Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Music Review #156:
Gentle Giant
In a Glass House

1972's Octopus album was nothing short of a breakthrough record for Gentle Giant. Not only was it, stylistically, a seminal album in the history of progressive rock, but it was also the band's biggest broach into North American popularity up to that point with Columbia Records giving it a fair distribution throughout all of Canada and the United States. 

Though Octopus' release remains a brilliant light of success for this band that had never really achieved the "limelight", it also wrought its fair share of misfortune. Its success was able to land them a tour with none other than fellow Vertigo bedfellows Black Sabbath, wherein they attempted (and hilariously failed) to coincide Sabbath's Vol. 4 era with the comparably whimsical sounds of both Octopus and Three Friends, their two '72 records. This ultimately led to Giant getting a cherry bomb chucked at them during a certain show, to which Phil Shulman responded stoically with "you're a bunch of cunts!", followed by them getting booed off the stage. 

Though Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson was able to pull them into a much more fitting tour in the US, the sucker punch that was the Sabbath tour still took its toll on the group. It's certainly touted as one of the primary reasons for Phil Shulman's departure that very year, though seeking a teaching career, getting back to his family, unabashedly banging roadies and plain old "deteriorated relations" according to his brother Derek have all been similarly put forth as reasons over the years.

Phil's departure was indeed a shaking for the two remaining Shulmans, Gary Green, John Weathers and Kerry Minnear. If anything, it put a lot of unneeded stress on the group as they flocked back across the Atlantic to record their followup to Octopus. However his absence was certainly not Giant's death-knell. Sure, they had to lay off of the acoustics a bit more, but Giant's spirit was certainly not brittle enough to be broken by such an event. In fact Phil leaving caused quite the opposite effect as In a Glass House, the band's fifth album in 1973, turned out to be one of the most biting and impressive English records of the decade.

Let me just go ahead and lay it on the line; if you think that Gentle Giant's main weakness is their pretentiousness, then you will hate In a Glass House. I mean, Columbia (who had previously been accepting of GG's records in the US) refused to even publish it in North America simply because they thought the record's inaccessibility would make it bomb. But if you don't mind the bollocks or you're infatuated with the "pretentiousness" of Giant's music (like me), then In a Glass House is their peak performance.

Gentle Giant's sound, like a more by-the-books Frank Zappa, is a layered one. The virtuoso multi-instrumentalist chops of each of the band members allows for an extremely eclectic, complex sound that you rarely get in other groups. Not only that, it's all delivered in a tight fashion so that each creative turn, whether it be a great riff or experimental cobbling, hits you like the lashing of a whip. This is shown no better than on this record, with songs like the masterpiece 'Experience' being a brilliant collage of quiet keyboarding, folk-y gallops and pure, lashing blues rocking. The dynamics conveyed in this particular song are pristine and absolutely flooring, to say the least. These warm words can certainly be extended to the two other sister epics of the album, 'The Runaway' and the title track, though in comparison to 'Experience' are the more "conventional" tracks. 'Way of Life' is also a massive track, though comparatively a bit lacking in substance. Not it isn't great, because you bet your bottom dollar it is, it's just that it's certainly more straightforward and deviates far less than the other three. It's mainly comprised of a sharp, rapid staccato groove punctured only briefly by a short choral piece and a slower, by-the-books symphonic prog sections. Because it's exceptiona,l it still rocks. However because this is Gentle Giant, it certainly can feel a bit milquetoast at times especially when compared to the rest of their repertoire. The title track is a fast paced, medieval-inspired romp in the first half before quickly evolving into a heavy riff-laden rocker in the second. 'The Runaway' is likely the tune that appeals toward the progressive rock crowd, with it's steady staccato hooks underlayed by such things as Kerry Minnear's exemplary keyboarding and tenor vocals, silky choral breaks, and funky bass and drum fills. It still remains one of my all-time favorite openers to any album. 

The two shorter tracks that fill in the gap between these three legendary tracks are the conduits for Giant's more experimental ideas. 'An Inmates Lullaby' is a unnerving, vibraphone-headed ditty that delights in alternating between cheery vibe' tinkles and haunting vocal melodies. 'A Reunion' is an out-and-out neo-Rennaissance ballad, bereft of rockisms and instead chock-full of strings, strings and more strings. Delightfully simple and effective in its delivery.

In a Glass House was bestowed onto my ears at a very young age and likely has caused me to have my nostalgia goggles on when looking at this album to a certain extent. As I am human I cannot throw away my biases entirely, but what I can do is assure you objectively that In a Glass House is still one of the most sonically daring, creative, and wonderful records that I've heard in my lifetime.

2018 -  Frying Pan Media & Thatcher 
Have a nice day! 

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