For their third album, Gentle Giant decided they were going to expand their conceptual horizons – and ended up writing a mini-rock opera. Not that the album really feels as a rock opera, mind you; for the most part, I sense the concept as merely as an excuse for loads and loads of pleasant, but rather unrelated jamming. The concept itself is rather simple and not all that thought-provoking: basically, they tell the story of three friends (how did you guess?) that were friends in school and later went their own ways, one of them becoming a road worker, the other a painter, and the third a businessman or whoever. Apparently, they never met after school, and that’s the way it goes. So there’s a ‘Prologue’ (not an overture), a song devoted to their school experience, a ‘personal’ tune for each of the friends (why does that remind me of Quadrophenia?), and an epilogue. And the whole thing is just about thirty minutes long; Gentle Giant always made their albums short, that’s why there’s so many of them.
Not that I don’t like the album – I consider it one of their best, in fact, if a little misguided and erratic in places. Since there are but six songs, it’s rather easy to concentrate on each of them separately, no matter how musically twisted they are. ‘Prologue’ is really the least interesting of the bunch; starting out as an organ-based jam, it quickly sets ‘the background’ with half a minute worth of lovely vocal harmonies, and then degenerates back into the same kind of jam with Gary Green taking over the leading role and playing some decent, but still lacklustre guitar. ‘Schooldays’, though, is nothing short of a GG masterpiece: the introductory duet between Kerry’s vibes and Gary’s fluent guitar sounds not unlike the kind of music the archangels must be playing for the Lord God above, and the complex vocal harmonies, arranged as a call-and-answer session (‘the bell rings – and all things – are calling’), are incredible; I wonder if they ever managed to pull them off onstage. Probably did. While seven minutes might be a little long for this song, I rarely ever feel so: the tune evokes beautiful memories, and it’s really a very nice choice to make if you ever want to go back to your childhood.
But children grow up, and start going their own ways. ‘Working All Day’ presents the ‘elder brother’ who hasn’t managed to achieve much; he’s represented by a menacing, grumbly fusion-style composition, this time based around guitar/brass interplay, with lots of fat saxes all around the place and a nice organ solo. While the song is not the most impressive on the record, it’s at least a compact and memorable composition, so that lovers of order and structure will be attracted to it. Me, I’m more interested in the artist’s confession, the multi-part suite ‘Peel The Paint’. It begins fairly inoffensive, with a lightweight classical-influenced pastiche sung by Phil Shulman as he sings about all the joys and pleasures of the artist’s profession – ‘lost in the hush, no need to rush, time waits for him who creates with the brush’. Then, all of a sudden, hoopla! the bassline gets menacing, and the song transforms into an aggressive jazz-rock thunderstorm, with Phil passing over the vocals to Derek who shatters the illusions – ‘peel the paint, look underneath, you’ll see the same old savage beast’. The song then ventures off into a million directions, all of them fascinating, with Gary soloing like mad and various echo and tremolo effects on the instruments that create an effectively ‘evil’ atmosphere, not in the Sabbath meaning of the word, but rather in the ‘church style’, if you get what I mean. Shucks, I don’t quite get it myself.
‘Mister Class And Quality’, then, introduces the most successful of the three friends, and again, the tune is rather throwaway, as compact and short as it is. Even the lyrics are trite. ‘The world needs steady men like me to give and take the orders’. Sure thing. So skip it and concentrate on the title track, a kind of ‘epilogue’ for the album. Again, it’s multi-part, and again, it’s a good one – strange how I actually like the most complex parts on this album and dislike the simplistic ones. Hmm. Maybe it’s time for me to try my hand at a review for those whacko guys at http://www.prog.net. (Don’t go there! You’ll get hernia! I warned you!) Anyway, ‘Three Friends’ again goes from an aggressive jazzy jam to a majestic part with lots of atmospheric synths, Mellotrons and church organs which makes a suitable conclusion for the entire ‘concept’.
Actually, I don’t mind that the idea was such a trivial one; on the contrary, I’m quite glad that Three Friends is a concept album. The concept gives all of the songs a sense – while the general melodies and jams are indeed tighter and richer and more emotionally resonant than the ones on Octopus, it’s the concept that really organizes them and breathes real life and content into what would otherwise be a passable set of self-indulgent improvisations. Unfortunately, the boys were not too wild about the concept themselves, I suppose, and they did not venture out to implement the same tactics on their next release.