Saturday, May 19, 2012

Free Hand (1975)

This came to me as a gift from a friend when I was about 20 or 21, which if nothing else I guess indicates the kind of gifts we were giving and receiving at the time, back when prog really held sway (if I recall, the gift I gave in exchange was Gravity's Rainbow). Even at the time I was pretty picky about this kind of thing, but I do remember enjoying this album and playing it frequently for awhile. When hanging out with friends playing sides I could well have thrown this on once or twice when it was my turn to choose. A lot of my pals then were plain nutty for Gentle Giant (even more so for the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the uber touchstone) and I had heard things by them I liked—I think Octopus probably remains my favorite, though I want to be clear that Gentle Giant was never a band I went for much. But hearing this again I'm actually a little surprised by how much it turns me off. Some prog albums still retain some of their appeals for me sometimes (Tubular Bells), or if nothing else replace that with nostalgia and the various memories that have come to be associated with them (Head Hunters). But Free Hand mostly feels strained and phony to me now, with overly tricky and usually unnecessarily busy rhythms and song structures, and a kind of ambling way of never getting to the point in a five-minute song. It draws a good deal more than I had remembered (or, perhaps, ever properly knew) on British folk idioms, which in my case is not automatically a virtue, certainly not when it's all tarted up and overproduced in this thoroughly affected kind of way. When it tries to make a play for big lights-up rock moments with electric guitars it's even worse. It just feels like arch gesture—by their own choice, I believe, because to actually embrace it would be to drift from the effete smarts on which they clearly pride themselves so inordinately. It's a kind of I-R-O-N-Y. I think I am understanding better all the time why people didn't like music like this even in its moment. Somebody got out of bed on the wrong side this morning.

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