Gentle Giant

“All words saying nothing / the air is sour with discontent.”

Album Year Rating
The Missing Piece 1977 2.46/pi
Giant for a Day 1978 1.97/pi
Civilian 1980 2.50/pi

Gentle Giant were one of the most contradictory, infuriating, unique rock bands in world history. To this day, they inspire fear, confusion, hatred, and cultism.

The key to understanding them is to recognize that, despite their “art-rock” label, they were really just a very strange pop band. If anything, they could be accused of undermining progressive rock from within. Although their songs could be as complex and intricate as anything to come out of the rock world, they were often willfully inane or simply random in subject matter.

How exactly is a reviewer supposed to respond to the B-movie gothdom of “Alucard”? Or “River”, with educational lines like “beware the deeper it becomes!” Or “Pantagruel’s Nativity” and “The Advent of Panurge”, two brief, incomprehensible excerpts from some non-existent rock opera based on the works of Rabelais? Or the band’s theme song, “Giant”, featuring the mildly disturbing command “See the giant! Feel the giant! Touch the giant!”

For the most part, it’s wiser to just ignore the lyrics, which usually seem to be the obligatory accompaniment to whatever the band felt like writing at the moment. But then, the music is not exactly sensible either—it often seems to be the work of hyperactive precocious children, or possibly fragile man-children, given a studio full of musical instruments and all the time they need to record whatever they want. And yet the playing is tight as fuck, the many contrapuntal instruments and vocal parts precisely interlocked, the neurotic rhythms laid down with great care. So…robotic hyperactive precocious fragile man-children. Or something. Here is a selection of possible epithets for the band. Choose one (1):

  • The autistic Steely Dan.
  • Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
  • Clockwork nerd-funk zolo visionaries.
  • Math-rock edutainment-bots.
  • Lester Bangs’ worst nightmare.

Incidentally, I’m violating normal procedure and reviewing these guys ass-backwards in time, starting with their last album. It just feels right somehow…

Main lineup: Kerry Minnear: keyboards, cello, vibes, percussion, vocals. Derek Shulman: bass, sax, recorder, percussion, vocals. Ray Shulman: bass, violin, guitars, trumpet, recorder. Phil Shulman: sax, trumpet, recorder, vocals, until 1973. Gary Green: guitars, recorder, percussion, vocals. John Weathers: drums, vibes, percussion, vocals, 1972–80.

Other personnel: Martin Smith: drums, 1970–71. Malcolm Mortimore: drums, 1971–72.

THE MISSING PIECE

1977; Rating: 2.46/pi

Composition: + / Lyrics: ~ / Production: ~ / Innovation: ~

  • 01 Two Weeks in Spain [A]
  • 02 I’m Turning Around [C+]
  • 03 Betcha Thought We Couldn’t Do It [B+]
  • 04 Who Do You Think You Are? [B+]
  • 05 Mountain Time [B−]
  • 06 As Old As You’re Young [A]
  • 07 Memories of Old Days [A−]
  • 08 Winning [A]
  • 09 For Nobody [A]

By 1977, Gentle Giant were under a whole lot of pressure to churn out commercial product. They were quite popular, but they had never had a radio-friendly unit shifter to break things open. Perhaps that elusive hit is the “missing piece.” Well, it stayed missing, that’s for sure. In fact, this album is more of a confused mess than any kind of serious stab at a sellout.

It is possible (but not pleasant) to imagine lead single “I’m Turning Around” as a hit. It’s got a big, blunt, stupid melody, arena rock guitars, and an echoey shouted-from-the-mountaintop chorus. It also has basically no reason to exist. Okay, try door number 2: “Mountain Time”, a soul-funk abortion with a melody that may be even dumber than the last one. The label made one final attempt to squeeze a hit out of this record, with “Two Weeks in Spain”. That’s right, they were so desperate, they actually lowered themselves to picking a good song! Well, it went nowhere anyway, but it’s a cute power-pop track.

The real meat of the album, however, is on side 2, where the band tucked away a nest egg of more ambitious tunes. In fact, this second side represents what could have been a truly effective new direction for the band: streamlined pop songs that are still loaded with classic Gentle Giant quirks. Take “Winning”, with its sinewy intertwined guitar riffs over a whole roomful of percussion intruments, or “For Nobody”, a tight new wavey rocker with a dash of the ol’ counterpoint. Unfortunately, the band set their sights lower…

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GIANT FOR A DAY

1978; Rating: 1.97/pi

Composition: + / Lyrics: − / Production: ~ / Innovation: ~

  • 01 Words from the Wise [B+]
  • 02 Thank You [A−]
  • 03 Giant for a Day [A−]
  • 04 Spooky Boogie [A−]
  • 05 Take Me [B]
  • 06 Little Brown Bag [A−]
  • 07 Friends [B+]
  • 08 No Stranger [B−]
  • 09 It’s Only Goodbye [C+]
  • 10 Rock Climber [A−]

Now this one, your grandma would tan your hide if she ever caught you listening to it. Yeah, this is sad. Not that this album is bad, exactly. I mean, these guys still have oodles of talent and it shines through in several places here. But they’re obviously confused and unsure of how to proceed. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop them from plunging on ahead into the world of commercial rock. Naturally, this became the first Gentle Giant album since 1971 to completely miss the charts.

The interesting thing about the album is its diversity—every song seems like an attempt to write a single in a different genre. It’s a mish-mash that ranges from the embarrassing (power ballad “It’s Only Goodbye”) to the moderately successful (“Little Brown Bag”, yer basic rock & roll number) to the highly peculiar (“Giant for a Day”, a pounding disco-rock…thing. Which is actually kind of cool, except that the chorus literally repeats 100,000 times at the end.) The one thing Giant for a Day doesn’t have is anything truly compelling enough to justify its existence.

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CIVILIAN

1980; Rating: 2.50/pi

Composition: + / Lyrics: ~ / Production: ~ / Innovation: −

  • 01 Convenience (Clean and Easy) [A−]
  • 02 All through the Night [A]
  • 03 Shadows on the Street [A−]
  • 04 Number One [B+]
  • 05 Underground [A]
  • 06 I Am a Camera [A−]
  • 07 Inside Out [A]
  • 08 It’s Not Imagination [A]

Bonus tracks:

  • 09 Heroes No More [A−]

By 1980, Gentle Giant was in dire straits. I don’t just mean that they were physically absorbed by the members of Dire Straits like cities engulfed by a giant alien amoeba (although that is part of it.) Having once been one of the most unique bands in the business, they’d stripped their sound down almost all the way to generic pop/rock. It was a failure. Nevertheless, they decided to give it one more try before throwing in the towel.

It’s a valiant effort. In fact, this is a genuinely likeable album, which finds the band making some sort of peace with their newly reduced status. The sound is very much rooted in new wave and mainstream hard rock, but they’ve brought back enough of a hint of their prog roots to keep things interesting. Even better, they’ve stopped flailing around from genre to genre like beached whales, instead focusing on writing songs.

There are even a few genuinely excellent tracks here. “Underground” is a picture perfect new wave single, with train-imitating beats and sharp hooks. “It’s Not Imagination” recalls “For Nobody” with its intricate riff. “Inside Out” is a dark ballad that nearly evokes Joy Division.

The formula is simple: solid rock tunes, dark political lyrics and not-too-horribly dated production. We’ve all heard it all before—nobody’s going to have a religious experience with this album, that’s for sure. But there’s really nothing to complain about here, except simple lack of ambition. Your grandmother would surely tell you not to turn up your nose at such a record.

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