Gentle Giant – Two
Progressive Classics Reissued
In the first, or initial wave of Progressive Rock back in the late 1960 to early 1970s, there were several bands that played outside of the rules that dictated the format of rock music. Though now, people look at, and try to define "prog" rock as having a set of rules or format, no claim for the need of an "epic song" or use of a Mellotron shows any understanding of what made progressive rock so appealing to many of us back then. As a genre, the only defining aspect of "progressive rock" would be simply that it was played without the boundaries of the three-minute radio format song, and that the musicians and artists involved put their own stamp on their output, and played without any rules otherwise.
Though certain bands from that era gained a fairly wide popularity, and even today, most people have heard of Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, and Emerson Lake and Palmer, other great bands from that era didn't achieve the wide ranging popularity of those bands. Yet, you still find many fans of great bands like Camel, PFM, Van der Graff Generator, and, the focus of this review, Gentle Giant.
In many ways, Gentle Giant was the quintessential progressive band. They sum up the philosophy of "progressive rock" beautifully in the liner notes of their second album, Acquiring the Taste:
"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 thought—that 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."
With all six members of the band being extremely talented multi-instrumentalists, each Gentle Giant album was always, first and foremost, an adventure. As much I have loved the "progressive rock" genre since being introduced to it during my grade school days when these bands were all new, Gentle Giant always struck me as being the most unique, adventurous, and innovative band of the bunch. Their music holds up today remarkably well.
In late September 2011, two of Gentle Giants best albums* were reissued on CD, as high quality CDs, remastered from the original ¼ -inch studio tapes; commissioned and overseen by Derek Shulman. Great care was apparently taken in this project to ensure the reissues were better than any previous CD releases. Having had the opportunity to try a few of the older CD reissues when they came out, I chose not to buy any of them, as they paled in comparison to the early LP releases in my collection. This time around, long time Gentle Giant fans and newcomers wishing to try acquiring the taste, can finally relax and enjoy. These remasters are both excellent.
Three Friends was Gentle Giants third album, and the first released in the US. It is a "concept" album, though the only link between the songs is the theme of three school friends who went their separate ways in life. It has been described in various reviews as a somewhat emotionless (lyrically at least) series of songs, but that misses the point. The songs are complete, complex, intriguing and unique. They run the gamut from fairly hard rock influenced, like on Peel the Paint, to the ethereal in the track "Three Friends". This is one of Gentle Giants easiest to listen to albums, yet remains as a prime example of some of their best output.
Octopus may be the band's most popular album, and for many fans, their best. It also marked a significant change in personnel for the band, where John Weathers replaced Malcolm Mortimore as the drummer. Mortimore was a fine drummer and his work on previous albums fit in perfectly. However, Weathers brought a more unique style on multiple percussion instruments, and afforded the band an even more adventurous rhythm section. That he ended up looking much like the Giant from the original album cover art was just a coincidence.
Where Octopus really shines is in the uniqueness and complexity of the music. If you've never heard a Gentle Giant album before, and if you start with Octopus, there is nothing I can think of that you could place as a contemporary reference. At times influenced with Old English tunes and sounds, then switching gears midstream to their characteristic odd time signatures and modern styles, Octopus is a masterpiece of originality.
Yet, there are no amusical indulges such as infiltrate so many "progressive" or avant-garde musical offerings. There are no odd or irritating noises or sounds done merely to challenge the listener. Every moment of this album is musically thrilling, and unlike anything you will hear anywhere else.
For those of you familiar with Gentle Giant's music, and even if you have the original LPs (as I do), these reissues are not just worthy of consideration, but a must have acquisition. Compared to my run-of-the-mill mid-70s LPs (purchased either in late high school or maybe freshman year of college) just about every aspect of the sound is improved. These are remastered from the original master tapes, and overseen by Derek Shulman and other members of the band. Mind you, the original LPs were pretty well done, and have long been a favorite of mine for use in the equipment review process. Yet, I would not use the original LPs and these new CDs to try to convince anyone of the inherent superiority of the LP format. This is one rare case I find the detail, clarity, dynamics and overall presentation to be superior on the CDs. Even the bonus tracks (live cuts on Octopus, and outtakes and alternate tracks on Three Friends), are worth listening to, especially the studio rehearsal track and the Three Friends soloed vocal chorus.
The packaging of the reissue is first rate, too; nice fold-out covers, with lyrics, and a little booklet with photos. This is the kind of reissue that makes you feel like you've really received your money's worth. I hope they bestow this treatment on the rest of their first seven albums.
If you are a fan of Gentle Giant, don't wait, and just order these today. If you are not familiar with Gentle Giant, check out their website (www.gentlegiantmusic.com) for some sample tracks, but understand that this music is complex, and really needs high end playback to appreciate. Then get the disks, and, well, aquire the taste!
Gentle Giant, Three Friends (Remastered)
Audio CD (September 27, 2011), Number of Discs: 1, Format: Original recording remastered. Label: Alucard ALU-GG-034. ASIN: B005G0YP3C
Gentle Giant, Octopus (Remastered)
Audio CD (September 27, 2011), Number of Discs: 1, Format: Original recording remastered. Label: Alucard ALU-GG-035. ASIN: B005G0YP3M
*Of course "best" is purely subjective, but all of Gentle Giant's first seven albums are superb. This is a greater quality output than ELP, Yes, or Peter Gabriel era Genesis. Personally, I have a hard time picking one release as their "best," though I probably have listened to either Octopus or The Power and the Glory the most over the years.