It would be a shame if Gentle Giant did not receive another (or first) assessment, particularly for would-be fans who simply have not had the opportunity to experience their music.
For all the critical savaging Yes, ELP and Rush took in the early-to-mid ‘70s, they at least had the devotion of the masses (then, now). And no matter how much or how unjustly they were accused of mindless noodling, they could nod and wink all the way to the bank. Top Ten records can buy a lot of noodles (then, now).
So whatever else one can or should say about the front-tier progressive acts, at worst they had cache; they remain part of the conversation.
Gentle Giant has always been relegated to the second -- or third -- tier, worshipped by a select contingent. This of course is a phenomenon that imparts a certain aesthetic credibility; only the people who are really in the know are aware of them. Or, you have to work harder to find your way to this band. Et cetera.
So why didn’t Gentle Giant, a band with all the chops, ambition and awful cover art to co-exist with their better-known brethren, get their shot at superstardom?
Well, in some regards they tend to typify some of the worst -- or least favorite -- elements of prog rock: the ostensible pretense of literary allusions, the extended instrumental jams (oh, the horror!), the love it or leave it vocals, which, to be fair, are often a few shades more eccentric and inaccessible than even Trespass-era Genesis.
On the other hand, there is plenty to recommend about this band’s approach: Emersonian keyboards, Hackett-like guitar proficiency, King Crimson-esque quirkiness. But where ELP, Genesis and Crimson could balance the pyrotechnical overload and acoustic restraint (usually by relegating the pastoral numbers as shorter, more serene pieces), Gentle Giant tends to be either more ambitious or less dexterous. The medieval elements wash up, too often unsteadily, with the then-modern snythesizers, resulting in a sound that is jarring. Worse, it sounds dated in ways the better-known progressive acts do not.
Still, the musicianship is consistently top-notch, and it would be a shame if Gentle Giant did not receive another (or first) assessment, particularly for would-be fans who simply have not had the opportunity to experience their music. Fortunately for anyone who has awaited or is open to the chance, we have two reissues of early albums. 1972's Three Friends and 1973's Octopus are the third and fourth efforts from a band that was locking into an approach -- confident and adventurous -- that came as close as they ever did to establishing a "signature" sound. That the results are not easy to quickly describe or embrace is likely to make or break a first time listener’s reaction.
Three Friends is definitely the harder of the two, in many senses of the word. There is an extra edge that at times borders on abrasive, not that there’s anything wrong with that, which could make this tough going for first-time ears. It also boasts impressively complex vocal arrangements that at times border on boastful. These gents are definitely prog-rockers’ prog rockers, and in that regard the album is an unabashed success. Still, a song like "Peel the Paint" is a bit grueling to get through. It recalls Side One of Crimson’s Lizard but, for this listener, the vocals too often seem shrill where the wonderfully surreal vocals of Gordon Haskell, from Lizard are unsettling in all the right ways. In fact, the user-unfriendly singing might represent the issue that makes this material difficult to love then and now. One thing the aforementioned prog acts had going for them was across-the-board vocal brilliance. However much anyone might loathe those bands, few people could credibly claim that, say, Ian Anderson, Greg Lake or Jon Anderson were not, at worst, competent vocalists.
Octopus is not only more palatable, but ably matches the group’s lofty aspirations and their impeccable musicianship. Simply put, unlike Three Friends, it stacks up nicely with other prog masterpieces of the era, no mean feat. Typical period pieces like "The Advent of Panurge" (if you are going to get literary, don’t half-step!) and "Raconteur Troubadour" are stylistically and sonically all over the place but always in control. On this outing the band knows what it is after and is able to achieve it. On a more reflective piece like "Think of me with Kindness" we get more Gentle and less Giant.
Both albums feature re-mastered treatments and sound spectacular. More importantly, each release includes out-takes and live snippets, all of which are interesting and enjoyable. We get the original art work, liner notes and never-seen photos. This is the type of material that recommends itself for the faithful fan; it should serve as an ideal introduction for the newcomer. For anyone inclined to dip their toes in this murky but ultimately pleasant water, start with Octopus and, if you like what you hear (give it several listens before you make up your mind) you are encouraged to take a deeper dive into the catalog. Bottom line: full marks to Gentle Giant for their obvious indifference to mainstream acclaim and even accessibility. It may have damaged their commercial appeal but their integrity has never been in question. In the end, that should count for something that isn’t measured monetarily.