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Gentle Giant - Octopus CD (album) cover


Gentle Giant


Eclectic Prog

4.29 | 1744 ratings

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5 stars [ANALYTICAL REVIEW] Gentle Giant's unique and crafty approach to making music guarantees one thing: that this band will always have a following. Their 1972 disc, "Octopus," features a wide variety of pieces, from ballads to experimental electroacoustic riff-raff to comments on other styles of music and poetry. Their willingness to have a lot of simultaneous musical events give a layered effect to their music: the listener has some choice what to listen to at any given time, and to hear something new each time they lay the recording. Cheesy instrumental solos occasionally make their way into the otherwise unique sound of the band, particularly in "The Boys in the Band" and "River," but are only a small percentage of the music on the disc and serve in any case to set off the more interesting moments.

The first track, "The Advent of Panurge" falls into the ballad category, but with a lot of twists. The first is one that permeates all of their songs: an innovative use of stereo for musical effect. Here, two singers singing at different times are accompanied each by a guitar, one at the far left, and one at the far right. We get the idea of a conversation here, even though both singers share the same text. Other twists that will come back include the alternation of time signatures, here between 4/4 and the jarring 11/8. The last twist is the virtuosic use of electronic devices from the time. Here, signal processing to change the sound of the singing voices give them a surreal quality, while different types of distortion at the same time give the listener many options what to listen to. As with most tracks on this CD, the end is not very satisfying, here not because of any musical deficiency, but because of a reticence to put enough silence between the tracks to clear the palate. The end of this song and the beginning of the next suffer both from this.

Raconteur Troubadour does a great job echoing different types of music, then blows it by announcing in their notes "we have tried to capture something of the medieval English troubadour..." The fiddle, while effective, is not a medieval instrument in the least, while the music after the second verse, the English processional, sounds like Edward Elgar, the late 19th-Century English composer, and not medieval in the least. I enjoyed this track for its tongue-in-cheek references, but when I got to the end and Gentle Giant's tongue came out of their cheek, I gagged. In terms of the actual playing, the trumpet playing on this track is very good indeed, though the fiddle can get thin sounding at times. I am not sure if this is the playing or the recording (or amplification?), as the string playing on all the tracks have a similar, bodiless sound. A rounder sound might have brought out better the clever mix of two main themes towards the end. I felt it a pity that with so many acoustic instruments and references to the troubadour's lute, that Gentle Giant didn't experiment with a more acoustic guitar sound. On the other hand perhaps the slightly distorted guitar was instead an effort to marry the old and the new into one song. I would give them this benefit of the doubt if only it weren't for those silly liner notes...

A Cry for Everyone is the first instance of text that is hard to make out - the balance is a little off on this track, with the instruments a little louder than the singer. The strongest part of this tune is the call-and-answer musical interludes where again we are treated to clever stereo effects. While there is a lot of rhythmic diversity, I felt that a bit more fooling around with unexpectable rhythms would have been appropriate. As it is, A Cry for Everyone is slightly overshadowed by the more sophisticated The Advent of Panurge, which uses similar techniques.

Many composers experimenting with new sounds on synthesizers fall into the trap of thinking that the sound is interesting enough in itself to center the piece around. Not so with Gentle Giant, who weaves their electroacoustic experiments into working musical lines, and provides enough variety of sounds that we can appreciate them in contrast to one another.

Knots is described by the notes as "something of a musical jigsaw." It works! Little segments of music and text repeated over and over again create a kaleidoscope of different events, highly distinguishable by their rhythms, different instruments and ranges.

What is especially neat is that this jigsaw puzzle idea not only involves the tiny little segments, but the sections of the piece. In fact the very same music from the little contrasting bits are expanded to become sections in their own right: the xylophone that punctuates the opening finally takes off for a solo that moves back and forth through the speakers, while the longer lines become large intense blocks. These sections are most often marked by striking changes of time and rhythm, echoing a little the jazz "half-time" idiom used by artists like Dave Brubeck not long before.

Knots shows also that Gentle Giant is willing to play around with dynamics more than other bands - the extreme quietness and loudness serve to provide even more musical interest. I only wish they would have done more in their other pieces.

Normally I like instrumental tracks a lot, and even skip over the vocals to get to them, but The Boys in the Band, the only instrumental number here, unfortunately disappoints. The rapidly changing characters of the piece don't really compare to Knots, and the solos border on cheesy. The ensemble is tight, but I would have sacrificed it for a bit more improvisation. The electronics would have been interesting here, but for once in the whole CD, Gentle Giant loses control and there's so much stuff going on its hard to pick out even when we try.

Dog's Life, on the other hand, revels in its own musical simplicity - a very poetic link to the lyrics. The instrumentation here is very appropriate: the extremely out-of-tune regal (like a cross between bagpipes and organ) also has semantic value: the dog doesn't care for little flaws, and why should we? The xylophone and regal in the middle is very creative, but again the strings sound a little bit too much like hired extras who normally play in some second-class orchestra somewhere. While the music enjoys its simplicity, its no reason not to have a little bit of soul.

My favorite track on Octopus is Think of me with Kindness, though perhaps I am biased since I've heard its beautiful tune so many times before as the later Star Trek: Voyager opening theme music. Again, this pieces loves simplicity (as it redundantly points out in its notes!) The singing is honest, with not a lot of technique (he runs out of breath in places), but a lot of sincerity and overall good musicianship.

As a trombone player, I can only laud the trombone solo half-way through, trombone solo, though I would have kept the energy down a little to keep the beautiful simplicity that opens the work. For the first time on this CD, we have an effective ending, with the words "Think of me" echoing past an unfinished musical phrase.

River came across as more of a collage than a piece of music, a lot of experimentation in electronic sounds, the most interesting of which was the flanging "wind" noises that moved from speaker to speaker creating the illusion of space. The music for the lyrics is extremely drab in contrast to the poetry, however, and the purely instrumental section falls back into standard-issue rock now and again with a not-varied-enough drumbeat and drum and guitar solos that are not particularly special. The ensemble lacks a little bit between the guitars on occasion, bits of feedback left in distract from the more purposeful electroacoustics, and everything has a veil of distortion that, while looking into the future, reminds us how bleak the music of the 80s really was!

While the quality shifts from track to track, overall Octopus makes for an excellent listen, one step up from the 1971 album Acquiring the taste, which also experiments with electroacoustics, simultaneous musical events, and interesting orchestrations, but to less of a degree. I sometimes feel that Octopus' tracks would be better served as miniatures - breaking into something a little more upbeat/standard-issue in the middle of most pieces risk taking away from the uniqueness of each work. Overall, however, Gentle Giant excels at never losing our interest by providing constant variety of sounds, effects, lyric style, texture and dynamics both within and between pieces.

But do ditch some of the liner notes - they take what was clever and make it redundant...

Catherine Motuz M.Mus (McGill)

Vibrationbaby | 5/5 |


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