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Gentle Giant - Octopus CD (album) cover


Gentle Giant


Eclectic Prog

4.30 | 1869 ratings

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Conor Fynes
Prog Reviewer
3 stars 'Octopus' - Gentle Giant (68/100)

When I first introduced myself to the work of Gentle Giant (far too late, I'll admit!) I excitedly declared them to be the missing link between the heady 'hard prog' of King Crimson and the 'warm prog' of Genesis and similarly vivacious, relatively 'beautiful' proggers. Come Acquiring the Taste, they demonstrated an incredible marriage of the hard and warm, at times jarring, never short on lucid experimentation but brimming with the personality to make it inviting and even fun. Though it may be going against my better desire to hear a band try new things, I do wish they would have kept that balance of weirdness and warmth when it came to making Octopus. While its nearly ridiculous technical proficiency makes sure its status in the prog pantheon is at least partways deserved, I am having a hard time understanding why Octopus is often rated alongside Acquiring the Taste, much less Close to the Edge or Pawn Hearts, for that matter. Could it be that another unpopular Conor Fynes opinion is born?

But seriously; am I missing something here? Even the band themselves (Ray Shulman, to be precise) stated that it "was probably [their] best album"- he's not alone in saying that either. In a way, it is the album that most fittingly demonstrates their modus operandi. Rampant eclecticism, incredibly tight and busy arrangements, and the general 'weirdness for weirdness' sake' that coloured every Gentle Giant album (arguably excluding Giant for a Day) are central to Octopus. As a technical accomplishment, Octopus may very well have dwarfed the three albums that preceded it. Indeed, the part of me that loves 'hard/cold prog'- the part that would declare King Crimson to be the undisputed champion on progressive rock- is right at home and wholly satisfied with Octopus.

But that's just the problem; the thing that got me addicted to the work of Gentle Giant in the first place (at least their early stuff) was that they were able to fuel the technique with heart and a welcoming personality. That last part is something that's kept me from entirely loving King Crimson's music, and it's why Octopus stands as a disappointment, in spite of acknowledging it as an otherwise impressive item in Gentle Giant's discography. I might use "The Advent of Panurge" as an example for the very sake it's born from the same source material as "The Nativity of Pantagruel" (both fleshed from GG's love of Rabelais); whereas "The Nativity of Pantagruel" felt lively and weird, "The Advent of Panurge" feels downright drab and grounded by comparison, in spite of the fact that it's an even more technical and busy composition overall. "Knots" is probably the album's biggest offender in this sense; the mish-mash of instruments and pseudo-madrigal atmosphere should take all but the most jaded prog veterans off guard, but it still feels impressive only from an academic (rather than a visceral) sense. I've no doubt that's what Gentle Giant were aiming for when composing Octopus, but the detached, Crimson-esque way they present these aural experiments doesn't do justice to the technical wizardry at work here.

At the same time (and from the opposite viewpoint), Octopus is a damned technical marvel, even (maybe especially) by today's standards. "The Boys in the Band" is a burstfire of instrumental ideas that would surely make heads spin if it came out in 2015. Distinguishing Gentle Giant from most of their prog rock contemporaries is the fact that they attempted to make the vocals as technically awesome as the instruments; overlapping vocal arrangements aren't novel to Octopus (they were largely introduced on Acquiring the Taste and fulfilled with Three Friends) but it's the first time Gentle Giant appeared to rely on lavish vocal arrangements more often than not. "The Advent of Panurge" (once again) is a perfect example of how the Shulman brothers' vocal harmonies and counterparts could at times outshine the instrumentation.

There are even tracks here that appeal to my warmer side. "Raconteur, Troubadour" is a great piece that appeals to my love of Medieval aesthetic. "Think of Me with Kindness" is beautiful and almost shockingly so, sounding like Peter Hamill and the rest of Van der Graaf Generator popped in for a day to leave their mark. On the other end, I've seen some folks praising "Dog's Life" as a high mark for the album- I tend to like it when Gentle Giant get acoustic, and puppies are cool (I like pugs) but the tone feels overly cutesy and forced.

So, is it possible to acknowledge an album's greatness in some respects, yet entirely disagree with the 'masterpiece' recognition that gets tossed Octopus' way. Apparently so. In terms of technical proficiency, Gentle Giant had outdone the good lot of their contemporaries, and even today it's tough to find a band with the guts to compete with this album's sheer busyness. Still, I would have liked to have heard an album with a greater emotional depth, and after becoming deeply enamoured with the first two outings from GG, I know they're capable of it.

Conor Fynes | 3/5 |


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