It’s not rocket science to see that I am an advocate of progressive rock. Caught up in the mediated narrative of MTV during my formative teenage years, though, caused my exposure to progressive rock to be relatively limited. I was only aware of the most visible artists. In the late 90s, however, the internet’s increasing resources opened up a whole new prog world, with an endless supply of obscure bands that I had never heard, both old and new. One such band was Gentle Giant, a 70s group that never reached the level of visibility and influence of Yes and Genesis, but were unequalled in terms of overall virtuosity and musicianship.
I recently noticed that my Gentle Giant collection was unjustly dusty, so I put their 1972 release Octopus in rotation. Listening to it now, I find that I remembered (and liked) it better than I thought.
Most fans cite Octopus as the beginning of Gentle Giant’s “classic” period. The album doesn’t mark a major shift in the band’s sound from their previous work, but in comparison Octopus has a noticeable focus. Some distinctive stylistic features emerged on the album that would come to characterize the band for the next few years. Most impressive of these emergent characteristics was their impressive use of vocal polyphony.
Yes always considered themselves to be a vocal group, but they never did anything that could touch Knots - at least not live. Gentle Giant continued to refine the technique, however, and, along with being multi-instrumental, it became one of their things.
When I first got into Gentle Giant, their music seemed like gibberish. It took quite a bit of focused listening to disentangle all of their ideas into an intelligible structure. There is, however, a passion and beauty to their work that is borne of a devoted conviction to musical experimentation. I think if I ever had to write a school song, I would steal some of the melodic material from the beautiful Think of Me With Kindness.
Up until this point, I operated under the assumption that good music should be shared, but Gentle Giant presented the the possibility that some music, no matter how good, might be best held close to the chest. When I was listening to them I was not surrounded by musicians as I had been during my college years. I was ridiculed a bit by the people around me who didn’t get what I saw in the band. I admit that from a certain perspective Gentle Giant represents a kind of indulgent inaccessibility that Spinal Tap was poking fun at. I strongly felt, however, that their musicianship warranted respect at the very least. They certainly deserved better than to carry the label "that crap you listen to." As a result, my memories of the band are cloistered – huddled up in private listenings in a short-ceilinged upstairs loft where I lived in Krum.
But, times have changed. I am in a better place overall these days, and I intentionally expend less energy trying to win the approval of others. Additionally, the anonymity granted by the internet allows me to shamelessly plug this obscure and inspiring band without too much fear of peer ridicule. The people who like them will, and the people that don't won't. Regardless, I feel like I am getting even more out of Octopus now than I did then, so if you are curious about Gentle Giant I think it would be an excellent starting point.