By ProgBlog, Sep 24 2018 03:48PM
The weekend starting on Friday 14th September was rather busy. After finishing work at 5pm I arranged to meet family for a meal at Canonbury Kitchen, conveniently located close to Highbury and Islington station and the Union Chapel where I’d got tickets to see Gryphon’s album launch gig for ReInvention, their first studio album for 41 years. For anyone requiring a pre-Union Chapel gig meal, Canonbury Kitchen is a modern, informal Italian restaurant with exposed brickwork and high ceilings that’s been around since 2010, offering both traditional and contemporary cooking at competitive prices and with very friendly and attentive staff – it comes with a ProgBlog recommendation. My brother Richard was the only other one of the family attending Gryphon and he didn’t know what to expect, either from the music or the venue itself.
There was no queue outside the chapel when we approached, about 15 minutes after the doors opened (unlike for Tangerine Dream earlier this year where there was a human chain snaking around the block) but the pews in the central seating block were almost entirely filled or reserved with articles of clothing while their owners frequented the bar. After a brief stop at the merchandise stand for a copy of ReInvention (currently only available on CD) and an ‘Ashes’ T-shirt, with lyrics from the penultimate track on the new album, we took our place close to the front in the pews to the right of centre. Richard was impressed with the setting, but who wouldn’t be? I saw the band at the Holy Trinity Church in Claygate in March this year and thought that was a fitting venue, despite the secular style of Gryphon’s music; however, the Union Chapel is something else, a unique architectural gem.
The present building dates from 1876, when the foundation stone for a design by architect James Cubitt was laid. Cubitt had some renown as a designer of non-conformist churches and based his design for the Union Chapel on the medieval cathedral of Santa Fosca on the Venetian island of Torcello, proclaiming that he wanted to “step out of the enchanted circle of habit and precedent... ...to break through the tyranny of custom.” The chapel was inaugurated in 1877, but the spire, part of the original plan, was subject to delays over cost and work on a modified design didn’t commence until 1881, eventually reaching completion in 1889. The incumbent minister responsible for the rebuild, Dr Henry Allon, expressed a desire to put music at the heart of the new chapel and the magnificent rose window, with its angels playing musical instruments, is a reminder of those wishes which continue to hold true.
What we got was a performance of almost all of the new album, plus early favourites Kemp’s Jig, Estampie, The Unquiet Grave, The Astrologer and a medley of material from Red Queen to Gryphon Three; back in March they had only played a couple of new tracks, one of which was Rhubarb Crumhorn. The other difference between the Claygate Musical Festival and Union Chapel performances was that bassist Rory McFarlane was temporarily unable to play so his part was taken by Rob Levy. I think the new material is more closely related to the first album, despite a couple of songs being written for, but not making it onto, Raindance which were re-recorded for the ReInvention.
The main attraction of the band’s music to fans of progressive rock, apart from the incredible musicianship, was surely the dense textures created by Richard Harvey’s ever-expanding keyboard set-up that included some distinctly non-early musical instruments. Of course prog-heads weren’t averse to medieval instrumentation which also formed an integral part of the Gentle Giant sound, and even the whimsy and humour, a constant strand running through Gryphon song titles, fitted in with a prevailing appreciation for Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I just think that the band’s trajectory, from Gryphon (1973) to Treason (1977) was in an ever-more (progressive) rock direction, leaving behind the early music and folk adaptations that had, to a greater extent, made them stand out. If I were to make one criticism of the self-penned 70s material from Midnight Mushrumps onwards, it would be that there wasn’t always a satisfactory resolution to their pieces even though Red Queen to Gryphon Three remains my favourite Gryphon album; I think that some of the compositions lose their way. On the other hand, the first album and ReInvention include music that sticks more closely to a song format with distinct beginnings, middles and ends, like The Unquiet Grave, a traditional tune with a haunting, other-worldly bassoon section and an agreeable ending or even instrumental Hampton Caught from the new release. Part of the reason for this return to early music form must be down to multi-instrumentalist Graham Preskett who first appeared with the band in 2009. With quite a few song-writing credits to his name on ReInvention, his use of violin and mandolin, and a hefty dose of harpsichord patch have pulled the ensemble’s sound back in a more folk-rock direction. Richard did comment that he thought it might have been a bit more rock-y and was surprised that Graeme Taylor didn’t use his Telecaster very much.
Their sound was fairly well balanced from our seating position and though the performance seemed looser than at Claygate where they played more of the full Gryphon repertoire, the clear individual instrumental lines demonstrated the complexity of the music. The one song that didn’t quite work, possibly because of the frequent switches between keyboards and woodwind, was The Euphrates Connection and I was a little disappointed with Hospitality At A Price...(Dennis) Anyone For? – a throwback to 1920’s music that could serve as a sequel to Le Cambrioleur est dans le Mouchoir from Raindance.
The between-song banter, an alleged democratic endeavour shared equally between the members while allowing Brian Gulland and Andy Findon to change instruments, was apparently undermined by humorous interjections from their colleagues. However, we were given to understand that percussionist David Oberlé was dissatisfied with the characters he’d been chose to voice: the serving girl in The Astrologer and the Aged Man in Haddock’s Eyes, amidst suggestions of type-casting! We listened to the CD on Saturday, a beautifully produced album that must have caused huge technical problems getting the right levels for such an array of instruments, and where The Euphrates Connection works perfectly.
Gryphon continue to carve out their own niche with a blend of early music and modern. The crumhorn may be their USP but I’m personally in favour of more bassoon in progressive rock – it has such a beautiful tone – and Gulland’s quotations from Over the Rainbow, Chattanooga Choo-Choo and other well known melodies during Estampie is a great crowd-pleaser. It was a very enjoyable gig and it’s a great CD. Unfortunately for me the vinyl is on its way so I’m going to have to buy that, too!