Saturday, October 1, 2005

Records In Review: Gentle Giant--Playing The Fool (Live)

English progsters Gentle Giant have just had a whack of their catalogue (finally) remastered, courtesy of a record label (part-owned by singer turned record exec Derek Shulman) that seems to release mostly crap. I've also picked up In A Glass House (1973) from this bunch, which strikes me as one of their best. They're all currently being offered at a very reasonable price.

GG were one of what I guess you'd call the first wave of English progressive bands, although their first album wasn't released 'til 1970. Their peak period was between '71 and '76, during which time their sound incorporated everything from blues-rock to medievalism and 20th century art music. In terms of their more commercially successful contemporaries, they compare most directly with Jethro Tull, particularly in terms of their folk stylings, emphasis on precision ensemble playing and on elements at the micro-level. Their brand of prog could be a little much for the layperson, particularly as they lacked that central Peter Gabriel-type character who could act as a dramatic conduit, but the musicianship is second to none. GG, more than any other band of its pedigree, always approach everything as musicians first and conceptualists second, and there is never a hint of shamateurism about the performance.

Upon hearing Playing The Fool for the first time, it's hard to believe, especially given the era, that this was GG's first live release. The recording is clear and concise, and the performances for the most part excellent and, dare I say it, loadsa fun! I won't go into the songs in detail, as this kind of music requires an essay for each track, other than to say that some of the pieces, like "Free Hand" and "Just The Same" from the Free Hand album are played pretty hard and straight, while others have been considerably re-arranged. The medievalist a capella "On Reflection" has had its structure essentially reversed, and it works wonderfully. And how many rock bands can rearrange themselves into a quintet of cello, viola, recorders and vibes? And not sound like idiots? Great stuff. Soloing is well-integrated, as in "So Sincere" from The Power And The Glory, a rhythmically and otherwise busy song that breaks into a screaming, abstract Gary Green guitar meandering followed by a thundering, multi-player military-themed drum solo--that's 25 years before the drumline craze, kids!

Most Gentle Giant albums are in the 35-40 minute range, which is probably a good thing given the effort that it takes to sort out the music's complexity and attention to detail. A lot of the pieces here are in medley or two-for-one form, so it's easy to listen to in chunks, which I suggest doing in order to avoid getting "too much, too quickly." Warnings aside, this is highly recommended, even for first-time listeners.