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Gentle Giant - Free Hand  CD (album) cover

FREE HAND

Gentle Giant

 

Eclectic Prog

4.26 | 1021 ratings

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Distant Planet
5 stars In the 70s, Gentle Giant deserved the level of recognition that their contemporaries ; Yes, ELP, Jethro Tull, Genesis, King Crimson, Pink Floyd et al....had achieved. Their musicianship and compositional skills were certainly on a par with (or beyond...) these more widely known bands. Possibly their music was slightly too complex to easily achieve a wider fanbase, or maybe their early association with the Vertigo Label meant that insufficient publicity had accompanied their advent. History also suggests that their sixth studio album 'The Power And The Glory' would have reached a respectable position in the UK Album Chart had the album's release been handled competently (Vertigo were no longer to blame, the band were now with WWA). Unfortunately, confusion over the album's release date, with copies spilled onto the market too early in error, meant that effectively the bulk of sales were split between two separate and disparate dates. Had the initial sales impetus maximised around a single date, the resultant charting of the album would have fuelled publicity and given the band the helping hand to nudge them into the major league where they belonged. It is interesting then that the band's seventh studio album, that I review here, 'Free Hand' was so named because it marked their debut with the Chrysalis label and suggested feelings amongst the band that this heralded a new era of freedom for them. 'Free Hand' is possibly the band's most accessible album, if you are new to Gentle Giant start here and follow with 'In A Glass House' and 'The Power And The Glory'. I am choosing to review this album now because as well as being a lifelong fan of the band, I am also very fond of surround sound and the latest re-mastered version of this album comes with a DVD which includes a 4.1 mix adapted from the original quad mixes. The fact that quad mixes were done at all suggests to me that the estimated sales for the album were aligned to the viability of a quadrophonic release. So maybe the band's newly found independence still failed to generate the required publicity to achieve such sales. There was no major UK tour to promote the album either...The freedom from an incompetent and pressurised management environment did ,however, mean that the band produced some of the best music of their career. Whilst my first budget stereo system brought my vinyl to life in the 70s (after suffering a mono radiogram for years !!!), I was fascinated further by the concept of quadrophonic systems. Whilst never having the pleasure of hearing a quad system they were to me an obvious step forward and I was surprised by their demise. The arrival of DVD many years later with its 5.1 sound confirmed that my belief in quadrophonic sound was never misguided but maybe quad was ahead of its time and beyond the reach of the average 70's punter... It is a miracle that the original quad mixes of this album (and of 'Interview') have finally come to light. I can remember when I was working for 'Proclamation' the Gentle Giant magazine back in the 90s, that a fan had written in reminiscing about meeting the band back in the 70s. He had stated that when he met the band they were working on quad mixes for the new album. Quad mixes ???!! I was astounded. Was he mistaken or had quad recordings really been made ? Some sixteen years after reading his letter I am happy to confirm that he was of course correct.....(Their is now also a belief that these quad tapes were discovered in the late 90s and were in fact used for a re-press of the first stereo release of 'Free Hand' on CD by One Way Records. The difference in musical detail of that release now finally seems to be explained). So after all these years, what do these adapted quad mixes sound like on DVD ??? The 4.1 format means that we have no centre channel. More disappointingly for me is the fact that the mixes are only offered in DTS 96/24 or Dolby Digital 48/24, both of these are of course lossy formats. For my review I listened in the DTS format. My surround system is movie- oriented but acceptable for music listening too (Oppo BDP-83 into a Sony STR-DA2400 through Q Acoustics 2000 speakers). With much anticipation I sat down to listen carefully. The opening track 'Just The Same' is a perfect compromise of commercial viability and progressive integrity. There is something very catchy and commercial about this song that the opening finger clicks suggest before the music even starts. In its 4.1 rendition I initially thought the vocals were slightly off placed, but as the song progressed this was not the case. I soon found myself totally immersed in a sea of sound. This is what I call surround sound !! The start of the initially dreamy instrumental section enhanced the surround effect even more and provided an enlightened listening experience for me. On the sleeve notes Ray Shulman states 'It's good to see that we were really quite adventurous with the placements in the sound field'. Yes, the surround mix here provides far more than extra ambience and yet it sounds natural and never artificial. 'On Reflection' follows. Possibly the pinnacle of the band's achievements this song starts off as a fugue but ends up as a variation of a canon !! Whatever the technicalities of this piece, it was made for surround sound !!! It is an understatement to say that the song sounds awesome to me. This song underlines the magnitude of human achievement that Gentle Giant were capable of. It feels like I'm in a cathedral with the band's vocals echoing around me in a bell-like manner. (Given the public's penchant for the vocal dexterity of Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody', some months later - I wonder what similar radio exposure might have done for 'On Reflection' ???!!!) The title track 'Free Hand' is a mixture of rock and more intricate, delicate passages. Again the quad mix totally immerses me in the centre of an incredible soundscape and the song sounds better than ever. 'Time To Kill' follows before we are treated to the rich but mournful melodies of 'His Last Voyage'. The choral passage of this song really comes to life in the quad mix and I can feel the atmosphere of the music more than ever before, it's literally thick like a fog all around me. Gary Green's blues guitar solo comes to life so vividly that involuntarily I launch into air guitar mode.... 'Talybont' provides further revelation....This instrumental is full of medieval influence, the quad mix again brings everything to life. I am in a castle courtyard surrounded by electronic minstrelsy and fair maidens. I am unable to stop myself clapping along to the music, I am drawn in so deeply. This song was a demo for a Robin Hood TV series. If only it had actually been used for a TV series the band might have had that tiny nudge they needed to achieve major recognition. 'Mobile' with its gorgeous Celtic flavours rounds the album off in memorable style. Listening to the whole album in quad for the first time has been a memorable and joyful experience for me. The depth of enjoyment of the music actually bringing a flush to my face exactly as it did when I first heard the album all those years ago. Under forty minutes in duration, the album is brief by today's standards but obviously we are looking at quality rather than quantity here . This CD/DVD set is very nicely packaged with some interesting comments from the band in the booklet. My only bugbear with this release is that the 4.1 mix is not in a lossless format. I'd love to see a blu-ray release with the quad mix available in DTS HD-Master Audio, the music deserves such presentation. Whilst I am thrilled to have the quad mix at all, it can sound slightly compressed and a lossless version would give the music more room to breathe to enhance and open the atmosphere even further. The limitations are all the more apparent if you compare this with Tull's Aqualung on blu-ray. With Aqualung you could actually believe you are in the studio listening to the original master tapes albeit the (retrospective) surround mix is far less immersive... In summary if you are a GG fan and you have a surround sound system, ensure you buy this release, it really is essential...and if you've not heard GG before it's a great place to get to know them, general fans of adventurous rock music and fans of surround sound need look no further.
Distant Planet | 5/5 |

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