Album Review: Gentle Giant – Octopus

On their third album, 1972’s Octopus, Gentle Giant delivered a collection of songs that ranked among their best. With a sound that synthesized their medieval/renaissance aesthetic wedded to a jazzy approach, Octopus – in places – feels like a hard-rocking answer to ex-King Crimson duo McDonald and Giles. Gentle Giant would go onto (slightly) greater commercial success, culminating with Free Hand a few years down the line, but the music on Octopus shows that all of the sonic elements were in place by ’72.

Kerry Minnear‘s aggressive, almost mean-sounding piano lines on “The Advent of Panurge” (yeah, this is prog, so deal with that sort of song title) trade with Derek Shulman‘s typically nimble and acrobatic vocal work. The all-over-the-place melody is reminiscent in tone to King Crimson’s “Cat Food.” Ray Shulman‘s bass work is inventive and lyrical.

Ray Shulman’s violin is a centerpiece of “Raconteur, Troubadour.” The song’s stately middle section sounds like the sort of thing one might hear while watching video of Buckingham Palace. On “A Cry for Everyone,” the band takes a (relatively) straightforward approach, showing that they can indeed rock out. Gary Green’s crunching guitar – often doubled by some synthesizer work from Minnear – forms the basis of the song. But even an “accessible” (by Gentle Giant standards) song such as this has the requisite fiddly bits, and here they’re in the form of a musical conversation between synthesizers, percussion, organ and violin.

“Knots” showcases the trademark madrigal-style vocal arrangements that either endear or repel listeners. It’s not the sort of tune one finds oneself singing along with while driving, but as an exercise in whatever one wishes to call what Gentle Giant does, it’s impressive. The piano-and-percussion midsection recalls Frank Zappa, and the thundering section that punctuates it is reminiscent of Larks Tongues in Aspic King Crimson.

The must-be-heard-on-headphones spinning coin intro to the instrumental “The Boys in the Band” leads into a song that feels like Fragile-era Yes. Nylon string guitar and lots of classical violin and cello work are the highlights of “Dog’s Life.” The band even offers up an almost-ballad with “Think of Me With Kindness,” in which they approach the majesty of Procol Harum‘s best work. The violin and wah-wah guitar dialogue of “River” provides some of Octopus‘ most memorable signature lines.

High-minded? Sure. Gentle Giant’s lyrics for Octopus were inspired by Albert Camus and R.D. Lang. Punk this ain’t. But for challenging, outside-the-box progressive rock – the sort loved by people who think Jethro Tull are too, well, mainstream – Octopus is rarely equaled.

The 2012 reissue reverts to the original UK artwork (the US cover is shown inside the digipak. Lyrics and modern-day liner notes from the band round out the nice packaging. A bonus “Excepts from Octopus” from a 1976 live date shows that Gentle Giant could actually pull this incredibly intricate music off live.

You may also enjoy reviews of no less than four other Gentle Giant album reissues, and my interview with the band. All that can be found here.