GENTLE GIANT Albums Ranked and Reviewed

Gentle Giant albums ranked by Prog Sphere
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10. The Missing Piece, 1977

Gentle Giant - The Missing PieceThe Missing Piece is, if nothing else, an eclectic album. Unfortunately, that’s where its similarities with Gentle Giant‘s earlier albums begins to end. Yes, this is where things really started to unravel for a band I’ve heard described as the ‘quintessential prog rock act.’ In a sense trailblazing the ‘prog-to-pop’ trend that swept up bands like Yes and Genesis a couple of years later, it seemed like Gentle Giant were finally desperate enough to pursue the commercial success they loudly scoffed at circa Acquiring the Taste. However, unlike Genesis (who had Phil Collins) or Yes (who had Trevor Rabin), Gentle Giant lacked the fundamental songwriting skills to make it in the commercial sphere.

With The Missing Piece in particular, the experiment feels like a complete and utter mess. Far moreso than its pair of poppy successors (Giant for a Day and Civilian), The Missing Piece doesn’t seem to have a firm idea of what it wants to be. Especially on the album’s superior second half, there’s the definite sense that Gentle Giant still have part of their heart set on progressive rock. But it would misleading to call The Missing Piece a prog album; before we hear anything that confirms our expectations of Gentle Giant, there is punk rock (“Two Weeks in Spain”) diabetic AOR balladry (“I’m Turning Around”) rock n’ roll (“Betcha Thought We Couldn’t Do It”) and blues rock (“Who Do You Think You Are?” and “Mountain Time”)- and that’s just the first side. Even if most of the styles they’re working with are familiar and pre-codified, the variety gives the impression that Gentle Giant are unsure where they want to go.

By itself, the variety is actually cause for some mild excitement. Given that so many of these ‘popular’ styles are fresh territory for the Shulmans and co., it’s pretty cool to hear Gentle Giant extending their reach to encompass so much new ground at once. The Missing Piece may have even been great, had many of these expeditions ever actually worked. “Two Weeks in Spain” is one of the few that arguably do; it’s a jarring change of pace even from what they were doing the year before on Interview, but the prog-punk fusion is exciting, and probably one of the very first instances that combination was actually attempted (anyone else hearing early Cardiacs here?) There seems to be consensus that the strongest track here is “Memories of Old Days”, and indeed it’s one of the most emotional moments in GG‘s career. It’s a crossroads between Floydian melancholy (think “Comfortably Numb”) and surreal acoustic guitars foreshadowing modern avant-prog legends maudlin of the Well‘s famous interludes by a quarter of a century. Be you a fan of Gentle Giant or a total newcomer, “Memories of Old Days” is kind of a masterpiece for what it is, and it’s a complete and utter shame that the album it’s a part of is such crap more often than not, elsewise I’m sure more people would be singing its praises.

“Two Weeks in Spain” and “Memories of Old Days” are truffles in the mud. The rest of the music here ranges from mediocre prog (“For Nobody”) to forsakenly terrible AOR- can we stop for a moment to condemn “I’m Turning Around” in particular? I suppose it’s a slight merit on Gentle Giant‘s part that they foreshadowed the slimy-sugary 80s’ power ballad archetype a few years before the fact, but to current ears especially, it’s a tough sell to get through that song with ears intact. No, I’m serious- what were they bloody thinking?! Gentle Giant have never been one for any shade of sentiment, and they go off an attempt a love song that would make the FM radio gods weep and wither. “Betcha Thought We Couldn’t Do It” and “As Old As You’re Young” are irritating as well, but their shock is limited by the dismal depths they hit on “I’m Turning Around”. The Missing Piece has a few great moments but they’re fiercely outweighed by the duds. Unlike Giant for a Day it does sound like they’re trying to do something interesting here, but- pure and simple, it does not work.

Let’s face it; a big part of the enduring appeal of Gentle Giant‘s music is the fact that they took the tenets of progressive rock bombast and complexity to a proverbial 11. The sheer overwhelming arrangements and mind-bending eclecticism tended to outshine emotional depth and composition. Even as a fan of the band, I don’t think Gentle Giant could ever be called good songwriters in the traditional sense, so it stands to reason that an album that largely mutes the bells and whistles wouldn’t seem nearly as appealing. To the album’s credit, a simpler route hasn’t kept Gentle Giant from diving into a wide range of styles, but with such appalling inconsistency to the quality of music here, it’s a tough album to recommend.

Could a ‘pop’ Gentle Giant actually work? I think it might have, if they had approached the new dynamic with the fervour that inspired their wackiest prog. Civilian is the closest we ever hear of that potential. While the variety makes The Missing Piece more generally interesting than Giant for a Day, some of the band’s most underwhelming and pathetic moments are to be found here. Might have not been a bad idea if they had quit after Interview.

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