Review Summary: This album, like their previous efforts, is a gamble to make music the way they want it. And the results are simply compelling.
From their very first album back in 1970, Gentle Giant have done things their way, and only their way. In comparison to other progressive bands around at the time like Yes and Genesis, these guys pushed the boundaries in terms of technicality and instrumentation. Many instruments were utilized to maximum effect throughout their career. Xylophone, violin, flute, recorder, viola, mellotron, vibes, saxophone and trumpet are to name a few. Between the five of them, there wasn't much they couldn't do. It's unfortunate that this fantastic approach to song-writing would only last one more album after this. Due to pressures from the music industry and a small but loyal fan-base, changes would have to be made to the ensembles music if they had any hope of gathering worldwide success. Thus, on their future album "The missing piece," a new accessible sound was garnered and gave the impression of a completely different band. It would be hard to believe that the same band created this masterpiece; 1975's Free Hand.
Gentle Giant were on this record:
Derek Shulman: Lead vocals.
Although at the time he might have looked like a member of the BeeGees, his voice is significantly different. Derek's voice has a harsh quality to it at times, but is also very powerful. What makes him different to other vocalists in general, is the way he structures his vocal lines. Often a contrast to the rhythm the rest of the band plays, it would indeed take a talented mind to sing like Derek.
Ray Shulman: Bass guitar, backing vocals on track 2.
Ray Shulman is an underrated bass player. No doubt about it. His catchy and often technical bass grooves have indeed taken a lot of thought and time to put together. When accompanied by the other talented members of the band, he is indeed a driving force for them. In fact, prior to this record, his bass has never sounded better.
Kerry Minnear: Keyboard, synthesiser, lead and backing vocals.
Classically trained Kerry knows the score when it comes to writing and arranging interesting melodies. His keyboard playing is quite complex at times, but compliments the music very well, and sometimes gives a "medieval" sound to the music. One could describe him as a "groovy 70's bard." Something else that needs to be brought up is his soft vocal style. Very distinctive when compared to the harshness of Derek's voice.
Gary Green: Guitar, recorder, backing vocals on track 2.
Gary Green's guitar playing is very blues influenced at times, but that doesn't mean he can't keep up with the technicality of band. Gary is a very accomplished guitar player indeed, and pulls off wonderfully a lot of the lead melodies in the songs. No pressure for him then.
John "Pugwash" Weathers: Drums
To keep up with the complexity of the band, you're going to need a spiffing stickman. Well John is quite spiffy as it happens. He hits the drums hard and fast, but can also hit the drums hard and slow. Wonderful!
Free Hand was and still is Gentle Giant's highest charting record (no.48 in america) and after listening to the first track "Just the same," it creates an impression to why this happened. The song sounds like a straightforward rock/pop song. But listen a little closer and you will see that Gentle Giant have their technical twist at work. The keyboard, guitar, vocal and bass lines are all contrasting in different rhythms, but all come together to create a perfectly multiple layered piece of tune-age. After two verses and choruses, a magnificent bridge which can only be described as hovering through space enters. But the thing about this song, even though it is so complex at times, the beat remains steady. Defiantly a more accessible sound than their previous compositions.
Then, "On reflection" begins with an accapella, vocal fugue, which would indeed take a lot of concentration from all members to recreate live. When the fugue ends, all band members (minus John) sing in harmony sounding very choral. The lyrical content of this song, and a few others on the album, give the impression of a failed relationship, but is often believed to be between the band and their old record label. The middle section of the song takes on a much different twist, sounding like a peaceful medieval banquet. The whole band comes back in and then plays the fugue again, but with their instruments this time. A very interesting piece.
The best track of the album award though, will go to "His last Voyage." A terrific journey of music telling the story of a sailor who dies at sea. Although the piece is only 6 minutes long, a lot of emotions are conveyed through this piece. It starts with a complex solo bass line, which sounds quite puzzling and random at first. Then the guitar and keyboard enter, and suddenly everything makes a lot more sense. Kerry Minnear then proceeds to sing his tale of woe. He could have left it at that, but decided to take it a step further, and add another vocal line which adds a whole new level of atmosphere. This all sounds very peaceful and relaxing, but then a bridge enters which changes the mood of the song. Gary Green then enters with a great bluesy solo, that starts with unintended feedback from his amp, but was kept in the mix because it sounded so fine.
The overall feel of this album is progressive rock, with hints of the abstract and medieval. But the main thing is, even today, this album still sounds incredibly fresh. You don't hear about many people who have impersonated Gentle Giant's sound. Why? Well it would be a very difficult task. Can you find 5 guys who can play 30 instruments between them, stay incredibly tight as a live band and write and arrange fantastic fresh sounding music for 8 albums in a row, without the help of genetic engineering? Didn't think so. But this album, like the rest of Gentle Giants music, is a gamble for the band. It's a gamble because they create the music they want to, not because of the trends around at the time. And the results are simply compelling, buy it!