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Gentle Giant - Free Hand  CD (album) cover

FREE HAND

Gentle Giant

 

Eclectic Prog

4.26 | 1000 ratings

From Progarchives.com, the ultimate progressive rock music website

rogerthat
5 stars Funk reached its commercial height in the 70s and musicians working in other genres too adopted funk elements, which lends 70s music, or rather what bands are taken to represent the 70s sound, part of its distinct flavour. Herbie Hancock went funky in the early 70s and it was a pervasive influence in the jazz-rock/fusion scene of the time. But there was not much of funk going on in 70s prog, outside JR/F as already mentioned. It was up to Gentle Giant to deliver a very funky prog rock album and so they did with Free Hand.

In the process of doing so, they achieved the seemingly impossible - making their music more accessible than before and yet upping the ante in terms of complexity. On the one hand, they laid down some of their most infectious grooves on songs like Just The Same. They always had a bit of funk in their music but it was never so prominent in their sound.

The heavy metal of Acquiring The Taste and Octopus is pushed back a bit to allow for this smoother version of classic Gentle Giant. It does make an appearance at the start of Time to Kill in the form of crunchy riffs but they disappear seamlessly to make way for another funky groove.

On the other hand, their contrapuntal wizardry reaches its zenith with On Reflection. Even if you have already heard Knots, you will still be dazzled by the complexity of this composition. It is devoid of the unsettling dissonance of that other Gentle Giant masterpiece I mentioned, but you will have your hands full just keeping pace with layer upon layers of harmony. All neatly resolved and very efficiently too, in trademark Gentle Giant fashion. Amazingly, these are basically combinations of very lucid vocal parts, individually, so that the song is actually not so hard to digest and doesn't feel mindboggling to listen to, not if you have already heard Gentle Giant before at any rate.

An aspect that stands out on comparing Gentle Giant to the more, um, gymnastic technical rock music of today is how economical these compositions are. They are short and sharp and there are hardly any solos of significant length to demonstrate the skills of these wonderful musicians. Instead, the songs are put together tightly and the complexity is more in the way these songs have been conceived. And this time, unlike Octopus, there are some catchy choruses to sing along to.

Alas, the vocals make them less sing-able than they should ordinarily be. The smooth, funky flavour of the album actually takes Gentle Giant's closer to that of Steely Dan than ever before. But not only is Derek Shulman no Donald Fagen, he is honestly not very good. I am not referring to just technical facility here; the very manner in which he renders the melodies is perhaps not the most appropriate choice for these songs. I feel a bit more effort to adapt and emphasise the funk elements in this album would have made it even more appealing.

It doesn't stand out so much to Gentle Giant fans, actually, because Shulman is only doing as Shulman does. But it could potentially be an off putting element for first time listeners. Given that vocals often make or break a band for listeners, I might just have hit upon the very reason why Gentle Giant, with their emphasis on short and somewhat goofy prog rock songs, didn't enjoy the kind of success that Yes or Genesis did.

But I personally am used to Shulman and his singing style is distinct, albeit in a somewhat dubious light, and further marks out Gentle Giant as an unique band. On Free Hand, they are absolutely on fire, so much so that even good tracks like His Last Voyage seem to drag a bit after you have been treated to Time to Kill or Just The Same. Their tightest, smartest statement up to that point and, unfortunately, to date. 5 stars without hesitation.

rogerthat | 5/5 |

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