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Gentle Giant - Free Hand CD (album) cover


Gentle Giant


Eclectic Prog

4.28 | 1356 ratings

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5 stars On Reflection - A Masterpiece

The main problem with other Gentle Giant studio albums is that they do not contain the perfect confection of hard rock and dazzling polyphony that is "On Reflection". This is possibly the best Prog Rock song ever, deceptively accessible to the point of seeming simplistic, and yet laden with technical subtleties and complex contrapuntal marvels that in no way stifle the natural flow of the piece.

But enough already! I'll do the analysis bit when I reach the song during my customary "live" review; As the album plays directly into my headphones, for your entertainment, before your very eyes, I will endeavour to pull out the succulent fruits and the sour grapes, the nightingales and the turkeys, the stellar and the stinkers from this marvellous musical trove of tonal treasures:

"Just the Same" must surely be considered a succulent fruit - bursting as it is with juicy proggy goodness. A finger clicking good rhythmic motif begins, then a piano motif joins it, crossing the rhythm of the clicking. It should be noted that the very first iteration of each motif is different to the motif itself, which provides instant drama and energy to what follows. The click disappears, and a distorted guitar provides a note-for note echo to the piano, exactly half a beat behind.

Note that this is all in the first 30 seconds - we're talking real proggy value for money here!

The song kicks in, and the instrumentalists and vocalists pick up melodically and rhythmically modified versions of the introductory motifs, lending a perfect continuity to the music. The chorus is another modification of these motifs, the time signature changing and layers of instruments changed to indicate the new territory, rather than the more predictable device of changing riff or key. This is followed by a rather surprising codetta - not a bridge, as it is clearly not intended as a linking device, rather a continuation of the previous flow of musical thought - and the second verse arrives.

The "bridge" is more of a development of the earlier ideas, but in a calmer, less chaotic zone, with swishy synths and soft-sixth squishy harmonies washing underneath twining guitar lines. The tempo picks up for the second section of the bridge, and is almost a recapitulation of the earlier ideas - except that Gentle Giant have surreptitiously modulated a few times during the past few sections, and use the new key to kick off into surprising and new material - except hang on, didn't I hear that finger clicking in the intro? The transition back to the verse is thus made smoother than it really has any right to be, and the song is drawn to a close with perfection.

The main drawback with this particular song is in the somewhat generic lyrics - akin to what one might expect to find in an "arty" pop song.

Now we get to "On Reflection", and on first hearing, you're almost bound to wonder why I rave so profusely about this song, as there is simply too much going on for you to absorb all at once - the music is a complete story in itself, and there is far more here than many bands produce in an entire album.

We kick off immediately with a striking melody line that is then turned into a canon - except that unlike a canon in a Classical work, when subsequent voices begin, they pick up at the same point in the lyrics as the primary voice.

As with many of Bach's fugal writings, the melody entries are a perfect 5th apart - but unlike Bach, 3rds and 6ths tend to be lightly touched upon - which lends an austere, almost mediaeval flavour to the whole piece, denying either major or minor key dominance.

The vocal lines continue, each part carefully composed to promote maximum movement within the music, until a sudden stop on a major triad that brings this section to a sudden stop in a perfect cadence.

The next section "reflects" the lyrics, as it is a reflection upon the person who is the subject of the song, which is perfectly symbolised by the complete change in character of the music: A sudden shift to a minor key and quasi-madrigal style harmonies using suspensions modulate downwards using our old friend, the cycle of fifths.

Again, for the next lyrical section, GG use a new character in the music for this reflection upon a reflection with an odd sequence of dischordant chords that suggest a kind of warped barbershop - or even the Beach Boys. This successfully imparts the questioning tone, and then yet another shift to a reflection on this question in the contrapuntal style of earlier: "Now: On reflection, why should I have changed my ways for you?".

This gives way to yet another musical fragment, which almost completes the exposition of main ideas for this song: the "All around" motif, which recurrs again and again in a quite brilliant stream-of-consciousness way, expressing the circular nature of thought patterns.

It should be noted at this point, that not even a minute of this song has passed - such is the density of carefully composed and outstandingly expressive material under scrutiny here. And it should also be noted that not all of the main music ideas have been exposed yet - despite the battery of rich inventiveness, GG keep a few tricks up their sleeves.

The next section feels familiar to us now, as it uses the same canon ideas as the very first, but this time we have instruments for the first time: A piano accompanies the 1st voice, a vibraphone accompanies the second, and a gockenspiel accompanies the third, lending a more urgent, percussive feel to what we might think of as the second verse.

The structure begins to feel a little more familiar now, as the second section or subject appears once more, closely followed by the third. Drums and cymbals join the instrumentation at this point, and an instrumental interlude follows - which is suddenly interrupted by the "All Around" motif.

This time, the motif is extended, and the guitars join the instrumentation - the bass at first - and the motif slowly fades and gives way to a completely new and ever more reflective idea - a lyrical, melancholy and reminiscent melody - the perfect 5th accompaniment maintaining the mediaeval flavour, and a wooden flute double underscoring this by accompanying the voice in unison. The arrangement is particularly notable as the instruments take fragments of the main melodic ideas and use them to expressively decorate and emphasise key lines and words in the lyrics.

This is a moment of real magic and tranquility, as the voices are shaped sensitively and the whole thing comes together as a perfect balance to the chaotic polyphony of earlier.

This is cut across by a sharp reminder (and a developed musical idea that feels new) "Look back, it's not your game, together just in name", but the reminiscent feeling is still strong, and the idea is recapitulated.

This time, a violin plays a slightly agitated counter-melody, and the "All around" motif performs the cut-off, before being cut off itself by a quite delicious riff fragment. The "All around" motif is having none of this, and attempts to re-assert itself once more, while percussive ideas sneak in fromthe sides attempting to establish some ground. Eventually the guitars (and organ) win, though, with a strong statement and development of the very first idea - this whole section clearly describing a battle inside the psyche. To put the icing on the cake, drums are added - and you just wonder how!

Sadly, the piece fades at this point, and we are left wondering what might have happened next - but that is the ONLY thing wrong with it!

Having just realised that I've managed to dedicate an album review's worth of space to a single song, I'll stop here. That should give an idea of just how great this album is in terms of compositional technique - an entire essay could be written on each piece, and there is simply no way you could assimilate all of the ideas presented within these grooves immediately - unless you're some kind of musical prodigy.

Maybe one day I'll write a review of a Gentle Giant album that gets the time and HTML- space it deserves - but for now, like the song "On Reflection", I'll leave the reader to wonder what happens next, to go straight to the nearest stockist, purchase a copy of this exceptionally fine Prog Rock album and begin the quest to discover how the heck they did that - or simply enjoy the deliciously complicated music underneath the deceptively accessible melodies.

Either way, an essential purchase for anyone that appreciates the finer points of Prog Rock - or progressive music generally.

Certif1ed | 5/5 |


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