One of the most difficult parts about a lot of progressive music — be it rock, jazz or avante garde minimalist classical — is that the often intense angularity of the compositions undermine the lyrical message and storytelling within. Thus even in the world of prog rock, there are those who “get” certain bands and others where it just falls on deaf ears.
Consider bands like Pink Floyd, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Yes and ELP, groups which all figured out ways to soften those dangerous curves in the road with brilliant compositions and sweeping arrangements that allowed them to ascend to pop superstar status. Meanwhile other groups creating arguably more challenging (and perhaps more uncompromising) music like King Crimson, Slapp Happy, Henry Cow and The Soft Machine attracted large but ultimately limited audiences.
Many battled in relative obscurity for multiple reasons too, not just composition style and presentation. Some of the challenge no doubt had to do with pure economics — a band like Nektar was fabulous and should have been as big as Yes and Genesis but for some reason never got the financial push necessary to make them a household name.
One such band from the classic 1970s era of progressive rock was Gentle Giant, a group I admittedly knew about but didn’t really get into until recent years. My first exposure to them was via their album Octopus, but I didn’t really have the connection to them to warrant purchasing their records beyond that. My friend Johanne gave me CDs of some of their other albums and I liked what I was hearing so I picked up more and more of the band’s recordings. Last year I even found a bunch of original UK LP pressings at a garage sale, so I was really able to immerse myself in their music without much risk financially.
My timing for this to happen may be good because there seems to be some fine reissues happening for this band including their 1974 opus The Power and The Glory. I picked this up recently at Amoeba Records.
On this CD plus Blu-ray package, you are treated to a lovely stereo and 5.1 remix by the great Steven Wilson. The CD sounds quite good all things considered and very true to the album’s diversity and density. Actually, the original US pressing I have of this album sounds quite solid, but still its nice to have on a CD. But really, the bigger joy is on the Blu-ray Disc, which, by the way includes a flat transfer of the original mix at 96 kHz and 24-bit resolution.
But for me, its experiencing the 5.1 surround mix where this edition comes into its own. This is a classic Steven Wilson production which remains true to the sound and intent of the artists original recording, yet uses the surround channels to open up the music. Gentle Giant were, after all, a very interesting group vocally, and less about the sort of instrumental pyrotechnics like ELP or Yes. Accordingly, on the surround sound mix choral elements pop up around you, punctuating the music. Of course the often quirky, jittery musical details also fill in the rears and sides of the room. Its very cool, immersive and not particularly gimmicky.
But you know what, Dear Readers? The super cool thing that got me genuinely excited about this release was what was happening on the video screen. Not having seen the band’s promotional materials for this release I can’ t quite scold them for missed opportunities in marketing, but I will say that just listing the video features on the Blu-ray packaging as “album with screen saver” is a terrible understatement (and there is no real mention about what I’m about to tell you inside in the liner notes).
Here’s why I think its a terrible understatement and missed opportunity….
You see, for each song you are treated to the equivalent of a compelling animated music video of the style where lyrics pop up on the screen in sync with the music. These visuals help tell the underlying story and I cant underscore enough how important this sort of thing is, especially in 21st Century terms where things are so visually driven.
All of a sudden, this complex music leaps off the screen and into your brain, connecting some of the difficult dots for you instantaneously in a way that just reading the lyrics while listening probably wouldn’t (they’re not even in the reissue booklet, by the way, though they did come with the original LP). The video pulls you into the music and the underlying story, a bit of deep social commentary on the challenges of life and society — with revealing titles like “Aspirations,” “Playing The Game” and “Cogs In Cogs” — that in its current guise resonates as still relevant and timely.
The music is great, mind you. And for all its quirky herky jerky twists and turns, once you get into their groove you find that Gentle Giant really could rock a whole lot. It just all makes a lot more sense when you hear and see it at the same time. And that, in my book, is more than enough reason for you to want to check out the Blu-ray of Gentle Giant’s The Power And The Glory.
I can’t wait to get my hands on the 2015 surround sound remix of Octopus which I’ve just ordered from Burningshed.com.
I’m now ready to embrace the giant with open arms, open mind and open heart.
Bring it on….