Review Summary: Free's first album is a landmark for Blues and Hard Rock. Listen and enjoy.
The year is 1968. Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult were yet to form, whilst Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin were yet to produce landmark albums within the genres of Hard Rock and Heavy Metal. However, aside from these four bands, few had attempted to fuse the aggression of Hard Rock and the groove-laden rhythms of Blues, making a beautifully creative sound in the process. One of these bands were Free, who, with their first and perhaps most significant album, “Tons of Sobs”, successfully fused two of the most important genres of the late 60's.
“Tons of Sobs” is arguably the only Free album that was truly inspired by Blues Rock, and it shows quite a lot when listening to each of the album's ten songs. Although not released until early 1969, the album had already been recorded in late 1968, a time when the band weren't even out of their teens, and were also only together as a band for six months. Interestingly enough, “Tons of Sobs” comprises a lot of the band's original material from when they were jamming ideas together at numerous live shows, which perhaps paved the way for Free's early success and popularity.
Perhaps the most stunning and noticeable thing about Free's debut album is Paul Kosoff and his outstandingly superb guitar work. Kosoff died seven years after this album's release, but at least he died in the knowledge that Free's first few albums were largely assisted by his talent as a guitarist. Literally every song on “Tons of Sobs” features Kosoff playing guitar as excitably and precisely as humanly possible, no matter how fast or slow the songs themselves are. This guitar playing also helped to bring out the Hard Rock side to the album, the aggression and the heaviness perhaps offering inspiration for Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. In fact, just listen to the first albums of these aforementioned bands and tell me that you can't hear a little bit of Free here and there.
What is perhaps more obvious in regards to the bluesier side of the album is the way in which Paul Rodgers sings. The best thing about Rodgers' vocals is that he can adapt them to suit the nature of every song, providing various moods that, had this album been instrumental, wouldn't have worked quite as well. The lyrical content here is mostly predictable for those who have listened to early Blues Rock before, yet Rodgers helps to bring them to life with his vocal abilities. On the haunting chants of “Ah Ah Ah Ah” on both parts to 'Over the green Hills', Rodgers begins with a dull vocal tone which gradually becomes higher and higher in pitch as the song progresses. The lyrics themselves are aptly written too, again, suiting the nature of every song perfectly. On the very quirky 'Worry', Rodgers uses his hauntingly mysterious voice and singing to the listener “And the sleeping streets have closed their tired eyes/The fear that creeps will move and slowly rise”, whereas on the more Blues inspired 'Wild Indian Woman', Rodgers appears to adopt a “sexier” tone when telling his love that “You don't need your horses baby, you got me to ride/You don't need your feathers, I'll keep you warm inside”, which could easily have made the most stubborn young girls lick their lips with excitement.
Diversity is one of the things which dominates each of the songs on “Tons of Sobs”. This diversity is especially used in regards to the tone and tempo of each song. There are the faster paced tracks such as 'Worry', 'Walk in my Shadow' and the menacing 'The Hunter', the latter of which would be covered by Danzig almost thirty years later. There is also the groovier, more laid-back nature of the very aptly titled 'Goin' down slow' and somewhat disturbing 'Moonshine', both of which leave a lot of room for Kosoff's guitar work to come in and show off. The album's title misleadingly refers to loss of love or songs based on romance and compassion, yet this couldn't be farther from the truth. In fact, the only song that has so much as an ounce of melancholic melody in its sound is the sorrowful and seemingly Gothic 'Moonshine', but the more upbeat nature of 'Over the green Hills' and 'I'm a Mover' refer to things that a band has to go through when touring, such as travelling around the world and the more relaxing idea of driving by a countryside and smoking some of the “good stuff”.
The instrumentation here is indeed important to note, as alongside Kosoff's skill as a guitarist, every other instrument appears to make itself prominent on the album. In particular the drum rhythms and bass work all manage to keep up with the guitar work and can also adapt to the tempo of each song, whereas Rodgers' vocals, as mentioned before, never fail to suit the overall sound of each track. What is not as prominent as the other instruments however, is the piano itself. Whilst not as memorable or indeed noticeable as the other instruments, the piano still manages to make itself known here and there. The fast paced 'Wild Indian Woman' and relaxing 'Goin' down slow' both feature excellent piano rhythms and interludes courtesy of Steve Miller, which also seem to flow alongside guitar solos and drum rhythms flawlessly.
Perhaps the only slightly negative thing about this album is the fact that 'Over the green Hills' is unnecessarily split into two parts, and when the first part (which strangely opens the album) finishes on a somewhat inconsistent note, it may appear annoying to some. But this still doesn't take away from the fact that “Tons of Sobs” is a landmark album for two genres that would have been used to make heavier, faster and more menacing sounds by bands that originated in the same country as Free. If you really are interested in discovering the inspirations for bands such as Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin regarding their earlier albums, you would do quite well to seek out Free's first few albums.