Gentle Giant burst on the post-psychedelic art-rock scene in the early ‘70’s, when rock bands continually upped the ante of musical sophistication and technique, and GG gave their progressive rivals Frank Zappa, Yes, King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer a run-for-their gold-pieces. Two of their most esoteric and eccentric efforts have been remastered: In a Glass House and Free Hand. These efforts document GG at the height of their powers to make exotic sonic architectures out of rock. Gentle Giant are so prog they make the Mars Volta look like Cat Power. Be warned: this isn’t music by skinny scenester boys in black t-shirts who bake-out to Rush and Led Zep. Listen to this and you can pretty much see the elves a-dancing at the feast, boozy gnomes toasting the master of the hall, and a wizard in robes, aloof and inscrutable as he gazes at the ruins of the lost tower of Zoltar. Gentle Giant is a full-on baroque art-rock attack with more complexity than a massively-parallel-processing computer simulating weather patterns with partial differential equations. This album is so full of musical ideas as to rival Zappa at his prime. Stay safe back at the inn if you don’t want to fight the 20 hit-point hobgoblins…but you’ll miss the dance of the Little People at their festival.
Free Hand and In a Glass House have Celtic themes, cathedral organs, violins, xylophones, medieval or early-renaissance vocal harmonies, some jazzy horns and spazzy/funky keyboards. Zolo-oids (or is that “zoloids”?) will want to do a stiff herky-jerky jig to the nerdy electronics and labyrinthine rhythms whiter than Bill Gates. Too-cool to dork-out art-rockers will realize that Neu! and Bowie and Eno and early Talking Heads were all generally tethered to a 4/4 world…whereas the prog-wing of art-rock found freedom in the discipline of exploring the many ways of dividing up time. GG has plenty of stop-start-stop time-changes and strange-metered patterns, but what I find most interesting is the interplay of bass-and-drum structures, sorcerer-like keyboards, recorders, violins, saxes, mandolins, and classical-esque vocal harmonies and embellishments. GG easily surpass the technical abilities of 99% of rock musicians to chase after uncommon sonic quarry, and they push it way over the top.
At their best they frolic about in a world of arty high weirdness and inventiveness, with complex and simple parts interlocking and recombining in songs that stretch out, contract, and fold back in on themselves. Occasionally singer Derek Shulman betrays a weakness for camaro-rock dude-isms and high-notes, and there are a few corresponding ‘70’s rawk guitar solos of the sort that plagued even art-rockers such as Can, but overall the relentless but nimble exploration of the upper boundaries of what is possible for a rock band won me over.