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Gentle Giant - Octopus CD (album) cover

OCTOPUS

Gentle Giant

 

Eclectic Prog

4.26 | 1196 ratings

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Tubes
1 stars Should you chance to see the original vinyl release of Gentle Giant's Octopus available at a secondhand record store, especially at a dirt-cheap price, buy it - not so much for the music, but for the iconic Roger Dean artwork that graces the sleeve. With that little homage to one of my favorite artists out of the way, I will start:

Usually I will refrain from reviewing albums the average ratings for which I feel to be accurate estimates of the value I would assign to them. My rating could only raise or lower a general appraisal which I would opine to be fair, anyway. So I will primarily contribute to the critical analyses of albums that seem to be over- or under-rated. Gentle Giant's Octopus would be one of such over-rated albums.

"Advent of Panurge" is the disc's opening number and John Weather's debut with Gentle Giant. This one defines the style of much of the rest album. Kerry Minnear treats us to his light falsetto voice in unison with the guitar and bass, not exactly difficult, but good music doesn't have to be challenging, ei(gh)ther (not that anything on Octopus is good). Minnear sings a round with himself at this point, and it isn't great. Studio trickery doesn't impress me. There's also some jazzy guitar kept in the background. I wish they had taken the track in that direction but this is Gentle Giant, so of course not. After this introduction, blocky piano chords are played alongside some bluesy electric guitar meandering. Derek Shulman makes his presence known by throwing around some names from that book by that guy. You know not that one, but the other? The lyrical content isn't even original (taken from La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel authored by Francois Rabelais)! Well, the best GG songs for lyrics ARE 'inpsired' by literary classics. This doesn't reflect well on their originality, but it is a pattern that I've observed. Back to the 'music' we go? When D. Schulman's done shouting, a trumpet's call, played by Phil Shulman, is heard. Minnear tells us to look around (probably for an escape) over some 'prog'-cliché piano, bass, and drum hits. His keyboard repeats the trumpet's melody and then this track loses its way, and drifts somewhere deep into the abyss where that Octopus makes its abode. However, the band suddenly returns to the surface! -And all too quickly, because they then fall victim to the bends. Sometime after D. Shulman's bleating is repeated the track ends. And I wish the next one wouldn't have even begun?

"Raconteur Troubadour" contains Ray Shulman's entrance as violinist, and more questionably (if you can believe it), some poor lyrics delivered in an equally poor, shrill, and dry manner 'courtesy' (?) Derek Shulman. I see that where they went with this one, is as an ill-fated journey to a disappointing destination, if you will. It has a great subject and song title, but the verses are a wasted opportunity. Compare straight- forward, and puerile lines like,

"Gather round the village square

Come, good people both wretched and fair

See the troubadour play on the drum

Hear my songs on the lute that I strum"

?to the pure poetry of Jethro Tull's "Minstrel in the Gallery" a much better song with similar topical focus and perspective,

"The minstrel in the gallery looked down upon their smiling faces

He met their gazes, observed the spaces

Between the old men's cackle

He brewed a song of love and hatred

Oblique suggestions, and he waited?

He polarized the pumpkin-eaters

Static-humming panel-beaters

Freshly day-glowed factory cheaters

Salaried, and collar-scrubbing, he titillated men of action

Hands still rubbing on the parts they never mention"

The primary distinction which Minstrel in the Gallery holds over Raconteur Troubadour, is the detailed, and picturesque quality of its lyrics. It shows; it doesn't tell. This is basic middle-school-level writing skill that I'm talking about. And Gentle Giant are often not even so graduated. By the way, every one of "Raconteur?"'s first four verses is a command given by a minstrel, as opposed to the introductory monologue of "Minstrel?" which is a humble statement made on the part of an impresario. Do you really think that an authentic raconteur/troubadour would speak in such impudent terms to his audience? You better not answer that. The musicality of "Minstrel?" is far superior anyhow. And you know what? ? It actually rocks! GG can only rarely say that, but wait! Here comes?

?"A Cry for Everyone", which, if I had to choose anyhow, would be my favorite track. This one begins with pianissimo piano readily preceding the snap of a snare from John Weathers, who signals the entire band to start playing some distorted hard rock in common time. The lyrics on this song are better than those for Raconteur Troubadour; they cover communal experience and grief. And, now those keyboard's are a-cooking! After the real keyboards commence, there's an interchange between Green's guitar and Minnear's click organ keyboard. I like Kerry Minnear's tone-choices here... until sometime after that jam gets killed through over-repetition. To describe, it's fat and obnoxious. The song then builds to a climactic conclusion. As annoying as that keyboard solo was, it is nothing compared to?

?"Knots", which is the first un-compassed excursion by Gentle Giant into the composition of polyphonic vocal works. And it shows. Very dissonant and rather unpleasant this one is. "Knots" is viewed by some retrospective critics in the progressive rock community as something of a high watermark. It is a signature GG tune, but not especially significant given that Yes had been writing such music since 1970's The Yes Album. I would recommend listening, instead, to Starship Trooper, Your Move, We Have Heaven, South Side of the Sky, the middle-eight to Close to the Edge, or I. Cord of Life from And You and I; these are each individually more beautiful to my ear than "Knots". And those are just examples from the music of Yes, let alone all rock music of the period. Let's digress with a bit of a history lesson: Have you ever heard of Philippe de Vitry? The man lived from 1291 to 1361, and is widely acknowledged as the greatest musician of his time. He has also been hailed as one of the most accomplished, influential, and innovative composers in his day. Philippe is accredited with having written chansons, and motets, though only several motets are known to have survived to the present. One should research the genre of music fathered by this man, called Ars nova, before acclaiming this song as strikingly progressive. Or have you ever heard of Josquin des Prez? He walked this earth from ~1450 to 1521, and wrote beautiful and complex masses, such as Missa Pange lingua, dating from approximately 1515. I would highly advise anyone to research the works of these late great gentlemen (and others) after hearing Knots, and see how well their impression of it measures up.

After the boy's in the band shut up, they play an instrumental just about themselves called, "The Boys in the Band". This one opens with the laughter of whom I'll assume is Derek Shulman laughing his arse off at how bad Knots was. The flipping of a coin is then heard and as it rattles against a table's surface it establishes the rhythm for the 'music'. This is accomplished by means of a variable speed oscillator that was made available to Gentle Giant. I'll say this again, but in paraphrase: the capabilities of studio technology alone are not enough to please me. Where's a good drummer when you need one? I guess we're stuck with John Weathers. The music here is probably as fast as GG could ever play. Ha! I'd like to these guys try to compete with Steve Hackett, or Rick Wakeman, or Andres Segovia, or Barriemore Barlow, or?, etc. A computer-like keyboard tone (one that even interferes with determining what notes are even being played exactly) in counterpoint to some trumpets, bass, and guitar, rifles through a scale, up and down, and back up to some jazzy trumpets that are played as a cadence. Some more blocky piano chords further torture us, and then we're subjected to some strange guitar effects chugging along on one chord. Back to the previous riff we go? and the track just fades out. Okay? What explanation of your personalities are you trying to make Gentle Giant? You certainly sound like you're playing a psychiatric hospital inmate's lullaby (Shoot! ?this is the wrong record). This track's so insistently agonizing on my ears I could just bite this damn Octopus' digits off?

"Dog's Life" is generally admitted to be this Octopus' sore thumb. Un-elaborated/ornamented monophonic acoustic guitar lines introduce this track. Then the music proceeds into the first verse accompanied by violin, and emotionless, dry-sounding saxophones from R. Shulman and P. and D. Shulman, respectively. And the lyrics aren't anything to write home about, either. Some people contemptuously think this song is written for a dog, but apparently, it actually describes the behavior of Gentle Giant's roadies in metaphor (What's wrong with a tune recorded as tribute to man's best friend anyway?). Many listeners, including fans, find this one to be pointless and meandering, and that's not helped by a fade-out ending. Anyway, as the story goes, some of their roadies stole equipment from the band ? a problem which interfered with a lot of other bands' progress in achieving maybe more success than they could have. Van Der Graaf Generator most prominently comes to mind. Dog's Life doesn't exactly paint a very pretty picture of their fellow business travelers. I wonder whether, after the equipment managers realized this, Gentle Giant were thought of with kindness.

?Which brings us to the next track, "Think of Me with Kindness", a sort-of tacky ballad which features Kerry Minnear's vocals expressing some, one could say, 'touching' feelings. However, I feel compelled to rhetorically ask: Is he a one-handed keyboard-player? If you want a heart-felt piece of romance music with good piano, listen to Turn of the Century on Going for the One by Yes. Think of Me with Kindness also features the only segment of 'non-robotic' saxophone tooting on this disc. So I'll say that this track is a highlight (which still doesn't say much, bearing in mind the over-all off-putting tenor of Octopus).

Think of Me with Kindness is followed by the final song, "River". This one is very 70's sounding, so that's your best guess as to whether it has aged well (I actually see it as a very positive thing; the 70's were the best decade for my favorite music). Some very onomatopoetic music opens River, but it is interrupted by some raucous Shulman violin and Minnear keyboard noise, that are punctuated by clichéd drum, bass, and guitar hits. After this section comes to silence (for now), Derek Shulman enters on vocals, with the full band playing under him. I just have to ask, "Whatchoo doing 'brothuh' De-ek? ?Singing soul? I tought dis was a prog recud!" I played this track for my mom and she said by way of reaction, "How did these guys even get this recorded?" I wonder myself. I won't even let my dad hear this. Some production effects it would seem are also applied to John Weather's cymbals. I'll state this for the third time, "Studio trickery doesn't impress me." That atmospheric intro- music makes a return with some vocals added this time. And then those staccato keyboard and violin are back. Following this is a Blues guitar solo from Gary Green. I've heard this track at least eight times fully through and Green's spotlight always fails to present any memorable phrasing for me. I just don't hear much melodic character to it. Those damned keyboard and violin parts close the track, and, of course, the album. This would be Phil Shulman's last song with Gentle Giant. At least he went out with a bang.

If I'm forced to write at least one positive comment on Octopus, I'll say that the production is good. This is the most remarkable change for the band from their previous records (Three Friends, although also released in 1972, sounds like it was recorded in '69). However, this leaves me with the impression that I've bought a polished piece of fecal matter. Fans of lush, richly-textured symphonic music are forewarned: another noticeable difference is the number of minimalistic interludes that these songs have (Knots, and Dog's Life do particularly). This is a style they would only continue to explore in subsequent albums like In a Glass House and The Power and the Glory.

Even certain die-hard Gentle Giant enthusiasts will say this album is rather mediocre, and some may venture to say that Octopus is inessential, uninspired, and alienating. I agree. Despite these reservations, I will recommend this release to anyone unfamiliar with Gentle Giant, because it gives a reasonably representative introduction to the band's sound through-out the majority of their output. Once you've heard Octopus, and if you are unimpressed, I recommend back-tracking to Three Friends.

One more point to be made. This record's title and consequent artwork are a pun for the number of tracks on it. Eight musical works translates, in Latin no less, to a tongue-in-cheek Octopus. If you think Yes', Genesis', and Jethro Tull's epic experiments are pretentious, you ought to keep the track lengths and individual level of quality in mind when your thoughts turn to this record. It is kind-of unintentionally self-parodic for a 'prog-rock' band to so name one of their studio releases.

And finally, after having reviewed my? er? review, I can see that I've pretty damn well knocked Octopus down for the count ? the count to eight. *Winks.

Tubes | 1/5 |

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