‘Epiphany’ – now there’s a good word, it brings to mind realization and the awakening of the mind to something new. It can apply in all walks of life and situations but today we are using the word in relation to music and, in particular, the 1970’s legendary English progressive rock band Gentle Giant.
I must admit to being slightly miffed and betrayed by my prog-loving friends who have harped on about the relative merits of Yes, Genesis, King Crimson and Van Der Graaf Generator (to name a few) with ne’er a mention of Gentle Giant, their educational skills have been found wanting in this case!
It’s not that I’d never heard of the band but that it was almost like rumours and last minute thoughts when the questions were asked about the great early prog bands. It was only when I was sent the promo of the Gentle Giant retrospective ‘Three Piece Suite’ that I really discovered the talents of this quite remarkable group of musicians.
‘Three Piece Suite’ is a specially curated selection of songs and compositions from the band’s first three albums (‘Gentle Giant’, ‘Acquiring The Taste’ and ‘Three Friends’) presented in both 5.1 surround sound and stereo, all remixed by Steven Wilson. The fact that there are only 9 tracks is due to the fact that these are the only songs known to exist as multi-tracks. Also included is a pre-debut track also remixed by Steven Wilson.
The undoubted re-mixing talents of Mr Wilson are put to excellent use on this album, adding extra layers to the tracks and subtleties never heard before. Add in the exhaustive liner notes by the incredibly knowledgeable Anil Prasad and you have a package worthy of long time fans of the band and those that are relatively new to them, like myself.
The first three tracks are all taken form the band’s debut release in 1970, ‘Gentle Giant’. Giant is a mighty bassline driven piece of jazz/prog which could only have come from the 70’s and, the band freely admits, is hugely influenced by Zappa. It is the first part of a creative manifesto for the band and is a bundle of nervous, almost psychedelic energy. With a definitive ‘wide-eyed’ vocal delivery it has an identity far from the likes of Yes and Genesis. Next comes Nothing At All, a nine-minute epic that opens with a delightfully simple acoustic guitar melody before alternating with a Sabbath-esque guitar riff and contains a classic chorus line. The story is that the recording wasn’t going so well until a break for a trip to the pub seemed to focus everyone’s mind on the task at hand and the three-and-a-half-minute drum solo and incandescent guitar would seem to confirm the tale at hand! Again, to my ears, this song is very different to what was originally considered progressive rock in those days and is what is really drawing me to the band. Highly inventive guitarist Gary Green came from a blues background and that is wholly evident on Why Not?, a track where the band are saying ‘Why not try something new as opposed to something commercially successful but that you’re not happy with?’ Edgy and funky with elements of orchestration and a passionate vocal, it is highlighted by the inspired solo and closing 12-bar blues-rock jam which showcase’s Green’s superb playing perfectly and has been on permanent repeat on my stereo.
The next two tracks are from Gentle Giant’s second release, ‘Acquiring The Taste’, released in 1971. A significantly more experimental album than the debut and one where the songs were written for the studio and not performed previously. This, combined with the band’s growing ambition, give a totally different feel to Pantagruel’s Nativity, a pretension and aspiration with its alien sounding Moog introduction, orchestration and subtle trumpet in the back ground give it a freshness and a truly progressive touch. The excellent distorted guitars and vocal harmonies also work so well that, when asked to describe what the band were all about in their early days, Multi-instrumentalist Kerry Minnear will always point people in the direction of this track. To my ears another heavily blues influenced track, ‘The House The Street, The Room’ is another vivid and vibrant piece of music and emerged from a fairly simple lyrical idea, according to Phil Shulman,
“The songs describes the place you went to score your drugs, that’s the essence of it.”
It is complex and maybe even crazy with some mind-bending guitar playing and uses 32 instruments in total. You almost feel like you’ve been affected by a legal substance while listening to it, it is ordered chaos but utterly captivating and mesmerising in places. I challenge you to listen to this and not have an inane grin creep across your face the further you get into the song. A wonderful piece of music that shows the confidence and self-belief that was growing within the band, the scope of their ambition seems to have no bounds.
1972’s ‘Three Friends’ contributes four tracks to this collection and was the album where the band took over all production duties from Tony Visconti and where new drummer Malcolm Mortimore joined. A more sentimental album which is evident in Schooldays, a song that focuses on the titular characters from thew album and where, as children, their lives care carefree and their hopes and ambitions were the stuff of whimsy. Lush and choral with some excellent orchestration, it is true progressive rock as a storytelling medium and has a whimsical feel as you look back on life with sepia tinged nostalgia. Peel The Paint takes a low key symphonic opening and leads it into hard-edged, heavy riff led, rock. The track is about peeling back the layers to show that even the calmest, most moral people can turn into anger-fueled monsters of hate. The music is dynamic and powerful and the vocals have the requisite fervor and intensity, intelligent progressive rock fused with high energy blues and heavy rock with a hypnotic guitar solo thrown in for good measure. The finale of this collection is Mr Class and Quality which segues into the title track of the band’s third album, Three Friends. The first part is an involving and complex song with a convoluted theme and intricate rhythm, it never seems to sit still with its skittish nature and sci-fi interludes. Yes, to a certain extent, it is classically trained musicians showing off but, when it is done this good, do you really care? The segue brings around a much more choral focused and anthemic track with sumptuous harmonies and an expansive sound driven by an elegant bassline, musical rapture indeed!
Freedom’s Child was a song that was written in the band’s first sessions in 1970 and yet didn’t make it onto the debut album. Originally written with a TV program in mind, the words were changed and a stylish vocal harmony added. To my ears, the use of a violin and this Beach Boys-like harmonies give it a sound non unlike early Kansas, it also has an innocence to it which was never replicated on any recorded work. For completeness, the CD also has a Steven Wilson 7″ edit of Nothing At All which, while a good track in its own way, seems to lose some of the fee of the full length version.
As musical epiphanies go, ‘Three Piece Suite’ has to be up there with the best. A band that really deserve more recognition have been brought to the forefront by Steven Wilson’s remixes but the brilliance and originality of the music was always there. A great package for long-term fans and those new to this wonderfully innovative collection of musicians.
Released 29th September 2017