For aficionados of classic 1970’s prog rock, the name Gentle Giant is revered. Emerging from Simon Dupree & the Big Sound (remember “Kites?”) they were an influential band throughout the nineteen seventies, releasing several top-quality albums before splitting in 1980 when, by their own admittance, their creative juices had run dry, though their name and legacy lives on.
Even by Prog standards, the music of Gentle Giant was considered to be complex, with constant changes of tempo, multi-part harmonies, non-standard time signatures and the frequent use of ‘Polymeters,’ and two or more time signatures being played simultaneously. An example is the track ‘On Reflection,’ a personal account of a failed relationship, which sees the bass and drums being played in 6/4 time, while the vocals, guitar and keys are played in 7/4 time. It’s also a tune with several minutes of the most amazingly complex four-part harmonies you’ll ever hear on a rock album, and they were capable of reproducing this onstage, just listen to the version on their ‘live’ album Playing the Fool. Bohemian Rhapsody, eat your heart out.
Now having been remixed and remastered by Prog royalty, Steven Wilson, Free Hand is an album considered by its fanbase to be Gentle Giant’s best, and it’s the only one to reach the UK album charts. Named after a comment made by their new label, Chrysalis .. ‘you’ll have a free hand in making your next album’… Free Hand is a classic example of the musical prowess of each individual player, with rock, jazz, folk and medieval baroque being merged together to make a unique sound. ‘Just the Same’ opens with its jagged rhythms and stylish playing and is a song about the pretentiousness of the music business. The title track ‘Free Hand’ is very jazzy and proggy, and they celebrate their freedom from record company interference ..’ now my life’s my own, I leave you behind’ .. and ‘Time to Kill’ features some lovely Celtic tinges in the music.
Every member of the band is a talented musician, adept at more than one instrument, which they combine to great effect. This is evident on the medieval-sounding instrumental, ‘Talybont,’ named after a Welsh Hamlet, with some very clever and intricate playing. ‘His Last Voyage,’ the story of a doomed sea journey, is a rarity amongst Giant tracks in featuring a guitar break, as well as gorgeous vocalising over some complex playing. ‘Mobile’ opens like a hoedown until the prog backdrop kicks in, and becomes a song about the insecurity and hassles of life on the road ..’do it as you’re told, you’re the packet, do it as you’re sold.’
Similar to Van der Graaf Generator, Gentle Giant ask a lot of the listener. They make high demands of their fans as, musically, they stretch themselves to the max with exceptional musicianship and grandiose song formats, which helps explain why both bands gained a cult following rather than mass acceptance, like Genesis and Pink Floyd. Nonetheless, Free Hand manages to balance accessibility with complexity and it’s an interesting and very enjoyable album.