Wednesday, September 15, 2021

A Brief History of the Gentle Giant

Woe to the musician who can actually play his or her instrument. In that direction ridicule awaits, or so the three-chord purist would have you believe. In this regard, consider the plight of Gentle Giant, among the most reviled of prog-rock outfits from the 70s, at least in the eyes of the rock purists, I'm calling bullshit. Reality is, 4/4 time gets pretty boring pretty quickly; counterpoint is challenging and aesthetically pleasing to the ears, music with texture and complex instrumentation is far more interesting then the bland purist backbeat (think Please Please Me Vs. Sgt. Pepper).

Gentle Giant, founded by three brothers with a Glasgow Blues background (yeah, it's a thing), succeeded in a daring fusion of jazz, classical and rock.  The strength of the sextet was Kerry Minnear's keyboards (Minnear had a degree in music from the Royal Academy), the guitar virtuosity of Gary Green (a blues veteran) and Phil Schulman’s rococo woodwinds, with each member a multi-instrumentalist. Besides the complex scores, their sound was light years removed from even the most progressive or fusion oriented bands, particularly Derek Schulman's nearly inhuman (giant) vocals, so aseptic they more resembled conservatory solfeggios and Gregorian chant. This wasn't rock; it was some other medieval concoction. 

The first album, Gentle Giant (AM5, Vertigo, 1970), only points to who they would or could become with the dissonant counterpoint, the nearly eponymous peculiarity that made them renowned not materializing until Acquiring The Taste (AM6, Vertigo Records, 1971). Each Giant played a miscellany of instruments with massive use of keyboards lending a symphonic quality to the album. Kerry Minnear's role included electric piano, organ, mellotron, vibraphone, synthesizer, celesta, harpsichord and vocals, while bassist Ray Schulman added violin and viola, and Tony Visconti, David Bowie's producer, added flute. There are typanis, skulls, claves, recorders, jawbones and cowbells. Acquiring the Taste is exactly that, a veritable taste of complex honey.

Three Friends (AM 7, Columbia, 1972), essentially a "rock opera," contains six long ballads with "Mister Class And Quality" and "Working All Day" the most accessible.  "Prologue," "Schooldays" and "Peel The Paint" were like cryptic chamber-music. The harder-edged Octopus (AM8, Columbia, 1972), with the exception of "Think of Me With Kindness," is almost dauntingly complex, with counterpoint and opposing melodies riddled with dead air and aural or negative space, the rest as intoxicating as the note. Generally it's more math-rock, Bach-rock than art-rock in which each instrumental passage is layered and interwoven and complete unto itself. In particular, the vocal harmonies of Knots, inspired by psychologist RD Laing's enigmatic poems (?), were an antithesis to the British tradition both musically and thematically, and the clumsy "Dog's Life," is an eccentric paean to giant's best friend.

In A Glass House (AM8, Vertigo/WWA, 1973 - not initially released in the US), another concept album, is probably their most ambitious work. The exuberant experimentation took particular advantage of Phil Schulman’s departure from the band earlier in the year. The socio-political concept, The Power And The Glory (AM7, Capitol, 1974) is less ambitious yet still fluid and classy and possibly their roughest edge, tempered only by Kerry Minnear's beautiful "Aspirations."

Free Hand (AM8, Capitol, 1975) is Gentle Giant’s "medieval" album. Nearly all the songs ("Just The Same," "On Reflection," "Free Hand," "Time To Kill," "His Last Voyage") reached a formal perfection in their attempt at reinventing the rock song.

And then it was over. Record company pressures, a changing listenership, a new sense that progressive rock was not only passe but that it had done a disservice, led to albums that didn't make sense except as contractual obligations. Part jazz-rock, part folk, part medieval polyphony or renaissance dance music, Gentle Giant was a crazy hybrid of music that shouldn't have worked on any level, but instead, in perfect counterpoint, worked on them all.