Gentle Giant: Octopus (1973)
Gentle Giant's fourth album Octopus is considered by many progressive rock purists to be one of the bands best, and a classic in the genre. The British band were always considered the most misunderstood of all the upper echolon 70's prog outfits, partly due to their insanely complex music which had no place on commercial radio, and which strayed far from what Yes, Genesis, ELP, or King Crimson were doing at the same time. Combining elements of medieval & renaissance music, heavy rock, classical, jazz, and art-rock experimentation, Gentle Giant had a sound like no other, and with albums like Octopus , In a Glass House , and The Power and the Glory , Gentle Giant made a name for themselves in the U.S.A. despite their uncompromising and different style.
My first introduction to Octopus was in 1993, some twenty years after the original albums release. It also happened to be my first Gentle Giant purchase, and upon hearing the opening track "The Advent of Panurge", I knew I was listening to a unique band. The gentle, medieval vocals, whispy guitar lines, and vintage keyboards that lead into this track are quite breathtaking, and as the band sets into high gear, this complex assault of instrumentation hits you. The lyrics are quite dense and mysterious, as Derek and Phil Shulman sing the ominous lines "Then said he fair Pantagruel, My name is Panurge and I have come from Hell!" This track is long beloved by Gentle Giant fans, and combines serious complexity with intelligently used vocals and a heavy rock feel.
"Raconteur Troubadour" is a clever little ditty, that shows the band using some acoustic instruments like cello and violin. It's a rousing medieval song about a traveling man who entertains villages with song, music, and tales, and would make a great addition to any fantasy film sountrack. The band returns to heavier sounds on the wild "A Cry for Everyone", one of my personal favorites on the album. Featuring a crunching guitar riff from Gary Green and wild synthesizer leads from Kerry Minnear, this track is one again extremely complex with good use of counterpoint and unison lines by the guitar, keyboards, and violin.
Perhaps one of the most unique songs the band had ever recorded, and the one that is most associated with them, is the classic "Knots." Opening with an amazing multi-part vocal fugue (which has been often imitated by newer bands such as Spock's Beard), this ingenious song is basically a riddle that will literally tie you up in knots, as each verse is a contradiction of itself. Pretty clever actually, and although upon first listen I was dumbfounded, over the years this song has become one of the gems of progressive rock.
A rare instrumental for the band, entitled "The Boys in the Band", is a great example of why Gentle Giant should have done a few more. Here the band throws in a bit of a jazz influence, with horns, Chick Corea-easque synths, and weaving bass and guitar lines. Fusion fans will be smiling at the complex rhythms and tight interplay, but sadly the song ends at just a tad under five minutes. The more acoustic and somber "Dog's Life" follows, which actually is a funny tale of the bands roadies, done in a parody of man's best friend, the dog. Ray Shulman's melodic violin work and Gary Green's light guitar work are the perfect compliment to this whimsical little tale.
The final two cuts are quite interesting. "Think of Me With Kindness" is a classical-meets-western song, very quiet and personal. The last is "River", which features lots of sound effects to give a real spacey atmosphere during part of the song. Gary Green displays some monster lead lines in his extended solo, while Kerry Minnear attacks the piano with vigor. Derek Shulman sings the life of the river with these words, "Moving highway, twisting byway. Can't turn back. Singing in the summer rain, rain that's caught in its flow."
The US and European album covers for Octopus differed, as the US version had a painting of an octopus inside a glass jar, while the European version featured a glorious painting by Roger Dean of a giant octopus seemingly attacking a beach shoreline. If you can get your hands on it, the European Vertigo version is more striking, plus the sound of the CD is a bit better than the US version on Columbia.
While there were certainly progressive rock albums in the early 70's that might have sold more copies than this classic from Gentle Giant, Octopus brought attention to this band and gained them their initial recognition into the prog universe. Now, almost thirty years later, this classic album is looked at for its uniqueness and sheer inventiveness, which for many has never been surpassed.