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MEETING A GENTLE GIANT

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(Left: Ray Schulman-Crunchy Fender Jazz, and violin)


MEETING A GENTLE GIANT

From an early age I shied away from the most popular pop culture (screaming girls, pouting stars, predictable music) and instead headed directly towards the unusual, the unpopular, the different, and even the weird. I know I'm not the only one, of course, and now, in our time, everyone could have a different favorite band or artist, if they wanted to. But that hasn't always been the case, and in my early years, the advent of the "alternative" music of the time divided the world's musical tastes into only a few categories. Prog rockers like myself generally had a common pool of bands which we either liked or at least were well aware of. Now there are ten bands in every small town, and many of them are very competent and quite interesting.

Of the early "alternative bands" however, there's one which remains undeniably and genuinely unique-and I'm averse to using clichés if that's what they are, but this time the word "unique" is being used in its original capacity.


One of the first albums I ever bought, in vinyl as they all were then, (besides the greatly inferior cassette tape) was "In A Glass House", by Gentle Giant. I was fifteen years old. The sleeve was designed with an exterior plastic window, imprinted with some shots of members of the band, while the inner paper part of the sleeve had other shots, so there was a sort of shallow 3D effect. I bought the album solely on the strength of the cover, as you often could at that time, and still get something which reflected the level of ingenuity of the artist. Roger Dean, for example, helped to sell the band Yes and their early albums, by designing covers in a way which reflected the band's own power of imagination and musical creativity. (Below - Roger Dean. Image by Jason Azze).

So when I actually got the "glass house" disc on the turntable, what I heard was strikingly different to my ears than almost anything else which had previously entered therein. I'm no genius when it comes to describing music, but I can try. Electric instruments were being used in complementary conjunction with classical instruments. Hitherto unheard rhythms and cross-rhythms rearranged those brain cells of mine employed for such things. Lyrics were interestingly cryptic, the meaning being veiled just a little, yet with substance and depth. Three brothers in one band! Compositions were sophisticated; instruments were played with talent and sincerity, and a suitable degree of understatement and control. Totally pertinent and stimulating medieval overtones and interludes added to the flavor, executed with trained choral voices. Well-arranged and well-executed vocal harmonies helped demonstrate that Giant's sound was carefully and thoughtfully constructed.

And if all that wasn't enough, Ray Shulman, the bass player (I'm a bass player) brilliantly negotiated and promoted that subtly punchy and crunchy Fender Jazz Bass tone I loved so much.

Such a delicious concoction was presented one fine evening in the summer of my seventeenth year, when I went with some good friends to the Cambridge Corn Exchange (in the UK) to see the band play.


Unlike so many bands of their time, they sounded as good live as they did in the studio, and displayed their musical flexibility by actually trading instruments-sometimes mid-song. The backdrop and the acoustics of that amazing old building added to the magic of the evening. It was one of those unforgettable events.

If I were to recommend best albums, I could respond with the cliché, "It's impossible to name one: they're all good". My favorites, however, would have to be "In A Glass House"; "Free Hand"; "Octopus"; "The Power and the Glory"; "Interview", and last but not least, a terrific and indispensable live compilation titled "Playing the Fool".

Gentle Giant reached a point in their musical careers, unfortunately, when they began to drift apart for various reasons. They also felt that they should "go commercial", and tried too hard to be more mainstream. A sad decision indeed. I wish I could end the review on a lighter note...




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