Three Friends, 1972
This sort of thing happens all the time. As a prog rock band’s career gradually develops, they almost surely become more ambitious, more self-confident in the extent of their abilities. As a result, there’s a tendency for bands’ output to get more daring and complex as time goes on. As you might reasonably conclude, there’s almost always the point in the trajectory where a band finally hits the ceiling of ambition, resulting in an opus may very well polarize its audiences for how far it takes it. When a band reaches that maximized ambition and there’s no further they can go, they can either attempt to keep the peak going (which rarely succeeds) or else reinvent themselves in some way. Most of the time, this results in a band reeling back aspects of their sound. The best example of this was the shift between Yes‘ ridiculously expansive Tales from Topographic Oceans and its (relatively) grounded successor Going for the One. Anyone looking for modern equivalents in prog might look to Pain of Salvation‘s half-successful reinvention with Scarsick after BE, or the straightforward mentality Dream Theater adopted with Train of Thought, after they’d reached their progressive potential with the two records prior.
I wouldn’t dare to say that Acquiring the Taste is the most outlandishly ambitious record of Gentle Giant‘s career, but considering how wacky it was compared to most of the progressive rock coming out those days, it’s easy to see why that may have been thought to be the case. Three Friends provides the same reeled-back function in the band’s career as Going for the One, maintaining their style in a scaled- back setting. While I’d argue it was a necessary move for Yes, I’m not convinced Three Friends was a fitting successor to Gentle Giant‘s first two albums. The sporadic energy and quality I’ve come to associate with the Gentle Giant name is all here on Three Friends, but I don’t find myself as wowed as I would have hoped or expected to be from them.
Being the paradigm of progressive rock that they are, it’s not surprising Gentle Giant would eventually try their hand with a concept album. Three Friends is structured similarly to Pink Floyd‘s Animals; three perspectives from three very different people are touched upon in three songs, synthesized by additional pieces at the start and end. While Animals took a page from Orwell and stood as metaphor for the branches of society and their character, Three Friends adopts far less provocative subject matter. To put it simply, it’s an album about three school friends and the highly distinct (and archetypal) ways their life turned out. Gentle Giant touch upon the travails of the working class bloke, the tortured artist, and the posh businessman. As a clever stroke on GG‘s part, the songs aptly reflect whatever character they’re about. “Working All Day” is full-on, grimy blues rock, the likes of which Gentle Giant explored to great lengths on the debut. Peeling the Paint uses some of the same grit and fuzz, albeit to a fairly different end; the song shifts between a sense of austere sophistication and angry hard rock riffs- representing the dual nature of the artist’s soul, perhaps? As you might guess, “Mister Class and Quality?” is the most high-brow of the three, driven by electric violin and ultimately diving into a psychedelic rock solo that probably counts among the better performances of Gary Green in the first years of their career.
It’s nice to see a concept interact with the music like this, but I cannot get over the fact that the three centrepieces on Three Friends feel pretty dull and pedestrian by GG standards. I’d have no issue with hearing Gentle Giant go the straightforward route if they could still inject character into the songs. “Working All Day” is easily the best of the three, but all strike me with the same half-impressed indifference as the lazy “Plain Truth” off Acquiring the Taste.
It’s almost counter-intuitive that the real joys of Three Friends wouldn’t lie in the centrepieces, but the way the album starts and finishes. “Schooldays” offers the most intricate and sporadic vocal work the band had attempted until that point. “Prelude” and “Three Friends” are amazing and multi-layered from the guitarist’s perspective, so much to the point where it almost sounds like a different band played the three tunes in the middle. This schizoid quality is a large part of what defines Three Friends, and as such I am able to view the album both with awe and ambivalence.
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