Review Summary: One of the finest hours of a truly inimitable group.
Regarded as the most complex of all the well-known progressive rock legends of the 70’s, Gentle Giant were formed in 1970 by five skilful multi-instrumentalists, including guitarist Gary Green, coming from the straight blues school, classically-trained keyboardist Kerry Minnear (vibraphone, cello), and brothers Ray (bass, violin, acoustic guitar), Derek (lead vocals, bass) and Phil Shulman (woodwinds), all eventually joined by seasoned drummer John Weathers.
From their early beginnings, Gentle Giant knew exactly what they were doing. They wanted to create the most original sound ever to be heard at the time. They borrowed from a wide spectrum of musical styles, and were by far the most intricate and elaborate of the art rock bands to emerge from 60’s psychedelica. From the start, Gentle Giant was a particularly flexible band due to the exceptionally broad musical skills of its members. With an incomparable musicianship, unusual instrumentation, odd time signatures, musical counterpoint, and their trademark multi-layered vocal harmonies, they went further than anyone ever did into unexplored grounds in the genre, navigating over neo-classical, medieval, avant-garde; pretty much the over-the-top kind of canvas Jethro Tull became famous for. By the standards of progressive rock, Gentle Giant’s music is considered to be particularly complex and demanding, although the way they always incorporated beautiful melodies throughout always pulls you back to more familiar territory.
In a Glass House
is their fifth album and the successor of Octopus
, one of their finest hour along with Free Hand
. Like substantially any of their LPs up to Interview
(terminating their classic era in 1976), Octopus
was a rollercoaster of moods and structures, focusing heavily on medieval elements and experimentation, bordering avant-garde. The band’s sound on In a Glass House
isn’t too different from its predecessor, except that the songs generally have fewer about-faces within them and instead feature a greater amount of development. There is also less of a medieval feel to the album, as the sound is harder rocking and more electric guitar-oriented. In a Glass House
is also the first album to feature the five-piece line-up (the middle years, confirmed when Phil Shulman left the fold) that would carry them through until their demise in 1980.
With Shulman’s departure, taking his voice and his woodwind instruments with him, In a Glass House
signalled a turning point musically for the band. In willing to remedy the situation, Minnear utilized extra keys, and Ray Shulman occasionally delivered some trumpet or clarinet sessions to partially compensate for the lack of Phil’s acoustic instruments. Derek occasionally took over on saxophones, but still there are far less saxophone melodies compared to the group’s previous records. Given that Phil proved to be the one who was more straightfordwardly interested in eerie harmonizations and sonic textures, it is not surprising that a lot of the medieval tinges that gave those early albums their artistic bells became slightly less frequent, now being replaced with far more ballsy rock sections that juxtapose brilliantly with the more sedate, classically-informed moments. Overall, instead of losing some of its effectiveness, the music just got more intense without Phil’s contributions, and became tighter and more driven than previous works.
The album contains highly complex interludes, well-thought-out tempo shifts, memorable riffage and addictive melodic runs, with some musically all-inspiring moments. Highly melodic, the music is both beautiful and challenging to the ear. Each side of the album has two longer compositions that include multiple segues or bridges, ranging from quieter acoustic sections to louder, rocking passages.
opens with shattering glass sounds that soon set the rhythm to the main infectious riff of The Runaway
, which bears a very appealing hook despite the complex melodic line and weird adornments on recorders and vibes. Inmate’s Lullaby
combines eerie percussion and vocals, creating an almost a claustrophobic feel, as if the walls are moving ever closer; the percussive part is interspersed with quaint but rather creepy xylophone.
Way of Life
is a high powered-tune that is vaguely evocative of Yes’ Long Distance Runaround
played at double speed. It’s symphonic middle section is filled with pleasant and anthemic melodies, and powerful organ from Minnear. Experience
is complex but very enjoyable, compromising many forms of music: it bears a floating Renaissance ambience that is only interrupted by a blues-rock section. A Reunion
is a very soft ballad, based on violin flourishes with Minnear, in exclusive charge of vocal duties. The closing title track is the icing on the cake. It offers the most engaging melodies, memorable hard rock riffs and powerful singing. Be warned though; the band pull a sublime 180°-turn in the middle of the song.
Gentle Giant continues to strike a chord with listeners young and old to this day, and their music has stood the test of time: not exactly with the mainstream audience, but with those who enjoy the more challenging, quirky, and clever of art forms. In their classic years, the band released too many excellent works to say with certainty which is the best; while it is safe to say that every one of them is strictly in line with all the others, In A Glass House certainly does count as one of their very best.