Clocking in at 29 CDs plus one Blu-ray, the ‘Unburied Treasure’ box set by Gentle Giant is truly insane. But given that this band made insanely unique music, it is only fitting. The short of it is that I would recommend this box to newcomers and long-time fans alike, but if you need more convincing before shelling out what might also be seen as insanely much money for CDs in this day and age, then read on.
When the end is a new beginning
With 30 discs in total to choose from, I am probably the only reviewer to dive directly for the June 16 1980 live set recorded at the Roxy in LA.
I fumble when trying to press the disc onto the spindle. But then, finally, it is there. ’Convenience (Clean and Easy)’ from final Gentle Giant album ‘Civilian’ blast through the speakers and it takes less than a minute for my eyes to fill with tears.
But wait a minute, that final album is crap, right? Well-known prog rock journalist Sid Smith recently asked his Facebook friends the following: “I’m writing something about when our love for an artist cools or dies completely.
What LP caused you to part company and why? How did you feel? Was there ever a joyful reunion?”
‘Civilian’ by Gentle Giant was one of the answers he got.
And despite the members of the band defending the album even today, all I hear is a mediocre stab at mainstream 1980s rock.
The reason I am putting on this particular disc is that for more than 39 years I have believed I saw the last ever performance by Gentle Giant. That concert took place at the Old Waldorf in San Francisco on June 15th, and I specifically attended the second set starting at 11 PM, because in the tour program published at the time that was indeed the very last.
Turns out I was wrong.
Turns out they added added the Roxy in Hollywood for two more shows even though they had been there the night before the Old Waldorf, due to popular demand.
Turns out that I have even have that performance on CD already, as it was previously released as ‘The Last Steps’ in 1996; it has just been mislabeled as the ‘official’ June 14th show all these years. Probably by someone like me who had seen the originally published tour schedule.
So, one more childhood illusion shattered. Anyway, I was there at what was then the penultimate night (sigh).
The Old Waldorf was a small venue, holding only a couple of hundred, a club with tables, creating a very intimate setting. I remember the band actually announcing that it was their last performance there on that stage (despite what then happened the following night), and there was a shock of sadness like a ripple through the room.
But they certainly went with a bang. Wow, what an emotional show!
They mixed songs from the ‘Civilian’ album with a selection from their classic albums, while they showing off their incredible musicianship by swapping instruments with each other seemingly at random during the show. And organically that led up to everyone playing their otherwise also well-documented all drums number.
Much of that can be heard on this final disc, although the sound quality suffers from having been recorded at such a small venue. I haven’t been to the Roxy but understand that it was similar to the Old Waldorf – it certainly sounds like a club recording and doesn’t breathe. As a result, the excitement I felt at seeing them unfortunately doesn’t translate onto disc.
One of those “you had to be there” moments.
From one extreme to the other
From that extreme end, the next disc to get a spin is from the very beginning, because, excitingly, we have full Steven Wilson stereo and surround remixes of the magnificent first Gentle Giant album from 1970.
In 2017, Alucard released the ‘Three Piece Suite’ containing new mixes of a few tracks from each of the first three albums. To my knowledge, they did so because the other master tapes were lost. So, had they now found the missing masters?
On re-reading the ‘Three Piece Suite’ liners, I realise there is no mention of lost masters; there is in fact no real explanation for combining the three first albums into one at all. Hmmm…
In fact, despite all the books, and posters and stuff that you get with ‘Unburied Treasure’ there is no explanation here either. There are in fact no mentions about the remixes at all. Very irritating.
In any case, I put on the surround mix first. And boy, does that translate to disc, just wow!
‘Gentle Giant’ is in places rather sparse in its instrumentation and quite gentle indeed, leading one to think that doing a surround mix would be overkill. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, this mix shines light on all the nuances and magically enhances the multi-vocal parts. In fact, I think it is one of the most impressive surround mixes of 70s records I have heard – and I have heard many.
Even in the prog rock genre, Gentle Giant’s music is effortlessly at the top when it comes to complexity, yet they are simultaneously the most melodically oriented of them all. In that sense, Gentle Giant are to prog rock what 10cc are to pop music. As a result, their music is a natural fit for surround.
But having said that, I was not prepared for the depth such a mix would reveal in their debut album. Totally fantastic! If you are a hard core Gentle Giant fan, I would say that this mix alone is worth the (very high) price of this box alone.
The perfect middle ground
After the end and the beginning, I go smack bang to the middle since the 1975 album Free Hand is my favourite after all. For this reason, it is a great pleasure to find a classic concert performed in the wake of the release of that album here, namely in Basel on November 24th. Although there Is a professionally recorded (and filmed) performance from Germany on August 10th previously released as the ‘Giant on the Box’ DVD, this sadly seems to be the only other recording from that phase. And, it is brilliant, with engaging performances, the trademark taped breaking glass intro to ‘The Runaway’ that has the audience clapping hands before the strange time signatures quickly overwhelm them, a spinning coin introducing ‘Excerpts from Octopus’ and all in quite good sound quality. A must hear!
There are many other live discs here, from every phase of the band’s career. I can’t say that I have fully listened to them all yet, but at an attempted quick skip through listen I got caught up in the music on too many occasions making it a very long listening session indeed.
Despite heavy touring as can be studied in detail in the included LP sized 97 page ‘Tour History’, Gentle Giant only released one live album, ‘Playing The Fool’. Given their incredibly high musicianship, it is not surprisingly the highest rated Gentle Giant album on progarchives.com, even though the band were beyond their peak creatively speaking. But here, for the first time, we are treated to the complete set of recordings that were used as the basis to compile that album. Although some of it has been released in bits and pieces here and there, it is great to have it all, not least because it represent the most well recorded live material they ever did – and they are indeed in blazing form throughout.
Other notable inclusions on the box are a great BBC session from 1972, lost from the BBC archives but taped off the air by a fan, and the Pinewood Studios rehearsal tapes prior to setting out on a tour of America in 1977 in full remastered (if not exactly glorious) quality. The set contains two songs from ‘The Missing Piece’ album that were never recorded live in any other way – and at least ‘As Old As You’re Young’ is every bit as good as classic era Gentle Giant.
It is easy to gush on about Gentle Giant, but who is this box for?
I really would want to recommend it to someone who is new to the band, or in fact to someone who has now experience of 1970s prog rock at all. Gentle Giant suffer from none of the pomp or pretentiousness that prog is often, and partly correctly, associated with. Instead they showcase musical invention and team spirit at its best. But would such a person shell out well above £250 for a box like this? I wonder…
Blu-ray box next please!
So that probably leaves us to the committed fans instead. But they probably already have multiple copies of all the official albums. I had much rather seen a complete Blu-ray release of the studio albums instead, to be honest. Since ‘Acquiring the Taste’ and ‘Three Friends’ were not remixed for this release, will we they ever get a release? Although this box it is certainly great not only in its physical shape and form, I hope it won’t be the last.
So far, only ‘Octopus’ and ‘The Power and the Glory’ are available in proper, uncompressed surround editions, despite the fact that no other band I can think of, including King Crimson, gains as much from surround mixes.
Even though surround mixes of both ‘Free Hand’ and ‘Interview’ exist, they have only been released as compressed DTS versions on that awful DVD-Video disc format. Even just thinking about a surround mix of the insanely intense experimental masterpiece that is ‘In A Glass House’ makes my mouth totally dry. How on earth hasn’t that even happened yet!?! Just asking! After all, that first post Phil Shulman album is the point were the band really should have dropped the ‘gentle’ part of their name, as what followed were quartet of albums deceptively still full of gentle sounds but at heart utterly without compromise.
In comparison, ‘The Missing Piece’ obviously would pale, but it is still a great album, and surely the master tapes at least for that album are still around?
Unlike other progressive acts from the 1970s, Gentle Giant have never reformed. As an effect, their singular legacy remains fully untarnished. And these guys truly were giants although they lost their way with the two last albums. The taller they are, the harder they fall.
That is why this box is essential. Yet we still want more!! Blu-ray box next please!