Saturday, January 8, 2011

Michael Fremer Album Review

The Power and the Glory

Gentle Giant
Capitol/Alvcard ALUGGVO2 180g LP
Produced by: Gentle Giant
Engineered by: Gary Martin
Mixed by: N/A
Mastered by: Carl Rowatti at TruTone Mastering



Prog Rock Classic Back on Vinyl
by Michael Fremer
December 01, 2010

The British progressive rock group Gentle Giant never achieved exalted status among the genre's aficionados, though they were well respected and their following was loyal and vociferous. When I was on "free form" FM radio in the mid 1970s I'd get calls from fans requesting Gentle Giant, but when I played through the albums, I heard nothing that I thought would grab listeners. Listening today to this and to Free Hand (ALLUGV03)—the two albums falling midway in their recording career— makes clear why that was so, and why they are deserving of a second listen almost forty years later.

Musically they were more inwardly directed and less given to bombast. While the level of musicianship was extremely high, keyboardist Kerry Minnear wasn't interested in showboating like Keith Emerson. Lead vocalist Derek Shulman (who went on to a very successful career in the music business after the band broke up) had a big voice but not a commanding presence that demands your attention. He was more a vocal technician than an emoter of emotions. He had neither Peter Gabriel's dramatic prowess nor Jon Anderson's, soaring, hypnotic pull. And as lyricists the Shulman, Shulman, Minear team never produced memorable lines that jumped out and grabbed. No "in and around the lake, mountains come out of the sky and they stand there," kind of moments.

So one could listen to this album or to Free Hand (Alucard ALLUGV03) and greatly appreciate the boldness of the musicianship and the complexity of the parts produced by the five musicians but not be moved or changed. Then and today these records come across as technically brilliant but emotionally flat—more like intellectually satisfying exercises than physically gripping and emotionally moving ones. The listening experience doesn't transcended the physical and leave you moved. These are inner thoughts expressed, with little resulting action.

They adhered to all of the genre's musical conventions, which if you don't dig in the first place, you won't like here, but in some ways they upped the ante, with precise vocal harmonies, complex, shifting rhythms and melodic inventiveness and harmonic complexities few other groups came close to achieving. While Keith Emerson used to toss classical music quotes into his solos, these guys actually made serious music!

The Power and the Glory is a cynic's delight: a concept album about authority, subjugation and foolish faith in and dissatisfaction with authority, even by the person exercising it, but the chessboard-like tunes spawned by the concept are lyrically uni-dimensional, which produces little drama or emotionally dynamic contrasts. You're invited to watch but not in.

Still, I bet prog rock fans of Genesis, Yes and some of the other bigger acts of the genre who may have missed Gentle Giant will be delighted by what they find here, for beyond familiar conventions, lies higher resolution musical complexity than made by some of the bigger selling groups. A Yes fan unfamiliar with Gentle Giant who plays side two's "Cogs in Cogs" first might exclaim "how the hell did I miss these guys?"

Sonically, both of these records could only be described as "decent" and "competent," but not mesmerizing or transcendent; sort of like the music. Don't expect spacious vistas. Instead, the instruments are closely miked in what sounds like a fairly small studio, with little if any reverb, except on specified parts. Why muck up the incredible playing precision with expansive, rhythm smearing reverb?

The Power and the Glory is the more musically dense and challenging of these two reissues (though both are dense and musically challenging), while Free Hand is more baroque yet jazz-like. If you can find a free MP3 of "On Reflection" somewhere, you'll marvel at the complexity and ingenuity of the vocal arrangement that's jazz like, yet medieval at the same time. If you think Jethro Tull did this sort of thing well, wait until you hear this track!

Sonically it's no contest: Free Hand sounds far more spacious, three dimensional and transparent. Perhaps its just a coincidence that the jacket says "Mastered from the original 1/4 inch tapes 2010" and The Power and the Glory, which sounds flatter, more two dimensional and less transparent doesn't. The sound knob 7 is for The Power and the Glory. Free Hand gets an "8".

Thanks to Michael over at for the exclusive rights to reprint this material. Stop by for more reviews and features.

Copyright © 2008 & Michael Fremer - All rights reserved Reprinted by Permission

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