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Gentle Giant - Octopus CD (album) cover


Gentle Giant


Eclectic Prog

4.30 | 1869 ratings

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5 stars If you're only going to buy one Gentle Giant album, then this is it, the greatest accidental pop album of all time. Yes, you read that right, all you Gentle Giant fans - I just "defiled" one of the most incredibly complex, avantgarde and dissonant prog albums ever by calling it pop (well, accidental pop to be precise). Before your head explodes in confusion, allow me to explain what I mean. I once watched a TV interview with actor/comedian Mike Myers where he made a very astute observation about film genre boundaries: paraphrasing him, he said that the fundamental difference between comedy and drama is that comedy is faster. So it is with this album; yes, there are an insane number of time-signature and key changes throughout, and the emphasis has almost completely shifted from "let's augment good songs with weirdness" to "let's frig everything up as much as we possibly can," which normally would make me somewhat iffy on the album's quality. But here's the thing: except for the (excellent regardless) closer, all of these songs are in the three-to-four-and-a-half- minute range (ie a "normal pop length"), and because of this, the abundance of ideas here are necessarily compressed to an almost absurd degree. The result is that all of these weird ideas hit the listener at a rapid-fire pace, and they do so in such way that they unintentionally become totally memorable. Hence, each of these tracks is filled with, you guessed it, pop hooks, though of the most perverse variety.

The first side is simply incredible, led by Gentle Giant song #1 for me, "The Advent of Panurge." The first forty-five seconds or so have Phil and Kerry singing a twisted (but strangely memorable) vocal melody with delightful harmonies, but just when you think it's not gonna get anymore interesting, this totally fascinating keys-guitar-bass groove pops up, which the band messes with in lots of fascinating ways. Then Derek chimes in with a brief snippet of the vocal melody over this groove, and then, oh man. The "look at my friend look around my friend" mid-section, with trumpets, all sorts of tempo and meter changes, then dissolving into another jam (with the band members muttering a bunch of random foreign words) is undoubtedly my favorite passage in any GG track. I find it fascinating when it's on, but even more impressively I easily find myself able to remember all the great themes when it's over, and will even find myself humming them on many an occasion. Then there's a return to the vocal melody of the start, then the dissonant theme pops up again, and they jam over that until the song ends with Derek bellowing, "My name is Panurge, and I have come from hell!" P.E.R.F.E.C.T.

Up next is "Raconteur Troubadour," another of GG's best ever tracks. Derek's delivery is perfect for this song, as he sings one hell of a Tull-quality vocal melody (no idea why this sounds like Tull to me, it just does), while there's a great violin line that doesn't really have anything to do with the vocal melody (at least not in a way that would be obvious to a listener whose academic focus was something other than music composition) but fits in anyway. And there's a bunch of key playing that doesn't have to do with the vocal melody but also fits in anyway! Then there's trumpets, then there's a sort of awkward-as-hell (but the better for it) five second violin jig, then the catchy-as-hell discord comes back together again. ALL IN FOUR MINUTES. Likewise for the following "Cry for Everyone," which has a surprisingly conventional (but still good) 'heavy' chord sequence played on guitar as its base (with a quality vocal melody to match) but then has a ton of great key lines (none predictable, all great) that go into a whack-ass band jam that go into another verse that go ... ah man, it just goes everywhere. Yet for all that it does, it doesn't lose me for a single moment.

The next track confirms my belief that the band had somehow tapped into some massive avant-prog zeitgeist that wouldn't let them screw up, no matter how awkward or clumsy the track should be by all sane accounts. "Knots" has to have the single most bizarre vocal harmony arrangement in the history of time, complimented by a bunch of seemingly random xylophone-led puttering (eventually led by loud, crashing piano) that should piss the hell out of me yet makes me bob back and forth with a smile on my face. The song seemingly reaches critical mass every five seconds or so, ready to totally break down and get thrown into the outtakes pile, yet it always pulls itself back from the edge, making me hum the vocal lines along with it.

The second half can't live up to the first, but it's still got its share of quality moments. I'm not totally sold on the instrumental "The Boys in the Band," even though it has plenty of cool parts. I dunno, I'm almost guessing that it's the lack of sung parts, if only because the sung parts are much of what keeps up the 'accidental pop' facade in my head that makes me like the album so much. Whatever, it's a hoot while on, even if it's my least favorite of the album. "A Dog's Life" is better, a sort-of ballad with a lovely vocal melody over a simple acoustic guitar line, of course augmented with dissonant, strident cellos and given a whacky mid-section. It's quite nice, though not as jaw-dropping as anything from side one.

"Think of Me with Kindness," graced with a lovely Kerry vocal, seems out of place here, with much less weirdness than elsewhere. It doesn't particularly go anywhere (even the instrumental break in the middle, led by a trumpet, just plays off the vocal melody), but it's quite nice, and I don't want to give the impression of the band suddenly getting a 'sellout' bug in the middle of the recording sessions - the odd (in a good way) melody in the middle is definitely something that most ballads wouldn't bother to include. But whatever, "River" closes things out, and whatever potential for a feeling of second-side letdown there might have been is, um, washed away (stupid unavoidable puns). The mix of an electric violin in my right ear and a wah-wah'd guitar in my left ear is definitely a sound I could stand to hear more in my life, and all the other elements, from vocal melody to great guitar soloing to production to nice "rivery" atmosphere, help make the album close out with a flourish.

So there you are. As far as I've been told, many Gentle Giant fans consider this the band's peak, and while hardcore fans of prog bands sometimes scare me, this is one time when I gladly shake their hands. So original, so fascinating ... and unfortunately, so long Phil, who took off after this album. A pity, that.

tarkus1980 | 5/5 |


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