It's never a bad idea, whenever possible while exploring the early days of progressive rock, to look first to the third album. Not particularly true of King Crimson's old Lizard, but true of Caravan. True of Egg. True of Genesis. True of Soft Machine. True of Van der Graaf. True of Yes. And true of Gentle Giant.
From a mostly disposable premiere to a highly promising second album and this fully realized third, Gentle Giant found their quintessential and unique voice packaged in one of the worst album covers known to late Twentieth Century popular music. As far as "concept albums" go, the idea exploring the changing relationships of three friends from childhood to adulthood is one that is perhaps quintessential to Dickens' era, and thereby not unique to any since. The words lag far behind the music and are still bit little shaky as these four lines from "Schooldays" atest: "The days past; The play's cast; Remember; September..." and so on. The lyrical insights that sketch out the characters are generally banal, with nothing of import revealed about the laborer, the artist or the businessman. But what does finally come off, top to bottom, is the music.
The album is comparatively short and drawn on an appropriately intimate scale. The pieces introduce themes that reappear throughout, but never in the pat "leitmotif" style of the grand romantic-era compositions. And even though the words are themselves mostly uninformative, the lyrics do acknowledge the importance of verbal rhythms and a phonetic match to the music. As dumb as the quote is above, once set into the music a gentle and complex percussive interplay occurs between the softly concussive syllables of "Remember; September" and the instruments that does in fact lift the whole piece well up from ordinary. This suits the music's embrace of dynamic range, unwilling as it is to bury delicacy with range crushing compression.
Intimating the often democratic approach GG adopted to writing and performing, pretty well each musician has his moment up front, even going so far as an actual guitar solo – a very rare animal in GG corpus – driving "Peel The Paint" into an eccentric but controlled fury. Not as prevalent are the epicyclic turns so clearly on display during key moments of Acquiring the Taste. While Octopus or In A Glass House are often singled out as the band's peak accomplishments, the compact focus, brevity and concision of Three Friends makes it an excellent point of entry for the uninitiated. After three decades it proves itself to be a defining period record without an overwhelming sense of plain old period.
03) Working All Day
04) Peel The Paint
05) Mister Class and Quality
06) Three Friends