70s progressive rock cult group Gentle Giant were known for their concept albums featuring complex lyrics (the work of Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing on mental illness inspired them, so did Rabelais) multi-part vocal harmonies, and abrupt tempo and key changes (often within the same bar). Their singular musical style featured unusual chord progressions, instrumental and voice counterpoint, “classical” and madrigal themes repeated and traded between instruments with medieval instrumentation and choral styles not often heard in the rock—or even progressive rock—genre.
Recently their 1974 album The Power and The Glory came out on the Alucard label remixed for 5.1 surround on DVD and Blu-ray by Porcupine Tree’s Steven WIlson. I asked group members Ray Shulman, Kerry Minnear and Derek Shulman some questions via email.
Dangerous Minds: What was your reaction to first hearing Steven Wilson’s 5.1 surround mix of The Power and The Glory?
Ray Shulman: Over the last few years we’d been asked by a number of people whether they could mix our albums in surround. We were always reluctant until Steven approached us. Having authored some of his other Blu-rays and DVDs I was very familiar with his work. What’s great is that he pays a lot of respect to the original mix in terms of balance and tone but by spreading it around the available sound field, in such a creative way, it gives it a new life and I would think even listeners already familiar with the album would get a new perspective on the arrangements. Hopefully you can tell I’m pleased.
Kerry Minnear: I enjoyed Steve’s stereo mix of The Power and The Glory very much finding him to be able to ‘beef things up’ but keeping the original instrumental sounds clear and vibrant. I don’t have a 5.1 system but I imagine that in that medium the counterpoint and part sharing in the music will be great to experience. I’m saving up for a new system just so I can hear it!
Derek Shulman: I was happy that Steven respected the sonic quality of original mixes. He “tweaked” parts of the low end of the drums and bass and made slight adjustments to levels of the bass and kick drum. Overall I was very happy with Steven’s work on the album.
Do you reckon that you’re seeing Gentle Giant attract new fans as a result of the 5.1 release? It would seem to me that there’s a real interest in among audiophiles about what Steven Wilson is doing, so that someone getting into Yes or Jethro Tull for the first time might pick up on his Hawkwind project, the Caravan album or your album because he worked on it. Has this been the case?
Ray Shulman: That’s a hard one for me to answer but I know that Derek, who’s out and about with other acts of our era, comes across many young fans hearing about us for the first time. More surprising is other acts, not associated with prog, who now site our band as an influence.
Kerry Minnear: There is an annual GG fan convention which I have attended and each year it appears that there is a growing percentage of fans in their twenties. I can only imagine this is the power of the Internet and the availability of GG music on it. I would certainly hope that this new release could make more potential followers aware of us, both young and old.
Derek Shulman: The ‘odd’ thing is is that after 40 years our music still seems to be relevant to both old fans and newer fans..I hope this indicated that we at least did some things ‘right’.
Steven’s involvement in the audiophile world is obviously very influential of course. We’re happy that a musician of his stature wanted to be involved with our music. If he can bring newer fans to listen to what we had recorded then we are very grateful to him.
In the way that pop culture gets recycled, at the moment, prog is the new reggae, which was the new easy listening, which was the new jazz, etc. It must be gratifying to so many new fans come into the fold, especially for a band with no intention of reforming or playing live again?
Ray Shulman: The amusing thing is how, in the late seventies and the dawn of punk, commentators hid their prog albums for fear of ridicule. Time has truly softened their stance and even the most hardened critics can now confess their appreciation of bands such as ours.
Kerry Minnear: It is gratifying, and it really was a privilege to be part of a band with such a unique set of dynamics. We could never have predicted the consistency of the music’s appeal through the years.I am often quite baffled by it all!
Derek Shulman: Well… as I had indicated I guess we may have by ‘default’ did some things right..or at least we didn’t stray too far from what we wanted to be as a musical entity. I think that in some ways the fact that new and younger fans are listening to our music says a lot about who and what a musician should be. We tried to push our own musical boundaries for ourselves first, to be better musicians for our own benefit. If we could make a living at that, this was enough. Not to sound pretentious for the sake of it but I believe fans old and new can see that our music was somewhat ‘authentic’ in that regard.
A friend of mine said that in the 70s, Gentle Giant were the band that comes after Genesis is in the rearview mirror, but Henry Cow is still off in the distance and too artsy and obscure for most people. Whereas there might be more than a little truth to that, I think it misses the fact that there was a sense of humor going on with Gentle Giant, too, at least that’s what I’m hearing. Were you guys always serious or was it more playful that that?
Ray Shulman: Although I don’t agree with your friends pecking order we never took ourselves too seriously. Even though we took our music very seriously we were all too aware things could come across as pretentious or pompous. To that end I think we were always quite self-deprecating.
Kerry Minnear: It’s a fact that humour played a big part in things, it was never far from the surface. No one was allowed to be a prima donna, they were quickly de-throned. It played a big part in the music too, as did another not so typical emotion, nostalgia. So much music is self-assured and self-promoting, it’s nice to hear some different human emotions creeping in now and then.
Derek Shulman: To be honest we didn’t really see anyone in the rearview mirror or indeed in the front windshield, either. We were quite a sequestered group and not part of any scene. What we were however were very hard working musicians who practiced and played more for our own personal pleasure to try to make ourselves better for each other and then for the audience who would come to see us.
That being said we never took ourselves too seriously as people or musicians. I had deliberately mentioned pomposity previously. There is a great deal of playfulness in our music if you listen carefully… VERY CAREFULLY!!!
Below, The Power and The Glory-era Gentle Giant captured on 16mm film directed by Christopher Nupen, a classical music film director who invited the band to record this concert in a film studio in Brussels for the German television station ZDF: