Why doesn't anybody talk about Gentle Giant anymore?

I can’t remember how I first heard of Gentle Giant, since they aren’t generally mentioned alongside the big names of 70s British prog. In spite of the fact that they were fairly successful commercially in the mid-70s, they seem to be considered more of a footnote to the era than one of the major bands. In fact, odds are if people know the name Derek Shulman it’s more likely they'll know him as former president of both Atco (where he signed Dream Theater and Pantera, among others) and Roadrunner Records (where he can share some of the blame for unleashing Nickleback on the world), than his role as vocalist/multi-instrumentalist in Gentle Giant.

It really is a shame that more people aren’t aware of Gentle Giant, because in their prime they were easily the most adventurous and technically complex band of their day, and one of the most unique bands in the annals of progdom. Formed by the Shulman brothers (Derek, Ray and Phil) in 1970, they are probably best known for the multi-instrumental prowess of their members, some of whom played up to eight instruments—including various reed/wind instruments, orchestral string instruments, xylophones, vibraphones, mellotrons, all manner of electric and acoustic pianos and keyboards, and a custom 3-string electric ukulele called a Shulberry—both in the studio and in live settings. Their compositional style was complex even by prog standards, featuring a lot of classical/medieval flourishes, frequent use of polymeters and sudden time signature changes, and extensive use of counterpoint both in their vocal and instrumental harmonies. It’s not easy music to try to describe or get into, but once you’ve acquired the taste (to paraphrase the title of their second album), they’re endlessly rewarding.

For the curious, the best place to start with Gentle Giant is their fourth album, Octopus. Probably their heaviest album, it’s also one of their more direct and accessible efforts, with only one track even approaching the six minute mark. That doesn’t mean, however, that it isn’t still plenty strange. Consider, for example, the song “Knots,” a madrigal-style vocal piece inspired by the Scottish psychologist R.D. Laing:

Other standout tracks are album opener “The Advent Panurge” with its baroque-sounding vocal lines and porno-funk middle section, the synth and violin driven “Raconteur, Troubadour,” and instrumental ‘The Boys in the Band,” which goes from free jazz freak-out to a wah-driven guitar workout, with at least a dozen different stops between.

After the album’s touring cycle was finished, the band started playing what’s referred to on live albums as “Features from Octopus,” which featured “Knots” and “The Advent Panurge,” along with a dual acoustic guitar solo and a recorder quartet. As these partial videos show, it was pretty damned impressive:

If Octopus hits your proggy sweet spot, the next steps would be the albums that immediately preceded and followed it, Three Friends and In a Glass House, both of which are excellent. Second album Acquiring the Taste is a bit on the rough side, but still has its share of memorable moments, especially opener “Pantagreul’s Nativity”

Honestly anything through 1975’s Free Hand is worth your time. Interview begins the band’s overt attempt at a more commercial sound and, not coincidentally, their sudden and swift decline, with the last two albums being particularly dreary attempts at pop rock and new wave.