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Gentle Giant - Free Hand CD (album) cover


Gentle Giant


Eclectic Prog

4.28 | 1509 ratings

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TGM: Orb
Prog Reviewer
4 stars Free Hand, Gentle Giant The man who first proclaimed that the progressive rock musicians shall wear capes and play solos and not, under any circumstances, write catchy songs obviously forgot to tell Gentle Giant. Their very credible 1975 release Free Hand is a full text of how-to-play-well-without-being-accused-of-masturbation, how-to-write-songs-that-are-both-involving-and-catchy and, more importantly, how-to-put-out-a-great-album. Admittedly, the excitement of this one is somewhat consolidated on the superb side one, and pleasant as the medievally flavoured work of side 2 is, it somehow stops at intelligent, pleasant movement rather than making the murky transition to a full-fledged classic.

The opener is pretty much symbolic of the album as a whole, catchy as hell, opening with the infectiously obtuse shifting of handclaps from speaker to speaker and a bouncy piano part. Gary Greene and Ray Shulman leap to create a polyphonic pop song, taking in its stride the lively saxophone-heavy verses, a chorus introduced by a cool keyboard hook and a bizarre instrumental interlude, moving from a well-thought out shiny synthesiser over a calm groove to a theatrical bit of bending moog mastery with a much sharper jazzy backdrop from Ray Shulman and John Weathers. A happily rocking guitar repeat of the piano riff leads us back into the song proper, and before you know it, the chugging bass rhythm and handclaps have taken us out again. Worth mentioning, Minnear (keys) and Ray Shulman (bass) give great performances on this one.

Now, how I'm meant to review On Reflection is beyond me, but I'll try... here Gentle Giant's amazing capacity for arrangement comes to the fore, with complex vocal parts interweaved with classical density and medieval flavour, interspersed with the band's incredible range of instruments. Derek Shulman's bouncy and impersonal energy on lyrics such as 'In my way did I use you/Do you think that I really abused you/On reflection now, it doe-esn't ma-atter' is matched perfectly by Kerry Minnear's lush yet fragile and affected 'I'll remember the good things how can I forget/ all the years that we shared in our way', and the complimentary gradually introduced xylophone, glockenspiel and piano tracking the various multi-layered vocal parts supplement the feel of individual voices crucial to the song's lyrical theme, as the exquisite low-tempo keyboard-and-bass support for Minnear's great vocal, and with the introduction of subtle violins and cello, this reflective moment leads up to the energetic burst out of the 'all around/all around/ all around...' block harmony before the great rock instrumental conclusion, with bass, guitar and organ trading parts just about every time and yet finding the space to add in. An impression you get from the instrumental parts of this one, which maybe wasn't there in the Giant's early albums, is simply what great musicians they are. Ray Shulman's bass in particular, is probably among my favourite albums for the instrument ever, and this instrumental burst is a prime example of how to play great interesting starts while serving the song absolutely. OK, maybe the fade isn't a perfectly satisfying ending from a musical point of view, but the idea of happily going off from this failed relationship to do one's own thing is suitably conveyed by the defiant melodies springing up over this, and I can't think of a better way to give that impression. A top notch Giant piece, and certainly among my favourites.

If at the time of reading, as at the time of writing, this song is a title track here, open another tab/scroll up and click the play button and I can say with a fair bit of confidence that you shouldn't be disappointed. A typically punctuated Minnear piano and a kicking Gary Greene riff, backed up by its bizarre pauses, an incredibly fun and odd bit of bass from the virtuosic Ray Shulman, as well as some choice drum fills from John Weathers, who, if overshadowed by the other band members is a rock of consistent creativity throughout this record. If you can work out exactly what's going on in the instrumental sections, the first laden with clever piano dissonants and the second a minimal guitar-driven thing with some mystical percussion and a weird marine-sounding keyboard, bulked up by Greene's jabs, you're a braver man than I. The melody is just fantastic, and the little details present everywhere. The quintessential eclectic song? Well, either way, great pop music elaborated beyond recognition and with Gentle Giant's charm and great complexity.

Time To Kill continues quite strongly, opening with a sort of inverted outro, taking thrumming static and suddenly throwing in twenty or thirty seconds of a building riff crammed full of their wonderfully obtuse musical knowledge and then pulling together to give the impression that they're aiming at a sort of running-out-conclusion already as if on the end of On Reflection... but they don't. The shift is straight on into a slightly remorseful rock song with some of the bulky vocals and a suitably great lead from Derek Shulman, alternating between immensely musical band set-ups and a sort of prowling lead bass thing hunting the voice. The wonderful vocal harmonies are almost the precursor to some of the stuff on the later pop albums that I've heard, if much, much better... again, a fade on the end isn't really satisfying, but otherwise a very clever and catchy song... Gentle Giant are fantastic at the combination of the two.

The somewhat tragic and reminiscing His Last Voyage is the album's first sign of flagging just a little... the bulk of it is a sweet medieval-sounding vocal section, and much as Gary Greene's gorgeous acoustic guitar and the band joining together, it goes on a relatively long time for a section where making out the words is a challenge and also one where it doesn't really mesh with the intelligently created introduction and interludes set up to add some flavour for it. Now, in spite of this pleasant but slightly inelegant bit, at the three minute mark, it transforms, a sharp coordination between the piano and bass and a set of remarkable airy fills by Weathers are overlaid with an equally ethereal vocal to give a sort of surrealistic web of ghostlike atmosphere over which Gary Greene finally gets the blues-driven, but creative, solo he seems to have been itching for all album, and a return to the tranquil part brings a real conclusion to a mixed, but at times wonderful, piece.

Talybont (a Welsh town, by the way; nice place, I've been walking there, and the music fits it nicely) is more of a hearts-on-sleeves medieval piece, with twin recorders and a harpsichord; there is a clear main theme throughout, which is frequently echoed, and the superb production of the album really allows some of the song's subtleties to stand out as highlights here, whether in the form of a solid clavichord or clavinet contrast to the playful main theme, or in John Weathers' matching drum work, placing much more emphasis on a mood than a beat. Wonderful work by Minnear and Gary Greene in particular here... overall, a very satisfying piece of music, achieving character without going to the lengths of the rest of the album to do so.

The ending Mobile is, erm, wearing. Yes, it's clever compositionally, I can remember the main theme, and the dense polyphony is still there, and there are a huge number of neat catches, but, by this point in the album, it maybe feels a little odd after the two cute medieval numbers to return to the style of the first half, albeit with a somewhat more prominent lead vocal and a set of discernable and unimpressive lyrics. OK, so the band have a boundless childlike energy and musical knowledge that allows them to slam in vocoders, violins, wah-wah guitar work, suspicious piano work and a creative intensity to shame their contemporaries and their successors, but I can't really say that, either because it's simply not as memorable as half one, or because my musical brain is getting tired and I'm preparing to switch off before Interview (ah, the banes of two-in-one-CDs)... anyway, as a stand-alone song, it's good, but as the ending to such a fantastic album, it doesn't really hold up, and I can't say the random wait-then-drum roll ending is ahead of the fades that characterise the rest of this one.

So, all in all, rush out to your nearest purveyor of quality music, which probably remains either or unless you're less of an almost-but-not-quite-rural unfortunate than I am, and acquire or order this album. Or listen to the sample; that might be a good idea first. Alas, the fifth star eludes this one on the grounds that a few of the endings aren't exactly decisive, when the band's ability to write a song ending is really not in question, and Mobile and His Last Voyage fail to stand out in the way the other five songs do. Ah, Gentle Giant, forever stuck on four stars, despite all the talent and individuality... should be heading for In A Glass House and Octopus soon... see if that changes it. Worth mentioning, this is one hell of a bass album, and you get an impression of virtuosity as well as the creativity, individuality and emotion that has, up 'til now, been a constant feature of Gentle Giant's repertoire.

Rating: Four Stars, 12/15 Favourite Track: tough choice; maybe Time To Kill or On Reflection

TGM: Orb | 4/5 |


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