Writer Daryl Easlea muses over the meaning of the word ‘contrapuntal’ in his excellent notes with fresh band interviews accompanying a great value 4CD box of albums recorded for the Chrysalis label (plus rarities and unreleased) by this epitome of progressive music.
Yet we as he recognise that this was – must be – an appropriate word to describe Gentle Giant. After all, it’s not one you stumble across often and it sounds mysterious, complicated.
The old guard will have it that GG’s days became numbered when the band left Vertigo Records for an unhappy spell with Warners before relative liberation at Chrysalis in 1975.
Yet, there is much still to enjoy here. That year’s “Free Hand” finds the band at the heights of its powers with highlights ‘On Reflection’ and ‘His Last Voyage’ every bit as beautiful, bold and individual as anything on Vertigo.
If the following year’s bitty ‘”Interview” is less so (the band over worked with touring) though yielding this compilation’s tasty title track, ’77′s “The Missing Piece” was a return to form with shorter, tougher songs in the likes of ‘Two Weeks in Spain’ and a witty riposte to punk in ‘Betcha Thought We Couldn’t Do It’, while the lovely and wry ‘Memories Of Old Days’ was precisely that.
GG’s melting pot of contemporary musical genres hitched to classical and medieval modes was remarkably well-emulated live and “Playing The Fool” measures and marks the band’s reputation as a formidable live act, dipping at then contemporary repertoire as well as former glories from “Octopus” and “Three Friends”.
If 1978′s “Giant For A Day” was a fine record by a progressive rock band but not by Gentle Giant, 1980′s US-recorded “Civilian” was a disappointment: ready-for-market, box-ticked rock songs coated with that sheen peculiar to US production, the whimsy and experimentalism (the very Englishness that attracted audiences initially) dashed to the ground.
In Easlea’s interviews, band members come over as objective and candid about their work, its successes and failings, and good-naturedly express collective warmth for times shared.
Contrapuntal means “of, or relating to, counterpoint”, of which John Rahn wrote: “It is hard to write a beautiful song. It is harder to write several individually beautiful songs that, when sung simultaneously, sound as a more beautiful polyphonic whole.”
Many bands sought to import the essence of Gentle Giant into their work, yet none proved capable of reaching far enough. This is worth losing your head over.
Review by Peter Muir
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