Acquiring the Taste, 1971
Nowadays, it is rare for a band to release two full-lengths within a year of one another. Going one step further, it’s virtually unheard of for a band not only to do so, but reinvent their sound in the process, as Gentle Giantaccomplished in the eight month interval between their self-titled debut and Acquiring the Taste. With the initial experience of Gentle Giant still fresh in my mind, the major shift towards experimentation the band took with Acquiring the Taste is obvious right from the start. The mesh of avant-garde quirk with classical austerity on this album demonstrated that Gentle Giant weren’t content with sticking to the bluesy framework they began with. Their toils resulted in another near-masterpiece, more ambitious and angular than the first, all the while consolidating some of the elements I loved about the first.
No, I don’t think Acquiring the Taste is so much better than its antecedent. Although it’s clear Gentle Giant evolved for the better in the seasons between this and the self-titled, it’s more accurate to say that the developments have resulted in a different experience rather than a necessarily superior incarnation some fans profess it to be. To be honest, the songwriting felt better handled and more consistent on Gentle Giant, not to mention the friendly face on the debut makes for a far more attractive cover than the silly visual innuendo on the front of Acquiring the Taste. Even so, most of the apparent shortcomings on Acquiring the Taste can and should be excused for the reason that Gentle Giant took far bolder risks here. They weren’t working any longer with the thoughtful balance of pastoral prog and blues rock anymore; rather, I think they were trying to purposefully imbalance their music to throw their listeners for a loop.
You can still hear echoes of the blues in Gary Green’s guitar work (I don’t think he could ever truly detach himself from his blues roots), straightforward riffing has been made a sideline to make way from avant-garde and classically based arrangements. “Pantagruel’s Nativity” stole my heart from the moment I heard it; while the guitar still probably gets more attention than any other instrument (I love that melancholic four-note lead Green reprises throughout the song) it is clear within a minute Gentle Giant are beginning to see all instruments as equally viable tools. Weird sounds will take winding paths of their own numbers at a time, and somehow it sounds coherent. I don’t think Acquiring the Taste produced any immortally memorable songwriting. Frankly, the spontaneous and jarring arrangements Gentle Giant layered on here would have curbed any but the strongest songwriting; like so many of the bands who favour this kind of sporadic experimentation, Gentle Giant earn their keep in ideas and particular moments far more than the overlying structures themselves, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Acquiring the Taste has so many standout moments, and true to the album’s title, the music’s density tends to reward the persistent listener. Elements that felt jarring to me at first soon became engaging and even endearing with repeated listens. The sea shanty / baroque etude (?!?) crossover “Wreck” was a favourite of mine from the start, demonstrating Gentle Giant hadn’t lost their ability to craft excellent bluesy grooves when the need arose. “The Moon is Down” is another great one; masquerading as a gloomy ballad, it is one of the most challenging offerings on the album, thanks in part to the jarring chord progression in the reprise. The only song on Acquiring the Taste that doesn’t impress as much as it should have is the electric violin-led jammed closer “Plain Truth”. For the second time in a row, Gentle Giant slightly drop the ball with the last song, leaving it less developed than it should have been. There is nothing inherently wrong with “Plain Truth” beyond the fact that it never aspires to the same degree of challenging weirdness as the rest of the tracks. Considering it’s the longest piece on the album, the fact that “Plain Truth” unfolds as a fairly predictable rock jam is a surprising and glaring fault on an otherwise superb record.
If the tirade against commercialism on the LP sleeve has any bearing on the music, Acquiring the Taste was produced with pushing all boundaries in mind, even when that interfered with the boundaries of, er, good taste. It is prog for prog’s sake in its most archetypal form- make of that good or bad if you will. Gentle Giant defined themselves here through a sheer excess of complexity and dynamics, a pattern they would only replicate and amplify on future albums. If you’re thinking a lot of the instrumentation is superfluous, or that Gentle Giant may have been able to do more with less, you might be right, but you’d still be missing part of the point. Acquiring the Taste was, in essence, an experiment to see how far Gentle Giant could take popular music “at the risk of being very unpopular.” I think that experiment resulted in something pretty fantastic.
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