Gryphon’s Red Queen to Gryphon Three (1974)

Note: Links to previous posts on the albums of 1974 appear at the bottom of this one.

The Seventies may not have been the birthplace of progressive rock, but that decade was when the subgenre went through a growth spurt of Big Bang proportions. Other prog works from that year include the psychodrama of Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, the folky capering of Jethro Tull’s War Child and the far-flung flamenco of Carmen’s Fandangos in Space. However, Gryphon’s Red Queen to Gryphon Three outdoes them all in pushing the boundaries of rock.

I can’t resist a close look at the album art by Dan Pearce. A wizened old man sits pondering a chess board. The board itself is a standard 8×8 grid of light and dark woods, while the pieces are red and white. Each one appears to be a griffin, the mythological half-eagle and half-lion that was king of all birds and beasts. Who is the old man’s opponent? Or does he play himself? Judging from the number of pieces on the board, the game appears to have reached endgame, but is this a game at all? Perhaps the man is pondering a chess puzzle or working out some other problem the elements of which the pieces represent.

A dynamic landscape is visible through colonnaded windows. In the distance are green fields, mountains, Medieval cities and sea vessels bearing red crosses suggestive of the emblem of the Knights Templar. In the space between, a knight levels his lance as he charges a griffin and shadowy figures walk along paths. Even nearer are perched a cat, a jay, and an owl, with a butterfly flitting by. A closer look reveals a snail shell in the bird’s beak and items of treasure behind the griffin. Is this scene real or does it only exist in the man’s imagination as a reflection of the situation on the chess board?

An idyllic setting, themes of conflict and flight, and a thought-symbol-reality triad? There’s a lot to unpack here, and the music is every bit as rich. Gryphon comes off like a Fab Five of Medieval minstrels armed with instruments spanning the Renaissance through the 20th Century: keyboards and recorders, guitars, bass and drums, krumhorn and lots of bassoon. Accordingly, Gryphon does something bigger than the usual silly little love lieds, opting for a concept album between a classical quintet and an instrumental suite by Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

The concept of this album, which was released during the height of then World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer’s fame, is a chess game. Thus, the first movement is titled “Opening Move.” It starts bright, turns pensive, then gathers speed, perhaps representing the shifting fortunes of the players in seizing control of the center. “Second Spasm” features more percussion, maintaining a martial drive as each side deploys its forces and pieces are exchanged. “Lament” is slow at first but culminates in bold melodies on synthesizer and recorder, suggesting where each player stands as the endgame begins. The fourth and final movement is “Checkmate,” which ends with crashing chords on bass, the tolling of a monarch’s doom.

It isn’t for everyone, but neither is it a misguided effort from the decade of progressive exuberance, some would say excess. It’s eminently listenable, featuring euphonic melodies, stately tempos, and measured compositions instead of the cacophony, manic transitions and fireworks common among progressive acts. Give it a try and you may find something here to furrow your brow in thought or infect you with 14th-Century abandon so you kick aloft your velvet slippers with the long pointy toes.

My battered German edition of Red Queen to Gryphon Three, which I pulled out of a bargain bin for a few hundred yen, is one of the treasures of my collection. Gryphon puts a 20th-Century spin on pre-modern musical styles and the results are as deserving of an exclamation point as any brilliant move in the notation for a match between chess prodigies.

More prog from 1974.

Next up: Fanny’s Rock and Roll Survivors.

Previous posts in this series:
John Lennon’s Walls and Bridges
E.L.O.’s Eldorado
Roxy Music’s Country Life
Sly & the Family Stone’s Small Talk
Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel
Ringo Starr’s Goodnight Vienna
Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

I write about the intersection of arts and ideas, my small contribution to the #ThinGraphiteLine between civilization and its collapse.