Lately I’ve been going back to listening to CD’s during my work commute, since my new job is a little further from my home than I have been used to these past few years. One of the CD’s that has been finding a lot of play is the 1973 album “Octopus”, by Gentle Giant. I have been a fan of this band since I was a teenager, and this album has always had a special place in my heart. It is unique in the it has had a couple of different and yet equally significant album covers. The original, designed by renowned artist Roger Dean, whose name will forever be associated with the group Yes because of all of the album covers he did for them during their heyday, and depicted an underwater scene that featured a giant octopus.
The US version of the cover featured a die-cut image of an octopus in a jar. Later releases dispensed with the die-cut.
The album itself is a flawless mixture of early music, modern art music, and good ol’ British Prog-Rock.
Lyrical themes vary from the meeting of Gargantua & Panagruel from the Rabelais book La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel (the second time they had referenced this 16th century satire; the first being “The Nativity of Pantagruel” on 1971’s “Acquiring the Taste”), a backhanded tribute to their roadies entitled “A Dog’s Life” which featured a solo from a portable reed organ called a regal. It sounds almost comical, and suggests to me the gait of a bedraggled cur.
There is “Knots”, which is a tribute to the circuitous writings of psychiatrist R.D. Laing. To emphasize the tortuous nature of the lyrics the vocals are arranged in a round with three voices singing the same line, but starting at different times to create an infinite canon, interspersed with quirky riffs and a xylophone solo.
“A Cry for Everyone”, a sobering lyric on accepting the inevitability of death, is apparently influenced by the writings of Albert Camus.
Not everything on “Octopus” is so heady or quirky; there are some normal (for Gentle Giant) Prog-Rock tunes, and there is even a nice ballad by organist Kerry Minnear. Surprisingly, “Octopus” is one of Gentle Giant’s most popular albums and a medley of the main themes, entitled “Excerpts from Octopus” was a regular concert feature throughout most of their career. Before the resurgence of interest in their music in the early oughts, which lead to several re-issues and re-masterings of their main catalog, “Octopus” and its predecessor, “Three Friends” were still in print from Columbia Records in the US well into the 90’s. Most recently, it has been re-issued with a brand new mix by Steven Wilson, whose job it seems these days is to remix every classic Prog album ever made. He has revamped the catalogs of King Crimson, ELP, Jethro Tull, and most recently he has worked his mixing magic on Yes. So far, I mostly like his mixes, although I am still glad that the original album mixes are usually available side-by-side in the deluxe re-packaging.
“Octopus” remains one of my favorite albums to this day and I do not believe we will ever see or hear the likes of it again, at least not until someone new comes around with the group’s eclecticism and consummate musicianship, as well as a willingness to make the music they want to hear without kowtowing to the pressures of the music industry and contemporary stylistic trends.
For more info on “Octopus” and everything else Gentle Giant, go to their website at http://www.blazemonger.com/GG/Gentle_Giant_Home_Page