Gryphon - Union Chapel
14th September 2018 (with Richard Page)
On Friday 14th September I met up with my brother (who had come down from Cumbria to see Camel the following Monday) and headed to the Union Chapel for Gryphon’s album launch gig for ReInvention, their first studio album for 41 years. After a brief stop at the merchandise stand for a copy of the new CD and an ‘Ashes’ T-shirt featuring 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. 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, but 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.
We were treated to 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. In March they only played a couple of new tracks, one of which was Rhubarb Crumhorn; the other difference between the Claygate and Union Chapel performances was that bassist Rory McFarlane was temporarily unable to play so his part was taken by Rob Levy.
The new material is closer to the first album, despite a couple of songs being written for, but not making it onto, 1975’s Raindance. The main attraction of the band’s music to fans of progressive rock, apart from the incredible musicianship, were the dense textures created by former member 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 had 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. The debut album and ReInvention include music that sticks more closely to a song format, like The Unquiet Grave, a traditional tune with a haunting, other-worldly bassoon section and an agreeable ending, or Hampton Caught from the new release. Part of the reason for the 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.
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, but my least favourite track was Hospitality At A Price...(Dennis) Anyone For?
The between-song banter, an alleged democratic endeavour shared between the members while allowing Brian Gulland and Andy Findon to change instruments, was deliberately undermined by humorous interjections from their colleagues. We were even given to understand that percussionist David Oberlé was dissatisfied with the characters he’d been chosen to voice: the serving girl in The Astrologer and the Aged Man in Haddock’s Eyes, amidst suggestions of type-casting!
Gryphon continues 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 beautifully produced CD which must have caused huge technical problems getting the right levels for such an array of instruments, and where The Euphrates Connection works perfectly.