A remastered collection of tracks from progressive rock greats
The new release from Alucard is an introduction to the English progressive rock band, Gentle Giant. Titled Three Piece Suite, the double LP is culled from the group’s first three releases: their self-titled debut from 1970, 1971’s Acquiring the Taste, and Three Friends from 1972, along with a track which predates the band’s debut.
It’s an interesting collection, in many ways. First of all, the tracks have been remixed by Steven Wilson into new stereo masters, with an ear toward surround sound. Secondly, the tracks themselves were determined more by what was available than anything. Evidently, there weren’t very many multi-track masters available from that era, so the tracklisting was put together from what wasn’t presumably lost.
The story of Gentle Giant, as well as the production of Three Piece Suite, is told in the astonishingly thorough liners notes by Anil Prasad, which sprawl across the album’s gatefold. It starts with the end of the Shulman brothers’ previous band, the psychedelic rockers Simon Dupree and the Big Sound; they featured a keyboardist known as Reg Dwight, who wouldn’t make the transition to Gentle Giant, but would find steady footing after changing his name to Elton John.
Vocalist, saxophonist and trumpeter Phil Shulman said the plan for their new band didn’t exactly have a specific sound, but they wanted to be like Pink Floyd or King Crimson, “who were allowed to do their own music without concern about what could possibly be ‘Baby, Baby’ and ‘I Love You, Darling’ songs.” The first three tracks here, taken from the band’s self-titled 1970 LP, definitely demonstrate this, alternating between intimate, folky acoustic guitars and gently crooned vocals, but adding in saxophone and big, proto-metal riffs as needed while the songs progress.
However, while the songs from the first album were written to be a stage set, according to guitarist and vocalist Ray Shulman, “The songs for the second album were written for the studio and not performed previously.” Using producer Tony Visconti (who was a carry over from their debut), on Acquiring the Taste the band would “go for it,” as the producer would encourage them, utilizing “the capabilities and possibilities of the studio.” As guitarist Gary Green would recall, this was “without regard for whether or not the music could easily be reproduced in live performance.”
The first song on Three Piece Suite from Acquiring the Taste, “Pantagruel’s Nativity,” takes its inspiration from The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel, a series of novels from the 16th century about a father and son pair of giants, which is pretty much as perfect a topic for progressive rock as one could ever hope for. Add in a Moog patched to sound like an oboe, and you’re fully in bearded, glasses-wearing, air-guitaring dude territory.
The final tracks on the album, from Gentle Giant’s third LP, Three Friends, were produced by the band themselves, and the band ended up switching studios after running into difficulties, as well as a car accident which — while not injuring the band — Gentle Giant took as a portent to change their path. Remixing and remastering engineer Wilson comments on the “vertical complexity” of the songs from Three Friends, which has four songs represented on Three Piece Suite, noting that the songs are compact, but loaded with counterpoints.
It’s kind of exemplified by the last album track on Three Piece Suite, titled “Mister Class and Quality?,” a song which has, at its heart, a perfect, Foghat-like chooglin’ rhythm, but loads on amazing organ runs and fierce guitar solos, along with soaring choruses. It’s absolutely brilliant and the sort of song which leaves you with the need for a drink and a cigarette after, as you try and work through its almost absurdly-intricate inner workings.
If you like adventurous music and want something beyond the usual suspects, definitely track this compilation down and then consider whether you’re ready to dig deep into the Gentle Giant catalog. There’s certainly enough material here to whet your appetite.
Thanks to Wilson’s decision to stick to the songs which had available multi-track masters, the album sounds absolutely amazing. Putting it on your stereo is pretty great, but this is a headphone album, through and through. The drums on the likes of “Nothing At All” pan back and forth between the left and right channels, as if Wilson and Visconti are trying to march the song directly into your mind.
The album is pressed on 180-gram black vinyl and comes in a gatefold jacket. The artwork on the cover isn’t exactly my jam, but it’s nice enough. I could’ve done with just the desert landscape itself, minus the chairs with the three album covers on them, but it’s not offensive. The gatefold features the aforementioned Anil Prasad liner notes, which makes for wonderful reading. An insert with the lineup a little more clearly delineated would’ve helped things, especially as this is as much historical document and introduction as it is anything else.