King Crimson – Lizard

Greetings, fellow persons!

Sorry about the delay in updates, but this whole week was spent doing some awesome stuff like “modding” my Mp3 player to do amazing things like play video game soundtracks and Bejeweled on top of its already awesome audiophilic capabilities (I’m totally a FLAC fiend now). Also I had to do holiday shopping, attend parties and, oh yeah, finally obtain some gainful employment, since this blog doesn’t pay for itself unfortunately.

Thus, it’s been a hectic, confusing, yet ultimately rewarding week for me, so I have decided to top it all off with an album that… well ok I selected this at random, but here you go, King Crimson’s Lizard:

Yeah keep telling me you miss the olden days of album covers. I'm listening.

While looking back at old entries of this here blog, I was surprised at first that I never wrote about this album, but then I remembered the very important reason why: I had no idea what to say about it.

All I could remember about my first listen to Lizard was NOTES and then NOOOOTES (Notes). I really don’t think any coherent thought entered my mind in the 42 1/2 minutes of the album’s run-time, which is odd because this blog might show you that I have a lot of thoughts about music usually.

Fast-forward a year or so, and something magical happened: a guy from a prog group called Porcupine Tree decided to work with Robert Fripp to painstakingly remaster, from the original master tapes, ALL of the King Crimson catalogue. Despite this being a very good idea, since master tape remasters are practically the only way to get these ancient albums to sound good on modern mp3/vgm/Bejeweled players, it was also kind of a predictable idea, since King Crimson had already issued 30th AND 35th Anniversary remasters of their old material. Still, from the master tapes, maaaaan.

Among the first albums to be remastered, quite mysteriously, was Lizard, so this is where I gave Lizard what I would consider my first true listen. Then again. Then again. Then again… to be honest, I’m not done listening to it, but at least I’ve finally formulated enough opinions to write a blog entry!

Fact is, I had so much trouble coming up with a single coherent thought about the album because there isn’t a single coherent thought IN the album. I have now listened to the album dozens, possibly hundreds of times, and I know every single note by heart, but I can’t begin to try and guess why any two of them are put together the way they are.

Of course, the 40th anniversary re-issue of the album comes with some  pretty interesting liner notes (penned by Fripp himself) which, when paired with the Internet, paints a rather interesting story about the album’s production.

Without going into too much detail about the band’s personnel problems in those early days between 1967 and 2009, I will say that King Crimson were basically like watching a typical teenage garage band go through the motions of getting together, going nowhere, and breaking up, except instead of that middle bit, you’ve got “becomes the biggest rock band in the world for a while”. Despite having the world in the palm of their hands through a combination of VERY quickly cultivating a uniquely complex sound the likes of which had never been heard, showcasing extraordinary musicianship with even more extraordinary focus on music rather than image, and as Fripp put it himself, being in the right place at the right time, King Crimson simply could NOT get started on that crawling thing before they were already running.

At the time that Lizard was being recorded, they had already lost vocalist/bassist/donut fiend Greg Lake to a little-known band whose name escapes me at the moment, and that was after losing everybody else as well. Basically, Fripp was a man without a band (but his non-musician lyricist remained, more on that later), so he decided to rebuild from scratch.

Apparently Fripp didn’t get the memo that you’re not supposed to include a jazz pianist and four woodwind/brass players in your hard rock band, so that’s exactly what he did. Still, if you were the only member of a garage band that left you and the only other musicians you know from school are in the marching band, are you going to say no?  Also joining the fray is, not kidding, his actual highschool bandmate/roommate Gordon Haskell on bass and vocals, and the only drummer he could find who would take part in this mess, a hero by any standard named Ian McCulloch.

With this motley crew of masterful musicians, Fripp finally had a force to be reckoned with; a band that would record an album that, maybe this time, would not sound quite so much like a repeat of In The Court.

Well, it sure wasn’t a repeat of In The Court, in sound or amount of success, but the fact that the album even happened is perhaps even more a miracle than the huge success that was the band’s first album. Basically, let’s just say that collecting such an assorted cast of kids did not lead to a lot of civilized agreement of ideas, and when your vocalist/bassist is only good at one of those things and doesn’t even like the music, well… let’s talk about the music!

It starts off with some synthy kind of harp strumming sounds, which is not bad, and then Haskell’s voice kind of staggers into the door spilling cough medicine (the type that they ban in most countries) all over the place, and your first thought might well be “Dude, do you need to lie down or turn on a humidifier or something?” And then he punches you and you can hear the wail of ambulance sirens as the paramedics revive you and, oh wait, that’s just Fripp’s guitar playing brash, diminished bits on his guitar as Gordon’s voice comes back in with all the clarity of a wet shoe.

Still, it’s hard to tell what’s more congested, Gordon’s voice or Peter Sinfield’s lyrics. The first track is called “Cirkus” (back before Mortal Kombat made it decidedly un-cool to replace c’s with k’s willy-nilly), and is full of rather obnoxious words strung together by pure pretense, which would seem like faulty songwriting if not for the fact that the same can be said about the music itself.

The material gets even more ridiculous afterward, in fact the song “Indoor Games” ends with a genuine burst of laughter from Haskell as he attempts to figure out how best to emotionally deliver the line “Hey ho”. An understandable bemusement, to tell the truth. Add to this some rather intriguing clean guitar riffs trading off with the saxophone, and you’ve got a song that is by no means bad, if bad songs are something you like.

The next song, “Happy Family“, doesn’t feature any corpsing, but does contain some thinly-veiled allegorical statements about The Beatles, a somewhat well-known rock band from whom Fripp apparently derived the idea to make an entire band around recreating the musical shock that was the ending to Sgt. Pepper. To be honest, the lyrics might be terrible in this piece as well, but Gordon’s voice is so well hidden behind a rather tasty synthesizer effect (plus his own natural store of phlegm and wintertime nuts) that, mercifully, not a word can be understood by humans.

After all that fun nonsense, we go into WHOAH WHERE DID THAT FLUTE COME FROM… I mean, “Lady of the Dancing Water”, a song that calms the storm of weirdness either to prepare the listener for what is to come, or to try and make up for the rather melody-free events that had previously transpired. It’s a very pretty song, but I wish anyone other than Gordon Haskell had sung it, because seriously somebody give him a shot of adrenaline; I think he’s had some kind of reaction.

Finally, the fifth and final track of the CD (or the entire B side to the record) is a 23 minute opus called “Lizard”, wherein Gordon Haskell was kindly shuffled off the roster to make room for a real singer, Yes’s own castrato sensation Jon Anderson. Funny enough, after several songs’ worth of passages go by, Gordon breaks back into the studio to sing for a bit before disappearing forever and ever, missing and presumed eaten by bears.

So I have written all of this to kind of give you a sense of the chaos that has unfolded in this album, but did you see that bit up there where I said I listened to it again and again? That’s because I completely love this album.

Seriously! Sure I may idolize strong melodies, and some of my very favorite songs can be played within a single octave on a piano, but something in my brain simply becomes obsessed when weirdness, the abstract, obtuse, endlessly and needlessly complex musical ideas come into play, and boy do they come in with this album.

Your average music listener, even one who otherwise enjoys King Crimson and their razor’s edge approach to pushing the envelope into the seat of their pants, will probably detest Lizard for any number of good reasons. It sounds out of tune, it hunkers down into rather long passages of go-nowhere note tinkling, hell, it sounds like Jazz in places, but the confusion and befuddlement is what keeps me coming back for more. The anticipation of another sequence of bewildering notes is a rush to me, and thanks to the amazing remastering job in the most recent re-release, the textures and tones really sing out in a good set of headphones. All 23 minutes of the album’s ending track keeps me thoroughly entertained, which turned out to be really good training for becoming an actual Yes fan, turns out.

I truly can’t knock this album for what it is, because it really shouldn’t have been, and I am so glad it was anyway. Apart from being musically one of the most interesting things I’ve heard, it’s also a rather clear window into a band that was falling apart before it even came together, and sure enough, only 1 member of the band remained to help Fripp through the next album, and it was the damn flute player.

Also, in true garage band fashion, when drummer Ian McCulloch left the group, he was immediately replaced with his ex-roommate, who could also play the drums. God bless King Crimson.

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Armcannon – Armcannon 2: Return Of The Attack Of The Legend Of Pizzor + Interview!

Today, one of the truly awesome bands in the Video Game Music “scene” released a super cool video of their newest song, a mash-up of music from the game Gears of War and the Tears For Fears song “Mad World”, (specifically the REM version) which the company that published Gears of War famously used in their TV advertisement:

Watching this video (which I suggest you do!) tells you almost everything you need to know about Armcannon; they’re clever, adept at their instruments, metaltastic, funny, and they do music from video games.

They are easily one of my favorite groups to have run across at various points in my own doings.

Let’s talk about their almost-second-newest album, Armcannon 2: Return of the Attack of the Legend of Pizzor!

Get equipped with: Mega Pizza Boots!

It’s almost unfair to call the band a “VGM band” (in fact, I am not even sure the band calls itself that), because while this album is MOSTLY about video games, it’s bookended by two covers of ultra-famous themes from anyone’s 80’s childhood.

The first is the theme to the original “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers” (titled “Morty Miphon” in one of MANY spoonerisms used by the band when making titles). I guess it COULD be argued that it COULD be a cover of the theme from the Super Nintendo game based on the TV show, but let’s be realistic here.

On top of being sped up and metal’d up to be the kind of kickin’ rock anthem that makes the perfect beginning to an album/show/birthday party, it features something you don’t often hear with “Video Game” themed albums: mighty vocal work! Guitarist Mike Willard does an awesome job impersonating the show’s antagonist, Rita Repulsa, while simultaneously holding down those sweet guitar riffs and those timeless lyrics.

After everyone’s favorite TV theme, the video game tunes start, interestingly enough, with one of the creepier tunes to ever come out of Nintendo’s flagship composer, Koji Kondo: the “fortress” theme from Super Mario World, titled “X-1234” here.

This track is an excellent reproduction of one of my favorite moments in 16 bit gaming*, and really showcases keyboardist Chris Dlugosz, as it should.

Keeping the Mario going is a lovely medley of one of my favorite video game soundtracks, Super Mario Bros. 2 (“Two Excellent Italian Brothers“), which shows the band’s affinity not just for metal, but other styles as well. This song also draws attention to something else Armcannon does a little differently from other bands in their area of music: original solos and breakdowns. The solos are quite good and avoid deftly the trap of being too laborious (unless you just don’t like solos at all, in which case, shame on you).

Half-way through the album, the band pays tribute to the unquestionably American (and questionably awesome) songwriting of Rick Derringer with the Hulk Hogan theme “Real American”, which then gives way to Shawn Michaels’ theme song “Sexy Boy”. I don’t know much about wrestling (though I know enough about Hulk Hogan’s songwriter), but one only needs to love INSPIRATION to enjoy this song.

Now for my favorite part of the album! After the wrestling montage (I always picture a montage with that song) comes the band’s tribute to one of my favorite video games, Rygar on the NES (titled here simply “Rygar Medley“) which includes one of my favorite VGM songs ever, the Sagila’s Cave theme, and DOESN’T include one of the worst VGM songs ever, “Palace of Dorago” (seriously try keeping that melody from turning into the “Meow Mix” song in your head).

The band also uses this part of the album to cover music from Contra, Mega Man 2 (A really funky version of the Crash Man theme, and the first Dr. Wily stage theme, which is like the “Brick House” of video game bands), Castlevania 3, and perhaps best of all, Kid Icarus, the very best video game in which you can turn into an eggplant because of magic (and was originally composed by my hero, “Hip” Tanaka).

The band finishes out with a very spirited version of one of the best movie themes ever, Huey Lewis I MEAN Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters”, which let me tell you, really brings down the house, whether in an actual house or just nice headphones like what I’m wearing.

After the band stuff and cover stuff is over and done with, the 12th track on this excellent album is an original chiptune composition by guitarist and VGM-jack-of-all-trades Dan Behrens, who moonlights as “Danimal Cannon” in the VGM inverse universe of “Chiptune**”.

As for Armcannon, their second album is about the most fun you can have with a video game band, and the best part is that they branch out of that and into all kinds of areas of artistic and rocking, and even have plans on evolving their abilities into something entirely original, which has this blogger all kinds of excited. You would be a fool not to buy this album immediately and tell all your friends, so I will leave you to that…

…but not before showing you an interview I conducted with Armcannon’s co-founder and keyboardist, Chris Dlugosz!

Chris Taylor: Firstly, thanks to Chris Dlugosz from Armcannon for answering these questions that burn in the hearts of music lovers everywhere. My first question is: How did Armcannon come about, and how will it all end?

Chris Dlugosz: There was a particular lounge room in college with couches and a TV in which dozens of people regularly hung out between classes. Many were so regular that they all just became well acquainted friends over time. this included myself and Danimal [who had hair back then haha]. During a typical day of lunch-hour-esque chatter, he and I discovered that we both held a particular love in our hearts for the Kraid theme from Metroid ever since childhood. Naturally, that sparked all kinds of hyperactive discussion of the playing of videogame music. This was around the time where only the minibosses existed. Another friend in this lounge was our guitarist Mike, who had pretty much zero interest in videogame music, but infinite interest in anything to do with playing guitar, as he is indeed virtuosic and still laboring hard at all of the disciplines to this day. Soon enough, the three of us found ourselves in my dad’s house, and we hammered out a sketch rendition of Kraid, the official first Armcannon song. We felt the energy of potential, so we nabbed the closest bassist and drummer at hand, and practiced in a freezing cold dirty apartment attic for months. Armcannon will not end, but the trend of videogame music might be past its prime. I can see us keeping our name but morphing into an original prog music band.

CT: In my own opinion, you guys are made up of some of the most individually talented musicians in the VGM community, and the recordings definitely showcase that. Was it a conscious decision from the start to include things like original solos and breakdowns within the structure of the original material?

CD: It was 2005 when we formed, and during that time, the word “remix” was huge in the budding world of video game music. We kept calling our songs remixes, and intentionally stayed away from “covers.” Naturally, the word remix demands insertion of new content, and not just crappy techno beats over midi files. Our goal was to wrangle down our flood of original content into something that appropriately amplifies and celebrates the covered melody. We are not even fully successful at that, as I consider some of our original content too superfluous. Thankfully, part of our mission is to make the music enjoyable to non-VGM listeners as well.

CT: Something that kind of sets Armcannon apart from other VGM groups, as far as I can tell, is a very obvious sense of fun when it comes to the material, such as the vocal parts added to the music of “Tecmo Super Bowl” and Crashman’s Theme. Is there any kind of planning behind this, or is it a spontaneous thing?

CD: Much of the time at practice, we all act like idiots, intentionally make glaring errors in the middle of a song for the distinct purpose of making the rest of the band crack up at the absurdity. There are times when entire songs are played intentionally wrong by every member of the band and we are just cracking up endlessly. It’s only hilarious because of its mis-behavior, similar to a 5th grader writing the number 5318008 on a calculator and turning it upside down. Naturally, scraps of this behavior have survived into the final cut of some songs. Some stupid gimmick ends up being hilarious every single time, but gradually gets less hilarious, and eventually becomes literally as normal as the rest of the song, but at that point, removing it would be like re-writing the song.

CT: Another thing that sets Armcannon apart is the emphasis on puzzles and intellectual references. The secret track on Leg Vacuum has to do with note sequence algorithms and most of the tracks on both albums are titled with spoonerisms and anagrams. My question is: who is the professor of the group responsible for this chicanery and why?

CD: That would be me. My instinct was to fill the entire album, both in audio and art, with easter eggs, or secrets to be discovered. That goes hand in hand with the spirit of old NES games. Invisible mushroom blocks in mario or bomb-able cave entrances in Zelda. Meanwhile, I have been literally addicted to spoonerisms over this last decade, and the addiction has spilled forth to the rest of the band, to the point that it’s almost our signature mannerism, as we constantly interrupt conversations to insert a half amusing, half belabored, spoonerism of something that was just said. We take our music very seriously, but we never once cared what the titles to our tracks are, so the only things guiding me on what to call them was our tomfoolery and addiction to word play.

CT: I want to give some big props to whoever decided to cover Rygar and Kid Icarus on Armcannon 2. What, if any, is the criteria for VGM material selection?

CD: Rygar came from our guitarist Mike (Willard) who never actually played the game, but watched someone else play through it enough that the music permated him as a child, and he brought it to the table at band practice. Criteria for song selection is [1] based on if myself, Danimal, and Mike happen to all know the music already, and [2] a process of one person knowing the piece, and selling it to the rest of the band, usually in the form of plugging in a laptop or smartphone into the amps and just playing the source material. There have been many times where we just sit there for an hour and a half listening to song after song of source material from one entire game, cherry picking what we would love to play, and mashing it together into a medley. That is precisely how we did Tecmo Super Bowl, Rygar, and Ninja Gaiden, among others. It’s extremely helpful that I have every NES and SNES audio rom file on my droid.

CT: Being that this is an album blog, what is your favorite album?

CD: Particular favorites changes constantly. but I can tell you that the only thing we all listen to together is pretentious over-composed brain-bending prog-metal and jazz-fusion. Musician’s music.

CT: Being that you guys are mostly a video game group, what is your favorite game?

CD: Mine was always Super Metroid for a myriad of the usual reasons. Mindblowing at the time. Perfect establishment of amazing moods. Music that will never be matched. One of the pinnacles of sidescrolling action.

CT: Separate from favorite game, what is everyone’s favorite VGM soundtrack and/or composer?

CD: Danimal and I are complete suckers for every single note written by Tim Follin. Our bassist Ian, who is much younger than us, treasures SNES the way we treasure NES. He loves every bit of the music to A Link to the Past, and I cannot say I disagree with him there. Also, I consider Koji Kondo’s arrangement of the castle music in Super Mario World to be one of his most delicious and audacious works, probably because it is decidedly dastardly in mood compared to the rest of his work.

CT: How do you feel about the recent news that Nobuo Uematsu is going to be rocking out at MAGfest, a festival normally reserved for VGM bands that DIDN’T write all their own material?

CD: I consider his attendance utterly appropriate, and impressive that the Magfest staff, all of whom I know personally, managed to swing this. However, I fear that his presence might suck up too much focus of the convention. It’s like God coming to a Jesus camp. I would not be surprised if the guy gets overwhelmed with rabid fans and does not want to return. Also, get ready for every band there to bust out every Final Fantasy track they got, because obviously Mr. Uematsu will be watching every band perform, right?

CT: Any plans for Armcannon 3?

CD: MANY! The core of the band is myself, Danimal, and Mike. We spent the last few years wrestling with securing a bassist and then a new drummer. They are finally in place and practiced up, and we are back to the writing phase. We all feel that if we do not kick out a new album, one that blows our other work out of the water, then we are just wasting our time. Armcannon 3 is mandatory and is already happening.

Thanks again to Armcannon for their awesome albums and to Chris Dlugosz for giving this interview. Go buy their stuff!

Hey all, Chris Taylor here. Liked this article? Why not “Like” Album Du Jour on Facebook! Also, should you be interested, I have a Video Game Music project of my own, also on Facebook.  


*The realization that, holy crap, the Super Nintendo can do 3D-looking transparent effects when you punch the doors on the inexplicably-placed fence.

**If you don’t know what “chiptune” is, it’s basically a song written and played entirely on 8-bit soundcards, so it’s kind of like Gameboy meets modern song, and Dan actually just released an entire album of this awesome stuff on the Ubiktune label (check it out here!)

The Mars Volta – Frances The Mute

I was kind of wanting to write The Mars Volta’s albums up backwards from the band’s latest album, The Bedlam In Goliath, since that’s the order I listened to them in, but I decided to go with Frances The Mute because it’s the one I’ve been listening to lately, since I found it brand new in a local CD store for $4.99. So there you go:

Hey buddy, your steering wheel is on the wrong side! Oh also you have a bag over your head I guess. That can't be good for seeing where you are going

Thom Yorke of Radiohead described In Rainbows as Radiohead’s version of a  love-making album (he must have forgotten he said the same thing about Hail To The Thief). If it is indeed the case that listening to Radiohead is like making love, then The Mars Volta are the kind of lover that kicks the door down and charges with an electric egg-beater in one hand and what can only legally be called “The Obliterator” in the other, wearing nothing but the pelt of a Wolverine he killed with his bare hands. A night with The Mars Volta may mean extensive hospital rest, but you’ll never be quite the same afterward and will probably find yourself wanting more.

In particular, Frances The Mute brings the stunning chaos of The Mars Volta’s sound in excess, starting right after the acoustic intro to “Cygnus… Vismund Cygnus”. The whole thing is just a chaotic mess of busy drumming, dynamic bass to match, and crazy guitar riffs that really demand repeat listening in order to take it all in. The lyrics… well we’re not going to talk about the lyrics, as a good portion of them are in Spanish and the English ones make no sense anyway. Such is the way of these things.

It’s quite all right, since vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala (that is an awesome name) suscribes to the “voice as an instrument” theory of singing, where high notes and loosely-strung-together ideas (also high) are just fine. It’s interesting, because the guy can sing any note that Matthew Bellamy can, but it’s not the feature of the song, it just goes right in with the mix of craziness. Only the song “L’via L’Viaquez” do his intense high-notes really stand out, that is, unless you’re listening for them, and for the 4 minutes of aggregate rocking, there’s about 7 minutes of meandering whispers of music.

That is, perhaps, the reason people seem to prefer the band’s other albums to Frances The Mute (though one fan I know considers Frances his favorite). The album rocks, all right, but may be better for beginners who want to ease into the band’s insanity, as there are frequent slow-down portions where the album nearly crawls (such as the entire 13 minutes of “Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore (A) Vade Mecum”), but if you make it through these portions (or, you know, just skip ’em), some amazing rock awaits (like the next track, “Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore (B) Pour Another Icepick”). I guess it’s all a matter of asking yourself: just how much time do you have in your day for rockin’? If your answer is “All day man I’m stoned out of my mind!” then Frances The Mute is the album for you. If you only have a few minutes to spare between dropping the kids off at soccer practice to rock out to The Mars Volta, might I recommend Bedlam In Goliath as a more “all rock all the time” kind of experience.

Mind you, I am fairly new to the Volta sound myself. I really enjoy the albums, but like with most progressive rock, repeat listenings and intense concentration are required to make any sense of it all. I knew from the moment a friend played me a portion of a Mars Volta album in the car that I would need a lot more time to devote to listening to these guys to get a clear idea of what’s really going on. That seems like crazy-talk coming from a Gentle Giant fan who likes Prog in general, but these two dudes from El Paso, Tx. really have something going for them here.

If you didn’t notice, I’ve avoided going for a track-by-track analysis of the music, and the reason for that is because the whole album is a song, practically. “Cygnus… Vismund Cygnus”, “The Widow”, and “L’Via L’Viaquez” stand alone as their own tracks, but two of those tracks are over 10 minutes long, and then the next two… uhm… Suites, maybe? The two multi-song songs are “Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore” which is 4 tracks in one, and “Cassandra Geminni” is a 5-parter, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to tell you where one ends and the other begins.

Incidentally, I noticed that “L’Via L’Viaquez” is one of the tracks on the new Guitar Hero game, and I initially wondered how they got an 11 minute long song (well that isn’t “Freebird”) onto Guitar Hero, particularly given that more than half of the album meanders into improvised-sounding horn solos, but then I heard the song and found that there’s a “single” version that’s only 5 minutes long. It kind of makes me wonder why they didn’t just do that with the entire album?

I think the answer is “Genius”. Mr. Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez seem to fancy themselves as such, which is really how progressive rock gets started – when artists think they’re too smart for standard rock. They are probably correct, after all The Mars Volta enjoys an audience of people much smarter (or at least more pretentious) than myself, except for the Tool fans. For this reason, I try not to mention them too often in public, except to say they’re great and I enjoy their music when I have time to listen to an entire album.

Frances The Mute is really growing on me, as well. Despite its ridiculously long slow segments, there is more than enough jammin’ tunage to fill out a lengthy bike ride. In particular, the “Cassandra Geminni” segments are a lot of fun, despite the singing occasionally lapsing into slurping. I also think “Cygnus… Vismund Cygnus” is a great way to start an album, 13 minute length notwithstanding. Indeed I would say the night of passion is worth the weeks of pain, and I’m going to stop using that dreadful analogy immediately.

 

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Gentle Giant – Gentle Giant

I decided, based on a friend’s advice, to tackle writing about my favorite band as a once-a-month thing. It works out, you see, Gentle Giant put out 12 albums, and there are 12 months in the year. I decided that “roughly the middle” is a good time of month to write these articles, so the 15th is now known as Gentle Giant Day, and what a lovely day!

Wow a forehead bigger than my own!

If nothing else can be said about Gentle Giant, it’s that they were certainly unusual. It was a band comprised of 5 members (6 for their first four albums, including this one) who could play 30 or so instruments between them, and didn’t mind switching instruments mid-song, and 4 of the original 6 members were classically trained. The keyboardist/cellist/vibesist, Kerry Minnear, trained in one of the greatest musical conservatories in the world, and apparently the degree he got there was the only one of its kind given out within 10 years there. So it’s safe to say that this is certainly one of the more “qualified” bands out there. Though not as present on their first album, the band’s signature and lasting legacy would be their ultra-precise and enormously complicated arrangements, which the band attacked with gusto.

Speaking of gusto, the band decided to open the gates to their music with an epic, sweeping number called “Giant“.

The birth of the realization
The rise of a high expectation

The band likens the building up and the tearing down of their opening song as a giant made up of several parts, which of course is a self-reference. Indeed, Giant has a really big sound, there are so many parts that come and go or compliment the overall sound while sitting in the background, yet the whole thing is a bit more subtle than a lot of the “over-the-top” bands that were around, especially in the “progressive rock” genre that people often put Gentle Giant in.

I’m really not of the opinion that they belong in any one genre, though, and the second song is a testament to that. “Funny Ways” opens up with a 12 string acoustic guitar playing a very dirge-like minor progression as violin and cello set you up for a very sad time with the introspective lyrics. Fortunately, the band doesn’t like to just leave a song conveying one mood, so after the second chorus, it becomes something else altogether as the bass, tympani and trumpet come in to welcome the oncoming guitar solo or, in the case of live performances, a wicked cool vibraphone solo by Kerry. This song is apparently quite the live staple, as all 4 of the concerts I’ve seen/heard by the band had it as a feature at one point.

The band, in interviews and what-not, considered themselves more “experimental” in their first two albums, and certainly that can be heard in the oppressive third song, “Alucard”, which is a fitting title since the lyrics sound like they are being sung backwards thanks to a neat studio trick. The synthesizers that help open up the song almost seem to be playing random notes to add to the dissonance of the track, but like everything else, is totally intentional. I adore this song for its disturbing tone and funky beat, provided by the band’s short-lived (and unfortunately now deceased) original drummer, Martin Smith.

Not ones to finish out the first half of the album on a disturbing note, Gentle Giant calls on the powers of jazzy guitar and a string duo (or is it a trio?) to bring the mellow tribute to midnight solitude, “Isn’t It Quiet And Cold?” (that video contains a “remixed” version of the song, and is not exactly what appears on the album, best I could do), a song about someone who missed the bus and had to walk home in the middle of the night. The pizzicato strings and the flow of the rhythm give the song the feel of walking, and the whole thing is very peaceful.

The peaceful sound is carried through to the next track, the antepenultimate “Nothing At All“, which starts as a tender melancholy ballad of lonliness and heartbreak. The band would eventually be known for its extraordinary complex and often arhythmical vocal polyphony, but in their first album, this is pretty much the only instance of vocal harmony. It gives way to a gentle guitar/bass riff that builds up into a rock number where “lead singer” Derek displays his raw singing power (he and 2 other members of the band were in a soul group previous to Gentle Giant). The song then takes an unusual turn; it goes into a drum solo being fed through a phase shifting loop that travels from side-to-side, and then a classical piano piece (specifically  Liebestraum No. 3 by Liszt) comes in, almost unwittingly, since it doesn’t really “follow” the drums, and then the drums, seeming to sense the piano’s presence, starts wildly soloing in what sounds (in a pair of headphones anyway since it’s panning from left to write in a circular motion) like a vortex forming, and it drags the piano in, which holds its own for a little while but then cascades down some diminished jazz chords as if getting sucked into the vortex. How I wish I was clever enough to make something like that up! The song then goes back to the melancholy mode it started in, unaware of what happened, and the song ends at over 9 minutes long, the longest in the band’s catalogue save for some live shenanigans.

Having gone through a few different genres and an exploration of various sonic experiments, how could one possibly end an album appropriately? By totally rocking the funk out, the track “Why Not?” is for sure my favorite song on the album, and in fact starts a trend among Gentle Giant’s 12 albums that is almost always followed: the last track on the album has to be the rockingest.

“Why Not” actually trades off the rocking guitar/organ riffs for a medieval-sounding flute/bass passage where Derek’s powerful vocal work is replaced by Kerry’s gentle voice as he sings:

Why not climb a hill with someone who hates you?
Why not hate someone who climbs a hill with you?
And as time passes by, your feet are slipping
And you are wondering why there’s no forgetting

And then a guitar solo brings the whole thing back to a veritable wall of vocals resounding the song’s fairly clever lyrics:

Don’t sing a tune to yourself, you might believe this one
Try not to sew it yourself, the threading don’t stretch none
Who said the things that go in the song is only saying
Dead thoughts can kill a good thing, the band is only playing

Then, historians take note, the band goes into what is probably the only blues-jam in its history, and they play the blues as masterfully as any other genre. What a grand finish!

Oh right, actually there is one more track. Just so you know that Gentle Giant, despite being an extraordinary group of untold talent, is not a band that ever took itself too seriously, they jam out a synth-laden rock jam version of England’s (and, to a lesser extent, Canada’s) national anthem, which they titled “The Queen”. I’m not terribly fond of it, but it’s certainly fun.

Gentle Giant is a great debut album, and the only complaint I could possibly draw of it is that the recording itself is distorted in parts and just generally too quiet throughout. The U.S. release of the album, through Vertigo, sounds particularly grating. There have been many “remasters” released to try and rectify this, and the only one I have heard that qualifies as “really great” is the Universal Japan release. Then again, it’s out of print and at the time I bought it the price was generally in the $30-$40 range. Despite the extreme care the Japanese took in remastering this album (the band, due to legal issues, actually can’t re-release the thing themselves like they did with 7 of their other albums), it still sounds muddy in parts, and the volume has to be cranked at all times.

Still, despite the sound issues, it is an amazing album, and the rest of their stuff only gets better from here… well… until the final 2 albums, but we’ll get to those by the end of this year. Until then, happy Gentle Giant Day!

 

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