What if the Devil
never went to Georgia? What if he never made it and stopped off in Tennessee
instead? Hold that thought and listen to Glass Hammer’s monster creation,
Dreaming City, an unstoppable force that will blow your conceptions of this
band wide apart…”
Yes, really, that was my first impression of the stunning new album from US progressive rock veterans Glass Hammer. They often say that first impressions last and, in the case of this musical gem, that is very true, it still sounds as fresh and vibrant after multiple listens as it did that first time, a sign of a truly good record.
I spoke to founding member and bassist Steve Babb about how the album broke new ground and was a bit of a risk,
“Yes we took risks.
I was hoping that as we old-timers listen to it – it would make us feel young
again. Like it was 1979 and you just discovered some really cool prog band had
done a tribute album to your favourite sword and sorcery anti-hero like Elric
or Conan. For inspiration I
started searching for my old copies of Michael Moorcock books only to realize I
had worn them out years ago and had to reorder used ones!”
Oddly enough…on the swords and sorcery thing, or what some call “grim dark” now – George R. R. Martin once signed the Glass Hammer guest book. Might have been around 2000 when he did that. I have no records of the guest book now but can remember him and a few other fantasy authors visiting.”
The artwork from the booklet is
pure fantasy art, as is the cover and it really fits with what Steve and fellow
founding member (and keyboardist) Fred Schendel wanted to engender with
The music really hits you hard from the first track, in your face and powerful, you’ll hear a myriad of influences on the album, things never seen on a Glass Hammer album before…
“I think Fred’s major influences for this one were Rush, Tull and Gentle Giant.”, Steve told me,
“Mine were Rush, Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd, the Space Rock genre in general…a modern band called Yuri Gargarin, Jacco Gardner and even my old band Wizards from the early 80s.”
The album flows with no gaps between tracks and this only adds to the listening experience which opens with what can only be called a monster of a track. TheDreaming City literally comes from out of nowhere with a monster riff courtesy of Steve Babb and Aaron Raulston’s thunderous drums. The vocals give a spine tingling edge, it’s just a thrilling, dark and delicious ride from beginning to end, the extended keyboard section from Fred Schendel is just genius. No time to get your breath back as a frantic guitar segues us perfectly into Cold Star, more of the same? Yes please! I am absolutely loving the heavier guitar sound on this album which, in conjunction with Fred’s ridiculously good Hammond, transports you screaming maniacally back to the 70’s. This is one thrill ride you definitely don’t want to get off, there’s a moment of calm where beautifully harmonised vocals really stand out (Reese Boyd has a superb voice) but, overall it will just leave you cackling wildly.
The Rush influence is first heard on Terminus, a synth heavy 90’s version that is. Uber cool and full of style, Steve and Fred lead us up a path rarely trodden by Glass Hammer and, you know what, it just works. It’s up-tempo, edgy and funky in that polished 90’s fashion that I’m a big fan of. The Lurker Beneath is a dark and slightly disturbing instrumental with the pulsing feel of the keyboards giving it a resonant frequency that will get under every prog fans skin with its spaced out feel. There’s a seamless transition into the monolithic might of Pagarna, a track that could literally move mountains. It has a range so low it must exist in the substrata of the planet and Fred’s guitar playing and Reese Boyd’s lead work screams Led Zep right at your unprotected core, just superb!
At The Threshold Of Dreams then heads off into uncharted waters with it’s Tangerine Dream-esque electronic/techno vibe. You feel like you are in the middle of a mind-bending 70’s artrock movie theme as the music explores the hidden paths of your mind, disconcerting but weirdly enjoyable. There’s a totally chilled and relaxed atmosphere surrounding This Lonely World, an oasis of calm reflection among the maelstrom that surrounds us where John Beagley’s cultured vocal adds gravitas alongside the organ and laid back, jazz-infused, guitar playing. Susie Bogdanowicz’s vocal prowess is then given free rein on October Ballad, a wistful and gentle song that touches the heart and soul, well it is a ballad after all!
The Tower is another Tangerine Dreamscape (see what I did there?) instrumental straight from the 70’s, a clever nod to the decade and to the science-fantasy genre that the album invokes and is based on. Next comes one of the most intriguing tracks on the whole album, the stentorian spoken word vocals and 70’s synth heavy keyboards give A Desperate Man a really atmospheric and eerie edge and it’s one that really works. It’s catchy and hypnotic and you find yourself pausing what you’re doing and just listening to the song and that is quite a skill to have, I love it. Remember Extreme’s‘Get The Funk Out’?, well the intro to The Key really (and I mean REALLY) reminds me of that with its ever so funky bass line and drum beat and the way it strides ever so confidently into your path. You want some flute? You got it! Jazzy 80’s guitar? Yep! It is a wonderful cornucopia of musical styles and one that sets you up perfectly to what Steve Babb called an absolute beast of a finale!
Watchmen On The
Walls is one of those
monumentally powerful prog epics that stands out on its own, just over eleven
minutes of progressive rock brilliance. The thunderous guitar riffs and
primeval drums combine with the towering drums and bass to give us a stand-out
piece of music that speaks of tales of swords and sorcery with larger than life
heroes and heroines battling unmentionable beasts and contemptible villains to
complete incredible deeds. It is song writing that Neal Peart would have
been proud off as this track truly has the spirit of Rush at its core
and a fitting close to a superb album.
There has been some amazing music released this year already but ‘Dreaming City’ is a special and significant album that could turn out to be truly career defining for this much loved band. While the band have created something new using influences from the music that shaped them in the 70’s, there is no doubt that it is still uniquely a Glass Hammer album and that is always something to be cherished.
“It’s being here now that’s important. There’s no past and there’s no future. Time is a very misleading thing. All there is ever, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it; and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know if there is one.”
― George Harrison
There’s times when we have all probably wished we could go back in time to change something but there’s no such thing as a time machine, right?
Glass Hammer’s new concept album ‘Chronomonaut’ answers the question ‘what if?’. The new release is a stand-alone album but also acts as a Part Two for the highly successful 2000 release ‘Chronometree’.
Bassist Steve Babb says the new concept album tells the story of “the ultimate prog fan.” Babb elaborates, “Our album deals with time travel, nostalgia and the love of prog-rock. ‘Chronomonaut’s’ protagonist, Tom, starts his own band and then makes the attempt to go back to the seventies in hopes of becoming a prog-god. It’s all in fun and is really a very tongue-in-cheek look at how our favorite music can take us back in time.”
Long been known as being proponents of classic progressive rock with influences from the 70’s, Glass Hammer make a bold new statement with ‘Chronomonaut’, a new direction that gives them a definitive sound of their own. I’m always excited by the announcement of a new album from this band but, this time, they have gone more than the extra mile.
The band has been engaged in a buzz-creating viral marketing campaign which NJ ProgHouse Media Manager Jon Yarger describes as “pure genius”. “We not only have an epic music video set for release, we have also been releasing found footage from Tom describing his band’s expoits and his odd theories on time,” explains Babb. Fans have been following Tom’s escapades for weeks before the album was announced, and are eagerly anticipating the ‘Chronomonaut’ release. The gorgeous digipak design incorporates Tom’s story and lyrics. The striking cover design is by Xaay, a fairly well known death metal guitarist / vocalist from Poland.
There’s a narrative running through the album and reading the booklet along with the tracks is a must, the powerful opening instrumental The Land of Lost Content introduces a more heavier sound before Roll For Initiative opens Tom’s story, ‘he could hear voices in the music; voices the rest of us could not, voices which instructed him in the science of time travel.’ Already you can hear the new direction that the band are forging, there’s a great jazz rock vibe coming across, especially with the brass section. Steve Babb’s bass is as elegant as ever giving depth to the music and the drums are a guiding light.
Twilight of the Godz is one of my favourites on the album, an ever so elegant track where Tom debates the merits of reliving the past with an old bandmate. Brian Brewer’s soulful blues guitar and Susie Bogdanowicz’s heartfelt and passionate vocals stand out on a song which, to my ears, channels late 60’s Beatles at its core, Fred Schendel’s ultra smooth Hammond and Steve Babb’s keyboards providing layers of class, and the guitar run out is a thing of sheer brilliance. We’re on a roll now, this excellent album continues with the silky smooth The Past is Past where the past reminds Tom of all that might have been. What a superb intro, never has a saxophone (take a bow Jamison Smeltz) been put to such good use since Baker Street and the vocals (from Discipline’sMatthew Parmenter, if my ears don’t deceive me) really fit the mood. Think singer/songwriter meets jazz band with a King Crimson fixation and you wont be far wrong, it is theatrical in its delivery and really gives the band a completely different feel.
This enjoyable romp through space and time continues with the stylishly delivered 1980 Something where, ‘Like an old girlfriend returned from decades ago, the past beckons..’ Susie’s vocals, some judiciously played guitar and Steve’s dextrous keyboards (he doesn’t just play bass you know!) imbue the song with timeless sophistication and refinement. A Hole In The Sky sees the story get serious, ‘Tom must make the attempt to go back in time.The past, nostalgia, whatever it is that’s calling him, he has to find it.’ The music definitely takes a trip back in time with a bouncing 60’s vibe that is really infectious. The vocals, guitar and, especially, keyboards invoke such feelings of that decade that you’re virtually transported there yourself, it’s a very clever piece of music.
A sci-fi inspired instrumental which could have come from Tangerine Dream (more of that later) Clockwork, with its 80’s sounding keyboards, is two minutes of musical dexterity which wouldn’t have been out of place in one of the Terminator movies. Haunting and spaced out in equal measure, Melancholy Holiday has far eastern edge to it, Susie delivering a wonderful vocal performance.‘Once through the portal, Tom finds himself adrift in the murky waters of time where he find the past isn’t what it used to be’. The languid tempo does make you feel like you are drifting in a vast expanse of nothingness, with no idea where you are or where to go.
It Always Burns Sideways is a two-part instrumental that is ying and yang. Pt.1 Same Thing Over Again is dark and dangerous, the heavy accentuated keyboards giving a Van der Graaf Generator undertone to the music and a daunting atmosphere. Pt.2 Headphones In Wonderland is a polar opposite with its uplifting feel and swirling keyboards. It’s like the band recruited Mike Oldfield for a cameo and played a jam session along with him. The classically stylish guitar is a superb addition and just left me feeling elevated and inspired.
Glass Hammer show that they can do the pomp and circumstance as well as Transatlantic or Neal Morse with the exhilarating Blinding Light. ‘Tom realises at last that the only way to get ahead is to go forward. And anyway, time only travels in one direction. It’s time to leave the past behind.’ The sumptuous brass section, dynamic drums and exalted keyboards give the track a vibrancy and inject it with heart and soul. Excellent vocals and subtle guitar are the icing on a rather tasty cake, one that emphasises the impressive new sound and direction that the band are taking. The Steve Babb composed & performed Tangerine Memewears its German electronic instrumental heart on its sleeve and as a homage to that legendary musical collective, is nigh on perfect.
This incredibly infectious and hugely entertaining story is brought to a close with the ten minute near-epic Fade Away. Bringing the story round full circle, but leaving the door open for a further instalment, it’s an inventive and intelligent piece of music that touches your heart with its opening. A tender piano and subdued vocal taking the story up. Like all the best tracks it builds on simple beginnings to blossom into something quite magnificent. The vocals take on the role of storyteller and bard, the musicians giving them the canvas to paint on, building layers and layers of sophistication. This song is a totally immersive ten minutes that you gladly lose yourself in and it twists and turns and then gives you the ultimate reward at the end, a quite wonderful closing guitar solo from Reese Boyd.
‘Where is Tom now? None of us know. Did he finally make it back to “those blue remembered hills” of the seventies, that “land of lost content” where prog legends are still young and the genre is flourishing and alive with possibility? I hope that he did. Though were I to be honest, I suspect he’s found what most of us have – that you can’t really ever go back. Somewhere out there , just like the rest of us, he’s making his slow cautious way into the future only to find that once there, it’s just now.’
Albums like ‘Chronomonaut’ are the reason why I love music so much and it has become part of my life. It sees a band I love unafraid to take a relatively new direction, organically progressive if you like. While not completely straying from their roots, Glass Hammer have taken a path less trodden and delivered what is, without a doubt, their best album yet and a fantastic new direction of power, precision and downright soul.
Glass Hammer have been teasing a concept album based on “the ultimate prog fan”, and now it’s official.
Fans will no doubt recognize the name “Tom” from 2000’s ‘Chronometree’ release and videos on Glass Hammer’s social media sites show that Tom has recently resurfaced to promote his own music. Bassist Steve Babb explains, “While ‘Chronometree’ documented Tom’s prog-rock influenced alien-encounter in 1979, our new album ‘Chromomonaut’ tells the stranger story of all that happened later; from Tom’s failed early eighties prog-rock band, The Elf King, to his most recent musings on nostalgia and the glory days of progressive rock.”
To lend credibility to the ‘Chronomonaut’ story, the character of Tom began posting his own music and theories on time travel to YouTube and at least one well-known progressive rock forum (progressiveears.org) several months ago using the name “The Elf King”. Glass Hammer has also been releasing “found footage” video of Tom, supposedly from 1983, which documents his time travel experiments as well as the failure of his own prog band to secure a record deal.
“Tom is a frustrated guy,” says Babb. “He’s growing older and his prog heroes are retiring or sadly passing away. We all reflect as these things happen and we’re all guilty of romanticizing the past, but Tom makes the bold attempt to actually go back in time. Is the music in his prog collection powerful enough to make this happen? Can he really get back there? That’s what ‘Chronomonaut’ is all about.”
Bandmates Fred Schendel, Susie Bogdanowicz and Aaron Raulston are all on board for this release. Guest appearances include Discipline’s Matthew Parmenter and Chris Herin.
“Chronomonaut” will be released on Friday, October 12th. Pre-ordering for autographed copies will begin one month ahead of the release on September 12th at the band’s website.
“While it’s standard practice for bands to edit live material before releasing it, we knew going in that the guitar tracks would need replacing. We viewed that as an opportunity to do something really unique with this album, namely, adding some new ideas to the mix while preserving the integrity and energy of the live show.” – Glass Hammer co-founder Steve Babb.
That explains the album title then, glad that’s out of the way! ‘Mostly Live In Italy’ represents Glass Hammer’s first-ever concert in Italy at the 2 Days + 1 Prog Festival in Veruno and they were determined to create an incredible memento from that experience that their fans would love.
It features nearly all of the band’s amazing ‘Valkyrie’ album, a wonderful treatise on the horror, fear and eventual hope of World War 1 along with nearly twenty minutes of classic Glass Hammer material.
The symphonic introduction raises the hairs on the back of your neck and then the instantly recognisable duo of Steve Babb’s bass and Fred Schendel’s keys take over as we move into the smooth sounds of The Fields We Know and the energetic tones of Golden Days where the guys also get to show their instrumental chops, Susie Bogdanowicz’s elegant vocals stamp their authority on proceedings immediately. From the first note you know that this is going to be a cultured live album, taking all that’s great about the studio releases and adding that edgy, immediate feel that you can only get from a live setting. There’s a nice flow to the music and you feel you are being drawn into the actual performance.
One of my favourite tracks from ‘Valkyrie’ is No Mans Land and this domineering, dread inducing song is giving a haunting treatment on the live stage, a powerful statement that lives with you long after it comes to a close. Nexus Girl, Fog of War, Dead And Gone – they all hold you in rapt attention, Susie’s stage presence coming across in her regal vocal delivery and the musicians just excel in front of a live audience. This is a band at the height of their powers and sure of their place in the pantheon of prog rock bands, just listen to Eucatastrophe and you’ll see what I mean.
A welcome addition to the tracklist is the wonderful TheGlass Hammer Melody – Chronos Deliverer/If The Sun which had me grinning from ear to ear and picking out the parts of classic GH songs from the years gone by, the close out is just magical, the keyboards and Aaron Raulston’s drums bringing the piece to a crescendo and the vocals delivering the classic lines,
“When the morning comes, when at last the sun shines clear, I will hear you singing…”
It’s utterly spine tingling and then we finish off with a high-energy, up-tempo version of Hyperbole from 2009’s ‘Three Cheers For The Broken Hearted’. Here the band really sound like they are most definitely ‘on it’ and it is a vibrant end to what has been an utterly involving near seventy five minutes of ‘mostly’ live music.
Once again, the seminal US progressive rock band Glass Hammer have delivered on their promise, ‘Mostly Live in Italy’ is progressive rock at its majestic best in an incredible live setting, what more could you possibly want?
There’s are some bands that have been with me since I first started really getting into progressive rock music and have stood the test of time because I like their music and how they have developed over the years. However, because I am what is classed as a relatively ‘late adopter’ to the genre it also means that there is a fair amount of back catalogue stuff and undiscovered gems that I have never heard.
When a band releases an album of ‘Previously unreleased tracks and more..’ it often only appeals to the completists among the fanbase and doesn’t tend to draw in new listeners or fans who have only started to like the artists later in their career. So, what would Glass Hammer’s ‘Untold Tales’ give us, I wonder? Starting with songs from 1993 and concluding with a live recording from 2017, it promised to be something a bit different from the usual archive offerings.
Comprising of 13 tracks in total, including instrumentals and the aforementioned live track, ‘Untold Tales’ offers the listener a sizeable chunk of never heard before Glass Hammer music. It opens with a couple of interesting instrumentals, Shadows Of The Past reworked in 2008, Fred Schendel reworking the opening track off ‘Journey Of The Dunadan’ using techniques unavailable on first release in 1993 and it has a suitable cinematic soundscape to its orchestral magnificence. Infusion is a piece of music originally released on the album ‘Love Changes – Featuring Glass Hammer’ by artist Tracy Cloud. There’s a pared back, ethereal wonder to the three minute instrumental with its haunting piano, flute and keyboards and stylish bass playing.
The heady Identity Principle is one of the standout tracks on the album and is pure Glass Hammer. Steve Babb literally found this song hiding on a backup drive. The band were never quite satisfied with the mix on the ending. They recorded a new performance of the ending which matches up very well. Thus, this track was recorded in the early 90’s and just a while ago. A wonderfully involving track with great vocals from Walter Moore and an elegant guitar combining really well. It has that great Glass Hammer trait of taking you on a complex and involving musical journey, one that always holds you attention. The melodies entwine and the guitar takes on its own vocal note, to me this is one of THE great tracks from this enduring band and, as Steve himself says, it’s a crying shame it has lain hidden for so long. Glass Hammer appeared at Progscape ‘96 in Baltimore, Maryland and performed the classic Argent track Hold Your Head High. This studio version was certainly recorded around that time, probably in 1997 and is quite a bombastic version for a band noted for their Elfin lyrics and music. Steve’s bass is driving and dynamic and Fred seems to be having ball on the keyboards, add the stylish guitar of David Carter to a powerful vocal from Walter and you’ve got a rather excellent cover version.
I have to be honest, there are a couple of what I’d call ‘throwaway’ tracks on the record and we get both in quick succession. Actually they aren’t bad tracks but, compared to the prog-fest that’s going on around them, they do seem a little lacklustre. Babb’s Bach is Steve’s humble attempt to achieve something similar to tracks from ‘Switched On Bach’ by Walter Carlos and just feels throwaway. It is immediately followed by And Then She Sighed which feels like a pastiche of any medieval tune, admittedly with excellent vocals from Laura Lindstrom Davis and a Girls Choir of Allison Savard, Kaytie Mitchell and Kendra Roden. You are brought out of any stupor by the excellent 80’s synth-rock of Eiger Dreams, a charismatic and compelling track that bears comparison to Giorgio Moroder in my humble opinion. If you have seen the band’s ‘Live At The Tivoli’ DVD then you may recall this is the opening track. Included here is the never-before-released studio version recorded (or at least mixed) in 2008.
Now onto another favourite on the album,the band’s cover of the Beatles track It’s All Too Much is great slice of prog-rock infused AOR music that has you rocking in your seat with its energy, dynamism and hooks. Steve’s funky bass drives the track along, aided by swathes of Fred’s potent keyboards and the familiar vocals of the classy Susie Bogdanowicz. With a nod to a Steve Hillage’s version, the song was recorded during sessions for ‘Three Cheers For The Broken Hearted’ in 2009. It was used as an encore piece for a few live shows, but never released. Here Steve and Fred replaced a pipe organ with a Hammond organ and the bass line with something a little more fitting than Steve had originally done. A track that I can only really describe as ‘Glass Hammer do Sabbath’, Troll is dark and deliciously dangerous. Steve describes it as:
“Partly about recording a track with a super-fuzzed-out bass guitar. It was also partly about letting off some steam regarding the trolls who inhabited certain progressive rock internet forums…”
It features some incredibly angry guitar and keyboard playing and some amazing harmonica from Tim Starnes and is as far away from a typical Glass Hammer track as you could possibly get, I love it! Steve’s final words on the song:
“We have discussed recording more music in this vein, if only we thought our fans would let us get away with it!”
A Grain Of Sand brings you back down to earthy with its airy and laid back simplicity. Three minutes of delicate piano and Kamran Alan Shikoh’s graceful acoustic guitar layered with the minimalist hues of Fred’s keyboards. Recorded in 2010 as a possible track for ‘IF’, you can certainly hear strains of If The Stars if you are paying attention. Jon Davison’s vocal track was lifted straight from that song as a matter of fact. The next song is another powerful and dominant piece of progressive rock. Cool Air is an enigmatic and serious track which seems to have some real tension bubbling underneath. Steve explains:
“Ever the Lovecraft fan, I readily agreed to work on this track for its ultimate inclusion on a Colossus (Finland) Lovecraft-themed album. We chose the tale Cool Air, one of the more gruesome stories and one I thought we might easily set to music and lyric. Recorded in 2012, my son, who was only ten at the time, joined me in the studio for a sound effects session. Fred wrote the music and I wrote the lyrics, with much help from the original text of the story, of course!”
I wasn’t a big fan of the vocals when I first heard it but repeated listens have shown me that they fit this dark and eerie tale perfectly. Disturbing and sinister in parts, it creeps under your skin and becomes quite addictive, like a horror film that you can’t take your eyes off. Doctor Who for the more cerebral of us perhaps?
The Impulsive Type is a more straightforward rock infused track and reminds me of Frost* or even Rush with it’s catchy chorus, edgy, staccato guitars, stylish rhythm section and Carl Groves polished vocal performance. Was that Rush I said? well Steve explains all:
“In 2014 Dave Kerzner of Sonic Reality asked us to perform a track with Neal Peart. What’s that you say? Well, actually it was a request to write a song on top of Neal’s drum tracks that were recorded during the making of Sonic Reality’s “Neal Peart Drums” sample library. The tracks you hear are live drum tracks however, not the samples. Was it possible to write a song over Neal’s tracks without it sounding Rush-influenced? No. Enjoy!”
The album closes with a fantastic live rendition of No Mans Land (from the 2016 album ‘Valkyrie’) recorded at The Camp House in May 2017. A fan favourite from its first release, it is utterly involving and enthralling as a live track and finishes this stellar collection on quite a high.
Another archive release for those completist fans then? Absolutely not!! ‘Untold Tales’ is an excellent collection of rarities that has lots of appeal, both to the dedicated Glass Hammer fan and those new to this exceptional outfit, a group of musicians who are definitely one of the best progressive rock bands around today.
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…”
I’ve never been a big fan of live albums, preferring the purity of the original studio release. To me, that is probably how the band intended the music to be heard in the first place, rather than in a live setting.
There are, actually, plenty of studio bands who have never performed live and this has been of no detriment to them progressing and evolving. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule and there are some outstanding live releases out there.
A few that come to mind ( and not restricted to progressive artists) are Thin Lizzy – ‘Live and Dangerous’ from 1978, Neil Young and Crazy Horse – ‘Arc-Weld’ from 1991, Yes – ‘Yessongs’ from 1973, Peter Frampton – ‘Frampton Comes Alive’ from 1976 and Genesis – ‘Three Sides Live’ from 1982.
These albums perhaps show the artists at the height of their powers and include some of the most blistering and emotional versions of their greatest songs. However, overall, I’ve always been more of a fan of the studio albums.
So, when one of my favourite artists, Glass Hammer, approached me about reviewing their new, ‘live’, release, it was with no little trepidation that I awaited the arrival of the package at Progradar Towers…….
Glass Hammer are elder statesmen of the progressive rock scene now, having been around since 1992 and releasing many celebrated albums, including their latest long player ‘The Breaking of the World’ this last year.
Hailed as one of their best records yet, it cemented them at the forefront of the classic progressive rock scene and many saw their appearance at RosFest as being one of the highlights of that well established progressive rock festival.
Featuring the current line up of founder members Steve Babb (bass) and Fred Schendel (keyboards) along with vocalists Carl Groves and Susie Bogdanovic, Kamran Alan Shikoh (guitar) and Aaron Raulston (drums and percussion),that august publication, Prog Magazine went so far as to say:
“…the boldest set of the weekend. Steve Babb and Fred Schendel have always succeeded in creating an ensemble that fully complements their sense of musical grandeur.”
The band decided to release the whole set from RosFest as a Double CD/Single DVD deluxe package and I was lucky enough to receive this. Would it change my perception of live albums or would I still see it as something less than a studio release?
The performance opens with the catchy Nothing, Everything which is the closing track from ‘The Breaking of the World’ and I feel it is a great track to open a live set with as it bounces along with great joie de vivre. Initial thoughts are that these guys are a tight live unit and the recording quality of the release is top notch and you can hear each note from the individual instruments. You are drawn in immediately to the signature Glass Hammer sound with its melodic intricacies and subtle deviations. The vocals are also on top form and some apparent issues with the vocals being too low in the mix at the actual show appear to have been addressed in a satisfactory manner. Carl and Susie are front and centre and work perfectly well bouncing off each other. So a grand opening for the show as far as I’m concerned, let’s see if it holds up…..
Now, if I do have one minor gripe about live recordings then it is definitely the links between the tracks and Carl Groves’ somewhat corny efforts here do grate slightly, not enough to detract from any enjoyment but enough to make me cringe a tad. After Carl has got his intro out of the way, the band move smoothly into a track from ‘Shadowlands’, their seventh, 2004 studio release. So Close, So Far is, in my opinion, one of their classic releases and the current line up more than do it justice with the excellent guitar work of Shikoh and the jazzy drumming of Raulston providing the perfect back drop for Schendel’s superior keyboard work. Harking back to a time when the band had more than a little Tolkien influence going on, the lyrics are so wondrous in places they just make me smile. How Susie keeps a straight face singing the words, “Time spent fighting Dragons, is wasted now, I know…..”, I’ll never know but they give me a childlike glee and the whole song has this brilliant winsome feel in a live setting, it literally bounces along full of the energy of some unseen youth. Timeless in execution, it is near perfect and watching the band performing it on the DVD you just get the feeling that they are really enjoying it. Steve Babb’s ever present, dynamic bass drives the song along and he seems like he is almost overflowing with vigor such is his animation on the stage. Almost hidden behind a huge bank of keyboards, Fred Schendel seems to be giving the performance of his life as you watch a band at the height of their performing powers.
The first CD and first half of the performance closes out with the first two tracks from the latest album. Mythopoeia sees the band nodding their collective heads to the 70’s greats Yes. Too many people compare them unfavourably to that band but they are definitely equals on the strength of this performance. Groves vocal is heartfelt and literally alive and his counterplay with Susie Bogdanowicz gives the track a dramatic edge. Shikoh is giving a lively performance, his guitar full of vitality and the rhythm section are note perfect as the song flies along seemingly with a sentience and enthusiasm all of its own. Take a moment to watch and listen in the quieter moments where the vocalists pump increasing amounts of emotion into their performance, leaving you rapt in attention. Third Floor is a more tentative track, one that plays more on the vocal performance and uses the instruments to provide the balance and the backing to Carl’s edgy verse and Susie’s sentimental chorus. The whole band demand your attention on the stage, they are not merely musicians, they are performers in some engrossing drama that is unfolding before you. Fred’s harpsichord like instrumental section lightens things slightly, aided by some more impressive guitar work from Kamran Alan Shikoh. A free form instrumental section holds court through the centre of the song, technically excellent but still with a soul, the musicians give their all before the voice becomes the focal point once more. I think you can tell I’m really beginning to enjoy this can’t you? My smile breaks out again as a really intricate and yet easily accessible instrumental run takes the song to a profound close, I almost find myself applauding with the crowd.
So to CD 2 or the second part of the performance and another dip into the past and The Knight of the North from 2005’s ‘The Inconsolable Secret’. Carl does himself no favours here as the opening part of the track is an introduction of each member of the band but sung rather than spoken. Call it corny, call it cheesy, I just don’t like it. Thankfully it’s over with pretty quick and we can get onto what is quite a dark and serious track that loses some of the light-hearted feel of the previous songs. The music has a much more contemplative feel and is almost verging on a heavier progressive note. The performance is, once again, near faultless. You seem to lose yourself in the music as it winds its way around your psyche, leaving indelible marks wherever it touches. The keyboards have a definitive 70’s timbre to them and Schendel bounds around behind them like some mad professor at times. Babb is as energized as ever as his bass drives things along. Aaron Raulston sits behind his drum kit like an immovable force as he anchors the whole shebang in place. The twin voices of Groves and Bogdanowicz are in storyteller mode as they take you though the complexities in a precise and contemplative manner. Guiding it all, like a conductor, is Shikoh’s meticulous guitar playing, leading the complicated instrumental runs and firing off precise licks when required. Lost in a labyrinth from which you do not require rescue, this intelligent and fastidious song almost leaves you transfixed with the band’s superb musicianship.
2010’s ‘If’ saw the band turn to a more ‘symphonic-progressive rock’ sound and If the Stars was one of my favourite tracks from the album, the 2015 rendition certainly does the original justice, if not improving on it a little in a live setting. The gentle keyboards and soaring guitar open the track and your mind with their sincerity and honesty. A beautiful live version of the song flowers with the opening vocal lines. The emotive feel of the music hits you deep in your soul, it is when it is delivered like this that you see the lasting appeal of live music like this. You couldn’t feel the grace and beauty of Carl and Susie’s vocals from a studio recording, it literally does awaken in a live setting. The power and empathy of the music is almost tangible and you can see what it means to the band when they are performing it in front of an audience. Sat here watching it is really awe-inspiring and you can begin to see why music can be considered imperative and essential in people’s lives, healing the soul and delivering joy and inspiration. Damn, I’ve got something in my eye again……
Too soon the ninety minutes has come to a close and the first strains of the closing track can be heard. Time Marches On is from the band’s second ever studio album ‘Perelandra’, a concept album inspired by C.S.Lewis, released in 1995. Dynamic and vivacious, the introduction builds the song up in a quite unequivocable manner. Precise and deliberate, the guitar dominates the track with a mesmerising sway. Superb musicians are allowed to show their proficiency on this quite memorable song. There is an 80’s feel in parts to the track, especially the stylish keyboards and funky bass playing, this is Glass Hammer turning it up to 11 with no studio constraints and the ability to just enjoy themselves to the full. Just look at the band’s faces, you can see they are having a hell of a time and this is evident in the joy and delight that comes across in the performance. You just wouldn’t get this freedom in a studio release, this is the heart and soul of the band and the music given vent and freedom of expression, enjoy it while you can!
Putting it simply (don’t laugh) ‘Double Live’ has broken the mould for me. Never a big fan of live albums, this release is a joyous rendition of all that’s good about Glass Hammer. The intricacies, the intrigue and sheer emotion of the band’s music let loose in a live setting and it is damn near flawless. A purchase that I must recommend highly, in my opinion, you won’t regret it!