Gryphon – 1974

The further we head down this neo-folk decade the more strained the strands holding it to the base become. It had to be that way. Nearly a decade into its creation, advances in technology, and a growing influence of outside musics started to gild the lily of what most considered English folk music to be. One group a touch too smart for its own good was Gryphon. Specifically, this time, they released an album which made them unacceptable to rock audiences, and a bit too cerebral to be classified as genuine folk or folk-rock. Knowing their way around a vast assortment of traditional instruments and curios, they created a concept album based on the concepts of chess.

The sound of Red Queen to Gryphon Tree is so medieval, that’s the first thing that strikes you. This band started two Royal College of Music graduates, multi-instrumentalist Richard Harvey (who was fairly accomplished on all sorts of Early Music instruments), and woodwind player Brian Gulland (master of all things blown). Their first album Gryphon displayed a degree of technicality unheard of in the folk genre. Unfortunately, that degree of technique was spent trying to gussy up traditional songs that were frankly boring. Too many of their songs lacked heart and were far too cerebral. Their second album though allowed them to focus a bit more on attaining that bit of warmth.

Commissioned by England’s National Theater to write and perform music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, they came up with their first piece of true ear candy: Midnight Mushrumps. Evoking the feeling of the Elizabethan era but not sounding like a pastiche of it, they became the first and only “rock” band to play the historic Britain’s National Theater. Their command of such instruments lead them to actually back artists like Richard and Linda Thompson on recordings like I Want to See the Brights Light Tonight, Gerry Rafferty on Night Owl, and even later on in Kate Bush’s Lionheart. Where a group like Yes believed their fantastical folkish tale, this was a group that was more keen on dissecting folk’s sound.

Red Queen to Gryphon Three album cover.

All of those things came to ahead on their next album 1974’s Red Queen to Gryphon Three. Short enough, 30 minutes or so, to actually play as background music to a game of chess, it followed the opening feeling one receives when starting a match, then sussing out some moves, then regretting some movements, and finally down to its glorious end (if you’re the winner of course!). Its definite chin scratching music, but one that has some profundity to it, if you can hear between the lines. Gryphon jettisoned vocals for this one album for a reason. I can sorta hear why when you listen to my favorite track “Lament”. Led by krummhorn, recorder, and acoustic guitars it signals a forlorn feeling that gets further torn apart, reconfigured, and reshaped when the drums come in, is this jazz-folk, is this free-Renaissance music, it just sounds so different, almost post-rocking.

In a way, they were English neo-folk’s Faust or the continuation of Third Ear Band’s rung, ready to experiment with evoking some kind of pastorale through very different means which might not dance on your head immediately. Anyway, advanced studies would be to check out the rest of the album, and here the increasingly complex, and intricate “Checkmate” can’t you feel all those movements coming together somehow? They’d do one more ingenious move of an album a bit later in 1977 but this was their first pro game. More English neo-folk movement tomorrow though…

Listen to Red Queen to Gryphon Three at Grooveshark.