It is baffling that I’ve gone so long as a fan of progressive rock without giving Gentle Giant the time and attention their work rightly deserved. The Shulman bros and co. have become virtually synonymous with prog and all it’s entailed for good and bad. Fortunately I recently took steps to rectify this gap in my progressive education, starting with their self-titled debut. By all accounts, I’m glad I did.
As early on as 1970, Gentle Giant were making music that bridged the gap between the ‘warm prog’ of pastoral contemporaries like Genesis, and the coolly calculated machinations of technique-oriented collectives, namely King Crimson. The result was a sound that confirms a great many of the expectations modern-day fans would have for the genre’s heyday. The quaint British-isms that fuelled the first golden years of progressive rock are here in tandem with the byzantine instrumentation that would give it lasting appeal. The style of Gentle Giant is hinted at on the album’s iconic cover; the face-centric art recalls In the Court of the Crimson King (from the year before) but while the King Crimson debut’s visage was contorted and expressionistic, the ‘gentle giant’ seen here is heart-warming and friendly. It’s not unimaginable that he’d probably want to invite you in for mead and venison if your paths crossed.
While it’s not entirely unlikely I get this sense having recently watched William Wyler’s 1946 Oscar-winner The Best Years of Our Lives, Gentle Giant‘s Civilian says a lot to me from the title alone. I get the mental image of five prog-weary soldiers, coming home from the frontlines of experimental rock. Perhaps they suffer shellshock from the explosive instrumental fireworks they were handling for the better part of the decade. What’s more likely; they became disillusioned by war, er, prog, and decided they’d had enough of it. Unfortunately, as every veteran of war will tell you, home is never as you left it. The world had changed, and Gentle Giant had entered the pop world with little of the vital skills necessary to thrive in it.
Civilian is arguably the most grounded and ‘professional’ of the three pop Gentle Giant albums. It’s also, by turns, the most tedious and uneventful. While the glossy production and peppy synth-bolstered pop rock fits the early 80s zeitgeist like a snug mitten, Civilian once again proves that, as pop songwriters, Gentle Giant were more sure to miss than hit.
Comparisons are often made between this and Yes 90125. While both are examples of progressive heavyweights realigning themselves for the new decade with a recognizably ’80s’ style, that’s where the similarities begin to end. I personally love 90125 for what it is; I even think some of Genesis‘ pop stuff was great. The thing that Gentle Giantlacked compared to the others is that they never had a member whose talents really worked with pop. There were no Phil Collinses or Trevor Rabins in Gentle Giant; as profoundly proficient as they are musically, there’s a different skillset required for proverbially good pop, and as they had struggled in the absence of those skills with The Missing Piece and Giant for a Day, Civilian feels like a nicely executed album with little of the substance to keep me interested for long.
While it’s easily the most consistent of the GG pop trilogy, that may have only served to make the album less interesting. The Missing Piece and Giant for a Day failed to leave much of an impression on me, but there was something to be said for the way they surprised me with the kind of eclecticism Gentle Giant brought to their music. Not surprisingly, these experiments brought plenty of flaws (the AOR ballad “I’m Turning Around” off The Missing Piece is particularly unforgivable), but I must admit there were charming moments as well. “Memories of Old Days”, “Two Weeks in Spain” and “Friends” are all choice cuts from Gentle Giant‘s latter era, and though the albums as a whole felt too contrived to recommend, there are songs that stuck with me. Civilian is the first and only Gentle Giant album that doesn’t have some sense of eclecticism to it, and given that the songwriting does little to provoke me one way or the other, I think Gentle Giant shot themselves in the foot when it came to streamlining their sound.
No, there is nothing truly awful to bear on Civilian. “I Am A Camera” is a pretty decent pop rock tune too, though I can’t altogether recall any of the hooks after listening to it. After a bit of struggle, Gentle Giant finally settled into a style of pop they were comfortable with. They toned down their instrumentation for a kind of ineffectual verse-chorus-type manner of composition that makes no attempt to capture my attention. To their credit, it’s a good thing that Gentle Giant called it quits when they did. Three albums is more than enough time to see if a style is working for a band, and the divorcement from wacky prog insanity was a death knell to virtually everything that made Gentle Giant interesting in the first place. I have a soft spot for pop when it’s done right, but good pop requires the same amount of inspiration as good prog. Gentle Giant seemed to overlook that fact here. If there is any lasting pleasure to be gleaned from Civilian, it’s to think what the Gentle Giant circa Acquiring the Taste would have thought of this. If this sort of declawed New Wave-y pop rock wouldn’t make their past selves scoff, I’m not sure what would.