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Gentle Giant - Octopus CD (album) cover


Gentle Giant


Eclectic Prog

4.29 | 1844 ratings

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5 stars By 1972, prog was already pulling in conflicting directions. Bands began to emerge from the shadow of early movers King Crimson and Pink Floyd and establish their own styles. And, unlike in most rock based genres, these styles tended to be unique and even conflicting. Jethro Tull were involved in a flirtation with theater rock that transcended their folk-rock roots. Yes and ELP were by now convinced that bigger was better and represented the extremes of prog sprawl in the eyes of the press, irrespective of how accurate such perceptions really were. Pink Floyd were moving from their more experimental approach of the early albums to a more and more structured and organized song-based style. Amidst all this, Gentle Giant carved out a niche all for themselves with an approach that few, if any, prog rock bands have emulated over the years.

On Octopus, Gentle Giant demolish the myth that prog means length and bombast. On the one hand, they stick to songs of length that do not exceed 6- 7 minutes and are rarely divergent from a pop structure. On the other, funk and medieval music (yes, you read that right) dominate their musical influences. So, far from sounding bombastic, they sound, intentionally or unintentionally, goofy. It has occurred to me before that some passages off this album would not sound out of place in a Tom and Jerry episode.

The question that immediately arises is if the songs are short and do not attempt to break out of pop structure, how is it still prog? The answer to that is the essence of prog has always been an investigative, exploratory approach to music. Prog attempts to take an idea and turn it inside out. Of course, that is easier to demonstrate in a long piece where parts can be re-iterated and resolved more gradually. It can potentially be disruptive in a short piece. But, it can definitely be achieved and Gentle Giant demonstrate this to telling effect on Octopus.

Opener Advent of the Panurge is an excellent demonstration of this approach. On casual listening, it could pass for pop. After all, it is just one set of vocal melodies re-iterated with an interlude. The music doesn't change in the sense that we normally expect it to in prog. However, on closer examination, Gentle Giant are exceptionally effective at managing change within a short running length. They are able to cover a lot of ground in terms of development with massive changes that are rarely supported by any great deal of reinforcement of preceding themes and yet appear sufficiently intuitive and seamless.

For instance, at 1:52, a new theme is introduced when the verse has actually been sung only once. And yet, it does not seem too soon for this development. Even better, this new theme too develops all the time, without repetition, and before you know it, you have been led into an interlude. The verse is then re-iterated the one time with which the song draws to a close. Hmmm....exposition, development and re-capitulation? Pop fluff or prog 101 shrunk to a microcosm of its usual spread? That is the far reaching implication of Gentle Giant's work and the fundamental principle around which their whole style seems to revolve. Even before Robert Fripp suggested the small, smart, self sustaining, mobile unit as an alternative to what he perceived as 70s excess, Gentle Giant had already adopted such a very model and mastered it to a degree that most bands would find hard to surpass.

More to come. Gentle Giant continue to embrace dissonance in contexts where you least expect them. A Dog's Life is to Octopus as Black Cat to Acquiring The Taste. Seemingly innocuous and proceeds to suck you into uncomfortable aural territory. And in contrast to the approach generally favoured in the avant garde world, Gentle Giant don't force disruptive or disorienting changes to the music. A strong sense of intuition binds together their audacious experimentation. Even Knots resolves into a Black Sabbath-like riff so that the experiment makes sense. Gentle Giant do not only adopt complex compositional techniques from classical music; they proceed to demonstrate how they could find a place in rock music.

Gary Green's fondness for blues also gives them opportunities to mess with that genre. River is more straightforward than The House, The Street, The Room off Acquiring The Taste. Once again, though, let's not be deceived by appearances. Check out the time signatures and pay attention to the demented vocal melody; this has to be a creation of this inimitable band. Arguably the very essence of Gentle Giant is in fooling you with an innocuous, goofy facade that disguises the extent of "bizarreness" actually present in their music.

For all this, they are not generally spoken of in the same breath as the other prog biggies. Websites such as this one have played a big role in reviving their music for a new generation, but for which they may have disappeared from public memory. The reason generally offered is they lack emotional resonance and appear to indulge in complexity for complexity's sake. I cannot really argue that they are very emotional to my ears. Instead, I would say, "Yeah, I agree but expecting emotional resonance in prog is a bit like looking for overtaking in Formula One." And my retort would be similar to that of Fernando Alonso when he was asked the same question. Isn't prog supposed to be technical, cerebral music anyway? What makes Gentle Giant so wonderful is they put an unique, refreshing twist on the pursuit of complexity in rock.

I have not described each of the tracks here but suffice it to say there are no throwaways, no real weak moments here. An unqualified five stars.

rogerthat | 5/5 |


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