Toxic Prog Rock Syndrome: Gentle Giant’s Wreck

Gentle Giant is known as the prog band’s prog band. They’re doing stuff that gobsmacked the more well-known bands of the time with their polyphony, weird signatures, instruments and staggeringly intricate vocals.Not only drawing on classical music and jazz but also on renaissance and chamber music figures as well, they took their esotericity very seriously. They occupied a second tier of progressive rock that was arguably more experimental and extreme than their more popular cousins (Genesis, Yes, etc), but never quite reached the same fame due to their inaccessibility (the audience was never a chief concern in prog circles). Unsurprisingly, they didn’t handle prog’s transition to pop in the late 70s/early 80s that well – they called it quits after 1980’s Civilian and have not reunited since.

That’s not to say, however, that the band is completely unassailable. They still aspired to achieving the perfect fusion of mature and pop music, and their songs were always tightly written – seldom in Gentle Giant are there 10+ minute songs or wandering instrumental solos. Everything was packed into the main body of the song, it was just the structures themselves that were operating on a number of different levels.

My favourite track by the band has always been “Wreck”, as it’s actually kind of a catchy tune and represents the band in the position of just trying to craft a good old fashioned rocking stomp that will get people into the song. The problem was that, despite this, they were still Gentle Giant, so you get the impression of these guys writing a rock song but not really getting a grasp of the ‘less is more’ approach. The opening riff starts out well, but starts to wander almost immediately as it feels a couple bars too long and begins to wander around the notes, which actually creates much more expressive riff than you’d usually hear. This leads into the bulk of the song with a simplified version of the opening riff in 4/4 which the vocals overtop follow and end every line with a chorus chanting a very friendly “hey/ yeah-e-yeah/hold on”. This part rocks pretty well and you bob your head as you hear this tale  of an awful shipwreck and the sailors going down in it.

This is maintained for a bit as people get into the groove, until this part, in the middle of the song is interrupted by a violin and harpsichord interview and light vocal flitting around notes almost at random. They last like two minutes before they have to let loose with harmonically complex ditties with fancier instruments (at a later point they fade out the rock part of the song to bring you another interlude with a flute at the centre) in the middle. They knew they had to make it rock and make it complex but couldn’t decide on the synthesis and so just broke them up.

I’m not saying it doesn’t work, however. The main part of the song represents the rage of the sea that swallowed the ship, while the more serene part is a distinct reflection on the cruelty of the sea being where they made their living and is now the thing that leads to their destruction. Thematically, they made it work, but it is such a jarring juxtaposition and a good representation in the attitude of the time that the music they’re making should be utterly unlike anything that was out there at the time. The album “Wreck” is included on, 1971’s Acquiring the Taste, even bears this statement from the band:

“…It is our goal to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music at the risk of being very unpopular. We have recorded each composition with the one thought – that it should be unique, adventurous and fascinating. It has taken every shred of our combined musical and technical knowledge to achieve this. From the outset we have abandoned all preconceived thoughts of blatant commercialism. Instead we hope to give you something far more substantial and fulfilling. All you need to do is sit back, and acquire the taste.”

Pretty pretentious stuff to be throwing around, but I think the statement was more for the band themselves than the listener – sort of their manifesto in that they did not want to rely on previous musical tropes to build their music off of. Nevertheless, this is a song I always go back to. It’s unlike anything I’ve heard, and I really appreciate that the complexity inherent in the song is woven into its own tapestry, rather than being saved for some extended section, but at the same time I still get to yell stuff like “HEY! Yeah-e-yeah, hold on!”

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