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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Gentle Giant

Free Hand - 35th Anniversary Collection

Review by Steve Alspach

Capitol Records got hold of Gentle Giant in the mid-70s, and the band's first Capitol release, "The Power and the Glory," may not have been up to standards. Though a fine album, it may not have been up to the standards that the band had set for itself. Maybe it was the emphasis on the concept of power and glory over the musical arrangements that set Gentle Giant apart from its peers. Or maybe it's just me. But with "Free Hand," released in 1975, the band righted itself and came out with one of its best efforts. The quintet of Ray and Derek Shulman, Kerry Minnear, Gary Green and John Weathers went back to their "how-do-they-DO-that?" arrangements, yet still managed to keep some rock sensibility through it all. The end result is an album many critics consider to be Gentle Giant's finest.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2005 Year Book Volume 1 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Just the Same
Who could swing in 7 time? Brubeck maybe, but in rock only these guys could pull it off. The chorus then kicks this opener back to 3/4. The instrumental break is quite good, Gary Green's guitar playing smooth legato lines over a synth background before they go back to the hard stuff, and Derek Shulman's sax plays a wonderfully understated accompanying line.
On Reflection
Hardly the kind of song to sing along to, this one starts with four vocal lines, sung a cappella and intertwining with each other, but it all comes together on the chorus. The instruments are then introduced in the second verse (each instrument accompanying the vocal line - in live shows a band member could sing one line and play another line. Given the complexity of this piece, it had to have been seen to be believed). At the end, the band drops the vocals and the instruments are given the lead lines, and John Weathers anchors it with a straight-ahead beat to help the listener more than anyone.
Free Hand
It wasn't until later that Gentle Giant could let their hair down and just rock out, but in the early and middle years this was as close as it got. Even then they couldn't leave the song to carry its own weight (check out the "Live: Playing the Fool" album for a great version of this tune), and a languid break comes in during the instrumental break before the band cranks it up a notch to jump back into the verse.
Time to Kill
The sounds of Pong, the first video game, start off "Time to Kill". Perhaps it was a tongue-in-cheek jab at how people were killing time of their own. (Pong and paneled basements - okay, you had to have been there.) Anyway, the song doesn't really veer off in many different directions the way much of Gentle Giant's music was prone to do and sticks to a bouncy, almost funk-tinged, rhythm.
His Last Voyage
It seems that every Gentle Giant album has a song where Kerry Minnear's vocals are the focal point and this is that song off this disc. The first part is rather understated with the acoustic guitar and bass playing off each other, then after an instrumental break the drums kick the song into a slow jazzy feel while the vocal lines get more complicated.
Talybont
Nobody could go "medieval on your *ss" like Gentle Giant (okay, Gryphon fans, sit down), and this short instrumental shows it. The electric guitar and synth fit the mood surprisingly well, and tambourine, harpsichord, and recorders are featured in the bridge.
Mobile
Ray Shulman was one of the better bassist-violinists in rock (not that there were too many to begin with), and on "Mobile" he runs his violin through a wah pedal during a solo break. John Weathers plays his drums around the 4/4 beat to make sure that the song doesn't adhere too closely to formula. The flourishes by Kerry Minnear at the beginning of each verse sound classical in nature but blend in nicely and don't impose themselves on the listener.
Just the Same - Live - Bonus Track
From a July 1976 concert in Hempstead New York, this version has an excellent mix. You can really discern the different parts to this arrangement. It's a fairly straight-forward rendition, but the mix allows the keyboards, guitar, and bass to really stand on their own
 
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