“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?
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…”
“What do you get when you take two theatrical lead vocalists, a keyboard player from Juilliard, a jazz-rock genius on guitar, a bass player from Monster Island and a drummer with progressive rock in his DNA? The modern cinematic ProgRock band Circuline.”
That’s a pretty impressive opening gambit from the press blurb for Circuline’s latest release ‘Counterpoint’ and the next line nearly made me crack-up!
“Circuline’s newest release, ‘Counterpoint’ (May 2016), features an all star line-up of SEVEN guest guitarists…”
No, you didn’t misread that, it said SEVEN guest guitarists!! Well, to me that could just turn out to be overkill or the musical equivalent of herding cats but, you never know!
So, for the sake of completion, here are those guests…..
Randy McStine (The Fringe, Lo-Fi Resistance), Doug Ott (Enchant), Alek Darson (Fright Pig), Ryche Chlanda (Fire Ballet, Renaissance), Alan Shikoh (Glass Hammer), Matt Dorsey (Sound of Contact, Dave Kerzner) and Stanley Whitaker (Happy the Man, Oblivion Sun).
So, would these additional musicians add to the depth of talent the band already has or would they prove that too many cooks can actually spoil the broth? Read on and find out……
The album opens with a a powerful statement in New Day, a track that builds on a rolling drum beat and off-kilter keyboards to almost drive you crazy. Coruscating guitars blaze across the landscape, it is like some crazy sci-fi soundtrack or diabolical mind weapon that seems to be forcing you into submission. Dynamic guitars dominate the soundscape, interspersing with the keyboards like some ELP-esque monster. It’s forceful and influential Prog with a vivid outlook and a highly impressive beginning to what is awaiting us.
Like a one-two knockout, Who I Am explodes into the ring on the back of staccato piano opening, insistent and demanding, before a huge crunching riff literally knocks you over. Man, I’m getting hooked on this already! A huge wave of sound engulfs you with its magnificence and you just hang on for the ride. A break in the squall sees that piano note return, gentler and questing, along with the benign waves of the cymbals, calming your heartbeat. The vocals begin and they are theatrical to the max, superb interplay between Billy Spillane and Natalie Brown giving the music an extra nuance. That monstrous riff is what drives this catchy song on though, brooking no resistance. I love the laid back, chilled sections that occasionally grace your aural sensors, they give you a sweet respite from the upsurging music that hits you square on the jaw but always leaves you smiling. To be honest, it’s one of the best tracks I’ve heard this year and I could almost recommend the album just on the strength of this one song.
Did you expect a pause for breath? Well you should have known better. Another drama laden introduction building to something profound leads in the mysteriously named Forbidden Planet, keyboards swirling all around , apprehensive and almost sinister, are setting the scene. The vocals begin, quite emotive and descriptive, adding more shine to the proceedings. I’m almost reminded of the latest Dream Theater album, but in a good way. The thumping chorus will have you singing your lungs out, it is pure musical theatre of the best variety. Artful and dramatic, the guitar solo that fires out is superb and just adds to the feel that you are in an actual theatre, enjoying a musical show. The excellent bass-lead, guitar heavy, run out of the song adds even more of that drama and leaves you with a knowing smile on your face.
Hollow is a more circumspect song, the introduction washes over you before a passionate vocal and guitar fire up and lead the way. Heartfelt and moving, even a bit darker in places, there is a more progressive than cinematic feel to the track as it gets into its stride. To my ears there a definite hints of Glass Hammer and even Dream Theater in the intricate keyboard playing and the way the song seems to be built in layers, the instrumental sections are really convoluted and complex. It’s almost as if the musicians decided that they just wanted to have a prog-infused jam session, and a mightily enjoyable one at that! Once normality is restored we get more of the dominating vocals, leaving an ominous overtone in places. There is something for everyone in the song, baroque progressive moments, touches of Prog-Metal and, well, just excellent songwriting and musicianship.
One of the shorter tracks on offer, Erosion is an instrumental that opens full of suspense, the cinematic overtones are there in spades, this could be the soundtrack to a sci-fi film with its haunting atmosphere and heavy doses of tension. It is quite disturbing in fact and I found myself on edge all the way through.
I love the bassline that opens Nautilus with its jazz-funk feel, there’s a really upbeat atmosphere to the song, the distinct guitar note and vigorous drumbeat adding to that high energy aura. The vocals, once again, hit the spot and give the song its own identity. At first, you aren’t sure whether there are too many influences running through the music but, by the time you’re really involved in the album, it is a distinctive sound unique to Circuline. I feel the keyboards generally take the lead and the rest of instruments follow and it works very well indeed. Another clever integration of the complexities of progressive rock infused with some powerful rock elements to give that cinematic feel, the guitar solo is another sterling effort.
The mood quietens for the delightful Stay which has more akin to a piano lounge track than your usual progressive fare but I really like it. Laid back, funky and with chunks of jazz dripping all over it, Natalie’s vocals are the centre-point of this sepia tinged song. Thoughtful and contemplative, it really does give you a complete feeling of chilled out security. The guitar playing is fluid, serene and composed, it is a song for a wonderful, warm summers day when you haven’t got a care in the world.
S.O.Ais just over one minute of quite unsettling mind warfare if you ask me, it is really quite sinister……
That mood carries on into the opening of Inception with its 80’s synth overtones that seem to want to invade your mind. Again, another impressive cinematic soundscape that draws pictures deep in your psyche, music that challenges the mind as well as satiating the soul. It is almost transfixing in the way it draws you into its embrace to leave you feeling oddly at home. Then the vocals start and your attention changes, the voices, lilting in their delivery, have a hypnotic edge and work in concert with the inventive music to give a superlative listening experience, a musical journey that, once traveled, you are happy to return to time after time. The closing out of the song is particularly brilliant.
So, onto the final instalment in this cinematic treasure, Summit has all the clever subtleties of what has gone before, a quite enigmatic opening before the song begins its final traverse of your musical landscape. Sultry bass lines and drumming add a great backdrop to the exemplary harmonised vocals, like the perfect recipe from some masterchefs of the musical world. Nothing is ever too simple with these guys though, we have some involving musical sections to add substance to the lush vocals laid before us. Grin inducing guitar solos and keyboard runs abound and you are just left floating in a world of musical well-being. The potent chorus adds strength to the beauty of the rest of the song, you are left wanting for nothing with this band’s repertoire and it is shown to the full on this finishing track, some more prog wizardry to add to the dramatic and cinematic feel. I have to admit, by the end of this song and album, I am left feeling that I have been spoiled by the music and talent on offer.
So, do too many guitarists leave you herding cats or give extra shine to an already impressive collection of musicians? Well, if you’ve read what goes before this conclusion you’ll know that they enhance things immensely. A deep well of musical wonderment is laid before you to drink from at will, take a small sip and come back for more (as you will) or take it all in one gulp to be completely indulged. Whichever way, you’re going to love it!