Although never destined to scrape the same skies as Led Zeppelin, when Free first burst out of the traps in 1968, close to a year ahead of Jimmy Page and company, the band set the world of British blues-rock firmly on its head, a blistering combination of youth, ambition, and -- despite the group's tender years -- experience that, across the course of its debut album, did indeed lay the groundwork for all that Zeppelin would embrace. That Free and Zeppelin were cut from the same cloth is immediately apparent, even before you start comparing the versions of "The Hunter" that highlight both bands' debut albums. Where Free streaks ahead, however, is in the bandmembers' refusal to compromise their own vision of the blues; even at its most commercial ("I'm a Mover" and "Worry"), Tons of Sobs has a density that makes Zeppelin -- and the rest of the era's rocky contemporaries -- sound like flyweights by comparison. The 2002 remaster of the album only amplifies the fledgling Free's achievements. With remastered sound that drives the record straight back to the studio master tapes, the sheer versatility of the players and the unbridled imagination of producer Guy Stevens ring crystal clear. Even without its visionary seer, however, Free impresses -- three bonus tracks drawn from period BBC sessions are as loose as they are dynamic, and certainly make a case for a full Free-at-the-Beeb-type collection. Of the other bonuses, two offer alternate versions of familiar album tracks, while "Guy Stevens Jam" is reprised from the Songs of Yesterday box set to further illustrate the band's improvisational abilities. As if they needed it.
Review by Dave Thompson