Monday, July 23, 2018

Gentle Giant - Octopus - AM9

When my eldest daughter was five, she came home from the book fair with a picture book called Gentle Giant Octopus and laid it on the kitchen table. Its square shape made it look like an EP and based on the title, I was more than a little taken aback. Of course, I quickly realized that it had nothing at all to do with one of my go-to LPs of the prog era, but I scrambled through what was left of my then dwindling record collection; and indeed, based on the unique American cut out cover of a jar containing an octopus, I had kept it. I hadn't heard it in years but still found it sublime and exciting.

Released in 1972,  Gentle Giant's fourth album had a harder, more rocking edge, making a striking contrast with their more symphonic third album. The album still contains a diverse variety of sounds and textures, from the rocking madrigal power of "The Advent Of Panurge" to the vocal intricacies of "Knots," an interesting take on the R.D. Laing text, to the beauty of "Think Of Me With Kindness." The title was gleaned from Phil Shulman's wife, Roberta, and shorthand for "Octo Opus," or eight musical works. The album was released with a Roger Dean cover in the UK and the "octopus in a jar" cover in the USA by Charles White. Octopus is an overwhelming cascade of perfectly constructed multiple vocal harmonies, a paragon of instrumental virtuosity, with an assemblage of almost magical precision of the very varied and diverse instruments that the band plays; and even then its sound is clean, intelligible, clear, luminous. You know, kinda perfect, an "octo opus" of just over 30 minutes that leaves the listener breathless. 

Track by track:

The Advent of Panurge
The first theme begins with a velvety simplicity and softness. The voices of the Shulmans are characteristically giant-like. Almost a cappella, only accompanied by isolated notes of guitar, bass or keyboards, the opening lines were the first Gentle Giant music that I ever heard (I was 12). Hell of an intro. Then the rest of the band enters the mythical scene and the theme coils into an impressive combination of instruments and choirs, jazz passages and typically Giant sound structures. It is the incredible story of Panurge and Pantagruel from Rabelais.

Raconteur, Troubadour
Keeping with the medieval theme, the Giants give us a walk through the Middle Ages. In this theme they develop rhythms and musical cadences that capture the troubadour spirit of medieval. The band's musical prowess shines here.

A Cry for Everyone
Here, the lyrics are inspired by Albert Camus's literary and philosophical views. A typical Progressive Rocker with a powerful instrumentation and some delicious sound passages in which the keyboards and the guitar alternately take center stage, always supported by an impeccable and strong rhythmic base with a fibrous and resounding bass based on Ray Shulman's odd tuning. 

This theme is a beautiful madrigal inspired by the poetic riddles of the eminent psychologist RD Laing. Gentle Giant create a musical game in which vocal diversities take center stage while a xylophone punctures notes here and there in counterpoint. At times it also has its Jazz touch, but what really stands out in this theme are the voices, perfectly articulated and modulated. 
The Boys in the Band

A laugh and the sound of a coin spinning on itself over what looks like a wooden surface (both the work of engineer Martin Rushant) give way to a tremendous instrumental in which the rock power of the Giant emerges again. A bit of a disposable track, but proficient nonetheless.

Dog's Life

Love this track. Again the musical theme is medieval, and I say musical because the letrĂ­stica is dedicated to the "life of dogs" of the roadies of the band, in a comedy tone of course. The melody is wonderful, wrapped up by some string arrangements and a spectacular medieval pump organ called at regal and played whimiscally by Kerry Minnear. 

Think of Me with Kindness
Along with Aspirations, the most beautiful of Gentle Giant's tracks. The first piano notes sound and I get goose bumps. Intimate, moving and, at the same time, powerful,
Minnear's vocal is sublime. The delicate and perfect instrumentalization. The magnificent wind section. Ahhh, a love story.

Perhaps the most authentically progressive theme of the album, Gentle Giant tried to "create different atmospheres using the different electronic devices at our disposal in the recording studio." "River" has a rocky theme, with an outstanding guitar and, as I said at the beginning, a clear rock-progressive orientation in the sense of experimentation, advancement and creativity.

The musicians are far from household names (if I say Howe or Wetton, folks know who I'm talking about, but Shulman?):

Gary Green - Guitars, percussion

Kerry Minnear - Hammond organ, clavinet, vibraphone, percussion, cello, Moog, regal, lead and backing vocals

Derek Shulman - Lead vocals, alto saxophone

Philip Shulman - Saxophones, trumpet, mellophone, lead and backing vocals

Raymond Shulman - Bass, violin, guitar, percussion, vocals (the liner notes originally said "Bass Violin.")

John Weathers - Drums, percussion, xylophone.

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