Tuesday, 4 October 2016

"Free At Last" by FREE (2016 Universal/Island Remasters CD Reissue - Andy Pearce and Matt Wortham Remaster) - A Review by Mark Barry...

"...Little Bit Of Love..."

Another decade, another version and another sound - FREE fans will know that the February 2002 CD reissue campaign of all seven of their albums (six studio and one live) came with great Peter Mew remasters, decent bonus tracks and expanded booklets to match - and were mid-price at the time.

But here we are in September 2016 with another reissue campaign of all seven albums accompanied by "The Free Story" compilation (a 2LP set onto 1CD) that strips away those brilliant bonuses entirely – and unwisely substitutes their hugely informative liner notes for booklets with only band photos.

But (and this is a big but) – these new 2016 reissues do offer us one genuinely worthy consolation prize - 2016 ANDY PEARCE and an uncredited MATT WORTHAM Remasters that breath wonderful naturalistic vitality back into the albums. On buying and reviewing "Highway" and "Heartbreaker" and loving their audio – I splashed out on four more and the results are equally magical. Also with most of the eight being offered on Amazon at less than five pounds including P&P – you can of course argue that the price is right - and with their generic 'Island Remasters' see-through side panelling on the jewel case – they look good too. But what real fans are essentially getting is great new sound - but lesser discs (one step forward, two steps back etc). That said - here are the little bits of love...

UK released Friday, 9 September 2016 - "Free At Last" by FREE on Universal/Island Remasters 473 183-9 (Barcode 602547318398) is a straightforward CD Remaster of the 9-track 1972 UK LP and plays out as follows (36:02 minutes):

1. Catch A Train
2. Soldier Boy
3. Magic Ship
4. Sail On
5. Travellin’ Man
6. Little Bit Of Love [Side 2]
7. Guardian Of The Universe
8. Child
9. Goodbye
Tracks 1 to 9 are their 5th studio album "Free At Last" - released June 1972 in the UK on Island Records ILPS 9172 and in the USA on A&M Records SP-4349. Produced by FREE and engineered by Richard Digby-Smith - it peaked at No. 9 on the UK LP charts and No. 69 in the USA.

The six missing bonus tracks on the 2002 Island Remasters IMCD 287 version are "Burnin' (Molten Gold) (Alternate Take)",  "Honky Tonk Women", "Magic Ship (Alternate Mix)", "Little Bit Of Love (Alternate Mix)", "Guardian Of The Universe (Paul Rodgers Solo Version)" and "Child (Early Version)". As you can see from this list of missing extras - your loss is considerable - every one of these bonus tracks adding huge punch to the overall vibe of the 2002 reissue.

The new booklet is 12-pages with a March 1972 Tape-Box Photo of "Little Bit Of Love" on Page 2, other black and white and colour photos and reissue credits on the centre colour spread (the band looking very much like the archetypical hairy-rockers they were) - but there's no liner notes giving history, details etc. Beneath the see-through CD tray are pictures of the seven reissued albums with the eight being "The Free Story" double-album compilation from 1974 (for catalogue numbers see notes below) and the CD label repro's the UK 'pink rim palm-tree' label logo of Island Records in 1972.

But a fabulous new master from ANDY PEARCE – who did such great work on Pentangle, Frankie Miller, Thin Lizzy, Wishbone Ash, the 2012 Rory Gallagher CD remasters and most recently the 2016 Budgie 3CD Box Set for their MCA LPs and the 'Deluxe Editions' of the Emerson, Lake & Palmer Island catalogue (see reviews for them all) - resoundingly compensates for all of that distasteful compromise. 

I've had the 2002 remaster and the Japanese 2008 SHM-CD reissue – both of which rock – but this version is way better to my ears. There's suddenly staggering naturality and presence to the whole LP. Pearce let things breathe (it's a trademark of his) – and their self-produced "Free At Last" album has always had a hugely accomplished sound. Like the CD Remaster of "Highway" – Pearce and Wortham’s version is muscular - not loudness for loudness sake – not shrill so to speak – just in your face – huge power and presence - like an original tape should be. In shirt this CD sounds fabulous...

I have to admit that I’m taken aback by June 1972’s "Free At Last" – I’d forgotten how good it is and remembered it in a less than favourable light – but just for Side 2 alone it gets five stars. And like "Highway" – I’d argue "Free At Last" is a bit of an overlooked gem. It opens with the hooky riffage of "Catch A Train" and you're walloped with huge Production values - Kossoff screaming out those notes and the band sounding very close to early Bad Co. The slow drum march of "Soldier Boy" builds into a guitar tale of a kid 'standing on the battlefield' hearing that bugle call to destiny (Drums and Bass are amazing on the new Remaster). I've always loved the swagger of "Magic Ship" - that wicked interplay between guitar and piano. Island Records used the wonderful "Sail On" as the B-side to the May 1972 UK 7" single for "Little Bit Of Love" (Island WIP 6129). Side 1 ends with the groovy "Travelling Man" - another sexy Rock slink from Free.

I know people rave on about "All Right Now" and "The Stealer" and "Wishing Well" and so many more - but for me the single "Little Bit Of Love" that opens Side 2 is FREE at their brilliant Rock-Soul best - and here it sounds just incredible - gorgeous clarity (don't deny your feeling inside indeed). "Guardian Of The Universe" still seems unfinished or something - like they were trying for something but never quite getting there. No such problems with the fabulous acoustic Rock of "Child" - a really great FREE ballad. And again I'd dismissed "Goodbye" before as just another mid-tempo ballad - but here the Remaster has brought out those drums and Kossoff notes that punctuate the song. "Free At Last" is not a masterpiece - but it's a damn good Seventies Rock record and brother that's good enough for me...

Across the seven new 2016 reissues we probably loose thirty to thirty-five genuinely cool bonus tracks of old and all that enlightening info in the booklets too - so buying their catalogue yet again may become a chore for some fans (docked a star for less instead of more). But they’re cheap at a fiver and we do gain fabulous new audio - and for many that's probably going to be the deciding factor. And how good is to hear them sound so awesome after all these decades...

PS: FREE titles in the 9 Sept 2016 Island Remasters CD Reissue Series are:
1. Tons Of Sobs (March 1969 debut UK LP) - Island Remasters 473 181-5 (Barcode 602547318152)
2. Free (October 1969 UK LP) - Island Remasters 473 187-1 (Barcode 602547318718)
3. Fire And Water (June 1970 UK LP) - Island Remasters 473 187-4 (Barcode 602547318749)
4. Highway (December 1970 UK LP) - Island Remasters 473 181-9 (Barcode 602547318190)
5. Free Live! (June 1971 UK LP) - Island Remasters 473 187-6 (Barcode 602547318763)
6. Free At Last (June 1972 UK LP) - Island Remasters 473 183-9 (Barcode 602547318398)
7. Heartbreaker (January 1973 UK Final Studio LP) - Island Remasters 473 182-6 (Barcode 602547318268)
8. The Free Story (March 1974 UK 2LP Compilation) - Island Remasters 472 262-9 (Barcode 602547326294)

There is also a VINYL Box Set "FREE - The Vinyl Collection" on Universal/Island 473 187-9 released 9 September 2016 with seven LPs (Barcode 0602547318794)

PPS: Amazon have typically lumped the 2002 and 2016 issues into the same review and it would appear the same product entry. Even if you use the correct Barcode 602547318398 it will bring you to the 2002 entry - so if you're specifically after the 2016 reissue - ask the supplier what version it is they're selling.

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