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Gentle Giant - Three Friends CD (album) cover


Gentle Giant


Eclectic Prog

4.10 | 1120 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
4 stars My personal "find" of the year 2008 has to be my finally discovering the wonders of Gentle Giant. As I wrote in my review of "Octopus," I and my prog-loving friends all tragically missed the boat when it came to turning ourselves on to this eclectic group back in the 70s and I really don't have a good answer as to why that happened. There's no doubt that we would have eaten this stuff up like rich chocolate cake and begged for more. I'm just glad that I took a blind chance recently and invited them into my musical mansion. They waited outside the gates long enough.

A closed drum roll on Malcom Mortimore's snare introduces "Prologue" where Kenny Minnear's pulsating piano and Ray Shulman's wandering bass lines rumble underneath a threatening guitar pattern, creating a very dense atmosphere. Suddenly they break away into a jazzy vocal section that is absolutely wondrous as the poetic lyrics set up the plot of the album. It concerns a trio of pals who are thick as thieves in their youth "but fate and skill and chances play their part/the wind of change leaves no goodbye/three boys are men, their ways have drawn apart/they tell their tales to justify." The song then moves into a new segment where Minnear's Hammond organ and the guitarists seem to play around each other while the sprightly synthesizer flits about in the background before they reprise the initial theme for the ending.

"Schooldays" is an excellent aural adventure. Kenny's expert vibraphone work at the outset draws you right in to where madrigal-like singing takes over and enchants the senses as the voices float overhead. All the while Malcom's deft drumming streams around an unorthodox time signature that only they might be able to explain. Suddenly ominous piano chords crowd into the scene and lead to a gorgeous, almost surreal vocal melody that's precariously positioned over sparse instrumentation. The words describe a nostalgic glimpse of days gone by. "Schooldays, the happy days when we were going nowhere/schooltime, the happy time when we were feeling no care/schooldays when three said that we'd be friends forever/how long is ever, isn't it strange." the singer laments. After the harmony vocals drift away like wispy ghosts, the tune turns to an up tempo jazz motif where the vibes dazzle and take you to a subdued finale.

"Working All Day" describes the fate of the first one of the friends and the slurred intro indicates that his lot is a life of mind-numbing drudgery. It has an appropriate, labored feel lumbering underneath the vocal but the addition of Philip Shulman's lively, stacked saxophones keeps it from becoming morose or tiring. "Easy to say that everybody's equal/then look around and see it ain't true," he complains, "I eat the dust/the boss gets all the money/life ain't just." But the antidote to this ode to self pity arrives in the form of Minnear's outstanding performance on his mighty Hammond organ. What a treat it is to hear his mastery! The song ends after a brief return to the "working all day" refrain.

"Peel the Paint" has a quieter, sneaky vocal beginning followed by a string quartet that jumps in unexpectedly out of nowhere. This sequence is repeated, and then the track turns into a heavy rocker with complicated, intertwining instrumental detours. It seems that the second of the threesome has become a painter, "free from the start/left to depart/finding the pleasure and the pain in his art/lost in the hush/no need to rush/time waits for him/him who creates with the brush." However, they also present a darker side of the man's personality because if you "look underneath/you'll see the same/the same old savage beast/strip the coats/the coats of time/and find the mad eyes and see those sharpened teeth." (Sounds like one of my old girlfriends!) Guitarist Gary Green gets his moment in the spotlight as he turns in a delicious solo accompanied only by Mortimore's impressive drumming. His tasteful manipulation of the extraordinary Echoplex machine is a testimony to that ancient device's considerable charms. What fun! The band then returns to the heavy motif for a final verse.

The last two cuts are presented as one. "Mister Class and Quality?" starts with another quasi-jazz piece that develops into a number with a "walking" beat where strange instrumental melodies coil underneath Derek Shulman's vocal lines. The last individual has successfully clawed his way up the corporate ladder and now looks down his nose at his former buddies. "Middleman sees straight ahead and never crosses borders/never understood the artist or the lazy workers/the world needs steady men like me to give and take the orders." he conceitedly opines. It would appear that these three guys are destined to never find common ground again. The group's segue into "Three Friends" is seamless as they travel through an intriguing musical section that is quite exceptional. After several minutes of instrumental bliss they somehow bend it back around to the original verse structure of the previous song, then the whole thing opens up into a gorgeous chorale backed by Mellotron strings as the guitar and bass go through complicated riffs underneath. Fabulous. A slow fade ensues and one can easily imagine the band ascending majestically into the heavens.

I would hesitate to recommend this album to the general public. It's way, way over their heads and beyond their comprehension. But prog lovers who frequent this site will understand my enthusiasm and share in my thrill of discovery. Gentle Giant is a group unlike any other I've ever heard and those of you who enjoy musicians that create unique tunes by employing a wide array of influences will adore them. They are, quite simply, a delight to discerning ears and that's a quality that's as hard to find in today's world of talent-deprived posers and wannabe idols as it was in the dark ages of disco and new wave. The songs presented on "Three Friends" may be well over 3 decades old but they come off just as fresh and vibrant as the day they were recorded. Feel free to indulge.

Chicapah | 4/5 |


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