Gentle Giant – ‘Three Piece Suite’ Album Review

Neither as lauded as Pink Floyd and King Crimson, nor as destined for the commercial stratosphere as Genesis, Gentle Giant nonetheless carved out an impressive career between 1970 and 1980, weathering the storm of punk despite running the risk of alienating an audience already exhausted by the expansive machinations of Emmerson, Lake and Palmer. Something of an oddity, ‘three piece suite’; released as a single CD digi pack (reviewed here), gatefold vinyl and deluxe, CD/Blu Ray special edition; is, in fact, a compilation drawing from the band’s first three albums: ‘Gentle Giant’, ‘Acquiring the taste’ and ‘three friends’. Whilst a compilation may not seem the ideal way to discover Gentle Giant’s earliest works, the choice was dictated by the availability of master tapes from which Steven Wilson, who has been working his way through the band’s catalogue, could conduct his extensive remix work. For those who want the first three albums, however, the special edition does include the complete works (as a flat transfer on the blu ray disc), as well as the compilation in surround and instrumental versions. It is as comprehensive as such a release can get and astonishing value.

Right from the off, ‘three piece suite’ grabs the attention, front-loading the disc with ‘giant’ proving to be an inspired choice. It’s easy to see why the audiences of the early 70s struggled, as the band incorporate dense layers of jazz into their progressive meanderings in a manner not dissimilar to the Peter Gabriel-led Genesis, but without the singular sense of whimsy that saw that band achieve global success, seemingly against all odds. However, with modern progressive bands regularly embracing eclectic influences and a sense of the oblique, the impact of Gentle Giant, whilst undimmed, is at least less threatening, with the result that the band are liable to gain a whole new audience. If they do, it will certainly be, at least in part, thanks to the sonic polish that Steven Wilson has applied to these tracks. Although the surround mix allows an even greater canvass upon which the band can daub their many sonic elements, this new mix certainly helps to provide greater separation and clarity to a mix that is somewhat crowded. A truly beautiful piece of music, ‘nothing at all’ takes the honeyed harmonies of CSNY, the poignancy of the Beatles at their most elegiac and applies a horn section, just to keep listeners on their toes. Here the picked guitar sparkles with newfound clarity, and Steven has also allowed the bass to achieve greater prominence (without over-shadowing the mix), and the result is as gorgeous a piece of progressive pop as well recorded as anything that has been released of late. It says much of Gentle Giant’s forward-thinking approach to music, that it sounds as timeless as it does, with perhaps only the overdriven guitar tones serving to date the piece at all. Taking a more hard rock approach with ‘why not?’, we get yet another example of how Gentle Giant may not have reached the commercial peaks of their peers, but they certainly influenced a large number of musicians with their angular riffing and carefully layered vocals. Of course, just as you get a handle on things, the band throw flutes and Mellotron at the mix in a passable appropriation of the pastoral sound that is so closely associated with the Canterbury scene.  An album highlight, ‘Pantagruel’s Nativity’ has a Miles Davis vibe, jazzy but with an underpinning groove and with guitar replacing brass, whilst ‘the house, the street, the room’ demonstrates the band at their most joyously oblique, drawing from the same well as King Crimson (circa ‘Starless and Bible Black’) before subverting it with an almost Barret-esque sense of wonder that sprinkles itself over the track like stardust.  

Aptly titled, ‘schooldays’ has a gentle naivety to it that recalls the Loony Tunes cartoons, only for a collage of voices to slowly tumble over one another as the track progresses into the sort of insane free jazz workout that, even today, most progressive artists would blanche at. That said, you can hear elements of it in Steven Wilson’s own Porcupine tree and, particularly, in Gavin Harrison’s masterly ‘cheating the polygraph’, in which PT standards were reworked, big band style. It leads nicely into the bizarre, pseudo symphonic jazz of ‘peel the paint’, a track that shifts neatly from nimble verse to string-laden bridges with considerable dexterity. Another album highlight, ‘master class and quality?’ is a riveting and multi-faceted journey across the prog landscape, and the musicianship is as impressive as the clarity that Steven has wrung from the mix. A short, elegant instrumental, ‘three friends’ passes the listener by before ‘freedom’s child’ brings the album to a subtle, reflective conclusion. As a bonus, ‘nothing at all (7” edit)’ reappears in the form of a single edit which, whilst an interesting inclusion, offers nothing that can’t be found on the original.  

Over the course of this album, the main feeling is one of unreality as you consistently forget that this isn’t a modern band to which you’re listening. Moreover, whilst the choice of tracks was dictated by availability, in the hands of Steven Wilson it has become a coherent and beautifully mixed sequence that stands in its own right. As a single CD, it is the perfect introduction to the myriad charms of Gentle Giant. As a special edition, it becomes the definitive way to experience the band’s first three albums, given that you get not only the compilation, but the first three albums in their entirety on the included blu ray disc. Confirmation of Gentle Giant’s genius and also of Steven Wilson’s utter mastery as a producer, ‘three piece suite’ is a remarkable treat. 8 – single CD 10 – Deluxe edition.

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