Free Hand, the 1975 album by English progressive rock band Gentle Giant, has just been re-released in a version remixed by Porcupine Tree leader Steven Wilson.
When first released, the album marked the height of Gentle Giant’s popularity in the United States, it being the band’s only release to enter Billboard’s Top Fifty in its decade-plus career. Thus, it is only fair to ask why should anyone have the slightest interest in a remixed re-release of a forty-six-year-old album no one paid any attention to the first time ‘round?
Gentle Giant was one of the bands from that mostly forgotten and generally derided genre known as progressive rock. Progressive rock, or prog for short, grew out of England in the late 1960s when artists, almost all of whom came from the British blues scene, decided to try and stretch out musically by incorporating elements of classical, traditional English folk, and whatever else came to mind into their musical musings. Instrumental virtuosity became a must to play the increasingly complex arrangements such music demanded, and while different groups definitely developed individual styles, the genre as a whole was pigeonholed and filed under P for pretentious by the rock press who looked upon the success of bands such as Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer with increasing dismay. Oddly enough, although in America, prog was insanely popular for years, few Stateside bands attempted to enter the musical fray; only Kansas enjoyed any great success.
Prog gradually fizzled out as the 1970s fizzled out, by the 1980s becoming firmly ensconced as a style of music cherished solely by the dwindling faithful, bringing in no new fans. There were occasional flashes of former glory, such as when a more muscular and straightforward rocking Yes enjoyed major success in 1983 with “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” Others pointed to Genesis’ wildly popular run in the 1980s and early 1990s, although its climb to success was marked by the band dismissing the melodic prog of its original incarnation, led by Peter Gabriel, in favor of a pure pop approach. The fans still turned out whenever Jethro Tull toured, but despite Tull and several other bands, such as Marillion, continuing to make new music the whole scene transformed into nostalgia.
Somewhere in all this was Gentle Giant. Never a huge success nor a miserable failure, although the band’s public status was second-tier, the band was anything but substandard. Gentle Giant was easily the most compositionally complex act in prog, working avant-garde classical notions, Elizabethan folk melodies, and whatever else came to mind into tunes that required several listens before they could be properly appreciated. Each band member could play multiple instruments with panache, yet Gentle Giant never seemed intent on beating its listeners over the head with showing off for the sake of showing off. Rather, it was a sophisticated, intellectual brew taking no commercially designed shortcuts; a challenge that, once embraced, provided immense reward. (Ironically, in the band’s concluding phase it did try to streamline its sound into a more commercial vein, which not only didn’t gain any new fans but served to tick off most of its existing fan base. Oops.)
Anyway, on to Free Hand itself. As is his penchant in the numerous remixes of classic prog albums he has done in recent years, Wilson makes no great changes to the album. An occasional increase or decrease in a particular instrument or phrase is noticeable, but overall the greatest distinction between the remixed album and the original is an increase in the album’s sonic presence without sacrificing dynamics by slathering on the compression.
Free Hand was never exactly a ready source for Top Forty hits, but this example gives a slight indication of what was in store in 1975 and is in store now in 2021 for the adventuresome:
Ah, but that’s not all. “On Reflection” starts out as a crossover between a madrigal, English folk round, and an acid trip before briefly settling into a quiet dream and then jumping back into the acid (but it’s a fun trip). From there you get quintessential Gentle Giant, wildly creative, full of surprises, and ultimately a musical multi-layer cake where every layer tastes different yet it all works together.
Free Hand, to put it mildly, isn’t for everyone. Neither is Gentle Giant. Neither is progressive rock. But for those yearning for artists stretching themselves to the limit, inviting the listener along for the ride, Free Hand deserves a rousing hand for embodying a time when creating music actually meant creating something.