It is a truth universally acknowledged that a prog album recorded in the 1970s must be in want of a Steven Wilson remix. Nowhere is that more true than with the Gentle Giant catalogue, in which complex, challenging compositions and astonishing musicianship were sometimes let down by being recorded seemingly in a bucket of mud.
Wilson has already given a much-admired wash-and-brush-up to Octopus and The Power And The Glory, so fans have been eagerly awaiting his work on the first three releases – arguably (because we love to argue) among Gentle Giant’s most loved recordings.
The self-titled debut, released in 1970, is an astonishing first album, a bold and confident mix of rock, blues and classical music that takes a sledgehammer to old ideas about song structure. And to think that a few years earlier they were Simon Dupree And The Big Sound!
Acquiring The Taste, from 1971, is wilfully even more complicated as the multi-talented sextet threw practically every instrument devised by man, plus a donkey’s jawbone, at a series of unique, fascinating but darker compositions.
And 1972’s Three Friends – a concept album about the loss of childhood connections – takes the same elements but adds in a dollop of sublime melodic poignancy that makes this a favourite of many fans.
But hold! There is a fly wriggling in the ointment. You see, most of the original multi-track master tapes are lost, leaving just three from the debut, two from follow-up and four from Three Friends. Those who see the glass as half-empty may view this as a Titanic-sized disaster. But it could have been worse. ALL the tracks could have been wiped to make way for, say, Nana Mouskouri’s Greatest Hits.
We’re left with nine tracks from the three albums, plus an even earlier song, Freedom’s Child, that first saw the light of day 20 years ago on the Under Construction album of unreleased material. So what has Li’l Stevie done to make these gems shine even brighter?
The difference is evident from the very first track, Giant. The keyboard intro is warmer and fuller, the bass has space to reverberate, the drums are snappier and sharper and the vocals jump out of the speaker.
On the sublime Nothing At All the acoustic guitars ring out, the electric guitar sounds like Martin Barre in his prime and the keyboards and drums duel is so thrillingly alive you can hear yelps of encouragement in the background.
Why Not leaps out of the speakers and proves that GG could rock with the best of them, while Pantagruel’s Nativity is ghostly, abrasive, magical and scary, with the Wilson mix making the intricate vocal harmonies sound even more heart-meltingly beautiful.
I could go on but I would be repeating myself – suffice to say, these tracks sound so fresh and alive they could have been recorded this year instead of four decades ago.
But that’s not all. On the CD/Blu-ray edition you get Wilson’s 5.1 surround mix – and if any band deserves to be listened to in surround sound it’s Gentle Giant. Their penchant for putting up to 32 different instruments on just one track means you find yourself sitting in the middle of a virtual orchestra. Is that a vibraphone tickling your left ear, a viola caressing your right and a celeste hovering just in front of your nose? And what’s that at the back of your head? Ah, yes, the donkey’s jawbone…
Add the flat transfers of all three albums in their original mixes and you have a package here that just keeps on giving. This is not just an album for GG fans – it’s an album for anyone with an interest in progressive rock and, especially, in a band that remained resolutely uncommercial, even when, in later years, they tried so hard not to be.
Listen – and acquire the taste.
TRACK LISTING – CD
01. Giant (6:26)
02. Nothing At All (9:06)
03. Why Not? (5:32)
04. Pantagruel’s Nativity (6:57)
05. The House, The Street, The Room (6:08)
06. Schooldays (7:41)
07. Peel The Paint (7:36)
08. Mr Class And Quality? (5:51)
09. Three Friends (2:56)
10. Freedom’s Child (3:58)
11. Nothing At All [7” edit] (4:54)
Total Time – 67:05
As CD 1-10 in 5.1 Surround Sound.
Instrumental versions of CD 1-10 in 5.1 Surround Sound.
Flat transfers of original album mixes of Gentle Giant, Acquiring The Taste and Three Friends.
Free Steven Wilson wig and glasses. (Actually, I’m lying about that. But he should think about it…)
Gary Green – Guitars, Mandolin, Bass, Donkey’s Jawbone, Cat Calls, Vocals
Kerry Minnear – Keyboards, Tuned Percussion, Cello, Bass, Maracas, Tambourine, Vocals
Derek Shulman – Saxophone, Clavichord, Cowbell, Vocals, Bass
Phil Shulman – Brass, Woodwind, Percussion, Piano, Vocals
Ray Shulman – Bass, Violin, Triangle, Spanish & 12-string Guitars, Skulls, Vocals
Martin Smith – Drums, Percussion
Record Label: Alucard Music
Date of Release: 29th September 2017