[Review] Gentle Giant: Octopus (1972)

Their music is still an acquired taste, but rarely has it been tastier.

Kronomyth 4.0: Magnum octopus.

The band’s fourth album returns to the madrigals and intricate mosaics of Acquiring the Taste while at the same time refining that formula to create what may be their best album. Not that it’s a radical departure from Three Friends—all the band’s works through Interview are at once similar and unique to Gentle Giant—but Octopus is clearly patterned after their second album, from a return to Rabelais (The Advent of Panurge) to songs that echo earlier pieces like “Edge of Twilight” and “The House, The Street, The Room.”

The album’s liner notes allude to several literary sources, including works by Albert Camus and R.D. Laing, which served as the inspiration for A Cry for Everyone and Knots, respectively. Musically, the album again makes heavy use of counterpoint in the instrumentation and polyphony in the vocals, with Ray Shulman and Kerry Minnear weaving intricate and often playful patterns. New drummer John Weathers fits in perfectly, even pulling off a xylophone solo on “Knots,” and managed to stick around for the rest of the band’s career. Unfortunately, older brother Philip Shulman left the group after this album, so Octopus is the last time you’ll hear his sensitive contributions and softer voice. Think of Me with Kindness is a fitting swan song for the elder Shulman.

Despite publicity and a pair of clever album covers that included a Roger Dean illustration for the original UK pressing and a diecut cover for the subsequent US pressing, Octopus didn’t turn around Gentle Giant’s commercial (mis)fortunes. This has occasioned me to think that “A Cry for Everyone” might be a playful poke at Black Sabbath and Jethro Tull, who were enjoying significantly more commercial (if not critical) success at the time. Raconteur Troubadour seems to affirm the band’s steadfast refusal to play to modern tastes, serving as a kind of musical mini-manifesto.

There isn’t a bad song on Octopus, although I’d yet to encounter a Gentle Giant song I didn’t like (that discovery would have to wait for The Missing Piece). Their music is still an acquired taste, however. Groups like Yes and Jethro Tull fused their instruments together in a way that felt exciting yet reassuringly familiar. Gentle Giant, by contrast, seems to delight in exposing the bone and sinew behind their clever arrangements. When their sounds are blended, as on The River, the results are gorgeous. But when the instruments are pulled apart (“Knots,” Boys in the Band), the music becomes noticeably more difficult. I like difficult music (I think that’s a prerequisite for prog fans), so an album like Octopus is easy for me to enjoy. In fact, I probably return to Octopus’ garden more than any other Gentle Giant work, with the possible exception of Three Friends.

Original elpee version

A1. The Advent of Panurge (4:40)
A2. Raconteur Troubadour (4:02)
A3. A Cry for Everyone (4:02)
A4. Knots (4:09)
B1. The Boys in the Band (4:33)
B2. Dog’s Life (3:11)
B3. Think of Me with Kindness (3:32)
B4. River (5:54)

All titles composed by Kerry Minnear, Derek Shulman, Philip Shulman and Raymond Shulman.

The Players

Gary Green (guitars, percussion), Kerry Minnear (all keyboards, vibraphone, percussion, cello, Moog, lead and backing vocals), Derek Shulman (lead vocals, alto saxophone), Philip Shulman (saxophones, trumpet, mellophone, lead and backing vocals), Raymond Shulman (bass, violin, guitar, percussion, vocals), John Weathers (drums, percussion, xylophone) with Martin Rushant (Rushent) (laugh coinspin, variable speed oscillator), Mike Viccars (Moog operator). Produced by Gentle Giant; engineered by Martin Rushant (Rushent); Murray Krugman: over-all American supervision.

The Pictures

UK cover artwork by Roger Dean. For US album cover: Album cover concept & design by John Berg. Illustration by Charles White III. Design by Kenny Kneitel. Lettering by Michael Doret.

The Plastic

Released on elpee and 8-track on December 1, 1972 in the UK and Germany (Vertigo, 6360 080) and in April 1973* in the US and Canada (Columbia, KC/CA 32022) with gatefold or diecut cover and lyrics innersleeve. The UK and US versions have different covers. Reached #170 on the US charts. (*First appeared in 4/12/73 issue of Rolling Stone.)

  1. Re-issued on elpee in the US (Columbia, PC 32022) with regular (no diecut) cover.
  2. Re-issued on compact disc in the UK and Germany (Vertigo, 842 694).
  3. Re-issued on compact disc in the US (Columbia, CK 32022).
  4. Re-issued on compact disc on April 5, 1990 in Japan (Vertigo, PPD 3094).
  5. Re-issued on compact disc on February 25, 1994 in Japan (Vertigo, PHCR-4203).
  6. Re-released on remastered compact disc on December 20, 2000 in Japan (Vertigo, UICY-9029).
  7. Re-released on remastered super high material compact disc on December 15, 2010 in Japan (Vertigo, UIGY-9057).
1973 Columbia KC 32022 album cover
1973 Columbia KC 32022 album cover

2 thoughts on “[Review] Gentle Giant: Octopus (1972)

  1. “Think Of Me” is sung by Kerry (pace: the CD booklet). You seem to have trouble distinguishing the keyboardist from the elder brother – suffice to say “Black Cat” was a Phil song but all the other quiet numbers on ATT had Kerry on lead vocals. Likewise, here the only Phil-based songs are “A Dog’s Life” and (to a degree) “Panurge”.

    1. God bless you for taking the time to add your insights to this site, and for what has to be the most gentle correction I’ve yet encountered in terms of my getting it just plain wrong. I actually struggle quite a bit with distinguishing vocals, which you think would preclude me from sharing my opinion, but this site has more to do with order and autism than authority. Feel free to comment any time.

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