Sunday, 8 December 2019

Red Queen To Gryphon Three - Gryphon

Provenance: A few years ago at work, we were idling away the hours on the taxpayer's dime chatting about striking examples of cover sleeve artwork. I recalled an album my dad still owns, Raindance, by today's subjects Gryphon. In the course of searching for the cover art online, I discovered that Gryphon had also produced a work called Red Queen To Gryphon Three, a concept album that's based on a game of chess and features a krumhorn. Armed with that knowledge, what do you think I did next?

Review: You know when people take that "none more black" line from This Is Spinal Tap and apply it to some other scenario, and it's never funny? Well, I'm not about to break the mould here, but in all human endeavour, there is none more prog than Red Queen To Gryphon Three. It takes two of the nerdiest things in existence - prog and chess - and fuses them together via the medium of medieval instrumentation. I imagine this as the product of only the most ascetic of proggers, denying themselves all pleasures of the flesh (most definitely women, although one suspects that wasn't difficult) to come up with this shining anthracite bolus of musical antimatter. So dimly, horrifyingly black that it sucks all pretenders into the gaping maw of its prog-rock singularity. Friends, this is geekery on a colossal scale.

We've got four lengthy tracks called 'Opening Move', 'Second Spasm' (lol), 'Lament' and 'Checkmate'. None of this makes any sense whatsoever, because this is prog so pure that it's entirely instrumental. Why besmirch this magical extravaganza with such earth-bound discordance as the English language? This is the music of the spheres! The universal resonance! I will concede that, possibly, the only thing more progressive would be to either make up your own language or perform your horrible compositions on ice.

I'm not sure I even need to tell you that Red Queen To Gryphon Three begins with a keyboard fanfare, as anyone with a passing knowledge of the genre could've guessed that already. 'Opening Move' is ambitious, in the sense that it takes the listener through a variety of moods - one moment jaunty, the next foreboding - none of which that I've ever experienced when playing chess. The performances are almost virtuoso, and it must be admitted that the quieter, piano-led moments are quite affecting. 'Second Spasm' (still laughing) starts off altogether rather 'hey nonny-nonny', but again, shifts about in timing and atmosphere; however, it retains a cheerfully martial feeling throughout, which gives it a good sense of cohesion, and the main theme (played on a variety of instruments) manages to be both knotty and catchy at the same time. Erk! I'm starting to enjoy this!

Ah, but now we're onto 'Lament', which is very sad and makes me cry. Kidding! Yeah, it's a bit more mournful than the preceding material, and the bassoon (a glum instrument) gets a decent workout, but any true emotion gets sucked out of proceedings by mere dint of it being a fucking prog track. Can you sob in 13/7 time? These guys seem to think you can. Weirdly for a track called 'Lament', there are a couple of brief movements that are frantic and upbeat, all crazy woodwind and Afrobeat guitar sounds. By this point I felt that I'd been listening to RQTGT for about a day, and so these moments of elation mirrored my notion that it was all soon to be over. A glimpse at the stereo revealed I was only just over halfway through.

Ahhhhh, but I can't quite hate it! The music is so guileless, so questing and brimming with ideas that cynicism feels churlish. It's not as if anything hangs around too long, either - Gryphon's modus operandi on RQTGT seems to be "getting bored of this twiddly bit? Don't worry, another will be along soon enough."

However, once you're halfway through 'Checkmate', exhaustion has almost settled in. Despite noble attempts to cut through all the jibjab by establishing a theme for each track, it's all starting to blur together. The jazz guitars! The clavinets! The bassoons! The krumhorns! (Reader, I have discovered that there are two krumhorn players on this album.) In summation, Red Queen To Gryphon Three certainly takes the listener on a journey - one where the destination can, at times, be obscure - but it's a quixotic undertaking. How anyone can conjure up a game of chess whilst being bombarded by this folk-prog maelstrom is beyond me.

At core, though, this is the most potently distilled prog in my collection, and so I shall cherish it forever. I'll probably listen sparingly, because I don't want to actually turn into a wizard, but listen again I shall.


  1. There's nothing about this album that I don't love.
    The combination of ancient instruments and electric rocking is at once hugely original and breathtaking. If the young Irish musicians of this period took superb pride in playing their native music and showed that it still had bags to offer, then Gryphon were from outer space with a brainchild so daring and outrageous that it's no real surprise that they never made it as one of the huge bands, even in progressive rock.
    I've been grooving to this album now for 31 years. I'm not even sure why I picked it up. I was going through a jazz/fusion phase and I think someone had mistakenly placed the album in the jazz section of the 2nd hand record shop I bought the album from. In those days {1990} one of my ways of gauging whether or not to buy a record was to look at the instrumental line up ~ not so much for who was playing {I'd never heard of any of the players} but what they were playing. I had never heard of a krumhorn but that was intriguing. I was also intrigued by the fact that David Oberle was credited as a drummer and percussionist. And I just liked the fact that Graeme Taylor spelled his first name like that rather than "Graham" !!
    I was also drawn to the fact that, although I love singing and singers, even in a jazz context at times, there was no singer listed on the album. And that cover was to die for, one of the classic album covers, not to mention the superb title of the album. "Red Queen to Gryphon 3" just sounds, so !
    It didn't blow me away when I first listened to it but it grew on me pretty quickly. I have {and I had} a fairly wide musical head and I can safely say I'd not heard music like that before 1990. Nor subsequently.
    Every piece on the album is a winner, taking the listener on a series of myriad journeys within each track. But "Second spasm" and "Lament" {especially the latter} take my vote as the absolute killers on the album. They are the kind of songs that I spend literally days listening to over and over again. There's just so much to glean from them. Definitely on a par with the likes of "Echoes" and "Supper's ready."
    Progressive rock was at its peak by 1974 and started to get somewhat stylized and predictable after this time. But there's honestly nothing predictable about this lot. Even 31 years on, I find myself surprised and delighted by their offering, still finding new and enthralling things in there.
    Even if the band never made it big, they did with me.

    1. I'm really, really glad to find someone who truly loves this album, as I sound it - as you could probably gather from the review - just slightly too obtuse for my tastes. Nonetheless, I will always applaud anyone who creates music with this kind of ambition. I'd rather an interesting failure than a boring success (and to be clear - I don't think of 'Red Queen...' as a failure at all). Given that you like this one, I'd like to hear your thoughts on Gentle Giant, a band I'm only just becoming acquainted with.

    2. To be honest, although I've read lots about them over the years, I've never really listened to Gentle Giant. They're just one of the progressive rock bands I've never really been motivated to check out.
      Ironically, I'm a big fan of two songs the Shulman brothers were part of in their pre~Gentle giant incarnation. One is "Kites" which is one of the first tracks to feature a mellotron. Derek Shulman didn't think much of it but it's a fascinating track for the time.
      The other one is "We are the moles" which is a hilarious song but which pointed the way towards Gentle Giant's future instrumental dexterity.

    3. How odd! I do this thing with a handful of friends where we all upload two tracks to a Spotify playlist every month; and this very month, a pal of mine has added 'Kites' by Simon Dupree and the Big Sound! What a coincidence, and not necessarily expected given that we're all in our mid-thirties. I like it, incidentally.

      I'd definitely urge you to give Gentle Giant a go, purely on the basis that I was listening to their Octopus album not so long ago and my first thought was "bits of this sound like Gryphon." I only tried GG on for size this year and I quite like what I'm hearing.