Gentle Giant was one of the most adventurous and rewarding British bands to ply the progressive rock trade in the 1970’s. Their career represented a perfect arc from the beginning to the end of the decade, starting with their debut Gentle Giant, and ending with the more strident rock attack of Civilian. In between, Giant crafted nine studio and one double live release that remain important studies in composition rife with counterpoint, multi-instrumentalism, and eclecticism.
In 1974, at the mid point of their short career, the brilliant The Power and the Glory, was released. The compositions were tighter, a bit more straight-forward than their work to that point, and the album sported an excellent concept with intelligible lyrics detailing a story of power and corruption. Gentle Giant’s albums prior to this release represent some of the most esoteric, and uncompromising progressive rock ever put to vinyl. By this point, while still not being quite commercial, their work seemed even more assured, and less encumbered by more obscure sounds on their previous outings. It’s follow up Free Hand would become their most popular studio album and commercial success, but the writing, performance and recording technique that led to that accomplishment starts with this album.
While there have been several re-releases of Gentle Giant albums over the years to produce better CD sound, and to reproduce their artistic packaging, most have not resulted in state of the art sound. This time Steve Wilson took the helm, as he has with so many other bands of this era, and produced the now definitive version of this classic. There hasn’t been a lot of discernible tinkering with the stereo version that occupies disk one, just an overall improved mix, deeper bass response, and clarity in the midrange. Disc two’s DVD features a 5.1 surround sound mix which is a revelation. Like Jethro Tull’s A Passion Play, reviewed last issue, the surround mix allows for previously indiscernible sonic detail to come forth.
Extra tracks include “The Power and the Glory” single, not found on the original album, and on disc one an alternative instrumental version of “Aspirations.” The original version of “Aspirations” is one of keyboard, vibraphone player and raconteur Kerry Minnear’s most beautiful vocals. This instrumental version gives the listener a chance to try to sing as he did (probably in your car on the way to work) though it’s a mighty challenge to hit those choir boy tones! On disc two, instead of only “Aspirations,” the entire album is presented a second time without vocals which allows the listener to catch even more of the complex musical interplay, particularly between guitarist Gary Green and Kerry Minnear’s many keys. Try tackling singer Derek Shulman’s exhausting vocals on Cogs in Cogs as a reminder of his range and power. This may be drummer John Weather’s best moment on record, and the gutsiest power-chords from guitarist Gary Green. The bonus studio track and a flat stereo mix are also included.
Making this release truly special, the 5.1 DVD presentation includes lyrics and videos prepared by bassist / multi-instrumentalist Ray Shulman which illustrate the story and content of each track. This presentation is unlike anything I’ve seen from another band. The content is graphical, using illustrations of playing cards, people, places, and things along with some fairly psychedelic imagery at times to represent the contrapuntal instrumental interplay. Lyrics appear or scroll through the picture in creative ways that add to your appreciation of the compositions. If you are inclined to pay attention while listening and watching you will be rewarded with these clever visuals that make the collection worth every penny.
On a related note, the tour that follows this album was captured on video in Germany and California on the wonderful Giant on the Box DVD release. It would have been fun to find the filmed material here as well but if you purchase that DVD as a companion piece you will own a complete set of the most rare Gentle Giant material available. Seeing this band play live is critical to gaining a complete appreciation of their work.
While some may wonder why this level of release didn’t begin with Three Friends, Octopus, or In A Glass House, there is something about the more friendly rock-and-prog The Power and the Glory which makes it a great place to start, beyond who owns the rights to the material. All in all, highly recommended.