Of all the so-called progressive rock bands that emerged in the late '60s/early '70s, Gentle Giant has, perhaps, been the most misunderstood, and the one which failed to reach the same deserved commercial heights of its creatively innovative brethren, like King Crimson
and Pink Floyd
. Of the bigger names from that time, only Van der Graaf Generator
could be considered in the same breath when it comes to missed commercial success opportunities, and even that group has fared better, if for no other reason than that it resumed active service in 2005 and continues to release new music and, occasionally, to tour to this day.
Still, there was (and remains) no band that sounded quite like Gentle Giant; even today, its influence on today's more reductionist progressive rock scene represents a group that has, at times, inspired contemporary groups: imitated and cited, to varying degrees, but never quite capable of being copied. Transatlantic/former Spock's Beard co-founder and solo artist Neal Morse, Flower Kings and, alongside Morse, fellow Transatlantic co-founder Roine Stolt, Steve Hackett
/Agents of Mercy's Nad Sylvan, Opeth's Mikael Åkerfeldt, Steven Wilson
, Big Big Train, Gungfly's Rikard Sjöblom, Premiata Forneria Marconi's Franz di Cioccio, Tim Bowness
and many others have all sung high praises of Gentle Giant's decade-long, unparalleled innovations, documented over eleven studio sets and one live album. Plenty of lesser names, too, collected on recordings like A Reflection
(GORGG-O-Sonic, 2008), continue to be inspired by and fan the flames of the Giant's reputation in the 21st century as one of the finest (and, certainly, most inimitable) bands to emerge from progressive rock's infancy.
Why were Gentle Giant's attempts to garner the greater commercial success it deserved during its final couple of years met with such abysmal failure, despite an extant reputation for creative excellence that mirrored (and, in some cases, exceeded) contemporaries like Yes, Genesis and Emerson, Lake & Palmer
? It can easily be argued that Gentle Giant's failure and ultimate dissolve was, sadly, the direct consequence of deserting its most ardent fans (and, it could equally be argued, itself) by shifting gears in an attempt to achieve greater commercial success and adapt to a changing musical landscape, becoming something it most certainly was not.
Still, Giant's attempt to become more commercially viable was also the understandable consequence of slogging it out on the road as much (or, in some cases, more) than many. As the band, beginning in 1971 but with greater emphasis between 1974 and 1977, toured quite relentlessly, it watched groups like Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and, most notably, Genesis become increasingly/massively successful, selling millions of albums and filling increasingly sizeable venues. Not that Giant didn't have its share of success but, compared to its contemporaries, the group always seemed to have to work harder and tour harder to get what it did (not, however, suggesting that these other bands had a cakewalk).
Despite some surprisingly bad decisions beginning, in part, with the contrasting shift of 1977's The Missing Piece
(Chrysalis/Capitol), it's an absolute truth that Gentle Giant's name and reputation remains significant fifty years after it first rose, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of R&B-turned-psychedelic band Simon Dupree & the Big Sound in 1970. Giant's debut, Gentle Giant
(Vertigo, 1970), may not have achieved the iconic, game-changing success of King Crimson's 1969 debut, which shook the music world (and beyond), In the Court of the Crimson King
(Island). It was, nevertheless, a strong first shot across the bow of creative rock music, and a portent of even greater things to come.
Gentle Giant's largely complex and detailed music featured a broad spectrum of musical devices including, amongst others: shifting (and sometimes irregular) time signatures and tempos; polyphony; hocketing; frequent key changes; instrumental and vocal counterpoint; madrigal, fugal and other classical music approaches, with a particular predilection for early and Baroque/Renaissance/Mediaeval-era forms; multi-part, polyphonic vocal harmonies that often moved from challenging dissonance to greater (but still complex) consonance that were often traded from one singer to another, including the use of staggered rhythms; syncopation, polymeters and, perhaps its biggest definer above all, counterpoint; the breaking up and tonal re-voicing of initially simple chord changes; like some of its vocal arrangements, the passing of phrases/motifs from one player to another, in a tag team-like fashion; and surprising stylistic contrasts, such as moving from medieval chorals one moment to hard-driving rock passages the next.
Compositions were initially credited to the band's two co-founding Shulman brothers, Derek and Ray, older brother Phil, until his departure following the release of 1972's particularly exceptional Octopus
(Vertigo/Columbia), and the group's secret weapon, the remarkable multi-instrumentalist, Kerry Minnear. Still, the lion's share of the instrumental writing came from Ray Shulman and Minnear's pens, with additional ideas contributed by Derek and, while he was with the band, Phil. Phil and Derek Shulman were, on the other hand, responsible for most of the band's lyrics (which were, more often than not, based on subjects that few other bands either knew of...or were interested. Minnear occasionally assisted with prose that was as unique as the music that, more often than not, supported it, Gentle Giant also being no strangers to remarkable a cappella
vocal passages that became even more so in concert.
As serious as many have considered/accused the group and its music of being, Gentle Giant was also defined by no shortage of humor; even its attempts at more commercial, punk-informed rawness and naive simplicity might bear a title like "Betcha Thought We Couldn't Do It" (from the revealingly titled The Missing Piece
), or pay a warm tribute to the band's road crew with Octopus
' "Dog's Life."
Gentle Giant also included unusual "found recordings," like the early video arcade machine heard at the start of "Time to Kill," from the second side of 1975's Free Hand
; the "interview" questions/comments peppered throughout In'terview
, or the breaking glass that turns from random to rhythmic at the start and end of In a Glass House
. Nor was Gentle Giant averse to including small repetitive motifs, as can be heard throughout Gentle Giant
, to provide a certain musical continuity.
But if Gentle Giant could be accused of being pretentious and, certainly, musically aloof (especially in its short mission statement-like liners to Acquiring the Taste
), it's hard not to laugh with (rather than at) a band so self-effacing that, during its North American tour in support of Octopus
, it sported a giant sign with the word "PRETENTIOUS" flashing behind them onstage.
A perfect storm of sorts, Gentle Giant was, until its last couple of years and Chrysalis label albums including 1978's Giant for a Day!
, the band's rarely disputed low point, and 1980's somewhat better studio swan song, Civilian
, an atypical confluence of: expansive writing; a staggering concert potential to deliver five contrapuntal and/or harmonized vocal parts; and a particularly broad capacity for multi-instrumentalism that few, if any, bands from the time could match. Even in its final years, barring Giant for a Day!
, it still largely sounded like Gentle Giant, albeit of a largely simpler, more instrumentally conventionally kind.
In addition to his vast, ever-changing array of keyboards (as many as eleven), Minnear, beyond being a distinctive lead vocal alternative to Derek and Phil Shulman (later, preferring not to sing lead parts live and, instead, hand them over the Derek Shulman) was also capable of playing vibraphone, marimba, xylophone, cello, recorder, tympani and other percussion instruments. But he was far from the group's only skilled multi-instrumentalist: lead vocalist Derek Shulman contributed saxophones, recorder, clavichord, bass and percussion; fellow lead vocalist Phil Shulman added saxophones, clarinet, trumpet, recorder, piano, percussion and mellophone to the group's broad sonic palette; bassist Ray Shulman, in addition to being an accomplished violinist (electric and acoustic), played various guitars, in addition to organ, bass pedals, percussion, viola, skulls and trumpet on Giant's studio albums and/or live performances; lead guitarist Gary Green, in addition to a variety of guitars, contributed percussion, mandolin, recorder and, in concert, additional vocals; and John Weathers, the band's longest-lasting drummer (first joining as a substitute for Malcolm Mortimore following a 1972 motorcycle accident, but ultimately staying with the group until its break-up), added percussion, vibraphone and, like Green, additional vocals during live performances.
A band of five notable musicians and vocalists, Green emerged, increasingly, as a truly rare blues-based guitarist nevertheless capable of navigating Gentle Giant's often-demanding writing, managing to ground the group's more eclectic leanings while, at the same time, contributing to its distinctive, highly sophisticated musical complexion. Martin Smith, the first of Gentle Giant's three drummers, was able to comfortably shift from thundering rock grooves to lighter, jazz-informed playing, as was Malcolm Mortimore, who replaced him after Acquiring the Taste
(Vertigo, 1971), before Weathers joined the following year and brought an even firmer rock backbeat (even in irregularly metered songs) to the band, rendering its live shows, in particular, a curious yet eminently appealing blend of compositional complexity and rhythmic clarity, with his unshakable, rock-solid grooves.
The three Shulman brothers and Minnear were similarly expansive in reach, rendering Gentle Giant's unparalleled stylistic and instrumental breadth possible onstage as well as in the studio. It would, in fact, be no small challenge to find another group that could, in addition to a more "conventional" vocals/guitar/keys/bass/drums configuration, move from knotty five-part vocal harmonies one moment, to a chamber trio of violin, cello and vibraphone the next; from a bass/drums-bolstered section for three recorders to a staggering acoustic guitar duet; and from a scored percussion workout, with all five members contributing everything from tympani to triangle (and everything in-between) to horn-driven passages featuring saxophone and trumpet.
And yet, as important as Gentle Giant clearly was and continues to be decades after it folded, it was a band that, following seven years of largely critical acclaim, made that major misstep as it tried to adapt to a changing musical landscape where, with the advent of punk, things like musical proficiency and creative blending of a multiplicity of musical styles became anathema. Indeed, Giant's last couple of albums began to lose sight of what defined the band; despite Civilian
rallying after the undisputed low point of Giant for a Day!
, Gentle Giant ultimately passed, not with a bang but a whimper.
Still, even to its 1980 disbanding, Gentle Giant's live performances remained thoroughly riveting as its members seamlessly moved around as many as thirty instruments onstage. Giant performances could also be counted upon to act as strong contrasts to its studio recordings. Not only did the band rock out with greater power and commitment onstage (especially after Weathers joined), but live arrangements of its music were often substantially altered when compared to its studio counterparts, even more so when the group began to join multiple songs into lengthier medleys.
With its members all moving on to other things, ranging from record label A&R, band management, production and DVD/Blu Ray Authoring to teaching and more, one of Gentle Giant's best decisions, following its poorer ones during its final couple of years, has been to resist the pressure to reform in the 21st Century and tour its music, once again, for younger audiences who missed the band during its ten year run.
Yes, a couple of its alumni formed a group named after Giant's third studio album, Three Friends
(Vertigo, 1972), touring Gentle Giant's music periodically since 2009; But, even so, it has been on a relatively small scale, and not the kind of touring that Gentle Giant might have managed, had it reformed in toto
. Its members most certainly did not want to become like the many legacy acts which, progressive or no, have reformed to capitalize on their glory days but have simply ended up being pale shadows of their former selves, rather than the relative few, like King Crimson and Van Der Graaf Generator, that have managed to remain both fresh and relevant.
Gentle Giant's reputation most certainly precedes itself, even half a century on. A variety of reissues, including multiple remasters of its entire catalog and, even more significantly, some fine new stereo and surround sound mixes of select albums by Steven Wilson, have kept the majority of the group's commercial releases in print. Live shows, on CD and/or DVD, have also been released on the band's Alucard imprint, continuing to expand the group's canon. But for a band whose live shows were so vastly different to its recordings, beyond bootleg recordings, there's never been a proper document of how its shows evolved over the course of its decade-long lifetime.
The release of Unburied Treasure
is a major event for any who consider Gentle Giant to be the important but undervalued group it most certainly was, a group that had to fight particularly hard (and more than many) for the successes it did achieve. Strictly limited to just two thousand copies worldwide, Unburied Treasure
certainly isn't cheap, and with such a small production number, is likely to appeal largely to existing, hardcore fans. Still, as it documents not only the group's commercial work, but a slew of live recordings from across its career, beginning in 1971 straight through to its final performances in 1980, Unburied Treasure
tells as complete a story of the band as will likely ever be told.
It may be a pricey box, but a look at its contents makes clear that a lot of time, energy and effort went into its creation, successfully documenting a group whose studio and live performances of the same material were often not just substantially different, but which evolved over time. New remasters of its entire commercial discography, from 1970's Gentle Giant
through its studio swan song, Civilian
, are also augmented by Steven Wilson's newly minted stereo and surround remixes of Gentle Giant
, in high resolution, on the single Blu Ray included with the set.
What's In The Box?
First, the inclusion of Wilson's stereo and surround remixes of Gentle Giant
comes as a major surprise, given that when Three Piece Suite
(Alucard) was released just two years agoa compilation of sorts, featuring (amongst other things), Wilson's stereo and surround mixes of three tracks from Gentle Giant
, two from its 1971 follow-up Acquiring the Taste
(Vertigo), four from Three Friends
, and a previously unheard track, "Freedom's Child," from the Gentle Giant
sessions that, a,long with Acquiring the Taste
, were produced by Tony Visconti, of David Bowie
and T-Rex fame. When Three Piece Suite
was released in 2017, the explanation was that multi-track tapes for all the songs on all three albums could not be found (Wilson had already remixed both Octopus
and The Power and the Glory
(Chrysalis/Capitol, 1974) in full for Alucard, released in 2015 and 2014, respectively).
Clearlyand, as seems to happen, thankfullymulti-track tapes continue to be unearthed and so, in addition to engineer Pete Reynolds' fine remaster of the original mix of Gentle Giant
on CD (in addition to all the other CD content), this Blu Ray, featuring Wilson's new stereo and surround mixes (in addition to instrumental-only mixes of the album's seven tracks) are a most welcome surprise addition to Unburied Treasure
's 29 CDs. Unburied Treasure
also includes, in addition to the commercially released Playing the Fool: The Official Live
(Chrysalis/Capitol, 1977), a full sixteen complete or partial live performances, along with a handful of BBC Radio sessions from 1972. One, an audience recording from 1971, was already released by Alucard in 2009 as King Alfred's College, Winchester 1971
, and serves as the earliest known live document of the band. Seven have never been released before, while seven have never been officially released (Giant being heavily bootlegged back in the day) and one has never been available before on CD.
Yes, it's true that of these sixteen live performances, a full seven are sourced from audience recordings. Still, thanks to Pete Reynolds, these live performances remain important contributions to Unburied Treasure
. As sonic equivalences to similarly cleaned up audience recordings included in King Crimson's Larks' Tongues in Aspic (40th Anniversary)
(Panegyric, 2012), they're of significant value helping, as they do, to fully document Giant's evolution as a performing band.
These live recordings demonstrate just how different Gentle Giant's material was from its studio counterparts, while also shining a bright spotlight on a group that continued to evolve those live arrangements with every passing year. And with documents included, as best as possible, from each tour, most of the band's changing set lists are included, in full or in part.
Five shows are sourced from soundboardor, in the case of The Roxy, 1980, a modified mix of soundboard and single microphoneor full multi-tracks. An additional four come from the same series of four fall, 1976 multi-track recordings from which Playing the Fool
was sourced (these shows mixed, for this box, by Dan Bornemark), providing the chance to hear one complete show (Düsseldorf, September 23), along with sizeable portions of three other shows from around the same time.
A CD including the band's 1977 tour rehearsals at Pinewood Studios was included in the five-disc rarities/outtakes/live set Memories of Old Days
(Chrysalis/EMI, 2013) and, earlier, as MP3 files on the data disc included in the Scraping the Barrel
(Alucard, 2004). Here, however, that rehearsal disc has received a sonic upgrade, thanks to Reynolds, and is restored to its original and proper running order.
And so, Unburied Treasures
combines Gentle Giant's complete commercial discography with a series of live recordings that, when taken together, paint the most complete aural history of the band that's ever been available in one place. It's also true that, beyond Wilson's remixes of Octopus
and The Power and the Glory
in full and Gentle Giant
, Acquiring the Taste
and Three Friends
in part, that the group's entire commercial discography has been remastered on CD more than once, in some cases as recently as 2011 by Alucard. Its entire Chrysalis output (from 1975's Free Hand
) was remastered and reissued, along with some bonus material, in the four-disc box set, I Lost My Head: The Chrysalis Years (1975-1980)
(Chrysalis/EMI), in 2012.
Still, while the sonic upgrades to the commercial discography are subtle, what makes them worthwhile in Unburied Treasure
(and even if the hardcore fans who will likely pick it up already have multiple versions of these albums and on multiple media) is that Reynolds brings a certain aural consistency across these twelve releases, even if limitations of the original master tapes from which they are sourced do, indeed vary. Prior reissues of the commercial releases have often included bonus tracks; here there are none, barring The Power and the Glory
's originally single-only title track and "Heroes," included on more recent reissues of Civilian
In fact, barring these two bonus tracks and three recordings made for the BBC at its Maida Vale Studios on August 4, 1972, Unburied Treasures
doesn't duplicate any of the bonus tracks added to past CD remasters, barring a handful of live tracks that are, here, included in one or more of the box set's live discs, like the live version of "Prologue," from the September 8, 1972 New Orleans soundboard recording, that was first included on Alucard's 2011 remaster of Three Friends
The BBC studio and live recordings released by Band of Joy and Hux Records, respectively, in 1996 (Out of the Woods: The BBC Sessions
) and 1998 (Out of the Fire
) are also nowhere to be found. The July 3, 1976 Hampstead, New York live album, Live at the Bicentennial
, released by Alucard in 2014 and which includes the reggae-informed "Give It Back," a rarely performed song from In'terview
(Chrysalis, 1977), is also omitted. An almost complete show, missing the usual encore medley of Three Friends
' "Peel the Paint" and In'terview
's "I Lost My Head," followed by a most unusual second encore of Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour" and, in honor of the USA'S bicentennial, an after-midnight "Happy Birthday" to the USA, Live at the Bicentennial
was likely omitted as other full set recordings from that year's tour are of much better quality, like the complete Düsseldorf show.
In other words: while there is duplication of the entire commercial discography, albeit in newly remastered form, Unburied Treasure
does not include much in the way of bonus material, unless sixteen live shows and a CD of rehearsals don't count as "bonus." For Giant completists, this is, in some respects, good news: no feeling that past releases like the two BBC albums, the Bicentennial
show and others are now redundant (and that also includes the CDs included in the two Alucard-released videos, 2005's Giant on the BoxDeluxe Edition
and 2006's GG at the GGSight and Sound in Concert
The CDs all come in gatefold cardboard digipaks, with the live shows each featuring different cover art, ranging from poster and ticket reproductions to live shots. The commercial releases emulate the original UK cover art, though those looking for absolute perfection may be disappointed that neither 1973's In a Glass House
(Vertigo/WWA) nor The Power and the Glory
are exact replicas of the originals: the first, without the plastic square featuring imagery that lay over the inner sleeve's artwork; and the second, with its round-edged cut-out shape.
Still, these are extraordinarily minor quibbles about a box set that, in its sum total, provides a complete history of Gentle Giant, with significant emphasis on its live performances; a particularly worthwhile document for a band whose live shows ultimately became so radically different as its arrangements evolved, year after year, so that a song performed in 1973 might well be altered just a year later. Prior to Unburied Treasure
, there simply has been no way (not, at least, in an official, non-bootleg fashion) to follow the band's evolution as an exhilarating live act that possessed considerably more rock energy onstage, without losing any of the complexities and stylistic border-bustings that so defined this remarkable band.
So, for the hardcore fans, no need to necessarily get rid of those other Gentle Giant commercial releases, with their added bonus tracks (barring, perhaps, King Alfred's College 1971
. Unburied Treasure
may be "light" on bonus material included in earlier commercial album remasters. Still, eighteen hours
of live and rehearsal performances make Unburied Treasure
an essential document; and there's still plenty more to be found within the particularly sturdy cardboard box that houses everything.
A 136-page hardcover, coffee table-sized book provides an insightful and in-depth history of the band, written by Giant expert Alan Kinsman, and is also filled with a bevy of photos, posters, single covers, full-sized replications of the band's twelve commercial release covers (including any liner notes and personnel/production information), and much more. A similarly sized paperback book, compiled by Jack Skelly, includes a detailed gigography with set lists, memorabilia and gig review notes, most importantly about the live shows included in the box, but also documenting Giant's overall career as a touring and recording band in ways few other box sets of this nature have about their subjects.
Beyond that, Buried Treasure
also sports the usual kinds of extras, including: a promotional photo of the post-1973 five-piece incarnation, signed by all members; a reproduction of the twelve-page booklet first included in the initial ten thousand copies of the original Playing the Fool
two-LP set; a 1970 gig poster from the "first exclusive appearance" of "the exciting new sound, Gentle Giant, featuring ace singer Simon Dupree," a reference to Giant's predecessor, Simon Dupree & the Big Sound; a Power and the Glory
promotional poster; a copy of the cut-out mask that came as the cover of the original release of the band's creative low point, Giant for a Day!
; and, finally, an actual puzzle that, with a missing piece, refers to the band's transitional album, The Missing Piece
Is Unburied Treasure
complete? Absolutely not. But with its primary focus on live performance (it could be argued that the commercial releases from 1970-80 are only included in order to contextualize all of the live material), Unburied Treasure
tells the story of Gentle Giant that's never been properly told. Given that the only previous Gentle Giant biography, Paul Stump's unconscionably lightweight Gentle Giant: Acquiring the Taste
(SAF Publishing, 2003), was far from the proper treatment the band deserved, the nearly 250 pages of written material included in Unburied Treasure
also rights that most egregious wrong.
Beginnings: Gentle Giant & Acquiring the Taste
That Gentle Giant could emerge from the R&B-turned-psychedelic Simon Dupree & The Big Sound (with Simon being Derek Shulman, whose powerful voice and range would ultimately turn him into Giant's primary lead singer, especially beginning with The Power and the Glory
, but even more so from The Missing Piece
) was a curiosity in and of itself. The Big Sound struck one major hit in the UK, 1967's "Kites," following three R&B-oriented singles released between 1966 and '67, and an album, 1967's Without Reservation
, that reached into to UK's Top 40 album chart, albeit just barely and briefly.
With Derek and younger brother, Ray Shulman, forming Simon Dupree and The Big Sound, it wasn't long before they recruited older sibling Phil (ten years older than Derek and already engaged in a teaching career). The band honed its reputation as one of the south UK's hardest-working acts. But with the change in style not particularly jibing with the Shulmans' interest in more adventurous music, subsequent attempts to bring in other musicians and change Dupree & The Big Sound failed. As Phil Shulman explains in Unburied Treasure
's hardcover book: "We realised we wanted to do something different, something more creative and exploratory. We'd developed a fairly interesting show for people to enjoy, so there was some creativity in how we put the numbers together and so on, but we wanted something different. Derek, Ray and I started to think about what we really wanted to do...Derek had ideas of putting together a new band, and said we'd have to find different people if we wanted to do something different."
A little known bit of music history trivia: one of the early potential new recruits was Reg Dwight, who would go on to massive success as Elton John, but who introduced the Shulmans to artists like Frank Zappa
and Spirit at the time. But it was not to be, and undoubtedly, for the best. It's also notable that, for the Shulmans, King Crimson
and its massively successful 1969 debut, In the Court of the Crimson King
(Island), was seen as helping to forge, as Phil recalls, "a new way of thinking."
Drummer Martin Smith was carried over from Simon Dupree & The Big Sound into the new, as-yet unnamed group. Originally a guitarist, Ray Shulman switched primarily to bass. But it was the recruitment of 22 year-old Kerry Minnear (for whom but one audition was required to know they'd found their keyboardist) that truly set the then-unnamed Gentle Giant on the right path to "the birth of a realisation," the opening line from Gentle Giant
and its opening track, "Giant."
A graduate of London's Royal Academy, with a degree in composition and arranging, Minnear's unique, non-virtuosic (but still staggeringly masterful) keyboard work, compositional input and distinctive singing voice, were just what this nascent band needed, quickly becoming part of the compositional credits found on the first four Gentle Giant: "All tracks are written by Kerry Minnear, Derek Shulman, Phil Shulman and Ray Shulman." Minnear's studies included early/Baroque-era music, including Bach and Palestrina, which became increasingly evident in Giant compositions like Acquiring the Taste
's ""Wreck" and the brief title track, a keyboard solo with multiple layers of Moog synthesizer.
Minnear's love of early music was even visible on the group's last album to feature Phil Shulman (who would return to teaching), Octopus
, on tracks like "The Advent of Panurge" and "Raconteur Troubadour," but clearer still on Free Hand
's staggering vocal fugue, "On Reflection." With a number of keyboards still in the Shulmans' possession from their Simon Dupree days, Minnear also had access to everything he needed to create what would become a most distinctive approach to sonic, harmonic and performance approaches.
If the band had a secret weapon, it most definitely was Minnear.
Still, as the band began to rehearse, it was still in need of a guitarist to complete the lineup. Enter Gary Green, who responded to an ad in the weekly Melody Maker
music paper, stating a "'name band' was looking for a guitarist." What Green, a most decidedly blues-based guitarist, didn't know then was the compositional complexities he would soon encounter. And yet, despite not being able to read musical scores, Green (not unlike a young Adrian Belew
, when he joined Frank Zappa's band a few years later) had to be taught the music solely by ear. That he was found capable of navigating the challenging songs, with mixed meters, counterpoint, syncopation and more, while also bringing the nascent group's loftier musical ambitions down to earth with his visceral, blues-oriented approach, made him the perfect guitarist for a group with a multitude of musical objectives.
The group had already begun work on material for Gentle Giant
when Green joined, despite no record deal being in place. And the band rehearsed hard
: four-to-five hours each day, and then a return to Ray Shulman's apartment to assess what they'd done. In Unburied Treasure
's hardcover book, Minnear looks back on these days fondly: "It was a fertile environment and anything you brought along would be considered and worked on. Most of what was on the first album came out of working together...it was a real mixture. But it all came together quite quickly because that's all we were doing, getting together most days for at least a few hours."
The freedom for bands to come together and focus on nothing but their music is now a luxury; thanks to the "evolution" of the music industry, most musicians have to work in a number of bands to eke a living and/or take on a day job, even if it was music-related, like teaching. It's no hyperbole to suggest that one of the reasons music, in particular of the progressive bent, was able to not just emerge but evolve
at such a rapid pace between 1966 and 1976 was due to groups having this ability to focus on one thing and nothing else.
Looking at Gentle Giant
, a number of differences from other progressive acts of the day were immediately clear, even if the album was largely a reproduction of songs from its live repertoire, with the group beginning to tour as early as the middle of 1970, following several months as a studio band, honing its sound and material. As the liner notes to its 1971 follow-up, Acquiring the Taste
, described, with no shortage of confidence, possible humor and, even, a little hubris: "Acquiring the Taste is the second phase of sensory pleasure. If you've gorged yourself on our first album, then relish the finer flavours (we hope) of this, our second offering.
It is our goal to expand the frontiers of contemporary music at the risk of being very unpopular. We have recorded each composition with the one thoughtthat it should be unique, adventurous and fascinating. It has taken every shred of our combined musical and technical knowledge to achieve this.
From the outset we have abandoned all preconceived thoughts on blatant commercialism. Instead, we hope to give you something far more substantial and fulfilling. All you need to do is sit back, and acquire the taste."
Few groups actually had mission statements, let alone communicating them to the public, but these words absolutely and completely described the band and its intentions at the time.
Still, Gentle Giant
, certainly a strong first offering, represents Gentle Giant looking to find a coherent sound. Not that the album isn't cohesive, but the many tropes that would begin to emerge with Acquiring the Taste
and moving forward, were in germinal form if there at all, and would ultimately become far more finely crafted.
Like many emergent progressive bands of the time, there are some extensive solo passages on Gentle Giant
, the first of six records for Vertigo in the UK. In particular, the softer "Funny Ways" (which would become a concert staple on almost every tour but the band's last), includes, for a rock band, a very atypical vibraphone solo from Minnear. The equally episodic "Nothing at All," which begins in balladic fashion but turned harder-edged with a strong riff driving some of Green's best soloing on the record, also features an unusual and lengthy percussion section, with Martin Smith's flanged drums a nod to Simon Dupree's psychedelic past. "Nothing at All" also segues directly to "Why Not?," an initially riff-heavy song sung by Derek Shulman, but with a middle passage that is the band's first reference to early music, with its numerous recorders and Minnear's softer vocals. Gentle Giant
was, indeed, a solid portent of things to come. Produced Tony Visconti was, according to Ray Shulman, "quite experimental himself, so he was always enthusiastic, whatever we did. He would always be 'Carry on, lads!' because I think we were entertaining him, too." Minnear is even more enthusiastic: "We've been blessed over the years. He [Visconti] mentions us whenever he's interviewed as one of the things he's most enjoyed during his career...even though we were probably the most obscure thing he ever got involved in, he valued it in terms of the fact that we had the same sort of goals...he was into the music and he helped us a lot with how to make things sound good."
Despite the often episodic nature of its writing, however, unlike most progressive bands of the day, Gentle Giant never delivered the kind of lengthy "epics" that would become de rigueuer
for groups like Yes, Genesis and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Instead, its writing was far more concise, fitting as much into a four or five minute song as other bands did on a full vinyl side. This was also reflected in the length of its albums; at just over 39 minutes, Acquiring the Taste
was the group's longest studio recording, at a time when many progressive bands were delivering LP sides well in excess of twenty minutes, in some cases even approaching thirty. Gentle Giant
clocks in at approximately 34 minutes, and if it was a harder-rocking album than its atmospheric follow-up, it still demonstrated the beginning of certain stylistic markers that would define the group. Ray Shulman's violin and Minnear's cello, along with Green's acoustic guitar and bass guitar (played either by Ray or Derek Shulman), created a chamber-music vibe that, supporting three-part vocal harmonies from Minnear, and Derek and Phil Shulman, would be explored even further on subsequent records. Despite its generally propulsive quality, the horn section layered under the lyrics foreshadowed further, similar arrangements to come: "He is coming, Hear him coming, Are you ready For his being? See the Giant Feel the Giant Touch the Giant Hear the Giant."
Minnear's mellotron-driven strings over the middle section's riff may be a sound that was largely gone by the time of Octopus
, but the majestic section that followed, with the keyboardist augmented by Ray Shulman's violin and a majestic choral blend of Minnear and the three Shulman brothers, would resurface, with even greater refined grace and power, on the closing title track to Three Friends
just two years later.
The horn, guitar and organ counterpoint at the start of "Alucard" is another example of a stylistic definer for the band, as is the subsequent hocketing of the same lines. Minnear's low register Moog would also become one of many touchstones upon which the group would subsequently rely, while the bowed and plucked strings, along (again) with Green's acoustic steel-string guitar, would give "Isn't It Quiet and Cold?" a complexion that combines hints of The Beatles
with touches of the jazz manouche
made famous by guitarist Django Reinhardt
and Stephane Grappelli
And so, if still a germinal effort, Gentle Giant
has much to recommend, and the Steven Wilson stereo (and surround but, without a suitable system, impossible to assess) and instrumental mixes included on Unburied Treasure
's single Blu Ray disc brings added clarity, delineation, warmth and punch throughout, while making much clearer, for example, the seven-note synth motif that appears, at varying levels, between every song, with the exception of after "Giant" and "Why Nof?," as a kind of subtle, sometimes near-subconscious unifier.
Still, while Wilson's remixes are always welcome ways to view classic albums in a new light, Pete Reynolds' remaster of the original mix adds as much of the same qualities as a remaster, rather than a remix, can provide. While the improvements are subtler to be sure, they are
there, nevertheless, on all of Unburied Treasure
's 29 CDs to varying degrees, based on the source.
Even the seven audience recordings included in the box sound as good as they likely ever will. Sadly, though no professional (or soundboard) recordings exist of Gentle Giant touring its first album, King Alfred's College 1971
, recorded in Winchester at the John Stripe Theatre on February 12 and previously released by Alucard in 2009, provides a good look at the band's early set, which includes all of Gentle Giant
with the exception of "Nothing at All. Even the album's curious coda, a rockified version of the British National Anthem"God Save the Queen," here simply titled "The Queen"is included.
The 64-minute set expands considerably upon "Funny Ways," likely the first sign to potential Giant fans of the group's ability to switch contexts multiple times within the same song, over the nearly nine minutes that is double the length of its studio counterpart. From its string-driven opening/vocal chamber-like section to the more buoyant, horn-driven second section (with Minnear omitting piano and, instead, switching to Hammond organ), and the next passage, which normally features an electrifying solo from Green but, with no time to change guitars, is omitted as he remains on acoustic for Minnear's extended vibraphone solo.
"Alucard" is a couple of minutes longer than the studio version, with Minnear's more extended (and potent) Hammond solo (with no synthesizer to be found) also finding the four singers managing to emulate the reverse attack processing of the vocals on the original surprisingly well. Some songs, on the other hand, are actually shorter than their studio counterparts, most notably "Isn't It Quiet and Cold?" and "Giant," both about a minute less.
But, aside from hearing Gentle Giant emerge as a fully-formed live band that matched its studio work while bringing greater energy and power to the music, King Alfred's College 1971
is notable for the inclusion of three songs that would never find their way onto studio albums, though "City Hermit" would appear on Out of the WoodsThe BBC Sessions
(Band of Joy, 1996) and expanded Totally Out of the Woods
, released by Hux in 2000.
"City Hermit" is, perhaps, the closest Minnear ever came to sounding like Keith Emerson in his fugue-like organ work, while its three-part vocals are nothing but pure Giant, with Green delivering a characteristically soaring solo. Another song, "Peel Off the Paint," has nothing in common with Three Friends
' "Peel the Paint"; while still possessing some of the band's innate complexities, it feels more like a bridge between Simon Dupree & The Big Sound and early Giant, though its organ-driven middle section, some contrapuntal playing from bassist Ray Shulman and Green, and a high octane guitar/drums duet come closer to fitting the Giant mould in its early stages.
"City Hermit," despite its 6/8 swing, is the least "Giant" tune of the set, but those attending Gentle Giant's early '71 shows were also treated to a preview of Acquiring the Taste
's "Plain Truth," expanded here from seven-and-a-half minutes to over ten, and an even greater feature for Ray Shulman's wah wah-driven electric violin than its studio counterpart, with an intro that goes through an entire vocal passage instrumentally before Derek Shulman's lead vocals, with backup vocals from brother Phil, enter.
"Plain Truth" would, unfortunately, turn out to be the only song from Acquiring the Taste
that Gentle Giant would perform live, remaining in some of its set lists (but in altered form) right through to late '75. The reason, most likely, is that most of Acquiring the Taste
's eight songs, representing some of the group's most experimental (certainly darkest and most atmospheric) music of its career, would have been particularly difficult to reproduce live. The group would become far more dexterous at (sometimes substantially) rearranging studio recordings to make them more doable in a concert environment, but that would come later.
In the meantime, Acquiring the Taste
stands out as one of Gentle Giant's finest albums, and certainly the record where the group finally found its true voice. Recorded at both George Martin's AIR Studios and the similarly renowned Advision Studios, Visconti was, once again, on-board.
If Gentle Giant
largely replicated how the band sounded live (albeit a bit more concisely), the band and Visconti made far better use of the studio as another instrument with Acquiring the Taste
. The reverse echo and tape speed manipulation on the drums and vocals are extremely effective on the dark-hued "Edge of Twilight," as is Minnear's title tracka miniature of layered Moog synthesizer that would foreshadow his composed live fanfares that introduced live shows and would also be repurposed as an acoustic guitar duet during the band's lengthy "Excerpts from Octopus" medley just a couple of years later. Elsewhere, the use of tape speed manipulation makes it possible for the intro to "Wreck" to begin in one key but drop multiple intervals when the full band comes. It's as compelling as the mid-song fade-out that leads to a reiteration of the recorder-driven section that comes earlier (with Visconti also playing), but this time as a wholly instrumental passage.
But beyond studio wizardry, Acquiring the Taste
(the closest comparison, as the hardcover book suggests, being King Crimson's similarly experimental, but far freer, third album for Island Records, 1971's Lizard
) also represents a major step forward for the band from a compositional standpoint. Although the majority of the music was written by Ray Shulman, Minnear contributes as well. Still, it's the approach to writing that began to define Gentle Giant as a group that sounded like none of its contemporaries.
Ray Shulman explains, in Unburied Treasure
's hardcover book: "We rarely, if ever, started from anything chord-based [a significant difference to most bands' approach to composition] and I think that's what shaped our music more than anything else. It seems like we're almost deliberately awkward on some of the timing, because there could be a bar of five [beats] followed by a bar of seven followed by a bar of nine. There wouldn't be a regular 4/4 framework...the idea was that whatever we were putting together should flow. Because of the way we did it, I think we avoided falling into the trap of sounding forced. Kerry's much better at this than I am, because he studied composition. He's a lot more schooled in all that than I am, but I tried to use the same principles and I learned a lot from him."
With linear ideas driving the music, even on more rock-informed tracks like "Plain Truth" and, to a lesser extent, "Wreck," it's not that there wasn't harmonic movement; only that, stemming from phrases which often layered contrapuntal alternatives and hocketing, the sense of chordal motion (often ultimately ending up in the music, but coming later in the process) was not the result of inspiration or as a starting point. Ray Shulman's bass lines may well have anchored the music, but just as often they were intentionally scripted counterpoint.
And if the vocal arrangements on Gentle Giant
are already sophisticated, Acquiring the Taste
ratchets things to another level entirely. Driven by Green's gritty riff, the layered vocals in the middle section of the opening "Pantagruel's Nativity" bring a sophistication rarely ever heard in popular music of any disposition. Even lyrically, Phil Shulman's lyricsinspired by 16th century French scribe François Rabelais and his pentalogy of novels, La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel
are far removed from even the more sophisticated writing of progressive lyricists like early King Crimson's Peter Sinfield or the more abstruse word salad that often defines Yes' Jon Anderson, during that band's glory days. Shulman's background in education was, perhaps, the reason why he was both widely read and capable of writing lyrics inspired by classic literary writers (just as happens, at times, in opera).
Why was most of Acquiring the Taste
never performed live? Beyond the structural complexities, challenging vocal harmonies and studio devices used to create its eight songs, with Minnear's voice an appealing, softer alternative to Derek Shulman's greater power, he would become increasingly uncomfortable as a lead vocalist in concert. In later years, following Phil Shulman's departure (and, if anything, his voice was closer in timbre and texture to the keyboardist's), Derek Shulman would often assume the role as lead singer of songs that Minnear sang on record (like, for example, The Power and the Glory
's "So Sincere").
In the meantime, barring "Plain Truth," Acquiring the Taste
's music was simply too challenging to reproduce live in any proper fashion. Still, it's unfortunate because, amongst hardcore fans, it's one of the most revered albums in the band's discography, and it would have been wonderful to hear, as just three for examples: "Pantagruel's Nativity"; "Edge of Twilight," with its mid-song percussion section, with the song's melody reproduced on tympani; or the episodic "The House, The Street, The Room," with its seamlessly shifts from quirky, free-sounding pizzicato strings, trumpet and piano to Green's aggressive electric guitar solo, bolstered by Minnear's overdriven Hammond, Ray Shulman's thundering bass and Smith's paradoxically light yet muscular drumming.
Gentle Giant's set lists would continue to focus on the first album plus "Plain Truth" into the early months of '72, when the group landed an opening spot for Jethro Tull
(captured, again from an audience recording, on the 42-minute Essex 1972
live set). But just a couple of months would pass before the band, already finished recording its next album, Three Friends
in December, 1971, would begin inserting tracks from its third studio record, not long before its spring release.
Still, two CDs document the band's tour in support of Black Sabbath in the fall of 1972. An aborted soundboard recording of Gentle Giant's short New Orleans opening set, from its very first North American tour, is complete, barring the usual twenty-plus minute, back-to back double-punch of "Nothing at All" and "Plain Truth," only represented here by a little over two minutes from the former. A second disc contains an audience recording of the band's full set at the Hollywood Bowl just a week later, on September 15. Sandwiched between Black Sabbath at the top of the bill and Captain Beyond at the bottom, despite trying to amp up the rock elements, Gentle Giant was not particularly well-received by the audience.
By this time, both "Nothing at All" and "Plain Truth" had been significantly extended. The former replaced the drum solo with an extended, largely structured five-man percussion bash that would continue, in later years (albeit in an even more composed fashion and also including tuned percussion), on live versions of The Power and the Glory
's "So Sincere." The latter provided Ray Shulman much greater opportunity to demonstrate his strength as an improvising violinist. Both songs provided sufficient freedom to allow them to vary in lengthy, in some cases significantly so.
Transitions: Three Friends & Octopus
There's a chance to hear the band adding Three Friends
' opening "Prologue," which would remain its set-opener through to late '74. The aborted New Orleans
disc also includes three songs recorded for the BBC in August, 1972, just before the band headed to America for its first time. With solid sonic quality, this broadcast was important as it represented an opportunity, at the time, for fans to hear "The Advent of Panurge," from Octopus
, a number of months before the album's release later that year.
Just a quick look at what Gentle Giant accomplished in two short years, from August 1970 through the same month in '72 bears noting: four albums recorded, in addition to an increasingly busy touring schedule in the UK and Europe. That no two albums sound alikeeach, in fact, representing a significant creative step forwardis all the more remarkable. Three Friends
was Gentle Giant's contribution to the progressive rock concept album canon. Still, even so, its extraordinarily brief, six-song/35-minute run time is another example of how Giant eschewed the "lengthy epic" trope that drove so many of its contemporaries, from Yes to Genesis, and from Pink Floyd to Jethro Tull, who all delivered side-long (or longer) tracks/suites as opposed to Giant, whose second-longest track on Three Friends
, the initially soft and symphonic but then riff-heavy "Peel the Paint," ran just seven-and-a-half minutes.
The track was only that long because of a lengthy guitar/drum workout between Green and, making his only appearance on a commercial Gentle Giant record, Malcolm Mortimore, who replaced drummer Martin Smith, who left the group after Acquiring the Taste
over disagreements with Ray and Phil Shulman. Also, unlike many of its progressive brethren, Gentle Giant's concept album, about three childhood friends who lose touch as they find themselves in divergent occupations, doesn't have repeated motifs or songs. Instead, it simply tells its story over the course of six songs, the longest, the gorgeous vocal and vibraphone feature, "Schooldays," lasting just a few seconds longer than "Peel the Paint."
The largely instrumental "Prologue" sets the stage conceptually, with vocal sections led by Phil Shulman and Minnear, and which ultimately turn to hocketing, becoming an increasingly common device that nevertheless evolved and was applied in a variety of different ways. Giant rarely, if ever, repeated itself: "Three friends are made, three lives are laughs and tears
Through years of school and play they share
As time stands still the days change into years
And future comes without a care.
But fate and skill and chances play their part
The wind of change leaves no good-bye
Three boys are men their ways have drawn apart
They tell their tales to justify."
As a set-opener, "Prologue," is more powerful than its studio counterpart. Unable to reproduce all the overdubs, the group nevertheless captures all the song's key touchstones and expands upon them, like the brief section that leads to a final repetition of its main theme featuring some new additional writing to render it even more dramatic. Addressing the studio version's use of a fade-out, the ending is a newly composed contrapuntal, polyrhythmic 37-second ending that demonstrates, for the first time, how Gentle Giant would rearrange it studio material in increasingly significant ways.
It would also be the only track from Three Friends
that the group would perform live until very late in '72, when the band began to close its shows with a medley of Three Friends
' more eclectic "Mister Class and Quality," documenting the friend who finds himself a white collar worker, and the hard-edged "Peel the Paint." Unfortunately no live recordings from '73 with this medley are included (or, perhaps, available in usable quality), but it conceptually demonstrates the first example of another emerging Giant habit: taking multiple songs from the same album and bringing them together into a medley.
The "Mister Class and Quality/Peel the Paint" medley would return to the band's sets in early '75, though "Valedictory," The Power and the Glory
's closing track, would also be added, in an arrangement only played at this time, and with an ending featuring a delay-heavy bit of breaking glass culled from the opening/closing tracks on 1973's In a Glass House
. That said, the band clearly didn't always include all three songs in its set-closing medley, as the January 27 radio broadcast, Cleveland 1975
(the near hour-long set being made available here for the first time), demonstrates,
But back to Three Friends
. Overall a more accessible recording, it nevertheless made absolutely no commercial concessions and was, instead, an example of the band's further growth and incorporation of even more stylistic touchstones. "Working All Day," describes one the friends' ultimate job as a road-worker, but also begins to introduce life commentaries about the British class system and more: "Easy to say that everybody's equal then look around and see it ain't true.
I eat the dust. The boss gets all the money. Life ain't just."
Gentle Giant was no stranger to episodic writing, but "Peel the Paint," about the friend who becomes an artist, introduces yet another new concept that the group would revisit more than once: joining together two apparently different songs, in this case: the first, symphonic and soft, with lead vocals by Phil Shulman; the second, sung by Derek Shulman, turning more groove-centric and horn-driven, featuring Green's delay-driven power duo with Mortimore. The two sections are joined by a motif derived from the second half's riff, but played more gently.
On album, "Mister Class and Quality" is (for Giant) an epic six-minute track, its initial theme driven by Mortimore's firm backbeat and a singular riff delivered on violin, organ, guitar and bass, with a bridge that leads to a different organ part in the second verse, playing in counterpart to the original theme. A gradually building middle section builds to a complete shift in gears about halfway through, as a combination of Green's warm-toned arpeggiated lines and Minnear's overlain melody morphs into a groove-driven solo section, bolstering an impressive wah wah'd electric piano solo from Minnear that leads to an even grittier guitar solo that builds to a potent thematic cross-pollination, where Mortimore's backbeat-driven part is the constant as the other instruments fade and the main theme gradually re-emerges for the closing verse (sung by Derek Shulman).
"Mister Class and Quality" then builds towards a reiteration of the same serpentine passage that led into the solos, but this time is the segue to the album's majestic, string-heavy closer, which leaves the story with its ambiguous ending: "Once three friends
Sweet in sadness
Now part of their past.
In the end
Full of gladness
Went from class to class."
Another strong album that moves the band forward once again, Three Friends
, as usual released in Europe by Vertigo, would become the band's first album to see North American release on Columbia. Unfortunately, since Gentle Giant
wasn't released in North America, the label decided to eschew the more artful European cover image that related directly to the album's subject and, instead, opted for the cover from the band's 1970 debutlikely because it included in the large hands of of the Giant painting on the cover, images of the band's six members, even if Martin Smith had, by this time, been replaced by Malcolm Mortimore.
But with Mortimore's motorcycle accident taking him off the road, to be replaced by John Weathers, Gentle Giant was to experience another seismic shift. Coming off time spent with British legend Graham Bond, as well as Joe Cocker's original backing group, The Grease Band though not during that band's tenure with the northern England singer), it was clear that Weathers' background was more decidedly in groove music. It would reshape the band's complexion and, with no disrespect to its first two stick men, for the better.
Between touring, the band finished its fourth album, Octopus
(again, released by Columbia in North America and opting for a more relevant, this time, but still less impressive cover, as opposed to the striking Roger Dean artwork that graced the European release) in August '72, releasing it four months later at the end of the year. Once again, the band makes, well, a giant leap forward, with a collection of eight songs ("Octo Opus") that represent an even greater focus on Baroque/Renaissance-era touchstones, especially in the increasingly complex multi-part vocals heard on the opening "The Advent of Panurge." Elsewhere, the quirky "Knots," written by Minnear and whose lyrics were inspired by the work of Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing, took Giant's vocal abilities to another place entirely.
Other songs from Octopus
drew inspiration from literary sources: "The Advent of Panurge" revisiting, once again, Rabelais and La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel
; while the more eminently rocking "Cry for Everyone," nevertheless, found its lyric inspiration from the work and beliefs of Albert Camus. While the writing was, as usual, co-credited to Minnear and the three Shulman brothers, it was later revealed that Ray Shulman was the primary musical composer for "Cry for Everyone," the coin-drop starting, frenetically complex "The Boys in the Band," the acoustic guitar and string section-driven "Dog's Life," and the group's overtly blues-centric (yet still harmonically skewed and structurally challenging) closer, "River," which affords Green his longest (and best) guitar solo to date.
The rest of the music comes from Minnear's pen, his schooling and specific emphases in composition through studies of particular musical periods making it no surprise that "The Advent Panurge" and following "Raconteur Troubadour" (both especially redolent of Baroque/Mediaeval influences) were written by the keyboardist. Nor is it surprising that the gentle ballad, "Think of Me With Kindness" was both written and sung by Minnear.
Differing from some of its contemporaries in how its indisputably challenging music was, nevertheless, always in the service of strong emotional resonances, if a single track stands out on Octopus
as the reason why nobody, but nobody
has ever managed to sound anything remotely like Gentle Giant, it's Minnear's "Knots." At just a brief four minutes (all but "River," which approaches the six-minute mark, are under five, with two running shy of four), the song's a cappella
vocal intro and intervening instrumental combination of saxophone, rapidly tremelo'd electric guitar, marimba and vibraphone make for an utterly unparalleled collective sound in the history of rock music. Even as the five-part harmonies lead to a mid-piece 4/4 section that intimates some relief from the angularity, it only leads to a duo between acoustic piano and the upper register of marimba, creating yet another thoroughly distinctive sound and approach.
There's more in this brief yet epic compositional tour de force
, but suffice to say: not only is it remarkable that a group could conceive, let alone, play a song like this, but that it could reproduce the song live, as part of the band's "Excerpts from Octopus" (a medley that continued to change and, over the years, grow from just under thirteen minutes to over seventeen, and morphing in both the order in which songs are played and, more importantly, how
they are played) would challenge credulity...if, that is, there aren't numerous documents of the song to demonstrate otherwise.
Early versions of "Excerpts from Octopus" began with the thunderous middle section of "Knots," but with Minnear's circus-like organ acting as the joiner of two similarly aggressive parts. With Weathers playing vibraphone, it left Minnear free to explore a multiplicity of keyboard textures not heard on the studio version, as he incorporated synths and electric piano into the mix. The medley also represented the band's first foray into remarkable sleight of hand as early as the Torino 1973
show, a terrific soundboard recording from October 19.
Keys, vibes and multipart vocals draw attention away from Green and Ray Shulman, who suddenly (or, so it seemed) switch to acoustic guitars for a duo feature that would also evolve over time, first based on "Knots" but suddenly switching to a section of music never before heard, with virtuosic playing from both guitarists. Returning to one of the key figures in "Knots" the medley leads to a drastically altered, twin guitar excerpt from "The Boys in the Band" that would evolve into Weathers, Minnear and, on electric bass, Derek Shulman, drawing attention away from the two guitarists as they ultimately reassume their usual instruments.
An organ interlude leads to cascading electric piano lines that introduce a medley-closing "The Advent of Panurge" that's longer than the original, in addition to being more energetic and powerful. The song's middle section, based on a bass ostinato, is sadly broken up by a brief section of missing tape, but subsequent live versions demonstrate that it becomes an a cappella
feature for four recorders (and Weathers on frame drum), with music ranging from Renaissance leanings to "Yankee Doodle." With another sleight of hand, instruments are once again switched for the end of the song, and the medley,
It remains a remarkable example of how mind-blowing Gentle Giant could be in performance. With Weathers on board and playing with greater attention to groove, Gentle Giant evolved into a powerhouse blend of remarkable complexity with increasingly potent rock underpinnings. Octopus
is considered, by many, to be the beginning of the band's best years, running through to In'terview
and the live Playing the Fool
. Beyond the band's increasing sophistication, no small credit must be awarded to John Weathers. Less showmanship and more emphasis on anchoring a band whose increasingly difficult music was all the better for it, Weathers was, by no means, incapable of virtuosic gymnastics. But it was always in service of the music, and his additional ability to play vibraphone and other percussion meant that it was now possible for the group to blend violin and cello with tuned percussion together live, a possibility that had previously eluded them.
While not recorded until July, 1973 and released two months later, the band quickly introduced material from its next album, In a Glass House
, into its fall '73 sets, specifically the album (and set)-opening "The Runaway" and "Way of Life." But by this time, the band had undergone an even more dramatic shift, one that would define the rest of its career.
Loss and Major Shifts: In a Glass House & The Power and the Glory
While he continued with the band, from its '72 North American tour as an opening act in support of Three Friends
, through to an early '73 tour of Italy in support of Octopus
, Phil Shulman was becoming increasingly discontent with being on the road, away from his burgeoning family back home. And so, while he wrapped up his time with both the band's best record to date and some fine shows (the last one, captured on the Vicenza 1973
, by the time Octopus
was released in North America in 1973, he had left the band.
While his loss cannot be underestimated, from his lyric contributions, his voice and his multi-instrumentalism, Phil Shulman's departure forced the band to reconsider, regroup and rethink. The result, after a series of North American and European dates from February through July, 1973, was the band's first album as a quintet, In a Glass House
, recorded in July and released in Europe a couple of months later. While the band was building a following in North America, neither Three Friends
did well on the US charts, managing only 197 and 170 on the Billboard 200
album chart, and In a Glass House
was considered "not commercial enough" by Columbia, who summarily dropped the band from its roster.
Still, out of adversity sometimes come better things. Without a North American label, the band was able to take full ownership of its masters (an uncommon occurrence at the time), allowing it to finally release the album on its Alucard label (on CD) in North America for first time...in 2004.
If Columbia didn't believe in the album or its commercial potential, North American fans thought otherwise. Despite being unavailable in North America (barring as an expensive British import) and, consequently, never charting there, In a Glass House
managed a remarkable 150,000 albums sold in North America in the year of its release, far outselling any
previous import-only titles.
And for good reason. While the stress of writing, rehearsing and recording a new album's worth of music resulted in the band being less happy with it at the time, fans loved it...and the group came to realize how good it was, after the fact. In a Glass House
is atypical for Gentle Giant: while still a short album at just under 38 minutes, it consists of four longer pieces (by Giant standards), all over seven minutes, with two each per vinyl side, bookending a shorter composition (the tympani and other tuned percussion-driven, soft yet oblique "An Inmate's Lullaby," and the shorter, chamber-like ballad "A Reunion," possibly one of Kerry Minnear's finest moments as a lead vocalist).
Its brittler sound, with less reliance on horns (due to Phil Shulman's departure), is explained by brother Ray: "I think the brittleness of
Glass House probably reflects the brittleness of the band at the time. When Phil left, we lost a lyricist, a voice and some brass, but we still had the two main composers on board and five excellent musicians, so it wasn't as difficult as it might have been to adjust because Phil leaving had really been such a relief. Live, we definitely became a harder-rocking band, but it was still an insecure time, and the album reflects that."
Opening with the sound of breaking glass that gradually loops into a 6/8 pulse, "The Runaway" makes clear that Gentle Giant has, once again, undergone an evolution that consolidates much of what came before but, as an episodic piece that feels like it wears its influences less on its sleeve, is simply a stunning track. Minnear's keys define the opening section, but suddenly a cluster of recorders introduce the next, with layered vocals and, ultimately, a bass and guitar pattern that's matched contrapuntally by Minnear's keys. After another cluster of vocals and Minnear's lead voice, the song opens up into a section driven to perfection by Weathers' simple but effective kit work, and a stunning marimba feature for the keyboardist.
Reverse tape effects and other studio devices make the song a studio concoction that the group would alter for live performances, with the October 19, 1973 version rocking harder, but with Minnear's voice doubled by Derek Shulman during what was his solo voice section to compensate for the keyboardist's increasing lack of confidence/interest as a lead singer. The only thing omitted is Minnear's marimba solo, but otherwise, it's a surprisingly faithful live reading.
"Way of Life," on the other hand, takes a different approach to the studio version from the start, by beginning with an intro from its more majestic second half, played on what sounds like a harpsichord or clavichord, before entering the contrapuntal blend of two lines that, bolstered by Weathers' firm anchor, drive Derek Shulman's harmonically oblique melody. In reverse to songs like "Peel the Paint," "Way of Life" moves from a more rock-centric first section to its gentler and, then, more majestic second half. Live, it combines harpsichord/clavichord and recorder behind Minnear's lead vocal, before the full electric band enters, with Green playing the same stately theme, over Minnear's more august organ.
The studio version overlays more instruments but live, the group returns to the first part and Derek Shulman's lead vocals, prior to ending with a knotty instrumental section not found on the studio version at all and a quick return of the initial theme. The studio version, on the other hand, concludes by returning to the noble second theme before a nearly two-minute closer of Minnear alone on a church pipe organ figure that gradually fades into a lengthy pedal tone. It's an odd ending but not only does it work, it foreshadows a similar (but different) fade out device used at the end of The Missing Piece
's "As Old As You're Young."
On CD, the fading conclusion of "Way of Life" feels like a continuous segue into the fade-in of organ that began the second side's "Experience." Another knotty composition, with Minnear singing the first section, more than any previous album it assimilates a great many of Giant's touchstones into something inimitable and incomparable, with as many as four contrapuntal lines interacting/intersecting before an organ-led multi-vocal section leads to the song's more propulsive middle passage, which also serves as a feature for Green. Green may not solo often on Giant albums, but his growth as a soloist and as a member of a most unusual ensemble makes him the perfect player: one who can step out when necessary but who is, as is true of his band mates, more about a collective totality than any one person, even though there are plenty moments for everyone to shine.
With "The Runaway" and "Experience" subsequently brought, in concert, together into an eleven-minute medley, the two songs are joined by a pre-recorded keyboard bridge first heard during the band's spring '74 tour and documented here by a cleaned up audience recording from Münster, Germany on April 5 (Münster 1974
). Münster includes a relatively rare live performance of In a Glass House
's closing title track, a multi-part masterpiece which the group would play from Autumn '73 through late '74, featuring a lengthy guitar/drums workout. "Way of Life" was also dropped at the start of 1974.
A particularly tough song to perform live, largely because of its blend of violin and acoustic and electric guitars in the midst of the rest of the band, in concert the band opted to cut the first section of "In a Glass House" entirely and start, with fierce electricity, halfway through the song when the band begins to fire on all cylinders. Even so, the arrangement is significantly altered, eliminating Green's slide guitar solo and, instead, expanding upon a transitional keyboard figure turning to Green's wah wah'd guitar dust with Weathers.
As heard during the Münster 1974
show, this extended duo finds Weathers still focusing largely on pulse, though with increased fire and fury. Green's solo transitions a number of times, ultimately demonstrating some unexpectedly rapid-fire virtuosity, before the band returns for a somewhat chaotic reiteration of the song's second-half theme, drawing to a close with a prerecorded, delay-driven tape of breaking glass that continues as the band leaves the stage,
As strong a vehicle as it was for Green, it's not hard to see why the group ultimately dropped the song from its set lists; it bore too little resemblance, in intention, structure or execution, to the studio version, which remains one of the most atypical yet eminently compelling compositions in Gentle Giant's catalog.
As the band continued to grow its audience in North America and Europe during 1973, work began in the year's final month through to the end of January '74 on its next album, which, like In a Glass House
, continued to be released by WWA in England and Vertigo across the rest of Europe, as the band reacquired North American distribution with a major label, this time Capitol Records.
The idea behind The Power and the Glory
exploring themes of political power, corruption and liesoriginally came from Phil Shulman, but was shelved when he left. Returning to the idea after In a Glass House
, Gentle Giant conceived and created its most cohesive statement to date, and not just because it was another concept album of sorts. The Power and The Glory
succeeded because it was an even greater consolidation and assimilation of past foundations. One of its longest at over 37 minutes (not including the three-minute title track that was not released on the album but, instead, as a single that is included, here, as a bonus track), The Power and The Glory
features some of the band's most concise writing to date, with two songs crossing the six-minute mark but the rest all in the three-to-four-minute range. Nevertheless, following the opening sound of a rumbling crowd, Minnear's electric piano introduced the main theme, which would be reiterated in a much heavier fashion on the album-closing "Valedictory," making this the first album since Gentle Giant
to repeat a theme more than once across an album.
When the band enters, following Derek Shulman's first sung verse, it's clear that something has happened: Gentle Giant's "Proclamation" is, at least in parts, eminently funky
. New approaches abound, from the blending of Green and Minnear's parts to Weathers' unshakable groove, locked tongue-in-groove with Ray Shulman's rhythm-driven bass parts. Still, it's an episodic opener, with an increasingly contrapuntal middle section leading to some gritty Hammond organ, and cascading piano lines (sounding a bit like "Flight of the Bumblebee") that lead to the album's ultimate, repeated proclamation: "Hail to Power and to Glory's way."
Another new musical approach for the group was Minnear's use of a transitioning solo keyboard section, starting on electric piano but gradually adding more keys and then guitar, as the song moved from its middle section back to the opening theme and Derek Shulman's final verse.
Sounding, in many ways, more like a modern classical composition, "So Sincere," sung on record by Minnear but live by Derek Shulman, combines the angularity of In a Glass House
's "An Inmates Lullaby" with a more grounded rhythm, courtesy of Ray Shulman and John Weathers. Following the Derek Shulman-sung chorus, the second verse, still driven by violin and cello, is this time powered by Weathers' firm pulse as the second chorus leads to a brief solo from Green that's as skewed as anything he's ever played, with Minnear's responding piano the perfect foil. Tape speed manipulations and a knotty ending make this four-minute track unique in the Giant repertoire. And it would become a show stopper in later set lists, when the band revised the arrangement and included an extended percussion section that went from thundering maelstrom to delicately honed tune percussion.
"Aspirations" is another beautiful, Minnear-sung ballad, its electric piano-driven song form reflecting the hope that people place in those they place in positions of power: "In your hands, holding everyone's
Future and fate
It is all in you,
Make us strong build our unity,
All men as one
It is all in you.
Be our guide, our light and our way of life
And let the world see the way we lead our way.
Hopes, dreams, dreaming that all our sorrows
The brighter "Playing the Game" closes the first side with a combination of marimba motifs and a contrapuntal line doubled on guitar and bass. As ever, Weathers grounds the tune, which also features one of Minnear's best, grittiest Hammond solos on record. It's a shame that the song would only make it into Giant live sets near the end of the group's career, as its up-tempo vibe and challenging interlocking lines, along with Derek Shulman's strong vocal delivery, seemed to make it a perfect choice.
It was, in fact, odd that, with The Power and the Glory
released sometime in the summer-to-fall of 1974 (the North American release soon after), and with it being the band's first entry into the Billboard 200
at a far more respectable 78, its fall North American and European dates only included two songs from the album. With a first-time musical fanfare, a brief recording culled from Gentle Giant
's "Giant" introduces The Power and The Glory
's fierce second side-opener, "Cogs in Cogs," delivered fairly faithfully until the final minute, when the song is considerably revamped as it moves into its ending and a near-immediate launching of a somewhat abbreviated version of "Proclamation." Chopped by about two minutes, "Proclamation" then segues into a take on Gentle Giant
's "Funny Ways" that, by this time, had extended to between nine and ten minutes, largely due to Minnear's lengthy vibraphone solo.
As the years passed and the group evolved, beyond its knotty, idiosyncratic and challenging compositional forms, Gentle Giant also demonstrated plenty of spontaneous capabilities in its solos, largely from Minnear, Green and, on violin, Ray Shulman. While the rest of the band was less interpretive with its parts than, say, the current King Crimson, where every member is continually refreshing and reinventing their parts night after night, that Giant's solos could vary in such length and assume a variety of complexions means that hearing multiple performances of the same song reveals plenty of worthwhile differences.
And that doesn't include the structural rearrangements that were, by this time, also commonplace for the group. Incomplete (missing the usual, at the time, reintroduced and slightly altered closing medley of Three Friends
' "Mister Class and Quality" and "Peel the Paint"), the St. Gallen 1974
show from November 22, at nearly 75 minutes and sourced from a particularly good-sounding audience tape (and being virtually a first-time listen, even for the band's most committed fans), shines a strong spotlights on a band hitting its stride and, even, beginning to ascend to its peak, as its set lists truly reflect the band's diversity and, increasingly in concert, unabashed rock 'n' roll disposition.
The rest of The Power and The Glory
is as strong as what comes before. It may be a medium tempo tune, but "No God's a Man" remains appealing. "The Face," which follows, blends multiple time signatures (from 4/4 to 5/4 to 3/4), cross-pollinating motifs and a stunning violin solo from Ray Shulman that builds to a frenetic peak, as he screams "Go, Now!," for Green to take over, for a similarly brief but note-for-note perfect solo that combines harmonic feedback, rapid lines and visceral bends.
That "The Face" didn't enter Gentle Giant live sets until the fall of 1977, where it became home, combined with "Plain Truth," for both Ray Shulman's extended violin feature and the five-man percussion bash, is surprising, as it seems custom-made as a concert show-stopper. The Power and the Glory
's "Valedictory" reiterated themes from "Proclamation," albeit in a slower and heavier fashion. Live, the closing part of the song would meld with an altered arrangement of "Proclamation," beginning in the spring of 1976. The Power and The Glory
's even more accessible veneerveneer, because the band was becoming even better at masking complex structures, under the sheets, with (largely) easier to identify grooves, singable melodies and more. It was also the best sounding studio album to date, and while Steven Wilson's 2014 remix seemed, at the time, definitive, Pete Reynolds' remaster here is certainly amongst his best in the box, along with his work on the band's follow-up, Free Hand
Still, the band's UK label, WWA, wanted a single, and so the band went back into the studio and recorded three songs for consideration. "The Power and The Glory" was most enthusiastically received by the label, rendering it all the more curious that it put surprisingly little promotion behind the song and, consequently, it tanked.
With the label beginning to fall apart (label mate, Black Sabbath, had discovered that a lot of money had gone missing), Giant approached Terry Ellis, past manager of the band's earlier headlining tour mate, Jethro Tull. Ellis assumed management and, as co-founder of the by-then renowned Chrysalis label (in addition to Tull, ultimately boasting artists as diverse as Sinéad O'Connor, Split Enz, Richard and Linda Thompson and Robin Trower), brought Gentle Giant into the fold for Europe, while its arrangement with Capitol in the US meant that Gentle Giant has once again found major label support everywhere, this time with a more sympathetic team. Giant would, in fact, release the rest of its albums, from Free Hand
, on Chrysalis in the Europe and Capitol in North America, with the exception of Civilian
, which was curiously picked up by Columbia, after the band was dropped by Capitol following Giant for a Day!
Meanwhile, with The Power and The Glory
(subsequently cited by Gary Green as his favourite Gentle Giant album) doing well and the band's reputation as a live act increasing, the group went into the studio in April, 1975, to record Free Hand
. Meanwhile, Unburied Treasure
' inclusion of Cleveland 1975
, from a January 27 show, culled from a WMMS-FM radio broadcast, includes a full 55-minus set that also represents Giant, during this tour, beginning to assume more headlining slots. The set list is identical to St. Gallen 1974
, with two notable exceptions: the addition of the revamped "So Sincere" (including the by-now full-on band percussion solo); and the previously mentioned return of "Mr. Class and Quality," merged into a medley with an excerpt from "Valedictory."
It's important to note that, from the beginning of the '70s, the Canadian province of Quebec, most notably its largest city, Montréal, has launched the North American careers of many a progressive rock act, one example being Babe Ruth, whose first album went gold as the result of a single A&R label rep. This fact was not lost on Gentle Giant, whose continued ascendancy in North America was a clear priority. During the same tour as the Cleveland show included here, the band headlined the 19,000-capacity Montréal Forum; the 10,000-strong Lansdowne Park Arena in Ottawa (which sits on the border between Ontario and Quebec and is, in fact, a city spread across both provinces); and smaller but, for the band, significant venues in Quebec City, Trois Rivieres and Sherbrooke, along with Ontario dates in Toronto and Waterloo.
Peaking: Free Hand, In'terview & Playing the Fool Free Hand
was completed and released, for the first time, almost
simultaneously (or, at least, more closely together) in Europe and North Americaor so it seems, as accurate release dates for many of Gentle Giant's albums appear difficult to nail down. It would, however, prove to be the band's most successful record, reaching its highest position ever on the Billboard 200
, actually making it into the Top 50
And for good reason. Despite still making absolutely no concessions, Free Hand
contains some of Gentle Giant's most paradoxically accessible yet challenging writing across this 37-minute collection of seven new (well, almost) songs.
The "almost new" refers to an instrumental Minnear feature, the mediaeval-informed Talybont." That song's roots were in the 1976 film Robin and Marian
, where, because of its clear roots in mediaeval music, Gentle Giant was asked to submit an appropriate tune for use in the soundtrack. It was ultimately never used, and so was recorded for Free Hand
, where it sits as a superb palette cleanser on side two, sandwiched between the knotty yet lyrical ballad, "His Last Voyage," with its groove-heavy middle section featuring another perfectly constructed Green solo, and the harder-rocking, more harmonically oblique album closer, "Mobile," another feature for Ray Shulman's strong violin work throughout, but most notably during his mid-song solo.
The second side is rounded out by the opening "Time to Kill," with its video game intro and, amidst idiosyncratic instrumental arrangements, a main theme that remains one of the band's most eminently singable and, dare it be said, radio-friendly themes to date, blending Derek Shulman's strong lead voice with some of the group's most conventionally constructed background vocals to date.
Still, it's no surprise that the three side one tracks, all in the five-to-six-minute range yet each containing more material than many bands manage to fit into an entire album, all quickly ended up in the group's live set lists. Initially, the album's higher energy title track was the penultimate song in the group's fall, 1975 sets, a false ending leading into a strange, four-on-the-floor intro to the album's contrapuntally driven opening track, Just the Same." As can be heard on Basel 1975
, an audience recording from the group's November 24 show, both are played relatively literally, barring, of course, the defined endings to songs that fade out on record, especially "Just the Same," which sports a number of false endings before, at least on this nearly eighty-minute set, coming to a powerful close.
The Basel show doesn't include the mid-set inclusion of the Renaissance-driven, stunningly multi-vocal arrangement of "On Reflection" (perhaps the group's best example of its live, five-part vocal work). Still, following a busy fall traversing North America, England and mainland Europe, the group took a break in early '76 to record In'terview
(or, to which it's commonly referred, Interview
). Rather than capitalizing on Free Hand
's success as a less dense album than The Power and The Glory
my well be the group's most eclectic, recondite album since Acquiring the Taste
Incorporating the expanding stylistic/musical cache that the group had constructed over the previous six years, In'terview
was another concept album of sorts, its premise being, indeed, an interview, with a variety of "faux interview" questions asked between tracks. That said, only the opening title track had a direct reference to the concept, its lyrics dealing with the sadly common trials and tribulations of dealing with interviewers who haven't done their homework: "Yes it's been hard, going a long time
And we're together even now.
Why do you ask? Surely you know it!
Isn't it clear just when and how.
What can we tell you?
At the beginning had no direction,
Any other way.
After the fourth one, realization,
Finding our road, the same as if today."
<...> "Now that he's gone, turn off our faces,
Wait for the new man to arrive.
Soon the same song, sung for the next one,
Saying our piece, though not alive.
What can we tell you?
At the beginning had no direction,
Any other way.
After the fourth one, realization,
Finding our road, the same as if today."
From the start of the album, In'terview
suggests some of the frustration that the band was feeling about its press coverage. Says Ray Shulman: "The concept was mine, but it reflected the whole band's frustration with the music press at the time...The interviews were a bit like your day job when you were on tour. You did a lot of them that were almost at the level of 'Which one's Gentle?' When you're constantly doing interviews...you find yourself going into a routine, answering the same kind of questions in the same kind of way, and you can end up creating a different kind of truth...You develop a technique for getting through it."
While the hardcover book in Unburied Treasure
is correct in asserting that In'terview
revealed: ..."a band still not short of ideas but, for the first time in their career, not taking a significant step forward. Perhaps that's no surprise, given the immense pressure they were under at the time. Their touring schedule during the latter half of 1975 had been punishing and there's no doubt that the need to follow up Free Hand with something that would maintain the push for greater recognition added to that pressure."
The band, indeed, acknowledged that after the recording was done, as Green says, "[we] thought we'd really just preached to the choir and hand't really made any progress towards becoming more popular. I think we realized we'd just done more of the same...it has its critics but I don't really know what that's all about, because it was still a good album...just too similar to what has done before for some people, I suppose."
True, it's possible to find precedents in many of In'terview
's songs: the title track could
be compared to Free Hand
's "Just the Same" in general form, but it was much fiercer. If anything, it's Gentle Giant at its most idiosyncratic best: unexpected chordal harmonies drive the end of each verse; Minnear delivers a wonderful tack-piano solo; Green evokes some of his strangest sounds ever, heavily processed and sounding more like a bass-heavy, rubber-band slippery synth than a guitar; all leading to the build-up to a final verse where all the themes that came before come together in wonderful synchronicity.
Gentle Giant had never played anything resembling reggae, and yet the groove that drives the verses of "Give It Back," despite its occasionally shifting meters, suggest that someone in the band had been listening to Jamaican music (or, perhaps, spending a little time with a nice spliff). Still, even if Minnear's marimba in the middle section also reflects an island vibe (but in the quirkiest of fashions), the music is pure Giant, filled with lines that orbit and intersect in weird and wonderful ways.
If "Design" is '76 Giant emulating Octopus
' "Knots" (if not as, well, knotty), its multi-part vocals are certainly even more harmonically abstruse, while the following section, where the band comes together in harmony rather than counterpoint, is as arcanely challenging as anything Gentle Giant has done, its instrumental underpinning consistent totally of percussion, from snares, toms and cymbals to jew's harp and tuned wood blocks.
The second side of the original LP does, indeed, also follow some Gentle Giant tropes, but if "Another Show" is compared, say, to The Power and The Glory
's "Cogs in Cogs," it's still a fine song on its own, with Kerry Minnear turning his organ off and on again to create a downward swoop at the end of each phrase. Structurally one of the band's most monolithic songs, despite plenty of intersecting lines, its 10/8 signature nevertheless keeps rhythm-minded fans on their toes.
The beautiful ballad, "Empty City" may largely be an exercise in lyricism, with backup vocals weaving in and out of Derek Shulman's lead vocals and the song leading to a middle section that's Giant at its funkiest (though funk is rarely heard in 3/4). The appropriately named "Timing" may be largely in either 3/4 or 4/4 time, with irregular bars thrown in here and there to create even more challenge; still, at the same time, it's a song that, indeed, challenges most fans to "find the one," as its complex polymeters render it one of the band's most difficult songs to parse.
And if structurally akin to Three Friends
' "Peel the Paint," the closing "I Lost My Head" reflects a more evolved approach. Minnear sings the first half, which is a playfully light blend of 4/4 vocal passages and 3/4-driven, mediaeval-made-modern melodies, amidst a lovely collection of plucked strings, recorders, harpsichord/clavichord, acoustic guitars, gentle bass and soft drums. As the song winds its way to the far heavier, riff-driven second half with its slightly labyrinthine bridge, with Derek Shulman assuming lead vocals, it also resembles the last half of In a Glass House
's title track, though the overall structure of "I Lost My Head" is less dense, less complex.
That said, and especially after seven constantly evolving albums, there are times when, rather than revolution, groups evolve. If In'terview
is the first Gentle Giant album not to make a major leap forward, it's still a fine album with no shortage of challenging ideas, and a mix of melodically appealing and harmonically eclectic ideas. Still, released in the spring of 1976, the album didn't fare nearly as well as Free Hand
, peaking at only 137 on the Billboard 200
. In many ways, its lack of critical and commercial success was both unfair and, maybe even, the instigation of a significant change in tack for the group, as its next studio album, The Missing Piece
, represented a more emphatic search for commercial success.
In the meantime, 1976 also represented one of Gentle Giant's busiest touring years, following the gruelling schedule of its previous year. Hitting the road at the end of April, the band spent about a month traveling around the UK, followed by about a month in Europe. While the band's next album, Playing the Fool
, was its first official live album (Gentle Giant was, back in the day, heavily bootlegged), it didn't represent an entire show. While coming from the same professional multi-track recordings that were drawn upon for the commercial live album, the inclusion of one complete and three partial live shows from 1976 in Unburied Treasure
means that it's now possible to hear multiple versions of some of the band's best material, with the best possible sound, from four European shows played between September 23 (Düsseldorf) through October 7 (Brussels).
Early '76 shows included four tunes from In'terview
: "Interview"; Give It Back, which replaced "Funny Ways" in the set list as a vibraphone feature for Minnear; "Timing," replacing "Plain Truth" which, by this time, had dropped most or all of the vocals and was, instead, more strictly a violin feature for Ray Shulman; and "I Lost My Head," which became the second half of a set-closing encore with "Peel the Paint."
But by the fall, the set list has cemented and, as represented by the four recordings here, provided the source material for Playing the Fool
. From Dusseldorf 1976
, spread over one-and-a-half CDs (the other half being devoted to the partial show from Brussels 1976
, Minnear's increasingly distinctive "Opening" is paired with "Just the Same," Proclamation" and "On Reflection." Munich 1976
, from a show two days after the Düsseldorf show on September 25, provides, despite containing six songs and nearly an hour of music, only the version of "Funny Ways" that had, by this time, been restored into the set list in place of "Give It Back."
From the Paris 1976
show on October 5, a particularly strong "Excerpts from Octopus," "The Runaway/Experience," "So Sincere" and the "Peel the Paint/I Lost My Head" medley are used (the entire partial set including three more tracks, for a total of 29 minutes out of the CD's total of 75). Last, while the Brussels 1976
show from October 7 is only partial due to technical problems with Minnear's keyboards that began after the first two tunes, it includes a blistering version of the main set-closing "Free Hand," ultimately culled for Playing the Fool
Still, in addition to an equally fiery "Timing," "Free Hand" and "Peel the Paint/I Lost My Head," there's one lovely happenstance from the Brussels show that's included on Playing the Fool
, but not on Brussels 1976
. With the show delayed after Minnear's keyboard rig snuffed it, Ray Shulman and Gary Green played a few impromptu songs, including "Sweet Georgia Brown," the 1925 jazz standard written by Ben Bernie and Maceo Pinkard, which would be included on the original two-LP Playing the Fool
, and on later CD reissues (initial ones dropped it due to time restrictions on early CDs). Playing the Fool
remains a landmark live album from a band that was playing in absolute peak form. Still, with time restrictions mandating the removal of some material from In'terview
(the title track and "Timing"), it's great to now have a complete show in absolutely correct running order (some changes were mandated on Playing the Fool
, in order to be able to fit some of its longer pieces on LP sides). Or, more correctly, almost
complete, as the version of "Funny Ways" is just a 43-second snippet, for reasons undocumented in either of Unburied Treasure
's two booksa rare surprise, given just how much minutiae is contained in both.
While Playing the Fool
has, as with the rest of the 29 CDs, been remastered, the four European shows, from which the album's material is culled, have been completely remixed from the original multi-tracks, and provide a sonic contrast to the commercial release. Brighter and crisper, Playing the Fool
contrasts with these shows, which are punchier and possess more "oomph." So fans could, in theory, grab the individual tracks from the four shows that were used for Playing the Fool
, and put together an alternate mix of Playing the Fool
Having these four shows is, indeed, an important addition to Unburied Treasure
, as there's the chance to hear a number of different versions of songs found on Playing the Fool
, in addition to three different versions of "Timing," all sporting significantly different and extended violin solos and a couple of takes on "Interview," the two songs not included in the commercial release. Alternate versions of "Free Hand," with extraordinary (and, of course, different) guitar solos on each and "Funny Ways" are also great inclusions for contrast; ditto the medley of "The Runaway" and "Experience," from In a Glass House
. Alternates of more firmly structured pieces like "Peel the Paint/I Lost My Head," "On Reflection," "Just the Same/Proclamation/Valedictory" and "Excerpts from Octopus" still reveal differences, one night to the next, in interpretation and energy.
Beyond a palpable sense of the increased confidence that stemmed from, by this time, a lot of road time and increasing success, Playing the Fool
stands out in the band's discography. Its impeccable blending of mind-boggling complexities, unparalleled vocal gymnastics, and staggering instrumental shifts and individual/collective performances were all driven by Weathers' unshakable groove. By this this time, Weathers had helped to turn Gentle Giant's innate eclecticism into something more accessible, without losing any of the character and challenge that defined the band since its inception.
Minnear's ever-improving fanfare intro to the set-opening medley of "Just the Same," "Proclamation" (which ends on a brief snippet of "Valedictory"), the segue between the two now seamlessly organic and, with Green's guitar part supported only by Weathers after Minnear's synth solo during "Just the Same," becoming even grittier and, at the same time, tastier, than ever. The live arrangement of "On Reflection" is more doable live but loses nothing for it, its mediaeval-informed strings, recorder and vibraphone intro a perfect way to start, with voices introduced, one at a time, and allowing everyone to return to their main instruments, beginning with Derek Shulman's solo opening line "In my way did I use you, do you think I really abused you." The vocal section is abbreviated, as the song returns to part of the introductory theme but, this time, with the band coming in and, ultimately, bringing all of the song's varied themes together.
"Excerpts from Octopus" changed regularly over the years since it was first introduced but, by this time, had reached a peak, combining elements from four of the album's songs: "The Boys in the Band"; the twin acoustic guitar interlude that includes, amongst other things, an excerpt from "Raconteur Troubadour" in addition to a duo take on Acquiring the Taste
's title track; a quick stop for applause before leading into "Knots"; and, finally, "The Advent of Panurge." Again, rearranged to begin with the full band, when the five-part vocal arrangement of "Knots, begins, it's a marvel of translating studio excellence into live excitement, and a shivers up the neck moment.
Despite it being only part of the song, "Knots" leads into an organ solo that's much longer than before and segues the theme from "Knots" into a six-minute version of "The Advent of Panurge." The song includes a multi-part recorder sectioninitially one, backed by bass (assumed by Derek Shulman) and drums, with two additional recorders being added, one by one, ultimately dropping the band, with Shulman switching to recorder for a four-part contrapuntal passage anchored only by Weathers' frame drum. "Yankee Doodle" had, by this time, been dropped, rendering the recorder section a bit shorter, but finally leading to the final verse of "Panurge" and, after fifteen-and-a-half minutes, out.
The return of "Funny Ways" as a feature for Minnear's vibraphone solo is a welcome one; as appealing a song as "Give It Back" must have been earlier in '76, "Funny Ways" is simply a more evocative and appealing song, and it's re-inclusion means that the band is drawing upon music dating back to its very first album, even if the emphasis had turned to music from Three Friends
(the first half of the "Peel the Paint/I Lost My Head" medley) through to In'terview
, even if the second half of "I Lost My Head" was the only song that made it onto Playing the Fool
Most songs are features for someone in the band or, as in the case of the by-now ten-minute "So Sincere," everyone, featuring, in addition to an extended, rearranged version of the song, a stunning, five-man percussion solo, which occupied the second half of the tune and ranged from thundering toms to delicate glockenspiel, xylophone and other tuned percussion, before slowly building to a powerful closing climax.
"Free Hand," too, had become significantly reworked by this time. The first three minutes is relatively faithful to the original, but then turns to a rewritten middle instrumental section that, connected by a brief a cappella
vocal section, turns to a lengthy solo by Green that is his best of the set.
Green and Ray Shulman (on violin) deliver a brief "Sweet Georgia Brown" that demonstrates how musicians may play a particular kind of music, but most/many invariably have far broader tastes and have studied music of many other variants. Closing the album with a thunderous second half of "Peel the Paint" that leads to a shortened instrumental intro to "I Lost My Head," with guitar, recorder, bass, drums and, in particular, Minnear's clavinet (which largely managed to sound completely unlike the usual timber used in funk and R&B) leading to the riff-based and weightier second half, along with a typical "everyone bashing" rock ending.
The critical reception was largely improved over In'terview
, with Crawdaddy
, a popular magazine at the time, even considering Playing the Fool
to be the band's "finest to date," and going even further to suggest that "There's enough new here to make it worthwhile for devoted fans, and amazingly, even with their 'shock treatment' sounds, Giant might break out of their seemingly terminal cult status."
And, indeed, Playing the Fool
, while not achieving the top 50 position of Free Hand
's Billboard 200
album chart, did fare better than In'terview
's highest rank of 137, managing to make it into the Top 100 by peaking at number 89. It was a reflection of Gentle Giant still being a powerhouse live act that had, by this time, also enhanced the visual experience of its shows with better lighting, strobe lights, dry ice/smoke, projected images and more.
Still, all was not well within the Giant camp, as the band considered more ways to break out of its cult status and into greater mainstream success. Unfortunately, the band was as much proof as ever needed that if you try too hard for commercial success, you often risk losing the script. Its follow up album, The Missing Piece
, would combine elements of the Gentle Giant fans knew and love with, in some cases, simpler structures and simplified instrumentation, but its lack of focus and abrupt changes in direction confused and frustrated many of its most avid followers. Still, the band continued to deliver powerhouse shows, as demonstrated during the early months of 1977, when it including a whopping four new songs, ultimately from The Missing Piece
, that were as yet unrecorded.
Misstep #1: 1977 Rehearsals & The Missing Piece
Released in early 1977, Playing the Fool
's greater success over In'terview
wasn't enough to stop the band's increasing desire to find an even more substantial audience. This meant that change was most definitely the air; change that would, ultimately, lead the band to its end. Still, as Gentle Giant moved from early rehearsals in January to full "dress rehearsals," with lighting, projection screens, proper PA and more, at the renowned Pinewood Studios (home, amongst others, of films in the James Bond
series), the four new songs included were those that would ultimately end up on The Missing Piece
's second, more progressive-leaning side. It was, however, the first time since the band's early days that it would road test material before recording.
Along with live staples like "The Runaway/Experience," "On Reflection," "Funny Ways" "So Sincere" and "Free Hand," the band brought back: Acquiring the Taste
's "Plain Truth," in a medley that opened with The Power and The Glory
's "The Face"; and a medley of "Just the Same" with The Power and The Glory
's "Playing the Game," with Derek Shulman playing the newly invented "Shulberry" (pictured on the cover of the Chester 1977
live CD)a three-stringed instrument that allowed him to emulate the tuned percussion intro of the original studio version of the song.
From the upcoming The Missing Piece
, some of what would turn out to be its better material was tested: the contrapuntal "As Old As You're Young" (sung, in its entirety, by Derek Shulman, despite Minnear singing the first half of the ultimate studio version and also without its vocal counterpoint); a strong version of "Memories of Old Days," a lengthy down-tempo song that was, nevertheless, still absolutely Giant in its inner workings (opening, for example, with an acoustic guitar duet and Minnear's layered synth melody) and with every member of the band playing some kind of guitar at some point; a much longer version of "Winning" than would appear on record, with its one time only use of drum machine by the band, and a considerably different and more idiosyncratic arrangement; and the eventual album closer, "For Nobody," appearing relatively fully formed and faithfully played..
While the Pinewood Studios Rehearsals 1977
previously released in MP3 format on the data disc in the four-disc, 2004 Scraping the Barrel
box set, and then reissued on CD in the five-disc Memories of Old Days
box, the versions of the same material, included in Unburied Treasure
, have been both remastered and reordered correctly to be both the most accurate and best-sounding yet.
Since the live show included in Unburied Treasure
comes from Chester 1977
, recorded in the year's penultimate month, it means that Pinewood Studios Rehearsals 1977
is the closest to experiencing the full set list from February through April. By the time of the Chester 1977
show on November 18, the set had changed considerably, with more emphasis on The Missing Piece
's more decidedly commercial-leaning first side, including: the ebullient set (and album)-opening "Two Weeks in Spain"; the simpler but nevertheless appealing power ballad, "I'm Turning Around"; and, The Missing Piece
's most surprising track, the punk-influenced "Betcha Thought We Couldn't Do It."
Sadly, while it's unlikely anyone thought Giant couldn't do it, it's far more probable that Giant fans thought the band wouldn't
do it, and the track became The Missing Piece
's most reviled and incongruous track. The rest of the songs on side one may have been intentionally written as more radio friendly, but they still managed, somehow, to sound like Giant. But there seemed no place for "Betcha Thought We Couldn't Do It" in any Giant repertoire, though it was also an unfortunate portent of worse things to come.
Still, between Pinewood Studios Rehearsal 1977
and Chester 1977
, Gentle Giant continued to prove itself a thrilling live band, even if its studio recordings began to falter. Pinewood
's new arrangement of "So Sincere," with its solo vibraphone intro (and no strings to be found anywhere), demonstrated that the band wasn't sitting still, continuing to alter its live arrangements. It did the same with "The Face," which is only referenced briefly before launching into an extended "Plain Truth," as usual featuring Ray Shulman's extended violin break but also, with "So Sincere" dropped from sets after April, 1977, subsequently featuring part of that song's extended percussion bash, pretty much airlifted in directly from its original place. "Winning" was also dropped in place of The Missing Piece
's "Two Weeks in Spain" and the surprisingly funkified side one-closer (and live encore), "Mountain Time," which is the album's second most unusual/unapt track.
All this said, Pinewood
(at nearly eighty minutes, missing "Mountain Time" and "Funny Ways," but including the sixteen-minute "Excerpts from Octopus" that was sometimes, but not always, included in the encore) together represent a band whose live shows were still as strong as ever.
Despite creating some consternation amidst its longtime fanbase, The Missing Piece
's blend of more pop-oriented/radio-friendly songs with more typical but somewhat simplified songs redolent of Giant's more expected tropes was, nevertheless, more successful than Playing the Fool
, trumping that album's position of 89 on the Billboard 200
album chart, placing slightly higher at 81.
The band's changing approach is summarized by John Weathers: "All of a sudden there was this rivalry, as it were, with Genesis. Because we were on par...same tours, same gigs...it was just a question of who was going to really crack it first, and then they come out with Trick of the Tail, where they started to go in a more commercial direction. And I think our boys started to go that way then."
The difference, however, was that Trick of the Tail
was still an unabashedly Genesis
album, one that even its most hardcore fans could love, while The Missing Piece
's inconsistencies only confused longtime fans and did little to bring in new ones. Weathers continues: ..."we firmly believed that if we managed to get a Top 40 hit in America, then the back catalogue would resurface and we'd be able to do what we wanted. So, from that point we were looking for a bit of commercial success to get the back catalog moving."
It's true that a commercial success can entice an audience (especially a new one) to check out previous albums, and with a more favorable mindset than had they come to them first. There was a sizeable group of people, for example, that came to Peter Gabriel through his hit single, "Shock the Monkey," only to find the album it's from, 1984's Security
, was a challenging and far more obscure experience, yet were still more amenable to it.
But for Gentle Giant, there was no "Shock the Monkey"; only, for existing fans, the sense that, with The Missing Piece
, the band was trying too
hard for a commercial breakthrough. Genesis' gradual move from progressive leaning mid-to-late '70s band to '80s/'90s commercial pop powerhouse reveals a band that, while losing some of its hardest of hardcore progressive fans, kept plenty of existing fans and added even more new ones by evolving slowly
, from 1976's still epic-inclusive Wind & Wuthering
to the shorter, more singable songs on 1978's ...And Then There We're Three...
and, finally, to what would be the band's final (but still increasingly successful) blend of progressive leanings with pure pop on 1980's Duke
, making the transition pretty much complete on 1981's Abacab
Gentle Giant, on the other hand, went for broke too quickly with The Missing Piece
and simply didn't have the breakthrough radio hit. Even if it retained at least some of what made the band so appealing to its existing fans, some of the material was simply too great a leap into commercial-leaning songs, leaving fans puzzled and confused. Weathers continues: "We thought: 'We need a polished album here, we want a polished performance on the album to make it sound like something we've been playing for months.' So we took four or five songs out on the road...and when we went into the studio, we set up as if we were playing live. We had a drum riser and we arranged ourselves in a circle...a big departure from the way we normally recorded...far less piecemeal than the ones that had gone before, a more organic process...it was more of a 'live' in the studio feel, and we only overdubbed stuff where necessary. It was far more stripped-down...I love it. I think it's a great album because it's got a lot of energy."
Weathers isn't incorrect: it was
stripped down and it did
possess the kind of electric energy that even its best prior studio albums didn't. But side one (Green says: "We called it The Missing Piece
because it was a reflection of the band wanting to move in a more commercial direction and get that elusive hit record.") was simply too drastic a change for existing fans. Sonically, it was also a very bright and not particularly appealing-sounding album; too bright, in retrospect, with even CD remasters being able to beef it up, though Pete Reynolds' Unburied Treasure
remaster is the fullest it's ever been.
The band felt trapped, and that what they did with The Missing Piece
was their only way out. But part of the problem is that, while a song like "I'm Turning Around" was a particularly fine piece of pop writing, with a catchy chorus and all the other qualities that could have made it a hit, by this time punk rock had emerged in full force, rendering a track that might have been an AOR hit in the early-to-mid '80s exactly what the times were generally railing against. Yes, it was a simpler song form; yes it focused on more conventional instrumentation; but it was too polished, too well-played to break the surface of a time when three chords and no real musical understanding were driving a return to a simpler musical time. But as punk-ish as "Betcha Thought We Couldn't Do It" was, as raw and electrifying as it was? It was still too well-played and too smoothly produced for its time.
Not that punk, as many have written or said, killed progressive rock; as always, the circumstances were far more complicated then such a reductionist suggestion. But with its inconsistencies and not really knowing what it wanted to be, while it charted in the USA, The Missing Piece
would ultimately prove to be Gentle Giant's last album to make it into the Billboard 200
, hitting a reasonably respectable (but downward-trending) 81.
Misstep #2: Dissolution and Recovery (Alas, Too Late)
Following its final North American show in Milwaukee, in November 22, 1977, two days after a Chicago show where the band was, apparently, booed when it played "Betcha Thought We Couldn't Do It," Gentle Giant took a break to rethink and regroup. Barring a January, 1978 BBC Sights and Sounds
live recording that has been released, more than once, on CD and subsequently, in full video glory on the DVD/CD combo, GG at the GG
(Alucard, 2006), two years after the German and US TV concerts included on the Giant on the Box
(Alucard, 2004) DVD (later, DVD/CD), the group would never again perform in Britain, would do very little in Europe and, instead, focused its energy almost exclusively on the United States...but not until after taking a break from touring for nearly two and a half years. In '78, the group did nothing until April, when it spent two months recording its penultimate studio album, Giant for a Day!
Released in the fall of '78, Giant for a Day!
was the band's biggest misstep, it's absolute low point, and an album that Kerry Minnear, in particular, recalls as being: ..."a difficult album for me, because I didn't know quite how I fitted into it. I had to improve it, or at least make a significant contribution to it, and I think I felt a bit confused as to how I could best add anything...I wasn't artistically fulfilled or inspired...A case in point is 'Giant for a Day' itself, with all the guitars. The keyboard part is just a simple arpeggio over the top, because it was about all I could find to do. There just wasn't room for keyboards on that album. What I used to love about the earlier albums was how different parts could contribute something really sweet or nostalgic to a piece, bring in other emotions rather than having something that was just 'in your face.' That has always been my goal...I like things that have a quaintness about them, things that are a little bit of a surprise offered in an unostentatious way.
Weathers further describes where the band was at the time, and it wasn't good: "The mood in the band after we'd completed the album [Giant for a Day!] wasn't good, anyway. I wasn't happy with it at all...it's just a mishmash, isn't it? It's just limp...we really didn't seem to be going anywhere. We were getting a bit despondent by then, it was like beating your head against the wall."
Worse, the two-plus year break from touring had other consequences. Capitol dropped the band after Giant for a Day!
, an understandable decision, and, as hardcover book scribe, Alan Kinsman, writes: "In the period that followed, they [the group] received a few offers to go out on tour, but these were declined, and to all intents and purposes Gentle Giant was put on hold. Even the long-established practice of paying the band members and their road crew a weekly wage ceased, and Gary [Green] recalls that he was forced to take a job, booking cars on to the Isle of Wight ferry, to make ends meet...John [Weathers], meanwhile, returned to Wales, where he confesses to living 'the hippy lifestyle' for awhile, playing with local bands and working on some still-unreleased material with former Eyes of Blue colleague, Phil Ryan, recording an album with Welsh rock 'n' rollers Faded Glory and 'doing a spot of gardening.'"
There's little to recommend on Giant for a Day!
. Yes, the harmony vocals on the album opening Words From the Wise
might have signaled a better pop album to come. But from the saccharine "Thank You" to the synth pulse of "Giant for a Day," if anything, from track to track, Giant for a Day!
may be crafted by a skilled band, but it felt like the band had lost its inspiration, even if it had changed its mission statement.
If only this low point in Gentle Giant's careerthe time when the band truly hit its creative rock bottomcould have been followed with something that brought them back, both creatively and commercially. That would have made a great movie with an uplifting ending. Instead, without a label in North America (but owing Chrysalis two records), and with the band's name losing cachet with every passing day, the band may not have thought of Giant for a Day!
as its swan song. But with Kerry Minnear moving, with his wife, to Shaftesbury, Dorset, Weathers in Wales, Green near the Isle of Wight and Derek Shulman relocating to the USA, the group was also as geographically fractured as it had ever been.
Derek Shulman's relocation was partly in pursuit of the idea that if Giant were to have any future, it would be in America. He also began to move on, teaming with Ray to manage a group that they'd previously encountered on their last Giant tour, the Granati Brothers. Impressed with them, the brothers offered to co-manage the group and, securing a deal with A&M Records and with Ray producing the band's 1979 debut, G-Force
, the band did quite well, touring in support of Van Halen in 1981 and moving on to headliner status.
With the Shulman brothers still keeping their hands in the business, the idea of a new Gentle Giant album began to take shape. Civilian
, with its edgier, new wave-informed complexion and Derek Shulman assuming a greater role in the writing, was a much stronger effort that even hardcore Giant fans still look upon with greater fondness. Still, it felt different than anything that has come before. It still bore, barring the opening "Convenience (Free and Easy," co-composed by Gary Green and Derek Shulman, the usual "Ray Shulman, Derek Shulman and Kerry Minnear" co-credit, but, from Weathers' opening groove and Minnear's electronics, "Convenience (Free and Easy)" was not your daddy's Gentle Giant.
Gone, for the most part, was the counterpoint, the polymeters and polyrhythms, the hockets, the mediaeval/Baroque leanings. Instead, Civilian
was most definitely of its time. The same could be said about much of Gentle Giant's music, except that most of it was, with its heavily cross-pollinated musical sources literally spanning centuries, absolutely timeless. It may not be music that could be easily created today...but it could be, by a band prepared to dispense with obvious conventions and, instead, follow its creative muse wherever it took it. Civilian
is, most definitely, aimed at a more radio-friendly audience but, after Minnear's disillusion with Giant for a Day!
, it's great to hear, following the guitar-driven "All Through the Night," a lovely ballad that sounds more decidedly Giant, with Minnear's repetitive arpeggios, and doubled bass and guitar lines running atop them, leading to a most welcome lead vocal from Minnear. Given his reluctance to be a lead singer live, it's no surprise that "Shadows on the Street" didn't make it into Giant set lists when it resumed touring in 1980 for the final time, or that its chorus was simpler and more singable.
But after Giant for a Day!
and despite Civilian
's relative brevity (only one track crosses the five-minute mark, with four of them not even making it to four minutes), it felt more like the kind of pop album that Gentle Giant could make. Even the harder-edged and heavier-complexioned "Number One," which follows "Shadows on the Street," possesses a touch of counterpoint, driven by Weathers' best drum sound on record and, again, a catchy and, more importantly, memorable chorus.
Even if this is a record absolutely rooted on the cusp of the '80s, there are some Giant signatures, like the subway recording that introduces the second side-opener, "Underground." Ray Shulman's bass line is initially bolstered by some more sophisticated chords from Green, before he changes to a more syncopated part during the verses. There's even a keyboard solo that may be reduced from what he might have once played, but it's still unmistakably Minnear.
Yes may duplicate the phrase "I am a camera" on "Into the Lens," from the better-charting Drama
(Atlantic, 1980), which reached #18 on the Billboard 200
chart and released a few months after Civilian
, which just missed the chart with a peak of 203, but Giant's "I Am a Camera," remains an appealing, four-on-the-floor rocker.
At nearly six minutes, "Inside Out" is Civilian
's longest track; excluding the added bonus track, "Heroes," the album just scrapes past the 33-minute mark, making it the band's shortest album. But this harmonically more sophisticated track, with melodies that move slightly out, only to be drawn back in with a wonderful sense of drama, demonstrates a quality that Gentle Giant possessed since inception: a perfect sense of what needs to be in a song and, just as importantly, what doesn't. Gentle Giant, especially in the studio, could never be accused of overstaying it's welcome, and the shorter material on Civilian
works as well as this one (relatively) long track because every song is exactly as long as it needs to be: no more and no less.
Giant may be more chordal on Civilian
(as was true with Giant for a Day!
, just not as well) than in its earlier days, where Ray Shulman and Kerry Minnear focused more on linear interactions. Still, the upbeat album closer, "It's Not Imagination," and the more ambling but still propulsive bonus, "Heroes," from the same sessions but not released at the time, represent Gentle Giant doing a far better job at commercial intentions.
As luck wouldn't have it, Civilian
simply didn't sell that well, but band members look upon it fondly, and for good reason. Engineered, remixed and overseen by Geoff Emerick (of The Beatles fame), Weathers asserts that:
"Civilian is the Gentle Giant album that came nearest to achieving what we'd set out to achieve...producing a rock album, an '80s-sounding rock album, and we got a great '80s-sounding rock album...the drum sound was epic. It shows a different side to the bandit's a rock band. If you're looking at complexities, ideas, and the quality of writing, I'd say the best examples are
The Power and The Glory and
Octopus, but in terms of the end result matching the original aim, it's
And if the band was hoping to create a more radio-friendly record that would drum up interest in its back catalog? One listen to the final live show in Unburied Treasure
, a wonderful sounding, modified soundboard recording (blending in a room microphone) from the group's very last performance, on June 18, 1980 at West Hollywood's renowned The Roxy, finds, finally, an audience that is clearly loving the full six tunes from Civilian
as much as it does older material like "Playing the Game," "The Advent of Panurge" (still with its recorder instrumental section and an impromptu singalong of the "Hey, Friend" section), "Knots" and "Free Hand," along with alternatively powerful and lyrical versions of "For Nobody" and "Memories of Old Days..."even a surprisingly rousing "Giant for a Day."
That this would become the end of Gentle Giant is truly unfortunate, as this could have been the beginning of achieving exactly what the band was looking to achieve: reach a broader commercial audience without losing sight of its more imaginative and creative past, driving new fans towards its older music through grabbing them with catchy, commercial but still substantive pop songs.
In Unburied Treasure
, Minnear opines for the creativity of Giant's early days...and, despite its clear influence on the progressive rock resurgence that began in the mid-'90s (not that it ever went away, but for a variety of reasons, this was a time when interest in progressive music began to coalesce once more, albeit in ways that those there in its creative glory days have often seen as problematic). Minnear says:
"I actually feel out of step with our [current] fans, because a lot of them just love people playing complicated music proficiently, technical excellence, and I've never found that approach fulfilling or emotionally satisfying. A friend of mine took me to see (ex-Spock's Beard bandleader) Neal Morse, and i had to leaveI just found it empty of any emotion, and so self-edifying that I couldn't stay. I got to the point where I said 'I don't want to listen to this anymore...'"
If ever there were a perfect summary of how progressive rock has lost its emphasis on progression and, instead, despite a great many technically adept musicians and writers, become a reductionist genre defined by very specific qualities that were a consequence rather than a direct intent of some of the legacy bands greatly lauded by younger artists today. There absolutely is progressive music being made today...music, that is, that progresses
, that moves forward, just a few examples being the Swiss group Sonar
and its leader, guitarist Stephan Thelen
, as well as fellow countryman, pianist Nik Bärtsch
, and his group's Ronin and Mobile , German touch guitarist Markus Reuter
, and Norwegians including Eivind Aarset
, Jan Bang
, Erik Honore
, Sidsel Endresen
and Arve Henriksen
But progressive rock? With groups like Yes, as one example, doing little more than recycling and regurgitating the music from its best years (only not as well), yet continuing to draw good-sized audiences, the genre is no longer the groundbreaking home for creative thinking, simultaneously in the pursuit of deeper emotional connections. Some groups, like the current King Crimson, despite having been instrumental in the creation of early progressive rock in the late '60s/early '70s, have long fought the epithet "progressive rock" because it now means so many things that the current band simply is not
Minnear briefly participated in the Giant semi-tribute band Three Friends, which also originally included Gary Green and Malcolm Mortimore, but left after a relatively short stay. And there are, indeed, those, especially with the release of the career-spanning and absolutely wonderful Unburied Treasure
, that might be prepared to donate a body part to see Gentle Giant reform and tour, even ifor, worse, perhaps, hoping
thatit would stick to its classic material, in contrast legacy groups like King Crimson and Van der Graaf Generator
, who both continue to regularly introduce new music in the new millennium, whether in the studio or onstage.
But it's not going to happen. And here we are, nearly forty years later.
Everyone in Giant has long since moved on, despite finally following Giant for a Day!
with the commercial album the band was looking to make with Civilian
. Maybe in a different time, a different dimension, under different circumstances, things might have been different.
But they weren't, and they aren't. Which leaves Unburied Treasure
, an extraordinary, exceptional box that documents an earth-shatteringly innovative band that should always have been able to achieve more critical and commercial success than it ultimately did. The why is complicated, a combination of timing, distribution, promotion and, yes, some missteps on the part of the band,
But following Gentle Giant through eleven studio albums, one official live album, a remixed Gentle Giant
and plenty of music from live shows across nearly a decade's worth of touring only serves to demonstrate just how remarkable this band was. And with a limited run of but two thousand copies, only a relatively select few will get the chance to live through the band's evolution as thoroughly as it unfolds across Unburied Treasure
But for those two thousand, it will be an opportunity to revisit something truly special. A band for whom the stars never quite aligned when it came to success, but whose creative spark was rarely paralleled. With more details about the band's history, in the studio and on the road, than has ever before been collected, Unburied Treasure
is the fullest, most complete and most compelling story of the band that truly could. And, indeed, should have. A truly landmark, definitive release, few bands have had their entire careers so perfectly served in a single box set as Gentle Giant, with Unburied Treasure