Free Hand review by Jason Rubin
This is it. This is the one. It may not be their most definitively progressive album, and it's certainly not their most accessible/commercial, but like Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, Gentle Giant's Free Hand somehow perfectly captures the right blend of intelligence, complexity, and infectious tunes that makes for a classic.
Opening with a deceptively tricky fingersnap rhythm, the album hits the ground running with Just the Same, a song about hero worship that became a favorite concert opener as well. Instantly, one hears pristine production values. The music has space, each instrument is clearly heard, the vocal blends are superior. Track 2, On Reflection, is a great stereo show-off tune - not because it has a particularly broad dynamic range (which it does) but because of the pure quietude surrounding the performance, permitting full access to the rich tapestries of voices and instruments woven through its three parts. This is clearly the finest multi-part vocal arrangement Giant ever executed (although Knots from Octopus certainly comes close) and it is excruciatingly beautiful.
After the "all around"s, Gary, Kerry, and Ray weave guitar, keyboard, and bass lines as a prelude to the coda, which they do again later on in His Last Voyage. Clearly, the band continued to turn Phil's departure into an opportunity to unclutter their sound. It worked for Glass House and Power & Glory, and it reached its greatest application on Free Hand.
The title track is a rousing rocker, featuring Kerry's nimble fingers and driven by John's relentless beat. Gary's tone throughout is lovely - interesting how much he turned up the heat when performing it live. Derek's vocal betrays the anger behind the lyrics, which take a stab at their former management. The crescendo after the instrumental section leading to the last two verses perfectly bridges the sections.
Side 2 (Track 4 on CD) opens the same way as Side 1, with non-musical (or at least non-instrument) sounds. This time it's an old-fashioned (although I guess cutting edge at the time) video game, a perfect prop for a song about someone with Time to Kill. More than the others, this tune has great, almost-hidden guitar and keyboard riffs in the verses you have to listen for. The "ah-ah-oo-oo" background vocals never fail to bring chills. And Ray's muscular bass lines in the intro, theme, and under the vocal in the middle eight are worth the price of admission in themselves.
His Last Voyage features the triumvirate entwinings of Ray, Gary, and Kerry (on vibes this time), a lovely melody, and a great jazzy instrumental section, featuring cool feedback- and wah-wah-rich solo from Gary. This song is almost a sequel to Wreck from Acquiring the Taste, the tale of a sea voyage gone awry.
Talybont, the name of a locale in Wales, is a stunning instrumental. It is hard, in fact, to describe it, but suffice to say that it is another Minnear masterpiece. Effective use of echo and other effects adds unique colors to the jangling keyboard and percussive parts.
The album ends with Mobile. I may get heat for this, but I think that on many Giant albums, the last song tends to be among the worst. Specific examples include Plain Truth from Acquiring the Taste, Three Friends from Three Friends, River from Octopus, Valedictory from Power & Glory, and It's Not Imagination from Civilian. I consider these to be at least lesser tracks on those albums. Mobile is no exception. It has some good jamming, especially by Ray, and in fact bears some resemblance in terms of performance to Plain Truth. But after the sublime compositions preceding it on Free Hand, it just doesn't seem to stand up. The album closes with a delayed drum beat, a fitting punctuation to an amazing album.
- Jason Rubin