Gentle Giant is all about juxtaposition. Contrasting notes, avant-garde rhythms, constantly shifting & changing… they are originals. Never before (or since for that matter) had a band tried to marry all these styles and succeeded, though some have tried. When we think “hard rock” we usually mean something else. This is hard rock as in difficult music. Your average listener may have a tough time warming up to Gentle Giant’s style, but we are no average listeners. We are PROG!
Random finger-snaps begin the journey that is Freehand. “Just the Same” takes this randomness and begins to make sense as first the piano enters, leading to contrapuntal guitar. This is a great progressive rock workout as the guitar then starts juxtaposing against handclaps as the song reaches its climax. Whew!
When fans talk of the Gentle Giant sound, they are usually speaking of something like “On Reflection,” where madrigal rounds and harmonies play off one another. This is classic Gentle Giant as it quiets down during the refrains to introduce the rarely used voice of Kerry Minnear, who deliberately lets his voice break for effect. Gentle Giant is known for excellent harmonies as well as being incredible musicians, each member able to play several instruments.
The title song “Freehand” takes a piano riff and builds tension to lead to a rollicking and rocking romp. The band is all about unique instrumentation. It’s not unusual to hear strings, wind instruments, ulterior means of percussion, etc. They’ll pretty much pick up anything and try to play it, which leads to the next song where they use the old Atari game Pong and begin with the percussion of the sounds emanating from the game. “Time to Kill” is relatively short as are all the songs on Freehand, but packs a lot of wallop in its just over five minute duration.
“His Last Voyage” is the first time the band takes an opportunity to breath and relax throughout an entire song as we are treated to something that might be described as Celtic Folk. It starts a bit jazzy with the bass and drums however. If one word were used to describe Gentle Giant’s sound you might go with medieval, and the next song the instrumental “Talybont” conveys that sound perfectly. “Mobile” closes the album very effectively. It’s especially adventurous and avant-garde, noodling with purpose. I’m sure that this music was as difficult to perform as it is to assimilate.
No one has done music quite like this before or since, though many have tried. Although you can’t always put your finger on exactly what it is, you can listen to many modern prog bands today play something and immediately feel that they are attempting to evoke the Gentle Giant sound. Freehand is a classic album from an extraordinarily original band. Very highly recommended.
Reviewed by Terry Jackson on December 24th, 2010