❉ In releasing Raindances, Esoteric Records have captured a wonderful body of work from one of the most interesting and adventurous prog-folk outfits of their time.
“Gryphon might not be a household name but the albums they produced in their heyday were bubbling with brilliant musicianship and innovative musicality. Raindances – The Transatlantic Recordings 1973-1975 is a wonderfully interesting and tempting proposition for anyone looking to explore the folkier end of early 70s prog rock.”
The term ‘prog rock’ covers a multitude of bands, and indeed styles. At its peak in the early 1970s, and despite having something of a dowdy, earnest image, the British prog rock movement produced a dazzling array of enduring bands and artists such as Genesis, Pink Floyd and Yes. Proudly sitting alongside these latter-day stadium behemoths are a band who took the prog rock medium and infused their own idiosyncratic mixture of traditional English and late medieval instrumentation – Gryphon.
In doing so they produce one of the most original contributions to the genre. Gryphon might not be a household name but the albums they produced in their heyday were bubbling with brilliant musicianship and innovative musicality. The release, on Esoteric Records, of Raindances – The Transatlantic Recordings 1973-1975 is a wonderfully interesting and tempting proposition for anyone looking to explore the folkier end of early 70s prog rock.
Remastered on a double disc anthology, Raindances: The Transatlantic Recordings 1973-1975 is a collection of Gryphon’s first four albums released on the Transatlantic label. As one comes to expect with Esoteric, there is plenty to love about the presentation. The four albums on two CDs have been remastered from the original tapes and this provides both a satisfying depth and clarity but also serves as a showcase for the esoteric influences and traditional instruments used by the band. Accompanying the two CDs is a delightfully informative, illustrated booklet charting both the musical trajectory of Gryphon and the coverage they received in the musical press and fanzines. As a product showcasing the band, this compilation album could not be more timely or appropriate given their forthcoming comeback concert. It certainly trumps the anthology Crossing the Styles, which was released by Transatlantic in 2004 without any of the clever knob-twiddling, aural enhancement or detailed sleeve notes that we are treated to on this Esoteric Records version.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Gryphon that emerges from this collection is their distinct musical evolution. Gryphon emerged when two Royal College of Music alumni – woodwind virtuoso Brian Gulland and the precociously talented multi-instrumentalist Richard Harvey – joined forces with lead guitarist Graeme Taylor and percussionist and vocalist Dave Oberlé to comprise the original line up. The first album, the eponymous ‘Gryphon’ sees the band rooted in a distinctly rural folk oeuvre, very much of the English tradition. Instead of classical prog rock, this bucolic-flavoured music sits more comfortably alongside Steeleye Span or Fairport Convention than other more rock orientated offerings. The band draw heavily upon traditional medieval and renaissance instrumentation such as the crumhorn, mandolin sitting together with contemporary guitars and percussion.
The quirky and playful urban folk of the first album is refined and augmented with a previously untapped depth and sophistication on Gryphon’s sophomore album, Midnight Mushrumps. It is here that one can detect the shift from traditional folk-rock, with a movement into Oldfield territory of extended, dynamic works. There is the fusion of a distinctly more contemporary compositional style with the same folk-derived musicianship that had been so successful on the first album. The title track on the album, Midnight Mushrumps is a 19-minute opus written by Richard Harvey, based on music produced for a 1974 stage version of The Tempest at the National Theatre (the name of the track, ‘Magic Mushrumps’, is drawn from that play).
The other tracks provide a wonderful segue from folk-rock into more progressive themes and the final track, Ethelion, has a climax that is both hauntingly beautiful yet suitably epic. The mischievous credit given to organist Ernest Hart, is actually the work of Richard Harvey whose organ-playing serves to underpin the title track. In adding bassist Philip Nestor to the band, this album has a much fuller sound than the previous work. Drawing on baroque and classical influences, Midnight Mushrumps firmly placed Gryphon into the prog rock arena and the whole album is suffused with enchanting melodies, glorious musicianship underpinned by satisfyingly sophisticated arrangements.
It is, however, the third album where we find Gryphon morphing from folk-rock troubadours to expansive progressive pioneers. Red Queen to Gryphon Three is a high-concept collection of musical pieces themed on a game of chess. Once again, the classical and baroque influences are present, although this time there is more of an emphasis on a rich, symphonic structure with modern synthesized keyboards providing a spellbinding contrast to the traditional woodwind elements. Each of the four instrumental pieces combine to produced something that ranks with the very best of progressive rock. Different again from Midnight Mushrumps, Red Queen provides clear evidence of a band evolving and becoming more adventurous. It exudes a confidence and structure that, for many fans, represents a high point for Gryphon both creatively and musically.
By the time the album Raindance was released in 1975 – the last of the Transatlantic albums – we find a band who are fully embracing electronic prog-jazz themes and producing material that is almost unrecognizable from the first album. The accent has firmly moved to a sound dominated by Richard Harvey’s intricate keyboards. Criticised at the time, somewhat unfairly, as being both cold and meandering, there is still a wonderful sophistication and intricacy to the music. One can see a depth of musicality and an evolution from the quirky to the thoughtful. There are still playful elements here and the album finishes on a suitably majestic note, with (Ein Klein) Heldenleben serving as an elegy to Gryphon’s roots with combination of progressive orchestration and hints of baroque.
In terms of an enduring legacy, it is impossible to listen to contemporary prog-music, especially the early works of Matt Berry, without hearing a call back to the musical footprint of Gryphon. In releasing, Raindances: The Transatlantic Recordings 1973-1975 Esoteric Records have captured a wonderful body of work from one of the most interesting and adventurous prog-rock outfits of their time. For fans of the genre who have not yet discovered the magic of Gryphon, this represents an ideal opportunity to engage with a band, who at their height, can justifiably claim to have produced work that is only a displaced gene away from perfection. So, embrace the baroque madness of Gryphon and enjoy a prog-rock experience to match, and possibly surpass, any other.
❉ Gryphon: ‘Raindances, The Transatlantic Recordings 1973-1975’, 2CD Remastered Edition (Esoteric Recordings ECLEC22639) was released August 24, 2018. Click here to from Cherry Red Records.
❉ CJ Newman combines a lifelong love of music, science fiction and cult movies with his alter-ego, as an academic writer on space exploration. He can be found on twitter as