Sunday, July 29, 2018

Free Hand and Interview

Free Hand

Listen to "On Reflection" - you'd swear it's a chorale. The song's contrapuntal a capella, like a Bach choral anthem, only this is 5 guys! It takes a pretty tight vocal ensemble to go more than halfway through a song without touching an instrument. "Last Voyage" has a piano break section that proves somebody was listening to Brubeck. "Talybont" conjures up knights and damsels with its woodwinds and harpsichord. Within the first few seconds of "Time To Kill," you'll hear a 70s-era electronic hockey game, like pre-Atari, and half the fun of the opener, "Just the Same," is figuring out the oddly syncopated rhythm. The track raises a number of questions, beginning with, why the hell wasn't this lot megasuccessful? We have complex time signatures to keep the prog fans happy and trippy, discordant instrumentation, while Kerry Minnear's delightful keyboard wouldn't be out of place at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool. Gary Green's guitar has the sort of restrained intensity that you only find in early Steely Dan. Indeed, jazz influences surface just enough to be interesting without being distracting; this was 1975, and generally horns were anathema. 

The next two songs raise for me an interesting thought about another band of the era that had rather more success, viz. Queen, whose A Night at the Opera topped the album chart for Xmas while "Bohemian Rhapsody" did the same in the singles charts. The LP features "Death on Two Legs." a vitriolic condemnation of former management, and both "Bo Rap" and "The Prophets' Song" feature four part canons/fugues/madrigals. "Free Hand" has a celebration of release from previous management as its title track, and in "On Reflection," the most spectacular (the only proper?) fugue ever recorded by a rock band. Free Hand was A Night at the Opera's more sophisticated older sibling. 

"Time to Kill" is a jazz/funk workout that shows Kerry and the band really could turn their hands to anything, and well. "His Last Voyage" is the second track on which Kerry gives full vent to his classical influences (the other being his solo bit from "On Reflection," dropped from later live gigs). "Talybont": Ireland, or the 15th century? While Queen gave us a dash of opera and vaudeville, the Giant really understood these genres and gave us the real thing, which turned out to be more than most regular folks could chew. We finish off with "Mobile," still with Irish/medieval influences to the fore, a worthy finisher. 

What Free Hand lacks is production polish – Hey, Steven Wilson, doing anything exciting right now?


In'terview is an LP either admonished for being the last great Gentle Giant LP or the first horrible one (keep in mind that compared to Giant for a Day, this is a masterpiece. Even In'terview's horrible cover is better than Giant for a Day). For 40 years I have been of the latter set, never really giving the LP a chance. As mentioned in the last review of Going for the One, 1976 was a struggle for me musically and I only gave In'terview a cursory listen. Happenstance has changed my mind. As a record collector who has but the skeleton of a once grand collection, I, for some reason, kept In'terview, I think because I couldn't get $3 for it at the record shop. But the sound quality of the LP is appalling and herein may lie my initial distaste. As fate would have it (if fate indeed devotes its time to trivialities), I came across a 2012 re-release on British vinyl, and the difference is astounding; it is as if I'd never heard these tracks before. I've had it glued to the turntable now for a week finding myself newly frustrated. Not because the music was disappointing or horrid (i.e. Giant for a Day), but because this is the inaccessible and difficult Giant found on The Power and the Glory. I'm thrilled. It's like hearing something brand new from '76, like Peabody took my back in the Way Back machine (WABAC). And now I've got to work for it.

The seven tracks on the album are characteristic of Gentle Giant's complex and unique blend of rock, European classical, medieval English music, and folk. There are, however, other surprising influences as well: "Give it Back" has a reggae feel to it and Ray does a great job with the off-beats on the bass that give reggae its distinct sound. Then again, this is Gentle Giant, so it really doesn't sound much like reggae - more a subtle reggae flavoring. "Design" opens with the excellent vocal harmonies and then segues into an interesting percussion section that co-mingles with the vocals parts. The soft-spoken acoustic textures and string synth on "Empty City" are wonderful; this is easily my favorite track on the album. I have to hear it again and rather than go into the drivel of my newly enamored affair, I encourage a listen by even the staunchest detractor of the LP by stating:

There is a moment on In'terview that, whether on purpose or accidentally, perfectly describes the Giant's joint. A sampled faux-interviewer opens "Design" by asking Gentle Giant to describe their music. A flurry of answers erupt simultaneously; the result an indistinct haze of voices that would take a particularly attentive ear to garner a grain of sense. No matter how eloquent each member might have been answering on their own, the counterpoint of voices is like five poets espousing their verses simultaneously. Listen now. It's short, it's succinct, it's Gentle Giant like new again.