Published Spring 1980, Gentle Giant’s civilian would mark the progressive rock band’s swan song. And although guitarist Gary Green, keyboardist Kerry Minnear, vocalist Derek Shulman, bassist Ray Shulman, and drummer John Weathers had begun a shift toward a leaner, more accessible sound, Gentle’s diverse influences, songwriting, and musicianship will continue to grow Giant also presented well during the shift towards mainstream is easy enough to pick up on.
Unusually for this quintet, the songs were written and recorded in North America after a temporary relocation to Los Angeles. Continue working civilian took place over a five-month period during which the band recruited Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick to “mann the board” at Sound City and Bijou Studios in Hollywood. The end result is a high-energy, progressive effort filled with shorter songs packed with hooks and clever choruses.
Starting with an overdriven “Convenience (Clean and Easy),” a song about life in America at the time, we’re all too quickly swept up in Green’s big guitar riff and a heavy Hammond from Minnear on the Survivor-sounding “All Through The Night.” Minnear plays piano and sings on the first true prog show, Shadows On The Street. Ray Shulman’s slow but punchy bass lines really lift this overly short mini-pro ballad into what sounds like the classic Gentle Giant.
“Number One” is another riff-heavy tune, most notable for Derek Shulman’s fantastic voice and catchy chorus. The sound of a subway train pulling into a station, with Ray Shulman’s bass in the foreground, gives “Underground” a groovy sound. There’s a smart synth lead and solid harmonies throughout. No matter what they were trying to achieve civilianGentle Giant still took great care to deliver great vocal performances.
“I Am A Camera” is unforgettable, although Shulman is on the edge of his reach. “Inside Out” has a lot of space, great harmonies in the chorus and plodding bass and guitar. The lack of production layers on the song’s verses gives Shulman plenty of room to edit his voice. It makes a wonderful, plaintive lyrical read.
We get another good long Prog sting on “It’s Not Imagination”, the song that ends the original album. They’re still trying to show how fast and in sync they can riff, but this one works with a snarling bass underneath it all, those soaring vocals and big, simple, single note slicing leads.
civilian was remastered and reissued for the first time on CD. It also includes a previously unreleased song called “Heroes No More”. With Weathers easy hits and some staccato keyboards at his side, plus another solid vocal from Shulman, this heavy prog-pop song wasn’t included on the original release to keep the old vinyl format’s run times down. Nonetheless, it’s a solid little gem and great to have on CD.
Considering the musicians and Geoff Emericks on board, Gentle Giant couldn’t possibly make a bad album per se. civilian could be miles away from 70’s prog classics octopus and The power and the famebut it wasn’t a bad way to go out, just as the MTV generation emerged and changed the game forever.
~ Ralph Greco Jr.