Gentle Giant: Octopus
Fifty years ago, 1972 was coming to a close with the usual releases of albums in November and December coinciding with the holidays. One of the best out of the very best of those albums, was Gentle Giant’s fourth album, Octopus, named for the eight “opuses” included in the album. Appropriate, for sure, as all eight tracks are worthy of bearing that often historically and musically important designation. The instrumentation is richly diverse with Gary Green providing his usual impressive electric guitar work, Welsh drummer John Weathers replacing the injured Malcom Mortimore, on drums, and providing bongos, varispeed cymbals, and some enduringly memorable xylophone, Kerry Minnear on acoustic piano, electric piano, the renaissance-era regal (organ), electric organ, moog, mellotron, clavinet, vibraphone, other percussion, cello and, of course, lead and backing vocals, Ray Shulman on bass guitar, acoustic violin and viola, electric violin, acoustic guitar, percussion, and vocals, Derek Shulman on sax and lead vocals, and Phil Shulman. in his last studio appearance with his brothers, on tenor and baritone sax, trumpet, mellophone and lead and backing vocals.
The album opens up softly and intimately with Kerry Minnear’s “The Advent of Panurge” with interlaced vocals (I believe Minnear and Phil Shulman) followed by a hard-rock interlude that includes the classical technique (Haydn, Beethoven) of compacting a repeated motif to create heightened tension and energy leading into a temporary vocal handoff to the more dramatic Derek Shulman, then vocals becoming intimate again with Phil, then a short mystical section, returning to the opening melody with the stretto-like compressive technique followed with a strong ending with Derek again on vocals.
The second track, Minnear’s “Raconteur Troubadour” takes us back to the Middle Ages and Renaissance, before exploring an Elgar-like melody, that moves into a more twentieth century feel with trumpet before another verse and chorus of the main melody ending with a repeated motif slowly unwinding the work to a stop.
Ray Shulman’s “A Cry for Everyone”, takes us into harder progressive rock mode, with Derek on vocals, and some brief flamboyant moog garnishes followed by some more instrumental including that unique Gentle Giant “stride” style (see Fifty Year Friday: July 1971), interrupted with some more moog flourishes, returning to a third verse of the main melody, and concluding with a brief coda.
The first side ends with Minnear’s contrapuntally clever “Knots”, which sets excerpts from R.D. Laing’s psychological-themed poetry of the same name. Besides a mix of Renaissance and prog imitative counterpoint, hocketing, and some additional madrigal-like Renaissance handling of the words and musical material there is a contrasting, more contemporary, prog-rock, second theme, Weathers mirthful xylophone interlude, an instrumental transformation of the earlier material prepping for and then interlaced with the return of the original material followed by a repeat of the secondary theme ending the piece. Whew! What an exciting four minutes of music seemingly covering as much ground as covered by some lesser prog-rocks groups on much lengthier tracks!
Side two is equally strong, opening with Ray Shulman’s instrumental “The Boys in the Band” reminiscent of Frank Zappa’s best material of the early seventies. The next track is Minnear’s Renaissance-like “Dog’s Life, “a backhanded tribute” to the band’s roadies with the regal providing a shawm-sounding whine, complemented nicely by Ray’s and Kerry’s string playing. The third track on the album is Minnear’s beautifully sensitive and reflective “Think of Me with Kindness” as good as any ballad ever penned in the 1970s. The second side ends strongly with Ray Shulman’s epic “River”. which while under six minutes, is much like “Knots” in that it seems to cover enough musical ground for take up the better part of a single side of an LP.
The production, for 1972, is good enough to differentiate the various parts and provide a crisp, relatively undistorted listening experience, the performances are energetic and expressive, and the music itself is unusually distinctive with compelling melodies and motives that have a level of adventurousness, playfulness, and durability that creates a substantial listening experience the very first time or even after a dozen. Impressively, this was a group that could deliver this material live very effectively, with all the studio wizardry translating without any loss of intensity into live performances. Though most rock critics at the time couldn’t or wouldn’t even try to appreciate the singular music on this album, the music still lives on, embraced generation after generation by music lovers the world over.
Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso: Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso
Influenced by the emergence of a multitude of English Progressive rock groups, a number of talented musicians came together in various locations throughout Italy to provide their own contributions to the ever increasing riches of the progressive rock canon. In Rome, classical trained pianist Vittorio Nocenzio, having studied composition, organ performance, and ethnomusicology, and written songs for Italian folk singer Gabriella Ferri, formed Banco Del Mutuo Soccorse (Bank of Mutual Assistance) in 1969 with his brother, Gianni, also skilled on keyboards, and former members of two other rock bands, Fiori Di Campo and Le Esperienze including the vocally captivating tenor, Francesco Di Giacomo, who would provide a Puccini-like drama and intensity to the band’s recordings and concerts. The talented group played festivals before recording their first album, a particularly strong debut that incorporates stylistic elements from both progressive rock and early twentieth century classical music.
Despite the multitude if influences, the material is identifiably Italian, especially in some of the melodic phrases and in the character of their exuberant playing. Particularly impressive are the second track, “R.I.P. (Requiescant in Pace)”, and the fourth track “Metamorfosi.” Side two includes the 18 minute “Il Giardino del Mago” and ends with an animated tarantella-like piece simply titled “Traccia” (track.)
Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso: Darwin
Banco’s second album, released near the end of 1972, builds on the excellence exhibited in their first album, improving on it with a cohesiveness and establishment of a consistency of style. The album starts off with the magnificent opening of L’Evoluzione, a dramatic 14 minute work rich, beautiful, and epic in impact that effectively sets the tone for this concept album. The second track, “La Conquista Della Posizione Eretta” (‘The Attainment Of The Standing Position”) begins with a extended and compelling instrumental section that brings to mind the survival struggles of prehistoric life including growls that settles into a reflective lyrical section narrating the advantages of standing upright.
The second side opens up with the casual, jazzy “Danza Dei Grandi Rettili”. The next track, “Cento Mani E Cento Occhi” opens up in frenzied contrast to the cooler preceding track, not only making use of some of the musical language elements of Ginastera and Bartok, but covering a wide range of progressive rock musical expressiveness in unremittent 4/4 time with the appropriate use of accents for inescapable forward momentum. The third track, “750,000 Anni Fa … L’Amore?” seemingly channels Puccini for its amorous expressiveness achieved with a expressive piano accompaniment to Giacomo passionate vocals and as well utilizing the moog synthesizer for a dramatic middle section. “Misere Alla Historia” (badly translated as “History’s Lament”) provides musical reflection on the lost/dead civilizations with the warning/observation of “Ma… Quanta vita ha ancora il tuo intelletto se dietro a te scompare la tua razza” “But… How much life does your intellect still have if your people disappear behind you.” The album ends with additional reflection, ironically set in 3/4 time, “Ed ora io domando tempo al tempo ed egli mi risponde…non ne ho!” (“And Now I Ask Time for More Time and He Answers Me…I Don’t Have Any!”) bringing the album to an indisputable close, fully covering the saga of human evolution from early, undeveloped life to its apparent, overwrought and unavoidable finish.