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Gentle Giant - Free Hand  CD (album) cover

FREE HAND

Gentle Giant

 

Eclectic Prog

4.26 | 1000 ratings

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tarkus1980
Prog Reviewer
4 stars Ooh, this is better. The band is still taking the same complex, tweaked path they always have, but unlike on much of the last couple of albums, it sounds to me that the band really took the time to think its ideas through before committing them to tape. I mean, they haven't compromised their bizarritude one bit, but instead of blindly accepting every discordant and overly involved idea that passed through their fingers, it seems that they bothered to consider whether it was worth it to accept any given idea. Furthermore, while Octopus may have been their "accidental pop" prog masterpiece, many of the songs here could easily have passed, in the hands of a less ambitious band, as perfectly solid 'normal' pop songs. It should be no wonder that, as complex and proggy much of Free Hand is, it managed to chart respectably, and for several reasons may be the ideal introduction to the band.

Indeed, the first half of this album is nigh unto perfect, easily my second favorite side from the band (my favorite, of course, is side one of Octopus). I guess that there could be more Green and less Minnear (Kerry has somehow carefully snuck his way into the dominant instrumentalist of the band, for better and less for worse, sort of), but otherwise it would be hard to come up with complaints. "Just the Same" gets off to a startling beginning, with snapping fingers (Those pop sell-outs! They should change their names to Alterna-Giant or Gentle-Gianternative!), but on the other hand, they're alternating from channel to channel in an untrivial rhythm, so I guess it's not that shocking. But then you hear this bouncy keyboard line that bleeds poppiness (until you realize it too is going off a bizarre rhythm), then it's echoed by guitar chords that bleed poppiness (with the same realization), then Derek sings a catchy-as-hell (but not conventional) vocal melody while all sorts of strange things are going on underneath to ... poppy effect. Yup. On paper, this combination of raw elements would look anything but memorable, but sure enough, they pull it off. Of course, it also has a bunch of nice atmospheric mid-sections, some with Gary playing slow and pretty lines, some dominated by sax-keyboard jams, none of which manage to detract from the "main" song material or seem particularly 'tacked-on.' Great stuff.

Next up is "On Reflection," which has hands down the most spectacular group vocal arrangement by any art-rock band I've ever heard. They manage to convey a major medieval atmosphere with vocal lines that would make any modern classical composer proud, and the way they intertwine with each other, both melodywise and in the timbre of the members' individual voices, is something that I find myself coming back to again and again on this album. Of course, it's also multi-part, so there are multiple themes in which these amazing harmonies get to frolic, with reprises of the opening coming at just the right points. Yet as great as this track may be, it does not overshadow its successor, the side-closing title track. The opening is a terrific example of how complexity can still be beautiful, and the main song part, which is basically some sort of preverted progressive funk, has to be one of the best combinations of "tweaked" and "memorable" the band ever came up (that's a high compliment, of course). It's screaming out for a go-nuts guitar solo in the middle, which unfortunately never comes, but I definitely don't mind much while listening.

Unfortunately, the second side doesn't entertain me as much as the first (else it would easily get a *****). "Time to Kill" would sound great on, say, The Power and the Glory, but coming out of the shadow of the title track, it doesn't grab me much. Then again, even when I listen to the second side on its own, the track doesn't strike me as particularly impressive - just a decent, strange pop song. Likewise, while I like the jig- atmosphere of the closing "Mobile" quite a bit, not to mention parts of the melody, it still doesn't make me jump up and down for joy. As for the other two, "Talybont" is an ok keyboard-driven instrumental (I'll say this at least - it beats the snot out of the instrumentals on Genesis' Wind and Wuthering), but man, you don't know how much I find myself longing for some trumpets or cellos or glockenspiel. Still, this is the side that has "The Last Voyage," which starts out sounding like something I'd expect on a good Steve Hackett solo album, then gets weird like all GG does inevitably does, but always remains purrty.

All in all, then, it's definitely one of the better GG albums out there. It definitely shows a regained focus at making music that makes sense while still being weird, as opposed to the last album, where the weirdness was mostly running the show. Unfortunately, the balance was about to come undone again, to ill effect.

tarkus1980 | 4/5 |

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