Often overshadowed by contemporaries like King Crimson or
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
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. 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 the 2010 reissue version of In A Glass House 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,
released on the band’s own Alucard label, 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.
Standout Tracks: “The
Runaway,” “In A Glass House” “A Reunion”
REV. KEITH A. GORDON