Gentle Giant fans are going to be thrilled by Three Piece Suite, the new Blu-ray/CD set of Steven Wilson 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio surround remixes, stereo remixes, and straight 96/24 stereo transfers of the band’s first three albums: Gentle Giant, Acquiring the Taste, and Three Friends. (There’s also a bonus demo track.)
Former Porcupine Tree member Wilson is renowned for his surround remixes of rock albums. It shows. And if you’ve never heard Gentle Giant, this is a wonderful place to start.
Gentle Giant was one of the most distinctive and individualistic 1970s progressive-rock bands. Brothers Derek, Phil, and Ray Shulman played a vast variety of instruments, with guitarist Gary Green, keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Kerry Minnear, and drummer Martin Smith (replaced by Malcolm Mortimore on Three Friends and John Weathers on later albums) rounding out the lineup.
The band’s unique style encompasses almost unhumanly virtuosic ensemble playing, complex arrangements, circular, fugue-like passages, and vocals from the Shulman brothers and Minnear that range from sweetly plaintive (“Nothing at All”) to choral-like harmonies (“Three Friends”). A feeling of anything-goes adventurousness permeates the band’s work.
The original albums were well recorded and produced—not surprising considering the involvement of people like Tony Visconti (David Bowie), Martin Rushent (Human League), and Roy Thomas Baker (Queen). The songs employ a dazzling range of keyboards, mallet percussion, woodwinds, violin, guitars, and more. (Ray Shulman gets a credit for “skulls” . . ?)
I compared Three Piece Suite with the BGO Records CD reissue of Gentle Giant/Three Friends (BGOCD1095) and the original Three Friends vinyl LP (Columbia PC 31649).
The 5.1 surround remixes (there are 10 on the Blu-ray—not all the original multitrack masters could be located) are a resounding artistic success, enhancing the clarity and separation of instruments and vocals, and adding varying degrees of surround sound immersion. Dynamic contrasts are much better, and there’s none of the exaggerated, gratuitous placement of instruments off to the side and rear that plague other surround remixes I’ve heard.
Both the surround and stereo remixes have a warmer tonal balance, with a better defined low end, along with a richer midrange and detailed highs—although the vinyl has that all-analog sweetness the digital formats don’t quite capture.
Wilson changed some of the vocal and instrumental balances. For instance, you can hear details like the “Oh! Yeah!” exclamations in the background during “Giant” that were almost inaudible before.
Whether the gorgeous acoustic guitar and vocals on “Nothing at All” or the synthesizer intro to “Pantagruel’s Nativity,” everything sounds more substantial and dimensional. (The vibraphone solo on the latter is simply stunning.)
The straight CD transfers of the three albums were done flat, making them quite faithful to the originals. I applaud Wilson’s decision not to hype them up with “improved” highs and lows or gratuitous compression and processing.
The Blu-ray Disc’s visuals complement the songs in a simple, deliberately unfolding manner without being overly garish or distracting, like the surreal floating images of office chairs, paper clips, and briefcases that complement the mood of “Mister Class and Quality” and its businessman protagonist. All in all, Three Piece Suite is a superb addition to Gentle Giant’s body of work.
Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.