Recently I read Jan Swofford’s justly lauded biography of Johannes Brahms. Listening to, thinking, and talking about little but Brahms for several weeks, I discovered that among casual classical music listeners appreciating Brahms’s music is commonly thought to require more concentrated brain power and deeper understanding than music by certain other composers, such as Mozart, or, ironically, the highly mathematical Bach.
Brahms’s not entirely fair reputation as the thinking person’s classical music has a more recent analogue among progressive rock bands: Gentle Giant, indisputably one of the genre’s greats, is often thought of – when remembered at all – as a band that made intricate, interesting but rather soulless music. Now, founding member Derek Shulman’s own DRT Entertainment label is re-releasing seven of the band’s albums, along with additional material, affording an excellent opportunity to both re-evaluate this classic music and expose new audiences to it.
Progressive rock’s star has fallen pretty low. When we think of bands like Yes, Rush, and Emerson Lake and Palmer we tend to remember the hyperseriousness and symphonic bombast that characterised those bands at their worst, forgetting their musicianship and originality and the excitement they engendered in audiences who in the ’70s looked to rock – hard as this may be to believe today – for musical adventure, not just pretty faces and a beat, or sullen anger.
Current bands that accept the moniker “progressive rock” tend to be of the heavy metal variety; we don’t apply it to inventive bands with a lighter, often humorous touch, like They Might Be Giants or Primus, whom we tend to think of instead as one-of-a-kind oddities. But they’re not. Even a band with a unique, unmistakeable sensibility and sound doesn’t exist in a vacuum either in space or in time. It’s well worth recalling the history going back to the late 1960s of extraordinarily creative, composed concert music played by rock bands to large and cheering, if stoned, audiences.
Exhibit A: Gentle Giant at the Calderone Theater in Hempstead, New York, where I saw them in the late 1970s. Just a bit earlier, in ’76, they’d recorded a live album there called Free Hand. It and In a Glass House (from the same year) are the first two releases in the current 35th anniversary reissue series. Remastered, the recordings sound fresh, not at all dated. Free Hand is the slightly more pop-oriented, playful record; In a Glass House has longer, more avant-garde pieces (though the band does rock out sometimes, as in “Experience” and “The Runaway”). Together the two releases demonstrate the band’s mastery of a whole orchestra of instruments and their absorption of a head-exploding variety of forms: from hard rock, soul and the Beatles to Stravinsky, Celtic dances and mediaeval canons.
Saying Gentle Giant’s music is cerebral just means that it makes your brain dance, and what could be wrong with that? Not that you couldn’t move your body too to songs like “Just The Same” and “Free Hand.” It’s accessible music that’s loaded with musicianly wizardry but in spirit only a modest leap from the serious pop-rock of The Moody Blues, Jethro Tull (circa Warchild or Thick as a Brick), or Gentle Giant’s own earlier, pop incarnation as Simon Dupree and the Big Sound. This is the right time for a reconsideration of Gentle Giant, and the high quality of these reissues bodes well for the rest, due later this year.