Graded on a Curve:
Gentle Giant,
Octopus

Remember a while back when the owner of Segway drove off a cliff and died—on a Segway? Well that’s kinda what England’s Gentle Giant reminds me of—they take all of the ingredients of progressive rock and drive them off a precipice. The problem is overkill: they’re all over the place, and I’m not talking about the album as a whole; I’m talking about individual songs.

Diagnosis: Musical attention deficit disorder. There was this kid in my grade school named Willie Wireman who was so exuberantly hyperactive his second grade teacher tied him to his chair—an act of sheer barbarism, I know, but things were different back in the sixties, and most teachers were war criminals. That said, if I were Gentle Giant’s teacher I would do the same thing; I would tie them to a chair.

The sextet’s manic tendencies border on the intolerable on 1972’s Octopus. Listening to its songs is like watching a game of professional ping-pong. I know full well that (1) Gentle Giant’s penchant for constantly shifting gears requires a high level of technical virtuosity across a variety of musical genres and (2) plenty of people love such displays. But I’ve known my fair share of clinical manic types, and like them Octopus makes me want to flee its company until it’s received proper medical attention.

From winsome folk rock to jazz to big symphonic interludes to fey madrigals they go, and the impression I get is a mash-up of Jethro Tull, Traffic, Fairport Convention, Kansas, Genesis, and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. And I’m just talking about opening cut “The Advent of Panurge,” which has its share of interesting moments but refuses to stay in one place long enough to make an indelible impression.

“Raconteur Troubadour” is Renaissance Faire crapola, with lots of organ and keyboards by Kerry Minnear and some horn fanfare and Ray Shulman’s violin thrown in for flavoring. “A Cry for Everyone” is rock’n’roll right down to Gary Green’s evil guitar hook, and hooray I say. Unfortunately the lads simply cannot restrain from launching into a very art-rock instrumental interlude, making it crystal clear that playing an old-fashioned rock song is beneath them. Still, this one stands head and shoulders above “Raconteur Troubadour.”

Or the very annoying “Knots” for that matter. A cappella vocals, lots of quirky percussion, some wacky xylophone, the occasional jazzy passage, and other musical gewgaws make “Knots” a minefield, and I would sooner listen to an entire Seals and Crofts album than cross it again. Instrumental “The Boys in the Band” is all showboating, a display of pure prowess designed to wow people who are wowed by such things. What it lacks in funk it at least makes up for in tempo, and it’s tempo alone that makes it almost bearable.

“Dog’s Life” is a dog’s breakfast of silly folk pablum right down to its inane lyrics; on this one Gentle Giant wanders into Monty Python parody territory without seeming to know it. Listen to all the oddball sound effects! The reminiscent of “A Day in the Life” melody! The posh Regency strings! This dog has fleas!

“Think of Me with Kindness” is a pretty piano ballad with pretty vocals and is every bit as English as Spotted Dick. It would almost be okay—provided you’re a fan of Spotted Dick—if it didn’t turn into a stop-and-start horror show of the sort designed to induce whiplash.

“River” suffers the same fate—all the stopping and stopping makes me feel like I’m on a lurching subway train trying in vain to make its way out of the station. As for vocalist Derek Shulman, he reminds me a bit of Steve Winwood, but a Steve Winwood sans soul. And Winwood isn’t exactly the most soulful singer to begin with. That said, Green actually condescends to play a scorching guitar solo, which marks the high point of the album.

Octopus is highly regarded by prog-rock types, but unless you’re of the opinion that rock is a shabby thing and can only be improved upon by an elite class of instrumental technocrats who consider shifting gears every 9 seconds or so both de rigueur and a res ipsa loquitur proof of their manifest musical superiority, I recommend you give it a pass.

That said, I’ll betcha WiIllie Wireman, wherever he is, loves it.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
D

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