most adventurous and entertaining music of the 1970s. This book is a fine testimony to their work and affirms, if need be, that despite a chart-topping song of the calibre of I'm Not In Love, 10cc had so much more to offer.

Gary Steel — On Track: Gentle Giant - Every Album, Every Song [Book]

Gary Steel - On Track: Gentle Giant - Every Album, Every Song
Jan Buddenberg

The successful On Track series continues, this time taking a deep dive into one of England's finest, somewhat obscure, and probably most underrated eclectic prog bands.

Gentle Giant delivered remarkably original and iconic albums like Octopus and The Power And The Glory and in its ten years existence amazed both audience and critics. Their music was edgy, experimental and loaded with phenomenal Zappa-esque instrumental complexities which even might have Zappa confused. Next to this, their distinctive incorporation of medieval influences and polyphony vocal techniques is still unrivalled to this day. And although their impact on the music scene might have been small, the way their music keeps influencing many artists today surely isn't.

The author of this book is New Zealander Gary Steel, who in 1973 at the age of 14 marvelled at In A Glass House, as beautifully told in the funny and inviting prologue of the book. The humoristic tale that involves this, will in one way or another feel very familiar to many prog-heads. Which goes equally for his unlucky writer who feels sad never to have been able to witness the band in action; them having only been around for a short period in time (1970-1980). They never reformed or did anything substantial afterwards and only occasional performances through recent Three Friends spin-offs has shown a glimpse of their musical brilliance.

With just 120 pages, it is about 25% shorter than the On Track standard. Out of these pages, only 60 are actually addressed to the 12 individual albums, including the live album Playing The Fool. This seems short, but Steel capably manages to squeeze in as many details as possible. Also a slightly preferable difference to the other books in the series, is the fact that many of Gentle Giant's characteristics are described in the extensive and informative introduction, which on the one hand makes for enjoyable reading and on the other takes away many unnecessary duplicate individual track explorations, thus keeping these segments fresh.

As usual the discussion of the albums comes through a steady formula. Firstly a detailed overview of personnel involved in the recordings and the whereabouts of the recordings, after which a short introduction follows, filled with facts surrounding the album. This part always makes an interesting read for those who like their prog history and who like to get acquainted with the band. Steel's efforts are no exception. Further subsequent analysis of the individual tracks is handled exemplary by Steel. His depictive sentences manage to speak to his reader, aided through witty remarks set in an easily understandable and accessible vocabulary.

Point of entry for the album exploration is a Simon Dupree And The Big Sound album, which was the band's name prior to changing it to Gentle Giant. As far as I know, a first diversion in the series and a route normally not taken, yet in light of Steel's completeness, it is a beautiful gesture. First off, it offers a delightful fact I didn't know the existence off, and also adds insight into the roaring late sixties, which is great. For who would nowadays associate Reginald Dwight (aka Elton John) with the band. It's exactly these kind of little facts that makes these On Track books so rewarding.

Besides the passionate descriptions of the songs/albums it's the other 45+ pages that make this book a collectors' delight. Here Steel discusses in full the officially released compilation albums, live registrations, reissues, videos and other miscellaneous albums. Steel opinions on some of these albums only being of interest to the Gentle Giant-possessed is great, just like giving advice as to which of these albums are actually worth pursuing. His judgement is generally spot on, having listened to some of these offerings in the meantime. However stating halfway down the book that In'terview would be the last necessary album in their repertoire, with an additional "What were they thinking?", is a verdict that's rather harsh.

Steel addresses the almost radical shift towards a less eclectic style competently, addressing compensating factors like the punk movement, the need for success and other surrounding circumstances. He convincingly brings lovely insights to the era this way, and for someone who started with albums predating The Missing Piece these albums indeed show a different face, which in hindsight understandably upset fans at the time. There's however no denying the compositional quality and musicality still on offer on Gentle Giant's three final outings. A level which many aspiring bands hope to achieve in their lifetime.

In my case, the complete opposite occurred. The relatively simplified, approachable rock of Giant For A Day, my primary encounter, awakened my appetite to delve into Gentle Giant's discography. It proved to be a perfect stepping stone to appreciate their occasionally unfathomable music. I have to admit though, that the brilliant live registration Playing The Fool is from a completely superior order altogether, something Steel full-heartedly acknowledges in the Live Albums chapter.

After reading the book in one continuous flow, one question does linger in my head though. In the remasters/reissues segment, Steel mentions the ultimate 2019 release Unburied Treasure, Gentle Giant's "Holy Grail" Boxset. Maybe it's limited availability and expensive costs stood in the way of fully including it here, but now the book feels ever so slightly incomplete and a bit prematurely published. Inclusion seems obligatory and for a revised edition I hope it will be included. Thankfully fellow DPRP Mark Hughes's recent review of said box set takes the honours in supplying the perfect appendix.

Overall, Steel's take on Gentle Giant is a most satisfying read. It's well written, entertaining and sits well with it's predecessors. Recommended for prog-rock adorers, to those generally interested in rock history and the "modest to avid" Gentle Giant fan. A fine bookshelf addition which thankfully has sufficient room for the next volume(s) in the series. Can't wait to see Who's Next.

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