What separates the bands that have longevity from those that are just a flash in the pan is the ability to evolve and progress while never losing sight of what endeared them to their fans in the first place.
They take the basic ingredients of what makes them unique and then add new ideas and sounds to build on that original idea and, in the case of current classic prog maestros Glass Hammer, end up releasing 18 studio albums, yes, read it again, 18 studio releases and every one an evolution of what has gone before.
I’ve been a huge fan of Glass Hammer since the days of ‘If’ and am privileged to be close to them enough to be able to get an insight into what makes them tick and how the new album, ‘Valkyrie’, came to be.
The follow up to last year’s ‘The Breaking of the World’ is a concept album in the vein of ‘Lex Rex’ and ‘The Inconsolable Secret’ and will see vocalist Susie Bogdanowicz take a bigger role than on previous releases she has appeared on. The concept behind the album is the struggle of a soldier’s return home from the horrors of war, to the girl that loves and who must ultimately find her way to him.
I asked original founder member Steve Babb where the idea for the new album came from,
“We hadn’t done a full blown concept album since Perilous and we all knew it was high time we did one. We were ready. The subject matter was trauma. How to get past it? Sometimes you can’t. Sometimes it takes a hero to rescue the hero from the aftermath! The world is so torn up at present, and there are a million tales of trauma. It’s a violent time we live in. Most people’s own experiences pale in comparison to what some are living through – so it’s to them I dedicated the lyrics and to those who are standing by their sides to help.”
With a more pared back line-up, Steve explained why Susie had been brought to the fore,
“Fred and I both contribute lead vocals on the album. The lyrics of ‘Valkyrie’ were, for the most part, intentionally written so that the female lead would gradually come to the fore. To my ears the whole thing has more impact that way. The male vocals tend to convey the darker parts of the story while Susie really had to bring out the more emotional moments and the hopefulness that our albums tend to convey.”
The writing of the album was a taken on by Steve and fellow co-founder Fred Schendel, with such a sensitive subject being dealt with extremely well I asked how he and Fred go about the writing process,
“Fred assuredly changes some things in his sound. I added some vintage gear to my own rig to achieve “the bass that ate the world” sound – which is what we call it. (Intro to No Man’s Land). The overall sound changed too. It’s very live. That was what we set out to do. Not make a sterile, pure, overproduced sounding album. We wanted it to be on the edge. Hope it works!”
Steve went on to say,
“Alan (Shikoh) has co-written in the past, but he insisted Fred and I write the entire thing in the same way we did some of our best known albums. We’ll write separately, then run the ideas by each other. In some cases we combine our ideas (Dead And Gone). Being a concept album and I have the entire thing playing in my head – its up to me to fill in the gaps or to let Fred know what kind of song we need to keep the story moving. “Rapturo” was the very first thing that he wrote – the album’s ending. “Valkyrie” was the first I wrote – the title track. We spend several weeks writing, then months rehearsing and rewriting. That’s how it happened this time.”
“Long years ago I travelled, Upon a road that led me, To fields of battle far from home, And that is where you’ll find me…”
The Fields We Know begins with an eerie note, a haunting tone before Steve’s instantly recognisable bass opens up, lively but intent. A fast paced song definitely from the Glass Hammer stable, it has lulls and highs and a dreamlike feel in places, emphasised by Susie’s delightful vocal. Some wonderful hammond playing by Fred and Alan’s signature guitar sound deliver something fresh and yet still the sound we have become accustomed to. This album is as much about the intelligent lyrics as it is the excellent music and it is worth having the lyric booklet with you as you listen. A strong opening that has already drawn you in to this intense story. The powerful drums of Aaron Raulston come to the fore as the track comes to a satisfying close.
“He debated one idea the morning through, Were his memories of childhood even so, He believed that good resides in every heart, Now it seems man’s been rotten from the start…”
A drum and bass heavy start begins Golden Days, another fast paced track with insistent vocals and staccato soundtrack where Susie’s vocals come to the very fore. A song that demands your attention and gives a reality check to our young soldier. Some of the keyboard playing leaves you in a trance and the excellent musicianship we have come to expect is present and correct. Alan Shikoh gives another guitar masterclass in the middle of the track aided and abetted by Fred’s magical fingers across the keys. There’s a darker core that opens up, smoldering and heightened, the real horrors of war becoming reality. This is progressive rock at its most profound, telling a story in an intensive and vivid manner, technically superb but still with deep emotion right at the heart of the song.
“The orders came at two a.m., At dawn the first wave would advance, As prayers were said the notions fled, Of honor, glory and romance…”
If the opening two tracks could be called ‘classic’ Glass Hammer then No Man’s Land is the first big evolution in sound, the intro is deep, dark, meaningful and, actually, quite scary and it reminds Steve Babb of some pre-Glass Hammer stuff he and Fred used to do years ago. To quote Steve,
“If we ever play that one live it will peal the plaster off the walls. It’s scary HUGE when we’re doing it together!”
The instrumental opening to the song is actually spine chilling and has your mind imagining all sorts of different scenarios on the field of battle, if you are of a certain age then you will have heard stories, even seen them in films, of the desperate charges into no man’s land that killed so many soldiers, young and old and left thousands severely injured and there is a serious tone to the music that befits those memories. It is a stop you in your tracks moment in the album, a moment of reflection and thought. A jarring guitar, keys, drums and bass section brings you back from your reverie, interspersed by some delicate playing from Alan and Fred, before the vocals begin, fervent and impassioned, as I’ve said before, read the lyrics as you listen to the song and you will be almost transported back in time to that dreadful day of carnage and horror. A powerful song imparting a dark story but one that has flashes of light, hope and heroism throughout. Steve’s bass anchors another insistent and passionate instrumental section where these musicians seem to just bounce of each other to deliver an intricate and concentrated piece of music that takes you on a diverse musical journey, as if you are flying over the battlefield witnessing all below. The end of the song is quite mournful and sad, the intensity of the music begins to dig deep into your soul and leaves you wondering what will happen to our lonely soldier next.
What comes next is a real surprise, Nexus Girl is a beacon of light in the darkness and could be called electro-pop. It’s upbeat vibe and tone is highly addictive and just seems to lift your soul and mood after the dark vibes of the previous track. Aaron’s drumming is tight and precise and the rhythm of Steve’s bass lays the foundation for Fred to work his electronic wonders with the intricacies and free-thinking of the keyboards, quite delightful.
“I lay down my head and I dreamed of you, I’ve fought to remember the whole day through, The dream that smiles today and then, tomorrow dies, Sets me to longing and then away it flies…”
Another stand out moment on an excellent album, title track Valkyrie is just brilliant. The band wanted to get a sound like The Beatles playing in a very big Church and I think they nailed it. A slow burning opening with a low key vocal as the story becomes less about the soldier and more about the girl. Eventually he tells her he can never make it back. That’s when she comes to him – and then promises to help him home. Which is why the song was named Valkyrie. A mythical angel of the battlefield who swoops in to take the fallen warrior to Heaven (or Valhalla). A really deliberately paced track that has an utterly uplifting feel to it. The vocals are fervid and heightened and full of an emotive force and the organ sound raises the hairs on the back of your neck. It sounds nothing like Glass Hammer but you intrinsically know it is them and it is a profound, almost spiritual musical experience, cinematic progressive rock at its very best.
“His mind is shaken, He tries to waken but it’s all in vain, always in vain, So he tends his wounds as best he can, Here within the lingering fog of war, Which hides his weary heart…”
Another deep and weighty introduction starts Fog Of War, the stylish bass and edgy drums joined by the keys to give an illusion of perplexity and puzzlement before there is a chink of light in the fog afforded by the lilting keyboards and the angularity of Alan’s guitar note. A complex mosaic before Susie’s vocal tells the story of a man lost in his war and the fog of uncertainty. There’s a dynamic, compelling lift to the chorus but this track has many facets, like a human brain unsure of what is actually happening. The music takes you on a circuitous journey of 70’s influences and modern themes as the band evolve their sound into a more aggressive style but never lose sight of their roots, Alan’s solo is a case in point with an Alex Lifeson feel to it, yet with a rarefied edge. A byzantine, Daedalean song that asks more questions than it answers, very deep.
“Time’s come now at last, let all that’s passed be past, You’ve been wandering, lost in a dream, only a dream…”
Dead And Gone is a heartfelt song, the soldier’s love trying to bring him back from the brink and convince him there is light where all he sees is darkness. A lament, the vocals delivered in a beautifully poignant fashion by Susie with just a delicate piano as accompaniment. A wistful, ethereal song and one that brings a lump to your throat and tears to your eyes. There is beauty and good among the ugliness, horrors and evil of war, just bring yourself to the light. A thoughtful and contemplative song brought to life by the nostalgic longing that is its foundation. A fight between the darkness and trauma that war imposes on those who have to fight and the love and devotion of those who want to help. There’s a darkly fervent instrumental section that spars with its uplifting, vocal lead alter ego and yet the song has a melancholy, sombre feel as it comes to a close, she seems unable to bring her love back from beyond the darkness.
“I see the shadow in your heart, The chains upon your spirit, And all that’s kept you far away from me, yet I have come at last my love…”
The heroine has finally come to her love in the winsome Eucatastrophe, love is a light that can pierce the darkness that engulfs his heart and the refined feel to the song has love and light written large all over it. The heavenly note of Susie’s vocals leaves a gossamer like feeling of joy on your soul before the song opens up with an inspirational Hammond organ note that builds to a wholly positive and hopeful crescendo.
“Don’t turn away, hold onto me my love, Just open your eyes, The Long night has passed, The dark on has fled…”
The final track on the album and the most intensely poignant, Rapturo is a delicate, soulful and beautiful piece of music that brings the conclusion of our epic story. A wonderfully warm and charming opening full of peace and love opens up to a rapturous vocal and a widescreen sound that seems to pervade every part of your being and fill you full of hope and emotion. There is a powerful feel to the music, the force of good will always strive to overcome the force of evil and, as long as we can see the goodness inside of us, we will prevail. The music just fills you will a feeling of fervent emotion, passion and goodwill, like the huge ensemble numbers that close out all the inspirational musical shows, quite superb.
After suitable pause for reflection on the amazing musical experience that I have just enjoyed, this is my conclusion:
“With its insightful, thoughtful lyrics every bit as important as the mightily impressive music, ‘Valkrie’ is a concept album in the true sense of the word. With some delightful departures from what some would call their signature sound (The Beatles anyone?) Glass Hammer continue to evolve into one of the world’s foremost Progressive Rock bands. This iconic group of musicians lead you on a journey through the horrors of war with a totally immersive sixty-five minutes of music and you will come out the other side changed forever. I can’t recommend this album enough, one of the best albums of 2016? One of the best albums of recent years more like…”
Released 27th September 2016