Friday, April 1, 2011

The best prog band ever?

In the 5 years between highschool & when the Air Force dragged me away from Idaho, I thot Gryphon was the best progressive rock band ever. I still think they're pretty great.
At the time, I thot their music had a bigger emotional impact than Caravan, they were more melodic than Camel, more consistent than Yes, & spacier than the Moody Blues. & their mix of sweet British Isles folk with modern electronics created a sound like no other.
4 me the Gryphon story started with their 3rd album, RED QUEEN TO GRYPHON THREE (1974), which my old buddy Don Vincent fished-out of the cutout bin at Boise's Budget Tapes and Records in the Summer of 1977, & which turned out 4 R little circle 2 B the greatest cutout-bin discovery ever. Don had the knack of tripping over stuff like that, buying it sight-unheard & somehow making it worth the $$$ he'd spent.
RED QUEEN -- issued by Bell Records just as it was morphing into Arista -- was Gryphon's only American release, apparently issued while the quintet was touring the US in support of Yes. Tho they apparently attracted some attention with their unique sound, it wasn't enuf 2 help sell their album -- & Bell's shakiness probly didn't help. Besides, who Xpected 2 find Xcellent progressive rock on the same label as Barry Manilow, the Fifth Dimension, Terry Jacks & the Partridge Family?
4 whatever reason, apparently 1,000's of copies of RED QUEEN Nded-up in cutout bins around the country. Don paid $2.99 4 his copy. & after I heard it, I dashed 2 my fave record store & grabbed a copy 4 myself.
Don & I were both Trying To Write Creatively back in those days, & it seemed important 2 have the right mood music 4 such creative endeavors. Gryphon worked perfectly. Their mix of British folk, tasteful acoustic & electric guitars, & often gorgeous keyboards were melodic & ear-catching enuf.
But their secret weapon was the little wind instruments they added 2 the mix. Keyboardist & main composer Richard Harvey doubled on recorder & krumhorn. Brian Gulland played recorder, krumhorn & bassoon. These light, piping sorta noisemakers added a delicate, sprightly, sorta wind-up-toy sound 2 the band unlike NEthing else I've ever heard. They could also rock out or go heavy on the mournful lyricism -- but the "standard" Gryphon track was usually a mix of lighter-than-air wind-up complexity tied 2 solid drumming & forceful guitar 2 keep things from floating away. & those little noisemakers could get pretty forceful at times, 2....
RED QUEEN was a good introduction 2 the band, sorta a sampler of all their moods. Only 4 trax, but each 1 scored. "Lament" was a gorgeous, mournful 10-minute 3-part suite that started out sad & haunting & Nded-up life-affirming. It's still my fave of all their stuff. "Checkmate" rocked out the most, with a memorable bass&guitar theme & a silly honking & tooting midsection.
The 1st side featured 2 high-energy pieces, "Opening Move" & "Second Spasm," that mixed modern electronics with the rustic olde folk sound. If nothing on Side 2 worked 4 you, Side 1 could still grab yr ear.
I thot the album was almost perfect, & was shocked that something this good was left 2 gather dust among the cutouts. The 1/2-dozen music fans in R bunch weren't the only 1's impressed by the album. A few years later I found a review of RED QUEEN published in an old issue of PLAYBOY -- of all places -- in which their critics called Side 1 of RED QUEEN something like "the best mix of British Isles folk & rock instrumentals that we've ever heard." They were less convinced about Side 2....
Soon I was working in my fave record store, & immediately ordered every other Gryphon album listed in the JEM Imports catalog. The albums musta bn pretty rare back in England, 2 -- they took almost a year 2 arrive.
I finally heard the rest of their work in the Summer of 1978. TREASON (1977) was the most impressive, sorta a kinder, gentler Jethro Tull album, released in The Year Of Punk by Harvest/EMI. Gryphon had changed in the time since RED QUEEN, adding LOTS more vocals (by drummer Dave Oberle), + a coupla new members, & losing gtrist Graeme Taylor & bassist Phil Nestor, who'd both done standout work on RED QUEEN -- Taylor, Nestor & Gulland had teamed-up 2 compose "Lament."
The result was a prog-pop band, but a good 1 -- the album's opening track, the marvelous 10-minute "Spring Song," coulda bn a prog landmark if it'd bn released 5 years earlier. Mixing a haunting keyboard & recorder melody with Tim Sebastion's Olde-English-fantasy-style lyrics, the track was a winding adventure with great choruses. I still think an edited version coulda got some radio play. Bouncy, happy, high-energy -- it sounds sunny.
"Falero Lady" was the most Tull-like track, sorta pushy & vaguely bawdy. There were quieter pieces like the moving "Fall of the Leaf," & "Round and Round" with its Xcellent choruses. The Xcellent "Major Disaster" was Gryphon's 1st love song, with lyrics co-written by new guitarist Bob Foster. All these trax had Xcellent group vocals 2 go with Richard Harvey's standout keyboards & the usual recorders & krumhorns. There were also a couple throwaways -- 1 of which, tellingly, was an instrumental....
The album didn't sell -- it was out of place in England with Punk as the big new thing, & the group broke-up soon after. But I loved TREASON, & turned 2 the other, older albums -- all issued in England by Transatlantic -- 2 see what else Gryphon had going.
RAINDANCE (1975) was pretty inconsistent -- the 1st side was filled with mostly shorter pieces, including the silly clockwork "Ormolu," Taylor's relaxed "Fontinental Version," some stuff in French, & a version of the Beatles' "Mother Nature's Son" that was even worse than John Denver's version.
But Side 2 featured 3 great trax: Harvey's Xcellent, high-speed, bouncy & twangy "Wallbanger;" Taylor's brief & charming "Don't Say Go;" & the album's centerpiece, the 16-minute "(Ein Klein) Heldenleben," another winding instrumental mix of gtr, krumhorns, keyboards & much more, coming across as sort of a scenic travel piece that ends with a wedding celebration...(?). Some rather nice rockin' Taylor gtr work at the Nd of this 1....
Going further back, MIDNIGHT MUSHRUMPS (early 1974) was also a bit inconsistent, leading off with the crashingly melodramatic 19-minute title track, composed 4 a production of Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST.
The 2nd side shuffled shorter pieces of varying quality, opening with the spirited traditional-folk piece "The Ploughboy's Dream" (with Oberle's 1st vocal), & closing with the gorgeous "Ethelion" -- which starts with Gulland's deep echoing laughter, sounding like some evil troll chasing kids thru some spooky woods ... then morphs into a flat-out gorgeous recorder&krumhorn piece that slowly adds all the members of the band. It's a freakin knockout.
Gryphon's (1st) album (1973) is all acoustic, seems kinda primitive, & isn't rock&roll, but things pick-up on some of the faster-paced #'s, such as "Estampie" & "Juniper Suite."
These days Gryphon has at least 1 fan website, & there R occasional rumors of a reunion. There's at least 1 best-of collection, which features most of the very 1st album & high points from every album up 2 TREASON.
If you're a fan of British folk-rock & like unusual sounds mixed in with yr rock, you should give these guys a try -- if you can track down NE of their stuff. I'd recommend RED QUEEN & TREASON 4 beginners. The rest, tho VERY good in places, can wait.
Maybe not the best prog band ever, & maybe my taste is clouded by nostalgia 4 the times when I 1st heard them, but still....

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