Prog-Rock Concept Albums, A Defense

Article_moody2 Rick Moody in The Believer:

Woe to the musician who can actually play his or her instrument. In that direction ridicule lies. Ridicule by reason of excessively long solos, of leaden grooves, of unpleasant facial posturing so as to simulate profundity.

In this regard: consider the plight of Gentle Giant. They are among the most reviled of prog-rock outfits from the ’70s. They made concept albums; they were heavily influenced (or so it was said) by the French Renaissance writer Rabelais; they were all capable of playing recorders; and, after the advent of punk, they tried to sell out and make New Wave albums. If all that were not bad enough, they started life as a soul band (Simon Dupree and the Big Sound), electing to go prog in 1969.

It would seem impossible to defend Gentle Giant, and yet that is what I mean to do. My defense rests on the following notions: 1) That 4/4 time is really boring and starts to hurt your head after a while. 2) That counterpoint, as a compositional tool, is beguiling and satisfying to the ears. 3) That a record with a lot of different instrumental textures is more consistently interesting than one on which every song has the very same instrumentation. 4) That dynamic variation is the secret to making a recording move over its course (if all of the songs start and end at the same level, there’s no reason to begin at the beginning of an album and go all the way to the end). 5) That love ditties, lyrically speaking, need not feature mere teen platitudes.

Free Hand, Gentle Giant’s album from 1975, is a fine example of these enumerated points, and a good place to start for those people who have not yet given up reading these lines.