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Gentle Giant - Free Hand CD (album) cover


Gentle Giant


Eclectic Prog

4.28 | 1340 ratings

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Conor Fynes
Prog Reviewer
4 stars 'Free Hand' - Gentle Giant (78/100)

Free Hand is Gentle Giant at their most energetic, their catchiest, their jazziest, and- at least since Acquiring the Taste four years and half a career prior- their most playful. Given the increasingly dry and stately route they had taken on In a Glass House and The Power and the Glory, to hear Gentle Giant inject a little soul into their craft feels as refreshing as any of their more objective shifts in style. Barring that, this is very much the sort of album we might have expected by that point from Gentle Giant. Always preferring to say less with more, the rediscovered pop hooks are swept away with the trademark bombast and near-crippling aural complexity. The lean towards hooks and otherwise conventionally satisfying songwriting doesn't always work out on Free Hand, but it's one of the few times in Gentle Giant's proud career where the guys sound like they're operating outside their comfort zone.

Free Hand is typically described in terms of its so-called 'pop sensibilities' relative to the rest of their albums, but any talk of pop goes tandem with the damning implication that a progressive act must have simplified their craft. Gentle Giant would indeed try for a laughable 'commercial' approach a couple of years later (in a sense paving the way for Yes and Genesis, who would try pop with far greater success) the hooks on Free Hand are just another layer to an as-ever complex and indigestible maelstrom of rock, jazz and classical traditions.

I'm not convinced the juxtaposition between the catchy and complex entirely works on Free Hand, but like the best of Gentle Giant's work, there's something to be said alone for the boldness of the undertaking. Take "Just the Same"; the rhythmic bounce and bright melodic focus in the verse could have foreshadowed what the Phil Collins-led Genesis would be doing a decade later, but the superfluous layers of noodling guitars, keys and who-knows-what-else are far more challenging than the hooks are catchy.

In my original review of Free Hand, I noted that the album place a greater weight on conventional songwriting. I don't believe that is true anymore, though I can see why I first had that impression. Gentle Giant's approach to composition is just as sporadic and 'everything but the sink' as ever, but the band's use of melody in that context is much more tactful. "Free Hand" and "Time to Kill" are instrumentally clustered and frantically busy, but Derek Shulman's vocal lines sound as if they genuinely believe they're part of a pop or disco song. Although the hooks do little to endear the music on an emotional level, it's legitimately surprising how infectious they can be, especially given Gentle Giant's feeble track record when it's come to sweet and simple songwriting.

If there's anything that really sets Free Hand apart from its most recent antecedents, it's not so much the melodic writing (it does help, mind you) but the feeling of vivace Gentle Giant have injected into their performance. Whenever I'm listening attentively enough to an album, I'll get a mental visual of the band playing, as though I were there at the time it was recorded. While I did come to love In a Glass House in time, the accompanying image was sombre and sedentary; The Power and the Glory was drearier still- even the liveliest parts sounded like Gentle Giant themselves were emotionally detached. I could never call Free Hand (or any other GG album) an emotionally involving experience by any stretch, but with Free Hand it sounds like they're having a lot of fun playing it, which- while rare- was never a bad thing to hear in progressive rock.

Free Hand would also see Gentle Giant's jazz and Medieval musical influences come full force. While the jazz manifests itself in the band's fusion-style riffing, it's great to hear the latter given greater attention. While some might argue that "Talybont" isn't more than an interlude piece, hearing Gentle Giant throwing caution to the win and immersing themselves in their Medieval influence is surprisingly gratifying. The largely acapella "On Reflection" basks in classical austerity; the overlapping choral arrangement is one of the most impressive things Gentle Giant ever did, for its composition and performance alike. While the hard rock-oriented "Mobile" sadly fits their tradition of less-than-spectacular closing numbers, Free Hand stands among the finer accomplishments of Gentle Giant's career. Akin to their very own Going for the One, Free Hand acknowledges that Gentle Giant couldn't function on pomp and pretentiousness and alone. Music of this cerebral sort always needs some kind of visceral hook to be interesting, and following a spot of dryness in the mid-stage of their career, Gentle Giant managed to partly dispel that issue here. You can hear a shard of that same compelling energy on their following album Interview, but Free Hand stands as the last relatively 'great' album Gentle Giant would make before they started to finally unravel.

Conor Fynes | 4/5 |


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