Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Origins of Progressive Rock - Step One - Gentle Giant

Phil, Derek and Ray Shulman formed pop-soul act Simon Dupree And The Big Sound in 1966. They released several non-charting singles for EMI, then on the advice of their management, embraced psychedelia and scored a UK Top 10 hit with "Kites" in 1967. The brothers hated the song and, fed up with the pop music machine, they quit the group in 1969. They formed Gentle Giant the following year, enlisting former Big Sound member Martin Smith on drums, alongside virtuoso guitarist Gary Green and classically trained pianist Kerry Minnear. The multi-instrumentalists were snapped up by Philips/Phonogram offshoot Vertigo with David Bowie producer Tony Visconti producing. 

What emerged from the sessions at Trident Studios was a radical departure from their previous work, as the eponymous Gentle Giant debut album, released on November 27, 1970, saw the group immersed in the nascent prog-rock sound, expanding the genre’s horizons with a variety of different styles and influences. Hard rocking opener "Giant" signaled their seriousness as musicians, with a host of complex tempo changes, while the gentle “Funny Ways” utilized folk, medieval and classical music tropes – all styles to which the band would return to repeatedly over their subsequent career. "Alucard" ("Dracula" spelled backward) found Kerry Minnear taking center stage, with his riotously inventive synth- and organ-playing punctuated with blasts of horn and Gary Green’s bluesy guitar. Best of all, though, was the epic "Nothing At All," whose stunning mix of multiple vocal harmonies and epic guitar riffs manages to recall both Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and Led Zeppelin’s "Stairway To Heaven." 

Gentle Giant is one of the most innovative debuts in rock history, and it also remains a captivating listen fifty years later. Often dismissed in comparison to what was next, it is not something to be overlooked by any fan of eclectic progressive rock, particularly in that, for this writer, Gentle Giant is indeed the very first truly recognizable prog LPs. (That of course will cause comments galore.) Most will point to Zappa or King Crimson, but those elements that truly say prog are missing with so many of the precursors - odd time signatures, multi-instrumentalism, keyboard arpeggios, conceptual ideology. Zappa was more Psychedelic and Crimson Art Rock. Indeed the catalyst for this album was established with a myriad of LPs, from the Moodies' essential canon (three LPs precede GG) to The Nice to, of course, In the Court of the Crimson King (the prog standard-bearer), but Gentle Giant is still, if arguably when it all meshed.

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