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Mixes Suite(r) Than Wine: Steven Wilson Distills Gentle Giant for 21st Century

gentle giant, steven wilson, alucard records, three piece suite

Gentle Giant’s “Three Piece Suite.” A fitting birthday gift for baby Pantagruel.

Gentle Giant
Three Piece Suite
Alucard Records
Release Date: September 29, 2017

First. Kudos and no small amount of jealousy to those who had the pleasure of discovering the joys of Gentle Giant (GG) in the 1970’s. For those of us who didn’t cross the moat the first time around Three Piece Suite (3PS) makes for a “more’s the pity” reminder as well as a perfect opportunity to catch up. Given my musical tastes it is a “how’d I miss this” head scratcher of giant sized proportions. Had I been given a dose of tunes like “Nothing At All,” “Peel the Paint” and “Pantagruel’s Nativity,” Gentle Giant would have certainly achieved favored status in my record collection.

In truth, GG did not receive the kind of rotational FM radio airplay that their contemporaries Jethro Tull, Yes, and ELP garnered. For all their inventiveness, in a time when the most challenging listening experiences were revered and encouraged, these are not records that made the charts. Even so, – towel sopping with spilt milk in hand – a better late than never revelation is quite welcome and may be at the heart of what this package does best.

Go Big or Go Home…
British Progressive Rock Music rose from disparate sources and unexpected places. Many bands had roots in very parochial blues and trad jazz club groups. Most bands played very standard, very similar, sets of American R&B shuffles and popular tunes of the day like “Green Onions” for club patrons to dance and drink to. It is a testament to the inventiveness, imagination and skill of these musicians that bands like Colosseum, Tempest, and Gentle Giant were only a short step away from their club band roots. It was a stylistic “sea change” the repercussions of which are still being felt today.

The Schulman Brothers, Derek, Phil and Ray formed Gentle Giant from the core of Simon Dupree and the Big Sound. The siblings found the pop/pysch format of that band stifling and opted for a more challenging creative outlet. It is amazing to note that all 3 albums assayed on 3PS were created in the span of one year after the folding of their previous endeavor. Anil Prasad’s thorough and enjoyable liner notes quote lead vocalist Derek, “It was a very creative scene and there were no walls or pathways. …We didn’t quite know what our new sound would be. What we did know is we wanted to do something that satisfied us and tested us, both musically and lyrically.” Three Piece Suite is a testament to their success.

What It Is…
The remixed tracks presented on Three Piece Suite come from the band’s first three albums, Gentle Giant, Acquiring the Taste, Three Friends. Only nine of the multichannel tapes were available at the time this project was initiated, though others are rumored to have surfaced since. The additional song “Freedom’s Child” was recorded during pre-first album sessions and was previously unreleased. Therefore the remixes on the CD might be considered an overview/sampler of GG’s early career.

Presented in remix by Steven Wilson are “Giant,” “Nothing At All,” and “Why Not” from Giant, “Pantagruel’s Nativity,” “The House, The Street, The Room” from Acquiring The Taste, and “Schooldays,” “Peel the Paint,” “Mr. Class And Quality,” and “Three Friends” from the album Three Friends.

That these songs sit together seamlessly is not only a testament to Wilson’s work but also to the quality of the original performances dedicated to tape by producer Tony Visconti. His work, and the band-produced third album, are presented in full “flat transferred” from the original master mix tapes. This gives long time fans the best available complete versions of those works and neophytes a chance to compare remix against archival material.

With at least two members of the band novices in the professional recording studio Visconti guided not only the production processes but also worked with GG on song arrangements. He remembers “I thought music like theirs would change the world. I championed their cause by becoming sympathetic to the point were I temporarily joined the band.” He used the full array of “effects of the day” on the mixes and created a unique sonic experience that is only heightened on this new set. What emerged was a confluence of the technically accomplished and the whimsical.

Along with their opening declaration “Giant” and “Peel the Paint,” I’ve come to love “The House, the Street, the Room.” It has a cartoonish vibe akin to Carl Stalling’s Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies soundtracks. It’s punctuated midpoint by a stretch of howling blues-wah guitar, a space that any fan of Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats album will be right at home in. Even though temporal and timbral changes abound, there are no album-side spanning opuses here. The band manages to get their point across and move on.

Fifth Dimension…
The centerpiece of the BluRay package is the 5.1 mix. I don’t have a multichannel system at home, so it was through the kindness of long time friend Jeff P. that I had an opportunity to be surrounded by the giant. He is a fan of progressive music since its inception, a speaker builder, and producer himself. It was great to have an additional attentive ear to discuss the music with, as we listened on his audiophile home theater system.

As I sat in the system’s “sweet spot” the first words that came to mind were spacious and immersive. These are rather cliché descriptions of the 5.1 experience, but accurate none the less. String pads, a long sustaining Gong hit, choirboys, the growling Leslie speaker cabinet, all reside in the rear speaker-scape. I particularly love Gentle Giant’s use of simultaneously sung lyric streams juxtaposed against each other. This is one place in particular where Wilson’s work adds so much to the sonic clarity and depth. Aside from some era appropriate, post Electric Ladyland, drum solo scrambling, the panpot/joystick is applied judiciously. This is an organic rather than a gimmick laden mix.

The BluRay package is complimented by graphic content for each 5.1 mix. These include full videos for “Peel the Paint,” and “The House, the Street, the Room,” while others are adorned with beautifully designed limited animation tableau’s. “Panatgruel’s Nativity” is illustrated with some of my favorite etchings by nineteenth century artist Gustave Dore. These drawings come from Doré’s work for Gargantua and Pantagruel, written by François Rabelais, which includes the story of the infant giant.

gentle giant, steven wilson, alucard records, three piece suite

Alucard Records Bluray didgipac of Gentle Giant’s “Three Piece Suite.”

Mr. Wilson’s 4 R’s of Remix…
3PS’s remixes also serve as an introduction to Gentle Giant for those like myself. The Wilson editions (he has also remixed the group’s The Power and The Glory and Octopus) pull these songs into the new century and make them feel completely contemporary. Much like a conductor breathing new life into a classical piece and revealing the timelessness of the music. As a fan and current proponent of the progressive genre, Wilson enhances what was best about the original albums, adds sparkle to the group’s exceptional performances, with an ear toward reference, reverence, relevance and revelation.

As a GG newcomer I would lean toward the remixes for my go-to listening choice but the originals may be preferred by long time fans who “grew up” with the LP’s. Of course those transfers also include the tracks missing from the remix version and are therefore imperative. The instrumental mixes are an interesting inclusion and afford a bit of sonic archeology, but the band’s intricately woven and integral vocals are quickly missed.

Config for Your Rig…
Three Piece Suite comes in a multitude of configurations to suit your preferred listening method. The CD contains the 2.1 Wilson remix, while the BluRay contains the 5.1, complete original album transfers, and new instrumental versions, on-screen menu and video content.

A two-disc digipak containing 96/24 animated Blu-ray plus CD.
A single disc digipak CD.
A two-disc gatefold LP in180g high-end vinyl.
A digital download of the two disc Blu-Ray plus CD version.

SkeltonPete Says…
Three Piece Suite ticks all the boxes for superb package that I believe does this music justice, preserves its origins, and will deservedly bring it to many new sets of ears. It may be the one album that actually entices me into setting up a multichannel system at home.

Post Script…
Gentle Giant was recently honored with induction into the Hall of Fame in the town of Portsmith. The British southern port city is their lifelong home. All three Shulman brothers attended the award ceremony along with keyboardist Kerry Minnear.

Lead singer Derek said, “This city is where we started it all, in fact memories of starting and ending the band are all about Portsmouth. We all went to school here, it’s where we made our lives. It’s an honor.”

The group was inducted by local media personalities Adrian Collis and Geoff Dorsett and joins other luminaries including author Neil Gaiman, Supertramp’s Roger Hodgson, Joe Jackson, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Peter Sellers, Rudyard Kipling and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

gentle giant, steven wilson, alucard records, three piece suite

Pictured L TO R: Ray Shulman, Adrian Collis, Geoff Dorsett Phil Shulman, Derek Shulman, Kerry Minnear ((photo by Sharon Shulman)

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