Gentle Giant - Freehand

Year of Release: 1990
Label: One Way
Catalog Number: CD 57338
Format: CD
Total Time: 36:22:00

I don't know, maybe its me, but when ever I try and think of someone who sounds like Gentle Giant from their mid 70s period, the time they released my favorite recordings, I keep coming back to the one same group, and the comparison is not quite satisfying for me. That is, some, only some, of the music on this, and the previous year's, The Power And The Glory, reminds me of Steely Dan, or vice versa. I just wanted to get that over with. I'll touch on that again later.

It is saddening for me, and probably others who know the work and the times of Gentle Giant, that so much of their most productive time and energy were squandered in crippling battles with various record labels and management companies, who wanted to fleece the band, and tried again and again to force them down paths that were not suitable to the work of this group of extraordinary human beings, amazing musicians and song writers.

1975's release Free Hand (Chrysalis/Capitol (11428)) is one of the crowning achievements of progressive rock in general and Gentle Giant in particular. It has some of the best examples of their madrigal singing style, the beautiful "On Reflection," some of their most streamlined, accessible music, as evidenced by the songs "Time To Kill" and "Just The Same," the latter of the two becoming a live favorite. It features some of the most gentle, lovely moments ever committed to tape, the wonderful, "His Last Voyage," another example of keyboardist Kerry Minnear's outstanding singing voice. Did Kerry get all the most touching songs to sing? I'll have to look into that. In contrast to its lilting beginning, "His Last Voyage" also gives Giant guitarist Gary Green the opportunity for a gritty wah-wah-ed solo, before dissolving into total beauty once more.

We get "Talybont," an exploration of Celtic rhythms and melody, as seen through the distorted electric guitar, then breaking into pipes and clavinet, and Gary Green uses his array of sound processors, well, what passed in the middle 70s for such. Wah-Wah, Echoplex and the like.

Ending with "Mobile," a reflection of earlier Gentle Giant releases, this is lyrically, at least, another reminder that Gentle Giant was a band beset with demons. The lyrics, as a number of their song lyrics do, tell the story of a group that feels put upon, forced to live out someone else's ideas, forced to record and tour at some one else's whim. The song itself is a powerful musical statement as well, featuring counterpoint lines on acoustic instruments, and a powerful wash of electric sound leading to a grand march, and into the verse proper. Kerry's use of his Hammond, always a welcome moment, leads into a typical Gentle Giant bridge. I guess that is just an easy way for me to describe the indescribable, as nothing I have ever heard from the Giant is typical. Let's say that the center of this composition has a familiar use of incredible counterpoint instrumentation, an arrangement that seems to go in several directions at once and??you know, typical Gentle Giant.

Let's go back to the comparison with Steely Dan now. Maybe it's that Minnear had a preference for clavinet and electric piano in their arrangements. He used less B-3 and Moog than most keyboardists I might name, and if one plays a bouncy melodic line with these funkier sounding keyboards, it will sound a bit like the style of Donald Fagen. Maybe. Perhaps it is that the Giant boasted members that played sax and a variety of instruments that were used in the studio by Fagen and Becker. Perhaps it is the back up vocals on "Time To Kill," which sound exactly like the vocals on the early Steely Dan releases. Steely Dan and Gentle Giant were contemporaries, but I would hate to ascribe some poorly researched theory of any motive to either of them. It's just an innocent observation, really. If I were to advance any foolish theory, it would be that Steely Dan stole much of their stylistic elements from Gentle Giant. But, remember. I'm not saying anything about it. I never even mentioned anything on the topic at all.

Back to the music of Free Hand, then. This is really one of the few albums I know of that seems to zip by at an incredible rate. The sequence of the songs is somehow magical, in my opinion, and I always end up playing it four or five times in a row, before I've had my fill and can go on to something else. It is a textbook of the elements that are crucial to good symphonic progressive rock. There are the mind blowing acappella vocals of "On Reflection," the dizzying changes of time and texture, and most of all, their ease with incredibly difficult contrapuntal technique. They were able to do all this, AND fight with their labels and managers. Think what might have been, had their road been less rocky. On the other hand, the rough road they traveled inspired some of the best music ever written. Just ponder for a moment, will you, the finger snapping that opens this album. Get a few friends together, and see if you can master it. I would wager that you cannot. Just a thought. No offense intended.

By modern standards, almost all the progressive rock classics are short by comparison. The limits of the LP format gave a band little more than fourty minutes to say whatever had to be said. Some of the CD re-issues of Gentle Giant have additional material that pad out the total time. But, unfortunately, I bought the first re-issues I could get my hands on, and this, as is the case with most Gentle Giant CDs I own, lack the extras that later versions had.

I will recommend this release highly, as I will no doubt say of any and all releases by the Giant, whom I think deserve a place at the table with the best groups of the golden age of progressive rock, and indeed, any music, by anyone in the distant past of the 1970s or now. They are truly a brilliant group, one that has influences that continue to this day. Without Gentle Giant as a basis to work from, many of the bands and much of the music we listen to now would not exist.

If you do not have the work of Gentle Giant in your collection, I would advise you to go out and buy some of their mid 70s releases now. This release, along with the previous year's release, The Power And The Glory, will present to the listener a band at the peak of their creative powers, and will prepare one to enjoy their entire catalog.

Rating: 5/5

Just The Same (5:34) / On Reflection (5:41) / Free Hand (6:14) / Time To Kill (5:08) / His Last Voyage (6:27) / Talybont (2:43) / Mobile (5:05)

Gary Green - vocals, guitar
Kerry Minnear - vocals, keyboards
Derek Shulman - lead vocals, bass, guitar, saxaphone
Ray Shulman - vocals, bass, percussion, violin
John Weathers - drums, vocals

Gentle Giant (1970)
Acquiring The Taste (1971)
Three Friends (1972)
Octopus (1973)
In A Glass House (1973)
The Power And The Glory (1974/1990)
Freehand (1975)
Interview (1976)
The Official Live Gentle Giant: Playing The Fool (1977)
Pretentious (1977)
Civilian (1980)
Missing Piece (1977)
Giant For A Day (1978)
In Concert (1994)
The Last Steps (1996)
Out Of The Woods (1996)
Under Construction (1997)
King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents... (1998)
Out Of The Fire (1998)
Live (Playing The Fool)/Civilian (1999)
Totally Out Of The Woods (2000)
Live In Rome 1974 (2000)
In A Palesport House [live] (2001)
Experience [live] (2002)
Endless Life [live] (2003)
Artistically Cryme [live] (2003)
The Missing Face [live] (2003)
Way Of Life (2004)
Playing The Cleveland [live] (2004)
Prologue (2004)

Genre: Progressive Rock

Origin UK

Added: March 28th 2004
Reviewer: Tom Karr
Artist website:
Hits: 2336
Language: english


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