British progressive rockers Gentle Giant stood at a
crossroads in 1975. Although the band’s line-up – brothers Derek (vocals,
guitar) and Ray Shulman (bass, vocals), guitarist Gary Green, keyboardist Kerry
Minnear, and drummer John Weathers – had remained stable over their three
previous albums, pressure was on Gentle Giant to deliver the goods.
A brief tenure with Phonogram Records subsidiary World Wide
Artists (WWA) had resulted in two encouraging and commercially-ambitious albums
in 1973’s In A Glass House and the
following year’s The Power and the Glory,
both of which helped expand the band’s U.S. audience, both clawing their way
into the upper reaches of the Billboard album’s chart. Now signed with Chrysalis Records for the U.K. and
distributed by Capitol Records stateside, Gentle Giant was expected to build
upon its modest success and chalk up some album sales while retaining their artistic
and creative integrity.
In reality, the move to Chrysalis from WWA had been a
positive one for Gentle Giant, with label head Terry Ellis – who had made stars
out of similarly prog-leaning folk-rockers Jethro Tull – offering sympathetic
support to the band’s studio efforts. The result would be Free Hand, the band’s seventh album and its most successful,
release (reaching 48 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart), an album also considered by many Gentle Giant loyalists
as the band’s most focused and creative work.
Re-energized by the change in record labels, and bringing a
fresh approach to their music, Gentle Giant hit the studio and created an
incredibly complex and musically exciting album in Free Hand. The band’s unique, progressive sound had always mixed
rock with folk, jazz, and classical influences – including the odd baroque or chamber
pop interlude – but with Free Hand they freely incorporated more jazzlike sounds with strains of medieval-era
classical and later-period Renaissance music. Thus, the album’s seven
performances not only showcase the instrumental virtuosity of the various band
members, but do so against a backdrop of contrasting styles and textures which,
surprisingly, struck a chord with a large group of listeners beyond the band’s
usual fan base.
Over the course of their previous albums, Gentle Giant had
generally created each as a stand-alone “conceptual” work, as was the
style with early-1970s prog-rockers, and while individual songs may have
addressed the band’s life on the road and in the studio, they did so in
relation to the conceptual subject at hand. Not so with Free Hand which, while not a concept album per se, nevertheless
brims over with emotion and venom against the music biz.
The album-opening “Just The Same,” which intros
with the snapping of fingers and a fractured piano riff, quickly jumps into
Derek Shulman’s nimble vocals and Green’s angular fretwork. Lyrically, the song
dissects the meaning of fame, and the difficulty of finding your identity when
faced with so many people’s differing perceptions of who you actually are.
Minnear’s high-flying synth playing sends notes shooting out into the mix while
Weathers’ subtle drumwork lends structure to the song’s ever-changing
“Free Hand,” the album’s title track, is its most
overt criticism of the music industry. Drawn from the band’s previous
experience with corporate labels like Vertigo, Columbia, and WWA, the song’s lyrics liken
the band’s recent change in label to the sudden freedom after the break-up of a
bad relationship. Bolstered by a muscular and complex soundtrack that features
Minnear’s raging keyboards and Green’s heavy guitar chords, the song rocks hard
without sacrificing the band’s progressive roots, and there are plenty of
lightning-fast time signature changes, head-turning changes in musical
direction, and cacophonic instrumentation to please even the most jumble-minded
Free Hand has its
experimental moments as well, perhaps never illustrated better than by the
amazing “On Reflection.” The song’s lyrics, about a relationship
breaking apart, take a backseat to the Renaissance-styled four-part fugue
vocals that involve almost the entire band, and which in itself represented an
important additional instrument that dominates the song above all else until it
evolves, a couple of minutes in, into a beautiful, pastoral piece with wan
vocals and instrumentation. With several changes in direction, the song is both
exhilarating in its scope as well as exhausting in its execution, but it never
fails to impress.
The engaging instrumental “Talybont” is also
Renaissance-flavored, beating Richie Blackmore’s fascination with the form by
better than a decade. This is no modern-day “Greensleeves,” though,
the song perfectly welding medieval baroque frippery with hard rock guitar,
galloping drumbeats, and inspired rhythmic bass lines courtesy of brother Ray
Shulman. It’s an interesting interlude before the lengthier and more involved
Lyrically addressing the obstacles and fleeting friendships of life on the
is also, perhaps, the closest that Gentle Giant ever got in treading across the
hallowed creative turf of fellow proggers Yes.
Kerry Minnear has been severely underrated as a keyboard wizard,
and his various synth flourishes and piano runs here are just as lively and
imaginative as anything fantastically spun out of the aether by Rick Wakeman.
Paired with Weathers’ complex timekeeping skills, Derek Shulman’s nimble vocal
abilities, and Green’s impressive and often overshadowed six-string leads,
is an energetic and thought-provoking way to end Free Hand.
Gentle Giant’s association with Chrysalis Records would
provide, initially, a recharging of the band’s creative batteries. While Free Hand would prove to be the peak
album of the band’s career, from both an artistic and a commercial perspective,
they would have, just six months later, less than a month off the road to write
and record Interview, their follow-up
to Free Hand. Returning to a
loosely-conceptual theme that positioned the album’s songs as answers to a
music journalist’s questions, Interview would, in many ways, become the band’s final prog-rock oriented album.
Whether pressured by the label, or merely the brothers Shulman
chasing chart success, subsequent late-1970s studio efforts like The Missing Piece and Giant For A Day! would find the band
moving towards a more pop-oriented sound that alienated many of their early
fans, but failing to achieve any sort of momentum towards building a new
audience. Caught up in the changing musical changes of their homeland, Gentle
Giant would record one last record, Civilian,
in 1980 and subsequently call it a day. With ten years and a dozen albums under
its belt, Gentle Giant experienced both a modicum of fame and the indignity of
obsolescence as prog-rock would be eclipsed by first punk, and then new wave
pop in their homeland, by hard rock in the U.S.
Today, Free Hand holds up well as an entirely unique and timeless collection of music. The 2010
reissue of the album features digitally re-mastered sound taken from the original
master tapes, but unlike the 35th anniversary version of the album released in
2005, which included a live version of “Just The Same” as a bonus
track, this version of Free Hand,
released on the band’s own Alucard label, offers only the album’s seven
original performances. Nevertheless, this is an integral piece of the Gentle
Giant catalog, and a seminal work of 1970s progressive-rock that shouldn’t be
overlooked by any fan of the genre.
Standout Tracks: “Just The Same,” “Free Hand,” “Talybont,”
“Mobile” REV. KEITH A. GORDON