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Gryphon was one of the more unusual of the folk-rock groups to come out of England in the 1970s, mostly because they didn't confine their musical genre-melding to folk-rock. Spawned at the Royal College of Music, they started out making a name for themselves in folk-rock, but their classical training and their approach to composition, recording, and performance soon took them into the much bigger field of progressive rock, and eventually had them playing gigs in front of arena-size audiences.
Richard Harvey (winds, mandolin, keyboards), who'd been playing music since age four, crossed paths with Brian Gulland (winds, bassoon, keyboards, vocals) — Harvey had a growing interest in traditional folk music and had previously played with an ensemble called Musica Reservata, while Gulland had lately begun delving into Renaissance and medieval church music. Together with guitarist Graeme Taylor, an old friend of Harvey's, they began working as a trio, playing a brand of what might best be called archaic folk music on instruments that were decidedly pre-20th century in either origin or sound. This early trio most resembled a cross between Pentangle and Amazing Blondel, but Gryphon's members were more proficient in their musicianship than Blondel's members, who were, to a great extent, learning as they went along in their early days.
In 1972, the trio became a quartet with the addition of David Oberle as percussionist, and the following year they were signed to Transatlantic Records, which was then one of the biggest of England's independent labels, with a special emphasis on folk music in their lineup of artists (which included, not coincidentally, Pentangle). Their debut album was taken seriously enough to get them gigs at places like the Victoria & Albert Museum — where they lectured as well as concertized — and other venues outside the usual range of folk performances. Additionally, the group's formal musical training made it possible for them to accept a commission from Sir Peter Hall for a production of Shakespeare's The Tempest at the National Theatre. That commission, in turn, resulted in the creation of the group's first real thrust into progressive rock, with the album-side length "Midnight Mushrumps," which also became the title of their second LP, released in early 1974.
The group was, by then, cultivating a dedicated audience that mixed open-minded folk enthusiasts and more serious progressive rock aficionados, their repertoire encompassing everything from medieval airs and dances to folk-based renditions of Beatles songs. Their recordings were a little more restrained, generally comprising traditional airs, jigs, and dances extended and often expanded into suites running anywhere from seven to 25 minutes. By 1974, they'd also added bassist Philip Nestor, whose presence, coupled with Oberle's switch from percussion to an actual drum kit, toughened up their sound and extended their range still further — but they were still among the very few rock acts of this or any other period whose music was likely to feature a krumhorn or recorder cadenza. Their music could leap, in a single measure, from a piece of 15th century religious music across four hundred years, from medieval recorder to electric guitar, without skipping a beat. Yet audiences were keeping up, and even the rock audience was taking note — Richard Harvey could play the recorder flute at a speed that made Ian Anderson (rock's best known flutist) look like he was working in slow motion.
Later in 1974, the group released what is usually regarded as their magnum opus, Red Queen to Gryphon Three, which marked their headfirst plunge into progressive rock, eschewing vocals for the first time in their history and stretching out their playing on a quartet of extended tracks clocking in at ten minutes or more each. For that album, they added a sixth member in organist Ernest Hart, whose keyboard prowess — at least rivaling Yes' Tony Kaye, if not Rick Wakeman, for boldness on a single instrument — allowed the group to expand its musical canvas onto a scale matching that of Genesis, King Crimson, et al. It's questionable how closely Nestor or Hart were woven into the band, however, as demonstrated by their lack of composing or arranging credits, among those pieces credited to Harvey, Gulland, Taylor, and Oberle.
Red Queen to Gryphon Three became their first album to get a U.S. release which, alas, was confined to the Bell Records label (not known as a bastion of progressive or folk-rock). It was also sufficiently impressive to get Gryphon noticed by Steve Howe, the lead guitarist of Yes, who were then riding high at the top of the prog rock/art rock field. The group subsequently appeared on his solo album Beginnings, but much more important was their presence on Yes' 1975 tour of North America, opening for the better-known band, picking up thousands of new fans in the process, and even getting one of their performances broadcast over FM radio in the United States.
What should have been their breakthrough, however, proved to be more of a footnote to the history of the original band — Graeme Taylor was the first to leave (replaced by Bob Foster), Malcolm Bennett replaced Philip Nestor for a short time (before Jonathan Davie took over the bassist spot), and Alex Baird came in on drums. Raindance (1975) restored their vocals and allowed Gryphon to return to more of a song-oriented output, but it was not nearly as inventive as their earlier LPs, and was the group's last album for two years, amid the beginning of these personnel changes. By the time their album Treason (1977) appeared, they'd left Transatlantic in favor of Harvest Records, and had lost most of the folk and antique instrument attributes that had made them distinctive in the first place.
Gryphon had broken up by the end of the 1970s, but retained enough of an audience to get their work anthologized several times on CD. In the years since their breakup, Harvey has gone on to a multi-tiered career in film music, classical chamber music, and forays into rock in collaboration with Kate Bush, Elvis Costello, et al. Gulland appeared on records with Richard & Linda Thompson and Billy Squier, Graeme Taylor passed through the Albion Band and also worked with Richard & Linda Thompson, and Oberle turned to the business side of rock journalism. Ironically, the group's sound on the four Transatlantic albums was so distinctive and accomplished that reissues of their work into the 21st century have ensured the addition of new fans to their ranks of admirers, more than a generation after Gryphon disbanded.