Three Friends review by Jason Rubin

From The Gentle Giant Home Page

Sporting a new drummer, Malcolm Mortimore, Gentle Giant recorded its third album, Three Friends, in 1972. It was the first of several concept albums the band would make in its career. As an album it's good, although with only six songs the concept isn't particular well-realized. The idea is that there are three friends who go to school together and play as children. Then they grow up and enter the real world, and find their career paths - blue-color construction worker, artist, and business executive - have separated and isolated them.

This is all set up in the first song, "Prologue." It is somewhat of a tour de force for Kerry and his keyboards, which carry the tune. Gary's guitar is subdued and Malcolm is very busy, maintaining the drum style that Martin Smith set on the first two albums. The instrumental section builds up in a way very reminiscent of "Proclamation" from The Power & the Glory.

"Schooldays" is a very quiet song but if you listen carefully there are great riches. The theme is played in unison by Gary (using a classic jazz guitar sound) and Kerry on vibes. Kerry and Phil do a great job on vocals, one on the left channel, the other on the right. Organ, bass, and hi-hat propel the choruses, which lead to heavy acoustic piano chords that actually evolve into a sensitive classicalish part that introduces a lovely vocal part by Kerry. It's worth noting that a fourth Shulman, Calvin, also appears on this song.

The next three songs spotlight each of the three friends. The first is "Working All Day," which Derek infuses with the perfect blend of toughness and bitterness. Some great lines: "When I was young I used to have illusions, dreams ain't enough/Father was tough, he didn't care for learning, hell life is tough/Easy to say that everybody's equal then look around see it ain't true." From about 2:25 to about 3:55, Kerry gives one of his all-time great solos on organ.

"Peel the Paint" is presented in two parts, very much like "I Lost My Head" from Interview, with which it was paired in a medley of both songs' second parts on Playing the Fool. The first part is very sparse musically on the verses, which feature a low-key vocal from Phil that recalls "Black Cat Ways" from Acquiring the Taste. Bridging the verses is a lovely theme played by Ray on violin. On Under Construction, you can hear Kerry counting off this section and the breaks for Malcolm's benefit. The second part comes rumbling in with guitar, sax, and organ. Derek shrieks the vocal and the highlight of the tune eventually emerges: a two-and-a-half-minute balls-to-the-ball duet jam with Gary and Malcolm. This is ferocious and muscular playing, red hot and solid. You can even hear Derek shouting his support at one point.

"Mister Class and Quality" is the rich friend's tale, and compared to the others, he is portrayed as conservative, callous, and dull. As he has less personality than the others, Derek's vocal also has less of an edge. Ray's violin directs the melody. Malcolm is understated but effective. A fairly long instrumental section remains pretty mellow, with various keyboards and subtle guitar lines. Eventually, however, the bass drops out and Gary gets to put out another gutsy solo. This heads back to the theme and last verse, but abruptly, the song goes straight into the closer, "Three Friends," which is just a short epilogue and musically doesn't really go anywhere. It's a frustrating end to an album that never seems to sustain the high moments.

When it's good, Three Friends is very, very good; but when it's not, it's just not.

- Jason Rubin
January 2002