DON’T THROW STONES Gentle Giant

The British prog-rock
maestros enjoyed a checquered but fruitful tenure that spanned the psych and
punk eras.

 

BY REV. KEITH A. GORDON

 

Often overshadowed by contemporaries like King Crimson or
Yes, England’s
Gentle Giant may not have been one of the best-known bands of the 1970s
progressive rock revolution, but they were certainly one of the more
adventurous. Formed in 1970 by the three Shulman brothers – vocalist/guitarist
Derek, bassist Ray, and saxophonist Phil, with keyboard wizard Kerry Minnear,
lead guitarist Gary Green, and drummer Martin Smith  – Gentle Giant’s roots were in the R&B
infused psychedelic rock of the era… kind of like the Pretty Things, but with
more technically-oriented instrumentation and an art-school temperament.

 

With the typical prog-rock emphasis on musicianship, and
incorporating elements of British folk, jazz-fusion, and classical music,
Gentle Giant sounded like nobody else on the street at the time. They were
quickly snapped up by the prog-leaning Vertigo label, which would release the
band’s first four albums in Europe, while
Mercury, then Columbia Records would handle stateside releases. Although
critical response to Gentle Giant albums like the band’s self-titled 1970 debut
or 1972’s Octopus would be mixed,
prog-rock fans quickly embraced the band, and by the time of the band’s fourth
album – the aforementioned Octopus
Gentle Giant records were scraping the bottom rungs of the Billboard magazine Top 200 album’s chart with regularity.

 

By 1973, though, Gentle Giant had undergone some changes.
The stress of the band’s heavy workload – four albums in as many years, as well
as constant touring in both Europe and the United States – combined with the
better part of a decade spent playing music with his brothers would cause Phil
Shulman to leave the band after the release of Octopus. Permanent drummer John Weathers would join Gentle Giant
after the band’s third album, bringing along the explosive blues-rock chops
that he honed while with the Graham Bond Organisation. So, it was with this
line-up, sans brother Phil, that Gentle Giant that would enter the studio in
1973 to record In A Glass House, the
band’s fifth album.

 

Considered by many to be one of the band’s hardest-rocking
albums, In A Glass House represents a
period of transition for the band. Minus Phil Shulman, who had seemingly
brought many of the “gentle” influences to the giant, the band
pursued a much more aggressive musical tack, beginning with the abrasive sound
of breaking glass that serves as an intro to the album-opening song “The
Runaway.” Taken from a BBC effects tape still in use today, the
ear-scraping sound of shattering glass is looped to take on a peculiar rhythm,
which itself gives way to swirling synth flourishes and shards of jagged
guitar.

 

While In A Glass House is ostensibly a concept album on morality – “people in glass houses
shouldn’t throw stones” – the album’s obtuse lyricism is maddeningly
oblique even by prog-rock standards. “The Runaway” is about a
fugitive, maybe running away from the authorities, but just as easily
attempting to hide from his own demons. Derek Shulman’s vocals are sparse and
to the point, but it is the miasma of instrumentation, odd time signature
changes, circular guitar riffs, keyboard wizardry, and powerful drumwork that
push the seven-minute-plus composition into exhilarating musical territory.

 

Much of In A Glass
House
is of a similar vein: lengthy exercises in progressive virtuosity,
with four of the album’s six original songs weighing in at better than seven
minutes in length. A kinetic madhouse of vocal gymnastics and dancing
instrumentation, “Way Of Life” features a spastic rhythm around which
multi-textured swaths of jazzy keyboards, syncopated drumbeats, and imaginative
guitar dance like dervishes.

 

With a baroque-styled string intro, “A Reunion”
evolves into a striking, folkish, almost pastoral treatise with wan vocals and
mesmerizing violin that, with its brief two-minute-plus running time, seems to
serve as a sort of intro to the title track. “In A Glass House” is an
eight-minute showcase for the band’s immense instrumental skills, as everybody
gets their moment in the spotlight, while the album’s closing moments,
comprised of passages from the previous songs, dwindles cleverly into the sound
of broken glass, coming full circle to where the album begun.  

 

In their infinite wisdom, Columbia Records choose not to
release In A Glass House in the United States,
deeming it lacking in commercial appeal. The label promptly dumped the band from
its roster, allowing Gentle Giant to take possession of the album’s master tape
to license to a European label, Phonogram Records subsidiary World Wide Artists
(WWA). Long an in-demand import item, In
A Glass House
wouldn’t receive a proper stateside release until 2004, when
it was released on CD. 

 

What is most remembered about In A Glass House in its original vinyl format was its unique 3-D
cover design, which used a cellophane inlay and a stark high-contrast image of
the band members to create a stunning effect that jumps right in your face.
Sadly, this novelty is absent from a new 2010 reissue version of In A Glass House (released on the band’s
own Alucard Records; www.blazemonger.com/gg/)
that, while benefiting from careful digital re-mastering, is inferior in
packaging to the 35th anniversary version released by Derek Shulman’s DRT
Entertainment in 2005. That reissue
included the cool 3-D cover effect, a slipcase, and a couple of bonus tracks,
while this newer version offers only the album’s six original performances and
a rather plain cover.

 

Packaging notwithstanding, it’s the music that counts, and In A Glass House sits comfortably in the
top third of Gentle Giant’s twelve album releases between 1970 and 1980, and
competes easily with similar works from King Crimson and Genesis. Almost
half-way through its decade-long tenure, Gentle Giant was on the verge of its
most commercially successful album yet – 1974’s The Power and the Glory – an accomplishment at least partially
set-up by the band’s willingness to stretch out its sound and add more
“rock” to it’s unique prog-rock formula with In A Glass House.

 

***

 

By 1975, however, Gentle Giant stood at a crossroads.
Although the band’s line-up – brothers Derek (vocals, guitar) and Ray Shulman
(bass, vocals), guitarist Gary Green, keyboardist Kerry Minnear, and drummer
John Weathers – had remained stable over their three previous albums, pressure
was on the group to deliver the goods.

 

A brief tenure with World Wide Artists had yielded In A Glass House and The Power and the Glory, both of which
helped expand the band’s U.S.
audience (despite their import-only status) while clawing their way into the
upper reaches of the Billboard album’s chart. Now signed with Chrysalis Records for the U.K. and distributed by Capitol
Records stateside, Gentle Giant was expected to build upon its modest success
and chalk up some album sales while retaining their artistic and creative
integrity.

 

In reality, the move to Chrysalis from WWA had been a
positive one for Gentle Giant, with label head Terry Ellis – who had made stars
out of similarly prog-leaning folk-rockers Jethro Tull – offering sympathetic
support to the band’s studio efforts. The result would be Free Hand, the band’s seventh album and its most successful,
highest-charting U.S.
release (reaching 48 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart), an album also considered by many Gentle Giant loyalists
as the band’s most focused and creative work.

 

Re-energized by the change in record labels, and bringing a
fresh approach to their music, Gentle Giant hit the studio and created an
incredibly complex and musically exciting album in Free Hand. The band’s unique, progressive sound had always mixed
rock with folk, jazz, and classical influences – including the odd baroque or
chamber pop interlude – but with Free
Hand
they freely incorporated more jazzlike sounds with strains of
medieval-era classical and later-period Renaissance music. Thus, the album’s
seven performances not only showcase the instrumental virtuosity of the various
band members, but do so against a backdrop of contrasting styles and textures
which, surprisingly, struck a chord with a large group of listeners beyond the
band’s usual fan base.

 

Over the course of their previous albums, Gentle Giant had
generally created each as a stand-alone “conceptual” work, as was the
style with early-1970s prog-rockers, and while individual songs may have
addressed the band’s life on the road and in the studio, they did so in relation
to the conceptual subject at hand. Not so with Free Hand which, while not a concept album per se, nevertheless
brims over with emotion and venom against the music biz.

 

The album-opening “Just The Same,” which intros
with the snapping of fingers and a fractured piano riff, quickly jumps into
Derek Shulman’s nimble vocals and Green’s angular fretwork. Lyrically, the song
dissects the meaning of fame, and the difficulty of finding your identity when
faced with so many people’s differing perceptions of who you actually are.
Minnear’s high-flying synth playing sends notes shooting out into the mix while
Weathers’ subtle drumwork lends structure to the song’s ever-changing
instrumental landscape.

 

“Free Hand,” the album’s title track, is its most
overt criticism of the music industry. Drawn from the band’s previous
experience with corporate labels like Vertigo, Columbia, and WWA, the song’s lyrics liken
the band’s recent change in label to the sudden freedom after the break-up of a
bad relationship. Bolstered by a muscular and complex soundtrack that features
Minnear’s raging keyboards and Green’s heavy guitar chords, the song rocks hard
without sacrificing the band’s progressive roots, and there are plenty of
lightning-fast time signature changes, head-turning changes in musical
direction, and cacophonic instrumentation to please even the most jumble-minded
prog-rock fan.

 

Free Hand has its
experimental moments as well, perhaps never illustrated better than by the
amazing “On Reflection.” The song’s lyrics, about a relationship
breaking apart, take a backseat to the Renaissance-styled four-part fugue
vocals that involve almost the entire band, and which in itself represented an
important additional instrument that dominates the song above all else until it
evolves, a couple of minutes in, into a beautiful, pastoral piece with wan
vocals and instrumentation. With several changes in direction, the song is both
exhilarating in its scope as well as exhausting in its execution, but it never
fails to impress.

 

The engaging instrumental “Talybont” is also
Renaissance-flavored, beating Richie Blackmore’s fascination with the form by
better than a decade. This is no modern-day “Greensleeves,” though,
the song perfectly welding medieval baroque frippery with hard rock guitar,
galloping drumbeats, and inspired rhythmic bass lines courtesy of brother Ray
Shulman. It’s an interesting interlude before the lengthier and more involved
“Mobile.”
Lyrically addressing the obstacles and fleeting friendships of life on the
road, “Mobile”
is also, perhaps, the closest that Gentle Giant ever got in treading across the
hallowed creative turf of fellow proggers Yes.

 

Kerry Minnear has been severely underrated as a keyboard
wizard, and his various synth flourishes and piano runs here are just as lively
and imaginative as anything fantastically spun out of the aether by Rick
Wakeman. Paired with Weathers’ complex timekeeping skills, Derek Shulman’s
nimble vocal abilities, and Green’s impressive and often overshadowed
six-string leads, “Mobile”
is an energetic and thought-provoking way to end Free Hand.

 

Gentle Giant’s association with Chrysalis Records would
provide, initially, a recharging of the band’s creative batteries. While Free Hand would prove to be the peak
album of the band’s career, from both an artistic and a commercial perspective,
they would have, just six months later, less than a month off the road to write
and record Interview, their follow-up
to Free Hand. Returning to a
loosely-conceptual theme that positioned the album’s songs as answers to a
music journalist’s questions, Interview would, in many ways, become the band’s final prog-rock oriented album.

 

Whether pressured by the label, or merely the brothers
Shulman chasing chart success, subsequent late-1970s studio efforts like The Missing Piece and Giant For A Day! would find the band
moving towards a more pop-oriented sound that alienated many of their early
fans while failing to achieve any sort of momentum towards building a new
audience. Caught up in the changing musical changes of their homeland, Gentle
Giant would record one last record, Civilian,
in 1980 and subsequently call it a day. With ten years and a dozen albums under
its belt, Gentle Giant experienced both a modicum of fame and the indignity of
obsolescence, as prog-rock would be eclipsed by first punk, and then new wave
pop in their homeland, by hard rock in the U.S.

 

Today, Free Hand holds up well as an entirely unique and timeless collection of music. The
Alucard label’s 2010 reissue of the album features digitally re-mastered sound
taken from the original master tapes, but unlike the 35th anniversary version
of the album released in 2005, which included a live version of “Just The
Same” as a bonus track, this version of Free Hand offers only the album’s seven original performances.
Nevertheless, this is an integral piece of the Gentle Giant catalog, and a
seminal work of 1970s progressive-rock that shouldn’t be overlooked by any fan
of the genre.

 

 

 

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