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Live albums are among the most difficult release formats to pull through in a convincing manner. First of all, the necessary intial condition alone is too much for 80% of the bands listend in the Metal Archives: a band, in order to look credible while recording a live album, must have a minimum of three full-length albums on the market; in this respect, the live album is just a special kind of best-of album. The second condition is usually a lesser obstacle, if the first one is met: they must have enough skill to actually make the songs sound good in a live setting. Further necessities include, among others, a fanbase broad enough to warrant recording a live album in the first place.
Once the necessary prerequisites have been fulfilled, the actual recording of the album presents new challenges. The very first one is the set-list. The very greatest pieces of work on the field of live albums have a balanced, career-spanning tracklists, chosen with care: take a look at Deep Purple's Made in Japan and Nobody's Perfect or Judas Priest's Unleashed in the East, Morbid Angel's Entangled in Chaos or perhaps even the various Iron Maiden live albums, most notably Live After Death, and note both the convincing span of tracks from the earliest days of the relevant "Mark number" of the band line-up to the present, and the lack of actual filler. Bands that are worth a live album usually have no need for filler for obvious reasons.
The other challenges include such minor issues as finding the right venue with the right audience, having the band in top shape on the specified and usually very limited recording days, and a decent recording quality; the last one can, of course, be debated, but however raw the black metal in question is, the audio quality must be close to perfect for the music's requirements. If that means a crappy gargling sound with plenty of static, so be it, but the quality must fit the music; you can't have the same standards on Mayhem and Dream Theater, neither one would work on the other's songs.
Once everything in the list above has been fulfilled and confirmed, the album should be great by default, right? Well, no. Sometimes, even with a technically perfect performance of a good band with plenty of street credibility and a truckload of good songs, the rocket does not ignite, the obelisk stays horizontal, the floodgates never open, and the gig is over without so much as a whisper from the fat lady. Something can remain outside the reach of even the most professional band with the most fanatical fans, and that something is very difficult to define; let us call it the "spark", because when it's missing, there's a lack of spark in the whole, and the necessary detonation fails.
Stone's Free has all the necessary parts in it: the locally legendary band had four incredibly good albums of good metal, varying from straight thrash to something like semi-progressive speed metal, under their belt. They are almost perfect technically, and the track listing is close to the best possible permutation from their body of works. The recording quality is very good, but retains the ever-important serrated edge of live sound. Overall, it's pretty much impossible to find an objective, undeniable flaw on Free.
But what about the Spark? Do they find it? Yes, yes they do! The band is a well-oiled machine, with the above-mentioned parts working in perfect harmony. The spark ignites the strip of gunpowder on the floor, the sizzling and smoking flame runs towards the kegs, and the whole detonates beautifully! Stone's live style is of the professional kind, restrained and very strictly controlled, and given the complex song structures, especially from the latter half of their career, it's virtually the only way the songs could be played. Don't expect a satanic onslaught, a steamroller avalanche or excessive frolicking here, this is a band of professionals delivering their goods intact, with precision, and essentially perfectly.
For those unfamiliar with the band, and perhaps even those familiar with it but without the marvellous late 80s experiences of Stone's live gigs, Free might be a bit challenging dish to digest. Joutsenniemi's vocals are of a relatively rare half-shouted kind, and might be a turn-off for some. The variety of tracks is quite wide, but as the tracklist's balance is very good, and tracks off the different albums blend into each very nicely. Only the fourth track, "Mad Hatter's Den", sounds slightly less inspired than the rest. The final joke track, "Vengeance of the Ghostriders", is perhaps out of place here, but in the end, it's like farting loudly in a mosh pit: perhaps not the correct thing to do in the traditional sense, but a minor infraction in the grand scheme of things, and if it really disturbs someone, the said person is definitely in the wrong place.
This album is definitely one of the top five metal live albums ever. The reason nobody seems to have heard of it is simply the fact that despite a gallant attempt, Stone never really made it outside Finland, and the confinement of the smallish scene here finally killed the band. The band has played several reunion gigs for fun since their disbanding, most notably a short tour in 2000 and a single gig in 2008, and it must be noted that they are still in top shape, despite the decade and a half since deactivating.
This live album is worth getting; what's more, it's such a perfect display of musicianship that even a complete Stone newbie can find it a worthy introduction to the band. Recommended, definitely.