Gentle Giant — Free Hand (Steven Wilson Remix)
Freed from management issues, the mid-1970s were a happier time for Gentle Giant, who over the previous few years had struggled to make much headway despite a superlative trio of albums in Octopus, In A Glass House and The Power And The Glory released between 1972 and 1974.
So when recordings for Free Hand commenced in 1975 there was a degree of freedom and optimism present in the band. This can be heard in the jaunty and jolly opening number Just The Same. The brilliantly layered vocals of On Reflection is an immediate highlight, in a fuller arrangement than the more baroque recorder, violin, xylophone and cello arrangement performed live. Although these instruments can be heard throughout the studio version, they are mixed in with other electrical instruments. The syncopated title track shouldn't really work, as the keyboard lines in particular are astonishingly unorthodox, but everything pulls together.
Time To Kill begins with the sound of 'Pong', one of the original video games, and is a merry, stop-start kind of song, with the remix bringing the backing vocals to greater prominence; adding a new dimension to the song.
His Last Voyage is the closest the album comes to having a ballad and is one of those songs that Gentle Giant do so well. A simple melody, beautiful vocals but incredibly complex arrangements of the supporting instrumentation and including an extended guitar solo by Gary Green, not something that is often heard in the more assembly arrangements the band are famous for.
Talybont is more of a traditional Giant song, the album's only instrumental, drawing on medieval musical forms with harpsichord, recorders and a clever staccato passage midway through. The album closes with Mobile, a more conventional (relatively speaking of course) number that would have made an interesting live song, although it seems it was rarely, if ever performed in concert.
But of course any self-respecting prog fan should know all this already as, as to my mind Free Hand is an essential component of any decent prog library. The crux of the matter is how this re-release differs from previous releases? Well who other than Steven Wilson would be responsible for remixing the album and creating the surround sound and other mixes found on the Blu-ray? And it has to be said the new mix of the album is rather a revelation.
The members of Gentle Giant freely admit that they never lavished as much time on mixing their albums as they should have, primarily because they were focused so much on the arranging and recording, that they were short of time and budget when it came to the mix. Freed from severe time constraints and with digital technology at hand, Wilson has done wonders, separating the instruments, providing clarity and revealing hitherto unheard components.
Kerrie Minnear's keyboards sparkle, Ray Shulman's bass is full of sonorous melody, and John Weather's drums are crisp and sharp. Throughout the intricate and interweaving musical layers, one can follow each instrument and hear how it combines with other elements within the composition.
The highlight of the album for me has always been the vocal interplay, the Giant being the undisputed masters of vocal arrangements. Several bands have tried to imitate the vocal interplay heard during On Reflection, but none have managed to better it. And if there was ever a song that was worthy of a surround-sound mix then this is it. Listening to it on my 5.1 system, one is surrounded by the voices, an aural assault through 360 degrees, taking the song to a completely different level. In fact I would go as far as to say that this is the best update of a 1970s album into a surround sound format, and fully justifies updating a stereo system, preferably to Dolby Atmos where things should be taken to another level entirely.
With Wilson currently working on a new mix of the follow-up album, Interview for release in 2022, most of the classic albums from this most British of prog bands will be available in surround sound. Unfortunately the multi-track tapes for In A Glass House remain missing, and have to be presumed lost forever. However, we can celebrate the genius of Shulman, Shulman, Minnear, Green and Weathers with this new version of what has always been a stunning album that can now be considered an essential release.
If you already own an older version of Free Hand then it is well worth updating to this new version. If you have never ventured into the world of Gentle Giant, then stop prevaricating and get this album now.