Gentle Giant review by Jason Rubin
Softly, as if from a distance, an organ is heard playing a sort of fanfare. It gets louder, closer. Suddenly, a persistent bass riff appears underneath and then a cymbal crash, drums, guitar, and a voice that has been described as "bare-assed and raunchy." Gentle Giant has arrived.
It is only recently, with the release of Under Construction, that Giant fans realized how long and impressive were the strides between pop band Simon Dupree & the Big Sound and the progressive sextet we all know and love. The unreleased demos that the Shulmans Three put together with Messrs. Minnear, Green, and Smith bore little resemblance to the grand themes, spacious and complex arrangements, and outrageous confidence that Gentle Giant displayed on their debut, eponymously titled album.
What is interesting on the first track, "Giant," and throughout the album, is the underlying jazziness of the band's grooves, and how much more Kerry relied on organ rather than the cornucopia of keyboards that defined 70s progressive music. The status of Ray and Kerry as the musical musclemen of the band is very apparent from the get-go, although Gary gets his licks in as well even if he's a little low in the mix.
The second song, "Funny Ways" is an utter classic. Ray's gorgeous violin, supported by Kerry's cello, instantly distinguished Giant from the rest of the progressive pack - not to mention the number of lead singers. Here, Phil takes lead, with Derek and Kerry in support. Kerry's organ leads off the instrumental section, punctuated by Phil's trumpet, and then Gary lets loose while Ray plays flawless bass. The lyrics to this song are touching and meaningful, and always struck a deep chord in me. Live, of course, it became a vibes showcase for Kerry, while Ray took on Phil's trumpet part.
"Alucard" (which everyone knows is Dracula spelled backwards) is a piece that allows the band, under the talented and watchful eyes of producer Tony Visconti, to play around in the studio. Voices and instruments are highly processed to create a horrific atmosphere. Martin's drumming and Phil's sax keep things jazzy, however, but soon the terror returns on the wings of Kerry's wild organ. There's a great drum roll at the 5-minute mark that brings the theme back to the long, free-jazz-inspired blow-out ending.
A little moog riff separates this track from the next, and also appears at other junctures on the album. "Isn't It Quiet and Cold" is the complete opposite of "Alucard." With violin, cello, and acoustic guitar, and Martin playing a shuffle rhythm with brushes, the song is soft and gentle. Phil does the lead vocals and Kerry contributes a bouncy marimba solo.
Originally opening Side 2, "Nothing at All" is the nine-minute highlight of the album. A gentle but ominous acoustic guitar and piano figures lead to a lovely Derek vocal. Ray's bass gradually gets louder, foreshadowing the mania that is to come. There are beautiful vocal harmonies, but Gary begins playing the heavy riff that, after an intentional false start, leads to a kick-ass section replete with screaming vocals, multi-tracked guitar parts, and a wailing solo that drifts back and forth from the left to right channels. An extended solo section features Martin's processed drums. He picks up energy, then brings it back down, and Kerry plays a lovely classical piano accompaniment that simply couldn't be more counter to what Martin is playing. Eventually, they engage together (again, free-jazz-inspired) and reach a rousing climax, heading back to the theme and final verse.
"Why Not" is a full-tilt, heavy boogie blast with all-out performances by the whole band. Derek and Kerry's vocals complement each other nicely, as usual, but the mellow part that the former sings is a small part of what is otherwise a hard rocking number. Even though it's not a particularly complex song, Kerry, Gary, and Ray are sensational instrumentally. Given the looseness of the performance, the ending tune, "The Queen" - which predates the band Queen's similar but better-known irreverent take on "God Save the King" by five years - is a perfect capper, although it's more fun than fulfilling.
The gap between Simon Dupree and the first Gentle Giant album was huge - but the band continued to take giant steps with each successive release. Comparing Gentle Giant the album against the next several releases, it's amazing how much they were able to refine their sound, expand their musical palette, and take advantage of the broad range of skills and backgrounds of their members. This was the start of the journey and it was an auspicious beginning indeed.
- Jason Rubin