CD REVIEW – Gentle Giant – Octopus

Mystery solved! I’ve always thought this a weird album title. But researching I read somewhere that the title was allegedly invented by Phil Shulman’s wife, Roberta. It is short for “Octo Opus,” or eight musical works. Makes sense to me!

Here’s another fact: the “Mike Viccars” credited on the album sleeve is apparently Mike Vickers, guitar & sax with the Manfreds (think Manfred Mann) who was just called in for the album as he got one of the very early Moogs and was into setting up the sounds patches.

The US and European album covers for Octopus differed, as the US version (below) had a painting of an octopus inside a glass jar, while the European version (above) featured a glorious painting by Roger Dean of a giant octopus seemingly attacking a beach shoreline.

If Three Friends lacked anything in some quarters, this fourth album is considered by many to be one of the band’s best. Their penchant for combining elements of medieval, renaissance and classical music, with art-rock experimentation and classic rock was unique, but sadly still not universally lauded.

“The Advent of Panurge” continues the story of Pantagruel. Gentle, medieval vocals, whispy guitar lines, and vintage keyboards provide their classic opening routine, followed by a complex instrumental assault leading into a syncopated almost improvisational groove and articulate mid-section. Often deemed a classic Gentle Giant track, it this definitely combines their songwriting strengths with clever storytelling lyricals and a strong rock pulse.

“Raconteur Troubadour” features their talented use of classical instruments (cello and violin) in an entertaining medieval by way of Elgar tale about a traveling man visiting villages with song, music, and tales. Nice chord shift to close. “A Cry for Everyone” removes any nostalgia with a trademark heavy riff, seeing crossover guitar, bass, keyboards and violin and a mid-section chord change to lift the intensity before an all too brief weird keyboard sound break. Always a band to throw the kitchen sink at something, GG were.

And so we come to one of the most recognisable and oft respectfully imitated songs, one perhaps thought of when most people talk of Gentle Giant: “Knots.” It opens with an astonishingly intricate multi-part vocal fugue (that’s right, Spocks Beard did NOT think of this technique first!) and their pitched percussive skills are to the fore. It’s an ingenious riddle of a song, and their unique style remains one of the outstanding highlights of a classic progressive rock era.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the next album track veers off from the previous track’s path. This was a band which often had lengthy instrumental sections within songs, going off on a tangent or three usually before returning to their initial themes. Only occasionally did they offer a full on instrumental. “The Boys in the Band” sees them on a jazzy romp, cheeky sounds, diverse upbeat and low-key sections with woodwind/horns, flirty synth keys, clever and inter-related bass and guitar underpinned by solid drums. The complexity of their rhythms and tight interplay are a delight, with the near five minutes fading all too quickly.

“Dog’s Life” continues that diversity, a primarily acoustic/classical number, a tale of the band’s roadies apparently, done in a lightly parody form about man’s best friend, the dog. Delightfully light guitar, keys and melodic violin compliment this whimsical little number. Less light, but perhaps similarly quiet and definitely more personal, “Think of Me With Kindness” incorporates a certain classic western-theme riff whilst providing an overall reflective, hymnal feel.

Closing track “River” returns to the band’s riffing and grooving nature, twisting and turning similar to a river’s path. As Derek Shlman sings: “Moving highway, twisting byway. Can’t turn back. Singing in the summer rain, rain that’s caught in its flow.” Two minutes in the vibes definitely become spacier before some drum-led rapids return to the riff, allowing Gary Green a rare lengthy guitar solo with some nifty lead work. Back to the lead riff with violin and organ and a satisfying close.

There were plenty of 70’s progressive rock albums that sold more copies than this classic, but the accessibility of Octopus raised their profile, even if record label matters bubbled under the surface. This has become a classic album, defining Gentle Giant’s unique inventive nature and broad musical range of talent. Not many bands can boast such riches.


Band:

Gary Green – Guitars, percussion

Kerry Minnear – All keyboards, vibraphone, percussion, cello, Moog, lead and backing vocals

Derek Shulman – Lead vocals, alto saxophone

Philip Shulman – Saxophones, trumpet, mellophone, lead and backing vocals

Raymond Shulman – Bass violin, guitar, percussion, vocals (note typographical error, “bass violin”)

John Weathers – Drums, percussion, xylophone.

‘Many thanks to Martin Rushent for laugh coinspin and variable speed oscillator, and Mike Viccars, Moog operator.’

Tracklisting

  1. The Advent Of Panurge (4:40)
  2. Raconteur Troubadour (3:59)
  3. A Cry For Everyone (4:02)
  4. Knots (4:09)
  5. The Boys In The Band (4:32)
  6. Dog’s Life (3:10)
  7. Think Of Me With Kindness (3:33)
  8. River (5:54)

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