Saturday, November 21, 2009


Gentle Giant/1972

Once upon a time, kiddies, massive giants strode o’er the planet. These giants sang songs with strange and indecipherable lyrics that nobody could understand. They played exotic instruments like mellotrons, synthesizers, alto recorders and mandolins – making mysterious sounds that echoed across oceans and continents. One such giant was called, appropriately, Gentle Giant. Hailing from that land of the giants, England, the band’s music – at least to the ears of your basic let’s-boogie-down-and-get-hammered rock n’ roll audience – was an acquired taste (symbolically referenced in the title of their second album, Acquiring the Taste). Yet, to the burgeoning Progressive Rock crowd, seeking all things un-danceable, un-commercial and un-American, this British band was huge. If Gentle Giant was to maintain its cult status, it would be with this proud cult of obsessives. Although you probably won’t hear an album like Octopus at a wild party anytime soon (especially with a lead-off track titled “The Advent of Panurge”), the album is more streamlined and direct than their previous outings. Yet, it continues the standard Gentle Giant musical approach: insanely innovative and intricate (some would say hard to follow) arrangements, top-notch playing and vocal gymnastics that sound like a medieval men’s chorus. Tracks like “Panurge” and “A Cry for Everyone” come off almost as straight-ahead rockers – albeit uniquely warped Gentle Giant rockers. These tracks are punctuated with quirky interludes like the chamber orchestra violin arrangement on “Raconteur Troubadour” or the aforementioned vocal leapfrogging on “Knots.” A special note about the vocals…this is pretty much where the “acquired taste” part comes in. If a giant were actually straining to reach a high note, he might very well sound like vocalist Derek Shulman. His somewhat harsh, strident vocal approach is tempered, though, with keyboardist Kerry Minnear’s softer, more velvety voice on ballads like the pretty “Think of Me with Kindness.” Adorned in the UK with a cover by fantasy artist Roger Dean (the U.S. cover featured alternate art depicting an octopus in a jar) Octopus has assumed its rightful place as one of the genre’s classic albums, if not one of the strongest albums in the Gentle Giant canon. But even after 11 studio albums through 1980, the band was never able to scale the successful heights that fellow English Prog giants like Yes, Genesis, ELP and Pink Floyd reached – consigned to a destiny of musical obscurity, although this particular serving of Octopus is exceptionally flavorful once you've acquired the taste.

Essential Tracks: “Advent of Panurge” “Raconteur Troubadour” “A Cry for Everyone” “Think of Me with Kindness”

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