Review Summary: A nice debut showing great promises, but also a few flaws. A landmark, the starting point of a huge career.
“Gentle Giant” is the self-titled debut studio album of Gentle Giant and was released in 1970. The line up on the album is Gary Green, Kerry Minnear, Derek Shulman, Phil Shulman, Ray Shulman and Martin Smith. Paul Cosh and Claire Deniz are additional artists that appear on the album as guest musicians.
Let’s see the musical context in 1970. King Crimson split for the first time after “In The Wake Of Poseidon”. And before the dust has settled, with Greg Lake’s resignation, Emerson Lake and Palmer put out their nearly perfected self-titled debut album. Pink Floyd began to move farther and farther from Syd Barrett’s shadow and released “Atom Heart Mother”, a true mark in their career. Genesis tries really to move away from their unsuccessful debut making something real new with “Trespass”, demonstrating how much heavy lifting they have yet to doing the next years. Van Der Graaf Generator abandons the style of “The Aerosol Grey Machine”, their very own murky sounding “Trespass” to deliver two sharper works, “The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other” and “H To He, Who Am The Only One”. Caravan released “If I Could Do It All Over Again, I’d Do It All Over You” that has all the charm and class but maybe not all of the substance of next year’s “In The Land Of Grey And Pink”. Beyond these, you can even mention two groups that demonstrate a sudden mastery over their individual musical truths, Soft Machine with “Third”, probably their best work and Yes that makes you clap with their career extending with their magnificent and landmark album “The Yes Album”. So, the ground was obviously being prepared for some more rather new constructions in the land of Her Majesty, really.
In and among the famous and obscure prog bands arrives Gentle Giant with the requisite George Underwood cover art. Gentle Giant was for many people, in which I include myself, one of the best progressive rock bands ever. The Shulman brothers Derek, Phil and Ray in addition to the keyboardist Kerry Minnear and the guitarist Gary Green made up the core of the band. All of them were highly talented musicians and composers who knew just how to express this through a series of outstanding albums that remain some of the best and most essential progressive rock albums ever made.
The music of Gentle Giant tried the most daring fusion of jazz, classical and rock. The band was formed by Schulman brothers who had before joined some blues band in Glasgow. The major point of strength of the sextet were Kerry Minnear’s electronic keyboards, the guitar playing by Gary Green and Philip Schulman’s winds. Besides their complex scores, their sound differed from other bands especially for Derek Schulman’s singing, so aseptic that in some way resembles Conservatory’s solfege and Gregorian chant. So, Gentle Giant became one of the most original bands too.
Their self titled debut was however a quite typical debut, showing several great promises. The opener “Giant” starts with Minnear’s organ before bursting out into a tune that is both heavy and jazzy at the same time. The track was sung by Derek who usually sang the more rocking and aggressive parts, while the softer voices of Minnear and Phil often dominated the more quiet passages. The song also features a beautiful instrumental part in the middle that slowly builds up to a grandiose climax before returning to the main part again. But it’s the next song that really stands as the centrepiece of the album. “Funny Ways” is a very progressive ballad, ranging from soft and wonderful vocal parts with cello and violin, and then to considerably more upbeat instrumental passages that include grandiose trumpet work. The heavy, distorted and sax-drenched prog of “Alucard” (Dracula), which was undoubtedly inspired a lot by “21st Century Schizoid Man” of King Crimson, but the band avoided to sound like a clone, and Minnear’s synths will undoubtedly not remind you of anything else you’ve heard before. “Isn’t It Quiet and Cold?” isn’t bad but is a forgettable filler. Otherwise is the excellent “Nothing At All” but that is weakened by an annoying and pointless drum solo. “Why Not” is quite good and the quiet break in the middle was the first sign of the band’s interest in medieval music. The album closes with the band’s version of the British national anthem, which is actually a bit more rocking than Queen’s version five years later.
Conclusion: Who usually read my reviews on Sputnik, especially those who are about Gentle Giant, know that I’m a huge fan of the group. Gentle Giant was one of the pioneer bands of progressive rock music and was also one of their biggest and best representatives. And about the album, “Gentle Giant” is an excellent debut album. It’s probably their less complex musical work and it’s for sure their most hard and heavy rock album. But, we mustn’t forget that this is an album of 1970 and therefore one of the first progressive rock albums in prog rock history. However, this album already have some of the main characteristics of their music like the avant-garde and experimentalism, the fusion of rock, blues and jazz, the influence of the renaissance and medieval music and the prolific use of many and varied instruments.
Music was my first love.
John Miles (Rebel)