Gentle Giant review by E. Shaun Russell
From the opening notes of Gentle Giant's self-titled debut album, it is easy to see that Gentle Giant is not your average band. Indeed, no band from any era has managed to transcend genres and stretch the conventions of music than Gentle Giant. Their first album begins with the song "Giant" which immediately exploits each member's ability, leaning heavily upon Phil Shulman's saxophones and Kerry Minnear's organs and mellotrons. As the song progresses, dense vocal harmonies evoke vivid images of medieval times... a theme that is justified by the lyrics.
The follow-up song to "Giant" is "Funny Ways" which is a testament to the band's diverse dynamic talent. "Funny Ways" proves to be one of the quietest songs of the progressive rock era --comparable only to King Crimson's "I Talk to the Wind" and the Moody Blues' "Watching and Waiting." The most prominent instrument in "Funny Ways" turns out to be the vocal line, sung mostly by Phil Shulman, with his brother Derek joining in on the verses. A superior version can be found on the live King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents Gentle Giant album.
The album really begins to establish itself with the song "Alucard." Lyrically, a very gothic song (try spelling the title backwards), "Alucard" is fueled by pure and absolute innovation through and through. The vocal line is sung by the ensemble and uses multiple tracks played backwards and forwards... something which would be repeated in the coming years by prolific bands like Yes and Rush. The effect is downright eerie. In addition to extreme vocal innovation, both the saxophone and organ have a very compressed sound, adding to the gothic atmosphere of the piece as a whole. As with the first song "Giant," "Alucard" has a very medieval feel to it... something which would always remain a part of the band's sound.
Perhaps the low point of the album (if it can be called that) is the song "Isn't it Quiet and Cold?" which sounds like and emulation of the Beatles' "Lovely Rita, Meter Maid" off of their groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper album. Despite this likeness, Gentle Giant still add their own flavor to the often-imitated Beatles style --even Lennon and McCartney couldn't touch Phil Shulman's amiable approach to singing.
"Nothing At All" is both the longest and most progressive song on the album. The song wraps up past the nine-minute mark and features a wide dynamic range --extending from a soft pianissimo to a passionate forte. Gary Green's guitar playing brings the feel of the piece from a melancholic introspection to a vehement outcry; this apparent musical revelation leads directly into Martin Smith's drum solo --but not even this industry standard is orthodox. Rather than having the run-of-the-mill drum solo, Gentle Giant decides to use guitar effects (namely a flanger) on the drums, while performing background interludes of classical piano. This same tactic is conspicuously used on Emerson Lake & Palmer's album Brain Salad Surgery a few years later (in the song "Tocatta"). Finally, "Nothing At All" returns to the same pensive theme as it began with, perhaps representing an existential symmetry of sorts.
If "Nothing At All" is the most progressive song on the album, the subsequent song "Why Not?" is the hardest rocker. In addition to featuring the strongest vocals (courtesy of Derek Shulman) of all the songs, it is also a showcase for Gary Green's diverse talent on guitar. Where he plucked the strings of an acoustic on "Isn't It Quiet and Cold?" he grinds chords on an electric in "Why Not?" The dichotomy is fascinating. The tone of the song is somewhat that of rhythym and blues, though one can't help but wonder why there weren't more songs like it in the era.
The final track, "The Queen," is more for fun than for any other reason; as its name implies, it is simply the band's own arrangement of "God Save the Queen." Though the track is under two minutes long, Gentle Giant manages to incorporate medieval, psychedelic and jazz aspects into the familiar piece. Whether the band did this song as a poke against the monarchy, a tribute to the monarchy, or neither, it comes off in classic Gentle Giant style.
Overall, Gentle Giant's eponymous debut album is a good primer for what would come later; additionally, the album has a feeling of completion --that the band took the songs to the maximum extent that they could possibly go. If there is any one deterrent, it is that the album is --like all Gentle Giant albums-- an aquired taste. It is a good bet that the only song that will stand out to a first-time listener is "Why Not?" due to its slightly more commercial nature; however, given a few listens, the album will eventually be played frequently by anyone who claims enjoyment for the progressive rock genre.