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Gryphon’s ReInvention Reviewed

Gryphon — ReInvention

Reviewed by Richard Elen

The sto­ry of the band Gryphon goes back to the begin­nings of the 1970s and the Lon­don Col­lege of Music, when mul­ti-instru­men­tal­ists Richard Har­vey and Bri­an Gul­land — who were play­ing Renais­sance wood­winds in Ear­ly Music band Musi­ca Reser­va­ta — got a small group togeth­er under the name Spelthorne. Soon the orig­i­nal lutenist left, and Graeme Tay­lor (gui­tars and vocals), who had been at school with Har­vey, joined the group, swift­ly fol­lowed by David Ober­lé on drums, per­cus­sion and vocals. Almost at once the band changed their name to Gryphon after the beast in Lewis Car­rol­l’s Alice’s Adven­tures In Won­der­land. The band start­ed by play­ing authen­tic medi­ae­val and Renais­sance music but soon branched out and start­ed writ­ing their own mate­r­i­al. Lawrence Aston, A&R at not­ed folk label Transat­lantic Records, heard the band and signed them. Their first, epony­mous album was released in 1973.

The band went on to make three more albums for Transat­lantic: Mid­night Mushrumps, based around their music for Peter Hal­l’s Nation­al The­atre pro­duc­tion of The Tem­pest; Red Queen to Gryphon Three, and Rain­dance, the lat­ter which I had the plea­sure to record and co-pro­duce in the mid­sum­mer of 1975. Var­i­ous dis­agree­ments between the band and the record com­pa­ny result­ed in Gryphon mov­ing to EMI’s Har­vest label, where they released one album, Trea­son, in 1977. By this time the band was, as were many high-qual­i­ty acts of the time, being eclipsed by punk artists who could go out and gig for far less mon­ey per night than a com­plex out­fit like Gryphon.

Thus the band became dor­mant, and so it remained until 2009 when they got togeth­er for a reunion con­cert. By then there had been rumours of a new album in the works, but noth­ing emerged. Richard Har­vey left the band in 2016 to pur­sue his exten­sive solo inter­ests, and well-known music library com­pos­er and mul­ti-instru­men­tal­ist Gra­ham Pres­kett joined. After a series of con­certs a new album, the first for 41 years, was announced: ReIn­ven­tion, released in Sep­tem­ber 2018.

The line­up on the album includes orig­i­nal mem­bers Gul­land, Ober­lé and Tay­lor, with the addi­tion of the afore­men­tioned Pres­kett, Rory McFar­lane on bass and Andy Find­on on a range of wood­winds. All the pieces on the album were writ­ten by band mem­bers: there are no arrange­ments of tra­di­tion­al pieces here as char­ac­terised the first two albums.

ReIn­ven­tion kicks off with Pipeup Downs­land Der­ry­Dell­Danko — a Gul­land title if I ever heard one, which fea­tures inter­weav­ing recorders with stac­ca­to gui­tar phras­es and chords, ulti­mate­ly joined by pipe organ and sax­o­phone. The piece wan­ders about lyri­cal­ly and extreme­ly pleas­ant­ly, and you nev­er quite know where it’s going to go next. Out of this North Kent child­hood idyll (for such it is), emerge Bri­an’s slight­ly avant-garde lyrics. “Stranger things than this have we passed / On our way to you today.” Indeed.

Next up is a piece from Pres­kett enti­tled Rhubarb Crumhorn. Yes, all the titles are fair­ly eso­teric, but this piece itself is less so: it’s a very acces­si­ble num­ber that builds gen­tly from flute and organ to bas­soon and into a fair­ly state­ly full band arrange­ment punc­tu­at­ed by warm Renais­sance-sound­ing chords, and even a lit­tle theme rem­i­nis­cent of some­thing that Richard Har­vey might have writ­ten. Then it’s off into a brisk gal­lop through a nat­ty chord pro­gres­sion. Despite being writ­ten by rel­a­tive “new boy” Pres­kett, this is a clas­sic self-penned (as opposed to trad) Gryphon piece: had it been me sequenc­ing this album, I would have opened the disc with it. There are, how­ev­er, no crumhorns in this piece.

With A Futur­is­tic Aun­tyquar­i­an we are back in Bri­an Gul­land ter­ri­to­ry, with an angu­lar harp­si­chord-like open­ing — but only for a moment, as a nice­ly extend­ed mock-Renais­sance wood­wind tune takes over, pranc­ing lyri­cal­ly over the under­ly­ing key­boards, to be joined by vio­lin before the track goes off on a pleas­ant Gul­lan­desque abstract wan­der with gen­tle exchanges between the instru­ments, ulti­mate­ly joined by drums before going some­what up-tem­po and final­ly return­ing to a more robust take on the open­ing. Nice.

Recall that the band is named Gryphon after the char­ac­ter in Car­rol­l’s Alice, and Graeme Tay­lor’s ten-minute set­ting of the poem Had­docks’ Eyes from Look­ing Glass becomes clear. Gen­tly wan­der­ing solo bas­soon opens, joined by clar­inet and vio­lin for a short trio until joined by acoustic gui­tar which brings struc­ture to the wan­der­ing — and a tune, albeit quite an eccen­tric one. The piece picks up on the entry of Bri­an’s vocal, play­ing the part of the White Knight, in a dia­logue with the voice of the Aged, Aged Man, played by Dave Ober­lé, with a back­ing that gen­tly rocks along, with occa­sion­al inter-verse returns to the lyri­cal wan­der­ing of the open­ing until we encounter a rougher solo sec­tion two-thirds of the way through, fea­tur­ing wild heav­i­ly dis­tort­ed and har­monised bas­soon. The vocal dia­logue gen­tly slows to an appar­ent end — but it’s not an end at all, it’s a lit­tle instru­men­tal romp that returns, final­ly, to the orig­i­nal gen­tle theme for the clos­ing lines.

Hamp­ton Caught is anoth­er Pres­kett num­ber, with one of sev­er­al pun­ning titles to boot. He notes, “It starts some­where near Sher­wood For­est, lurch­es through harp­si­chord in three four, a slight hint of boo­gie in three, then a prop­er bit of elec­tric gui­tar, before being inter­rupt­ed unac­count­ably by a church organ, some strange rhythms and a build up. It cul­mi­nates in the three four harp­si­chord sec­tion with addi­tion­al string as it were.” Could­n’t have put it bet­ter myself.

Hos­pi­tal­i­ty at A Price… (Den­nis) Any­one For? is, of course, anoth­er Gul­land num­ber. The sleeve notes describe this as a “genial evo­ca­tion of the 20s”, and it has some of that ulti­mate­ly, but in fact it sounds rather like anoth­er Car­roll poem with the excep­tion of a cou­ple of mod­ern ref­er­ences. And sud­den­ly: jazz crumhorns lead us off into a peri­od piece and a very strange ending.

Dumbe Dum Chit (Pres­kett) takes its strange name from a mnemon­ic for a drum pat­tern to resolve this “boun­cy bas­soon tune in a strange rhythm”. A neat lit­tle num­ber that fol­lolops along, with in fact two strange rhythms rather than just the one, fea­tur­ing not only bas­soon but clar­inet and gui­tar too.

Bathshe­ba is bass-play­er McFar­lane’s sole com­po­si­tion on the album. Gryphon fans will know Tay­lor’s style and cer­tain­ly Gul­land’s, and Pres­kett fits beau­ti­ful­ly into the Gryphon tra­di­tion, but McFar­lane’s is a new voice and a very pleas­ant one at that. We begin with inter­weav­ing frac­tured phras­es from bas­soon and clar­inet, joined by gui­tar and drums and, final­ly, a warm bass part that lasts only a few bars each time around before being joined by vio­lin and wood­winds. One is remind­ed just a lit­tle of the North Sea Radio Orches­tra or even the Muf­fin Men. The sleeve notes out­line the con­tro­ver­sial Bib­li­cal tale.

Sailor V, anoth­er by Gra­ham Pres­kett, begins with a respectably nau­ti­cal feel (you mean it’s not a pun?) fea­tur­ing pipes and fid­dle, joined by bas­soon and gui­tar. It moves gen­tly and lyri­cal­ly along until gain­ing a brash­er spring in its step, a touch of the Irish and some odd har­mon­i­ca flour­ish­es, as the piece moves through some live­ly changes in the course of its eight min­utes to cli­max with an elec­tric gui­tar sec­tion reca­pit­u­lat­ing the open­ing theme, dou­bled by oth­er instru­ments in a very Gryphon cul­mi­na­tion fol­lowed by a gen­tle wind-down. C’est la vie.

I have a par­tic­u­lar fond­ness for Graeme Tay­lor’s song Ash­es. One of my favourite Gryphon tracks, it was orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten for the 1975 Rain­dance album, which I engi­neered and co-pro­duced, but was exclud­ed from the release by the record com­pa­ny for some unknown rea­son. Its curi­ous tale of after­noon crick­et, King’s nephews and stal­lions, gen­tly and lyri­cal­ly sung by Bri­an, is a true joy. Sum­mer that year at Sawmills stu­dio near Fowey in Corn­wall was hot, and I decid­ed to record Bri­an’s vocal (twice), in the open, in stereo, with the mics a fair dis­tance away from him so I caught the birds singing in the back­ground. The ver­sion on ReIn­ven­tion does­n’t have that, but Bri­an’s per­for­mance, albeit not dou­ble-tracked, is vir­tu­al­ly iden­ti­cal to the orig­i­nal, as is much of the arrange­ment, though the solos are instru­ment­ed dif­fer­ent­ly. Of course I pre­fer my ver­sion, but this one is very, very good 🙂 (You can hear the orig­i­nal on the Col­lec­tion II album if you can find one.)

The album clos­es with The Euphrates Con­nec­tion by Gul­land, which begins with a low-pitched recorder theme, picked up by gui­tar and then a curi­ous, short and unex­pect­ed vocal, devel­op­ing into a com­plex inter­weav­ing mul­ti-part instru­men­tal, laced with Bri­an’s trade­mark angu­lar and unex­pect­ed fig­ures, a deli­cious rocky inter­change between gui­tar, pipe organ and oth­er instru­ments lead­ing to a repeat­ing sequence of short pipe organ chords, adorned only by reverb and the occa­sion­al sonor­i­ty, before being joined by solo flute, bass, vio­lin and gui­tar frag­ments and fad­ing grad­u­al­ly to an end.

And so ends Gryphon’s first new album for over forty years. It’s beau­ti­ful­ly record­ed and pro­duced by Graeme Tay­lor in his “Mor­den Shoals” stu­dio: the over­all sound is excel­lent and well-cap­tured with a great deal of detail and care. The musi­cian­ship is of a uni­form­ly high stan­dard through­out and even the most com­plex angu­lar and avant-garde pas­sages are con­fi­dent, sure-foot­ed and exe­cut­ed with aplomb.

There are few artists who could return to the scene after four decades to such acclaim as Gryphon, as if their return has been await­ed by us all for the entire time they were away. ReIn­ven­tion pro­vides exact­ly what it says, the band rein­vent­ing itself with new mem­bers and new direc­tions. Unmis­take­ably Gryphon, it devel­ops musi­cal direc­tions that were hint­ed at in ear­li­er albums, takes them for­ward, and deliv­ers an ulti­mate­ly sat­is­fy­ing­ly and eclec­tic result. One can only hope that it is the first in a series as Gryphon moves for­ward to new musi­cal heights fol­low­ing its re-formation.

October 19, 2018   Comments Off on Gryphon’s ReInvention Reviewed