This was their seventh album, released in 1975 on Chrysalis Records following a brief and less than satisfactory spell with Phonogram subsidiary World Wide Artists (even though that did include the release of personal favourite In A Glass House and also The Power and The Glory). It became noted for its high production values, and for a less dissonant, more accessible feel. It was their highest-charting US album, the only one to reach the Top 50 there and it may have impacted some UK charts, though nothing dramatic. Shame. Damn shame.
The title track is a defiant parting shot at WWA, and an expression of the optimism which swept through the band once their problems were resolved. “Mobile” looks at the uncertainty and insecurity of life on the road, whilst “Just The Same” concerns itself with the pretentiousness of the music business, and the frustrations of being regarded as something other than you are simply because you become famous. Even “On Reflection”, an apparently personal account of a failed relationship, could be re-interpreted in the light of the group’s difficulties at the time. Putting their troubles behind them, Gentle Giant toured North America and Europe. That led to the follow-up, Interview. But let’s stick to the job in hand. Free Hand was more commercial than previous releases, but still had the complexity and polish fans had come to expect.
For this review I’ve checked if the following words mean what I think they do, and I think they do – counterpoint, contrapuntal and fugue. Three key components of music writing used or imitated in such a powerful way that make Gentle Giant stand out in their field. With this release, it seems to me they are actually reaching a new audience that are responding to such a unique yet tangibly accessible sound.
The incredible range of Gentle Giant’s music I have long admired is evident throughout. And let’s just give a nod to the remix – Steven Wilson is a genius. Not the first time someone has said that. But in this instance, I am referring to the clarity of each of vocal or instrument, the breadth and depth this has given the music, and the nuances uncovered. He was given a free hand by the band (geddit?) and wisely retained all the original essence of the songs and the band’s aims. Genius.
The intricate and percussive vocal complexities in “On Reflection” are a case in point, a song which flits from such vocal acrobatics to madrigal verses, kaleidoscopic instrumental rock-out to ridiculously premature close. Then there is the delicate medieval flavour of “Talybont” and the Celtic-tinged rock of “Time To Kill”, for me a clever play on words not only referencing their lyrics, with song parts are in 9/4. “His Last Voyage” is a lovely story and song, room for the pitched percussion and ethereal vocals to impact the atmosphere, and such an understatedly glorious guitar-led groove mid-section. Title track “Freehand” almost deserves no introduction, such an iconic and classic GG track with its piano/guitar intro, complex funk strut, instrumental strength yet delicacy, perfect syncopation, great choice of key sounds and inspired song structure. And what an ending! I’ve left opener “Just the Same” and closer “Mobile” to the end, as perfect bookends with an independence yet interdependence. What an impressively disfunctional yet perfect opening to “Just the Same” (anyone else think of Spocks Beard at this point?) with it’s classic, jagged rhythms (were XTC secret GG fans?) and luscious Camel-esque synth-wash and AWB funk mid-sections. “Mobile” brings matters to a close with a jaunty, almost celebratory care free folk air.
I remain constantly surprised and enthralled at their use of the aforementioned counterpoint and contrapuntal elements, vocal rounds and cyclical instrumental sections. This is not a band to land everything on the first beat of the bar! The diverse elements which made the band so strikingly original are quite perfectly executed and skillfully blended on this album. The more listens, the more you get out of this album.
- Just The Same (5:34)
- On Reflection (5:41)
- Free Hand (6:14)
- Time To Kill (5:08)
- His Last Voyage (6:27)
- Talybont (2:43)
- Mobile (5:05)