Album review: Gryphon – Red Queen to Gryphon Three


Intriguing, beguiling, often beautiful—but is beautiful good enough?

Genre: Progressive rock/contemporary classical
Country: United Kingdom
Release date: December 1974
Label: Bell Records
Format: 12” vinyl (promo)
Catalog number: BELL 1316 DJ

Personnel
Richard Harvey – keyboards, recorders, crumhorn
Brian Gulland – bassoon and crumhorn
Graeme Taylor – guitars
David Oberlé – drums, percussion, and tympani
Philip Nestor – bass

1.

Opening Move

9:42

2.

Second Spasm

8:15

3.

Lament

10:45

4.

Checkmate

9:50

Total running time:

39:54

Of all the bands that could give us an idea of where the progressive movement was headed before it was mortally wounded in 1974, Gryphon made for some pretty unlikely heroes. They were originally hardcore English folkies who had just a touch of rock and jazz influences, before morphing into a pompous but rather generic rock band before succumbing to the Great Prog Mass Extinction in 1977, but somewhere along the way a strange bit of alchemy occurred and left us with this album, a fully-formed, truly symphonic “symphonic rock” album, the sort of thing bands like The Nice and the Moody Blues had originally tried to do, but actually realized instead of merely approximated. And they did it without the actual symphony, relying only on their own instruments and talents to do with five people what a nineteenth century composer would do with 40 or more, and unlike Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans, it is not bogged down with time-wasting filler or sentimental singalongs but compact, well-paced, and often outright catchy (if you’re on the right mental wavelength for a well-written classical theme to stick in your head, anyway). It’s not particularly excellent at doing these things—if this sort of music had kept being made this particular example of it would have likely been remembered as a mediocrity, if at all—but no one was making music like this before, and no one made it ever since, so it stands as a singular achievement.

What is it? It is certainly prog, all right, but there is virtually no rock to be found anywhere. Rock music is, at its heart, loud, aggressive blues-based dance music, and this sort of composition is entirely absent from Red Queen to Gryphon Three. Not only is there no singing (you’re not missing much, they sing on the other albums and they’re not very good at it), there are no blues scales, no twelve- or sixteen-bar progressions, nary a single feedback squeal or big-dick riff in evidence. They have the panoply of rock instruments, but of them only the keyboards, which work together with the winds (double reed lovers will be in for a treat, I assure you) to form the backbone of most of the music, and the drum kit really stand out, the bass and guitar are strictly supporting instruments. Comparisons can be made to contemporary Gentle Giant records, but Gentle Giant were more rock musicians adopting modernist classical, while for Gryphon the foundation is classical (not just modernist or Romantic like the other prog bands, but essentially the entire history of Western music from Donato to Schoenberg goes into the pot) while the influences from electric music styles were built on top of that. And this musical mélange not only works, but works exactly as its creators intended it to, from beginning to end.

One of the things that keeps this album consistently engaging is that, while there are leads flying by and complicated things happening almost constantly, there is no ego involved in it; Gryphon’s approach here is almost entirely collective, not individual, and every part locks in neatly with the overall picture the band is trying to create. Ego can be fun, ego can be entertaining, but the essence of the whole “symphonic” idea, the core conceit of classical music that must be preserved if it is to be melded with other genres, is that music is a collective endeavor that the individual musicians must willingly subordinate themselves to, even if the target of subordination is just the musical composition itself rather than a conductor or music director. You don’t hear five guys playing instruments; you hear Gryphon as a unified force. The much-maligned “wankery” of bands like ELP, Yes, and Dream Theater is when this core symphonic idea comes into conflict with the egoistic rock way of doing things. Sometimes this tension is productive, sometimes it’s not, but Gryphon carefully avoid it and this album is all the better for it.

That is not to say, however, that Gryphon can’t play. These were guys with full conservatory educations back when that really meant something, after all. This music can absolutely cook when it wants to, especially since there are no singers whose delicate little voices have to be protected from fast passages or big leaps. However, their virtuosity mostly shows through in complexity rather than showmanship, multilayered and ever-shifting tapestries of melodic lines laid over one another rather one guy playing as fast as he possibly can. They also had a huge amount of energy and enthusiasm in the ‘70s (they came back recently, but now they’re old, boring, and treacly, and when they play the old stuff they take no longer than they did in the old days yet it sounds only about half as fast), and a strong sense of musical empathy. They don’t just play but play the shit out of elegantly balanced polyphonic passages with meticulous precision and serious vigor. That sort of understanding, among five people on exactly the same musical page, allows them to “have it all”, but it cannot be manufactured, it cannot be seen, and it’s almost completely inscrutable to the marketing worldview. Meanwhile mediagenic rock stars can be easily mass produced and provide more attractive products to sell on the market, so rock stars were in and musicianship was out, and here we are today.

This is an extremely dense album that will require many listens to fully digest, and requires active engagement on the part of the listener to follow the logical through-line that unites each piece. Playing it as background music isn’t going to work; it’s music meant to have attention paid to it, the sort of music where at a concert everyone is sitting down, including the musicians. In a world where musical education is considered a luxury that must be sacrificed for more pressing needs (like building concentration camps for immigrant children, for instance), that can turn a lot of people off. I think the investment is well worth it, but it’s one that must be made to appreciate Red Queen to Gryphon Three. Forty minutes of your time, repeated several times over different listening sessions, with this album allowed to occupy your complete attention.

One thing this album won’t provide you with, is some sort of direct message. It’s as close as prog rock gets to “absolute music”, vaguely suggesting a chess match but otherwise opaque as to its intended meaning. I think one of the reasons music academics tend to love absolute music is that it begs to be read into, its abstract and arbitrary structures forming spaces for the listener to project their thoughts into and reflecting them back. There’s no real conflict—the chess game seems entirely friendly and not representative of any kind of higher-stakes situation, and the medieval-ish timeless dreamworld depicted on the album cover only reinforces the seemingly inescapable conclusion that this is an album with nothing to say about anything, really, except what you decide it does. That in itself might be enough for some people, but it leaves me a bit unsatisfied.

As well as not having singing or rock stylings, this album is also completely lacking in songs. It’s not merely symphonic but an actual symphony, with the four-movement structure (though the movements don’t match up in form or sequence with the archetypal Beethoven or Haydn symphony), and similar use of recurring motives that are transformed and reshaped and brought back over the course of a movement and then discarded at the end of it, and with the sort of dynamics and subtle, gradual, sneaky transitions that you’d expect from a real classical piece rather than a bunch of rockers jamming on Rachmaninoff melodies. They also avoid sounding like any particular era, style, or composer of classic music over another, it is music of 1974, not 1674, 1774, or 1874, and sounds like itself and not like “switched-on Bach” or “switched-on Tchaikovsky” or switched-on whatever. Instead of a beat to guide one through the record (there is usually one, but it may change accents, switch from drums to hand percussion, change tempo, change time signature, or just disappear at any time without warning as the music develops), the aforementioned “through line” of theme and variations, the way one melody is changed bit by bit into various others, and comes back again later, is the foundation of this music. Even the rhythm is just clay to be shaped by this engine of changing and cycling through musical ideas.

Another thing to get used to is the winds, because Gryphon don’t go for the usual horns and saxes. The most prominent of them is Brian Gulland on bassoon, who gets first dibs on many of the most prominent themes, so if you’re lost, it’s best to follow him, but that’s actually the most normal of them. Supplementing the bassoon is an array of medieval recorders (like the one you had has a child, but carved by hand from wood and extremely expensive) and crumhorns (a primitive sort of oboe with an extremely reedy timbre), and while that was great for the medieval music of the first album and adequate for the lower-tension moments here, but when the music swells and the synths get lush and analog and so deliciously ‘70s, their lack of power compared to modern clarinets and oboes deflates some of the grandeur of the climaxes to mere grandiosity (perhaps Baroque instruments would have been a good compromise?). The crumhorns’ only real moment to shine comes in a short, comic break in the middle of “Second Spasm” where they accompany the bassoon’s lead and no other instruments are playing, because any one of them is enough to drown their feeble squawking out. The recorders fare better but they are extremely simple instruments with little expressive potential, and have been relegated to children’s toys in the modern era for a good reason.

Otherwise, this album sounds quite good; one of the benefits of their academic background is that they’re more concerned with capturing what instruments actually sound like than the latest production gimmick. There’s very little stylization here, no mammoth multitracked guitars or eight-handed keyboard parts or unnatural, exaggerated timbres, again part of Gryphon putting the spotlight on the music they wrote and not themselves. My Canadian pressing sounds very nice and is surprisingly thick and sturdy for a record of the cost-cutting years, though it is the promo version where three of the four movements have themselves been cut into two to three pieces each with short gaps in the middle. This is absolutely disastrous, and ruins the musical progression that the album depends on, and I had to supplement the vinyl I bought with plenty of listens to streamed versions on YouTube that, while molested by ‘90s remastering techniques, leave the movements undivided as the album was meant to be heard. Why did they even bother? Who was going to play Red Queen to Gryphon Three in three-minute fragments on the radio? What drugs were the guys in that Canadian radio station smoking and where can I get some?

Indeed, this album is really only meant to be heard straight through, start to finish. They are all pretty similar in style and tempos used, especially since there is more variety within the movements than between them, as the thematic material is taken through all sorts of changes. Unlike most rock bands, Gryphon have absolutely mastered the art of the crescendo so instead of “turning on the power”, they sort of have it on a dimmer switch and gradually dial it up or down, using sudden juxtapositions of soft and loud only at a few specific moments, just like in real classical music. “Opening Move” is the most energetic, starting on an emphatic Yes-style set of spacey synth chords before proceeding through a brief overture that runs through several different themes in turn, all quite different from one another, before the development begins. It’s generally louder than the rest of the album with fewer quiet, introspective parts, and the most “normal” instrumentally, leaning on guitar and keys more than winds. It’s quite transparent about what it offers at the entry level, really; the first two minutes give you a general idea of what this entire album is all about, and if you don’t like it, you probably won’t like anything else on here.

The second movement is normally where symphonies have the obligatory slow (read: boring) movement, but “Second Spasm” is neither, a proggified version of classical ternary form with the A sections shifting through several triple meters and the middle B section in 4/4, and all of them shifting through a variety of different moods and styles while remaining at the same tempo (within each part, that is; the B section is faster than the A sections), winding through medieval dances twisted by unpredictable changes in meter, simple prog rock grooves, some sort of comic interlude with the winds playing what sounds like adapted brass band music (and one of the players making a rude noise into his mouthpiece at a transitions between phrases), reaching its peak with the climax of the B section, an almost 19th century anthemic quick-time march that starts with the guitars and is joined by all the other instruments in turn as it gets louder and louder and then dying away to make way for the reprise of the A section. The reprise gets its own big finish, but not as grand as the one in the middle. My only complaint is that the winds don’t really sell their impressions of brass instruments, whether comically in the break that introduces the B section or seriously in the march. You can tell it’s a bassoon and not the horn it’s desperately trying to sound like.

“Lament” is the actual slow movement, but it’s only mildly slower than the other tracks and has none of the endless, languid chord-wash of a bad slow movement in classical music. Where “Second Spasm” was heavily rhythmic with the melodies locking into the beat, “Lament” is flowing, lyrical, and really, not very much like a lament. It sounds more pensive and introspective than mournful, and there are occasional visits of a fast, odd-time contrasting section that sounds vigorous almost to the point of ecstasy. The subtly different and equally valid approaches of Harvey, Gulland, and Taylor as they play with and mutate the main theme highlight the band’s sensitivity and melodicism on this track, something that is absolutely essential to making this work. This movement is also the least tightly structured, lingering over its melodic ideas instead of hurrying onto the next one. This movement suffers the most from being split for the promo LP, to the point of being utterly ruined—the thread running through the music is completely severed by the first split and makes “Lament” feel like three segments of disjointed noodling rather than a single ten-minute piece.

“Checkmate” is the big finale with the equally big buildup…but that buildup doesn’t actually build all that much, the music even at its zenith being no louder and more attention-grabbing than the first few bars of “Opening Move”. With everything that came before, Gryphon earned the right to go over the top for “Checkmate” but they never cash it in, leaving the ending a bit unfulfilling, especially when they reprise an earlier theme after the climax has already passed and the piece should be ending already. But then, a slightly unfilfilling feeling pervades the entire album because of its lack of any actual message as I said earlier. It’s a kaleidoscope, reflecting and refracting whatever light goes into it, but providing none of its own. It is whatever you project into it, which perhaps is how it saw store shelves at all—meant to be appreciated on aesthetics alone, it fits right in to what Steve Albini called the “hall of fetishes”, the modern music market where every possible aesthetic has a band that explores it, but they never do anything or say anything with these aesthetics. Shouldn’t art aspire to more than just to be looked at?
Rating: 83%

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