In a Glass House review by Jason Rubin
In 1972, American television viewers were able to watch a new made-for-TV movie called The Glass House. Based on a story by Truman Capote, this film about the horrific conditions inside a maximum security prison starred Alan Alda, Vic Morrow, and Billy Dee Williams. The next year, Gentle Giant released In a Glass House, a concept album about the life and thoughts of a convict. American music fans had to hunt for it, however, since Columbia Records, in all its wisdom, decided it was not commercial enough to release in the US. No matter, hundreds of thousands of Giant fans in the ensuing years were not to be denied. It is now easily available on CD. It is also, in my opinion, the very best album Gentle Giant ever made.
In my reviews, I haven't been mentioning album covers or packaging at all. Suffice to day, In a Glass House thrills even before one listens to it. It's a brilliant cover concept and all CD versions have fortunately sought to reproduce it faithfully. Enough said about that.
The album begins with a bang. And a crash. And several more bangs and crashes, until the random destruction becomes a driving rhythm, and the driving rhythm becomes a dynamic start to an stunning song called "The Runaway." Ray and John are chained together in a tight groove, Gary plays the rapid theme flawlessly, and Derek's vocals are given a hint of echo that adds considerable drama. This song pulls out all the stops: recorders, vibes, acoustic and electric guitars, cool vocal arrangements, multiple keyboards voiced perfectly (as usual) by Kerry, and a long middle section in which Kerry gets to show off both the upper and lower ends of his vocal range, and the band explore successive thematic and solo sections. It's an explosive tour de force, one of the finest single compositions in the Giant canon.
"An Inmates Lullaby" is a monologue of sorts by someone who is criminally insane. The lyrics are perfect for someone in such a condition (and sung by Kerry, whose lead voice is highly processed, while the harmony vocal is kept clear), and the music is absolutely uncanny. Employing just percussion instruments, the music creates almost a claustrophobic feel, as if the walls are moving ever closer. Peter Gabriel did a similar kind of song in 1980 called "Lead a Normal Life" and while it's also very effective, it doesn't come close to "An Inmates Lullaby."
"Way of Life" kicks it up a dozen or so notches. "Go!" someone yells at the start (Gary?). The theme and melody are stated and supported by Kerry, Gary, and Ray in an amazing display of tightness and virtuosity. This is a great headphones song - there is so much going on. John's precision is incredible as well. A quiet section, with organ, violin, recorder, and Kerry's lovely voice, ends emphatically and triumphantly with John and Kerry taking its theme to a whole other dynamic level that will re-emerge near the end. Gary does a short, jazzy solo, which gives way to some nice John fills, then the last verse and the later theme repeated. The end of the song is a bit of a disappointment, just a simple, repeating organ chord going on and on for about two minutes, ending on a single held note.
A song that expertly employs space, silence, and a wide dynamic range, "Experience" opens softly with a brilliant theme played by Kerry. His vocal enters, supported by Gary on acoustic and Ray on bass. John lays down a bouncy snare-less beat and Ray's bass is perfect. The dynamic and sudden shifts from bass and organ to drums and electric guitar, matched by the shift from Kerry's gentle vocal to Derek's wailing, are jarring but exciting. As usual, John is the rock that keeps it all together. Gary hits a hot solo, and the band come together for a final play at the theme.
Six songs total, three on each side, with the middle song being the mellowest. That is the roadmap for the album, and the mellow song on Side 2, "A Reunion," is gorgeous - and too short. Violin and cello, acoustic guitar and bass, and Kerry's vocal applied to a bright though bittersweet melody results in a very affecting performance. Sadly, it doesn't go on longer, but what's there is perfect.
The last cut, "In a Glass House," goes through multiple sections, and just about every instrument in the arsenal gets played at some point. Fleet and fluid acoustic guitar from Gary and Ray open the tune, then John and Ray lay down a rollicking rhythm. Kerry's synth introduces Derek's vocal, and both acoustic and electric guitar extend the theme. It even sounds like there is a mandolin in there. You have to check out John's bass drum foot during the "Standing on the ice believing all I'm searching for" verse - it's intense! Derek blows some sax on top. Then, at the half-way point, everything stops and Gary lays down a heavy riff that introduce a new section, featuring ballsy vocals from Derek. But then the acoustic guitar and Kerry's voice return - but then it's back to electric and Derek again. It's almost like the band is fighting itself - or, more accurately, that the character in the song is at a crossroads and trying to find his way. Gary and John have a short but neat unison section that leads to the end, where John gets to play fills during the fade out. The album ends with a short snippet from each of the six tracks, then the last smash goes back and forth from left to right, like the end of ELP's "Karn Evil 9."
On In a Glass House, Gentle Giant stretched themselves to the limits. Never again were they as dauntingly complex in the studio. And they had plenty to prove, too, for this was the first album without Phil. In my opinion, the compositions, performances, and the execution of the concept were done to such a high level that on the whole In a Glass House stands as their single finest work. Others may disagree, but there is no question that this album is an incredible achievement. Shame on Columbia Records.
- Jason Rubin