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…”
Glass Hammer are due to release their 18th studio album, ‘Valkyrie’, in September and I managed to grab a few words with main man Steve Babb and vocalist Susie Bogdanowicz.
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 Bogdanowicz take a bigger role than on previous releases she has appeared on.
Steve told me,
“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 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.
When asked what it was like to to create a concept album with Glass Hammer, Susie went on to say,
“I really enjoy seeing the creative process behind a Glass Hammer concept album. There’s the beauty and complexity of the songs written with these musical threads that unite the album; and then there are these gorgeous lyrics that usually have a much deeper meaning. It’s such a rich and fulfilling experience.”
The stunning album art is by Michal Xaay Loranc who also handled the design for ‘Ode To Echo’ and ‘The Breaking Of The World’.
The tracklist for ‘Valkyrie’, released 27th September, is as follows:
Renowned progressive rock outfit Glass Hammer have announced that 16th studio album ‘Valkyrie’ will be released this autumn.
The new release will see Susie Bogdanowicz take lead vocal duties, along with support from founder members Steve Babb and Fred Schendel.
A full on concept album in the vein of ‘Lex Rex’ and ‘The Inconsolable Secret’, ‘Valkyrie’ was rehearsed it as if it would be a show then recorded all of the basic rhythm tracks live. There’s still a lot of recording to do back at the studio.
Glass Hammer are in the studio now, finishing off what could prove to be their Magnum Opus.
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!
Why do you listen to music? Think about it for a while, what are the main reasons you insert that CD and press play, or lower the needle onto the vinyl? (we’re going a bit more tactile than mp3 for this anology). There have to be a myriad reasons why different people will await a gentle introduction, a powerful, rip-roaring solo or the dulcet tones of their favourite vocalists.
Be it the angst, protest driven edginess of punk, the in-your-face violence of heavy metal or the gentle, ethereal grace of some progressive and folk tinged music, we all have our reasons. I find that fast driven, heavy rock and blues works brilliantly at the gym or if I’m in that nothing can stop me mood and the more relaxing music suits my more sombre moments.
Sometimes, though, I just like to listen to some music that has heart and soul and a lightness of being, a feel-good factor that brings light into your life and makes your day just go past a little bit easier, leaving a smile on your face and a glowing rightness in your soul. The music that tends to do that for me, more than any other, is what we may term ‘traditional progressive rock’.
Now the ‘P’ word is almost becoming persona-non-grata in certain musical circles and talking about it, or dropping an artist into that genre, can be detrimental to both your and their health, stupid as that may sound. The music that was inspired and influenced by the behemoths of Yes, Genesis, King Crimson et al is still going strong today and still matters to me in a big way.
I have been listening to an album recently that brings back waves of nostalgia about that style of music and which just washes over you with good feeling. Kinetic Element’s ‘Travelog’ album has been listened to regularly over the last couple of months and I felt it was about time I put my two-penneth in…..
Kinetic Element is a neo/symphonic progressive rock band from Richmond, Virginia that harbors musical roots in classic artists like Emerson, Lake & Palmer,Yes, Asia and Genesis and blends those influences with philosophical and spiritually powerful and uplifting lyrics.
Kinetic Element was formed to perform the music of Mike Visaggio’s solo CD, ‘Starship Universe’ which was released in 2006. The band is comprised of Mike (keyboards); Michael Murray (drums), Todd Russell (electric and acoustic guitar) and Mark Tupko (basses).
Unable to find a suitable vocalist in their hometown, Mike reached out to their musical friends Odin’s Court whose lead vocalist Dimetrius LaFavors agreed to perform the vocals for ‘Travelog’ while remaining with Odin’sCourt. However Dimetrius could only appear on three tracks due to Odin’s Court’s changing schedule. Riding in to KE’s rescue came Michelle Schrotz of prog icons Brave, and stellar CProg artist Mike Florio, to record the remaining two tracks.
Fred Schendel and Steve Babb of prog legends Glass Hammer became involved in the mixing of the album. The resulting collaboration produced the terrific sound you hear on ‘Travelog’. They also did the mastering at their studio Sound Resources in Chattanooga.
So, onto the music and the album opener War Song begins with an African drum style beat with Yes overtones and the delightful use of an atypical Keith Emerson type Hammond organgiving the song an immediate nostalgic note. The gradual intensifying instrumental introduction is quite complex and intricate and grabs your attention as it flows along stylistically, the ululating guitar note that scurries across your psyche is focused and intense. Just sit back, relax and enjoy as the initial stages of this 20 minute plus progressive epic dance across your mind like a musically inspired storyline. The keyboards, bass and drums providing the foundation for the impressive guitar work before the next chapter begins. Here the expressive vocals take up the story, dynamic and yet passionate and eloquent. Taking the influences that they hold dear and blending them into a distinctive style of their own, Kinetic Element give you an engaging musical cornucopia that, whilst occasionally glancing back over its shoulder, marches majestically onward to the future. A multitude of sophisticated rhythms and melodies surround you as this baroque song continues to surprise and delight, the vocals blending perfectly and adding a final sheen of finesse.
They don’t do short songs these guys, title track Travelog is the briefest and comes in just shy of ten minutes, that could be a stumbling bock if there was anything to dislike but all is looking good so far. A brilliantly pared back and minimalist acoustic guitar opens the song, it needs no back up as it tantalises and enchants, dancing across your mind and soul with beauty and grace. As the track opens up and the vocals begin, it doesn’t lose any of that ethereal quality and continues to leave you feeling relaxed and serene as if you are tip-toeing through a Utopian world of wonder. The fragile, frangible keyboards add an almost alien note, as if you have stumbled onto a vista of fantastical delights. There is an increase in tempo as the track comes to a triumphant close and you are left feeling quite fulfilled, calm and well, just right.
Into The Lair has a nicely judged bass driven opening with powerful keys and enigmatic drumming, a more serious note than what has gone before, dominant and influential, gripping and thoughtful but it soon opens up into a delightfully impish song, led by the superb, stylish vocals of Michelle Schrotz. It should come as no surprise, considering who mixed the album, but the Glass Hammer influence is greatest on this polished track. The smooth guitar note and elaborate keyboard notes lead into an involved and inventive instrumental section, playful in mood and execution. A return to the dominant introduction follows, like a counter to the lightness of the main section, I love the guitar on this part, Todd’s playing is precise and yet has a free-flowing life of its own. Michelle’s sweet-sounding voice returns to close out the song and leave you nodding appreciatively one more time.
A rather delightful piano introduction is the opening to Her and it keeps you entranced as the ivories are quite impressively tinkled, ebbing and flowing and chock full of earnest emotion. Like jewelled trinkets of sound they dance across your aural receptors leaving you suitably transfixed. The layers are stylishly increased as the drums join in, suitably classy and a warbling guitar adds substance. The track begins to take on a jazzy edge to it, staccato and edgy, the vocals join, with a note of pleading and desire. I even get a real feel of Christopher Cross in the song, not quite easy listening or chart music but with a real easy going nature. Like I have said before, it is feel good music that has subtle touches of classic progressive music, the guitar that runs through the middle section, backing the earnest vocal could have come from any 70’s Yes album. A compact, piercing solo fires straight at you and the guitar continues to worm its way around your mind, aided and abetted by the swirling keyboards and smooth rhythm section, the bass playing is particularly impressive. The cultured jazz feel to the song is its key though and we are treated to another great combination of influences as it comes to a high-class close.
Vision Of A New Dawn is perhaps the most thoughtful and contemplative track on the album and begins with another blistering, heavily jazz influenced opening. Driving piano and drums take on the first notes and then the bass joins in before some fuzzy, intricate guitar playing takes you off an an unknown journey into the more convoluted and mysterious side of the band. We turn first towards an instrumental section of free form progressive tinged jazz fusion, a thrill ride with many twists and turns, like a psychedelic explosion in your mind. A piquant piano note, nervous and tremulous at first, then leads you onto the next part, the vocals begin, heartfelt and poignant, as the wall of sound begins to build, guitars, drums and that elusive piano raising it higher and higher. Emotional and raw, the feeling is of renewal and rebirth, those that have once fallen will rise again. It is a gripping and musically intense story that is being written in front of you, this heart is open and it bleeds sentiment and fervor. A momentary pause, a slowing of time, the mountain has been surmounted, time for reflection perhaps. Take a seat and take stock of what is laid before you as the keyboards lead you on with a jaunty melody, uplifting yet with a note of reserve. There is almost a triumphal tone as we move into the next phase of this fascinating song, the keyboards leading the march before the captivating guitar takes lead duties again. A sombre moment, as if the light is fading and things are to become crucial and weighty, the piano leads the procession, solemn and sedate. The vocal joins, almost a lament, a pause, and then a gently strummed acoustic guitar begins, followed by forceful whistling and the final throws begin. An overture of voice, guitar, keys and piano takes this momentous track to a close, the silence that follows says more than words……
I am going to say it, this is an excellent ‘progressive rock’ album, no band should be scared of using that term and Kinetic Element wear it proudly in the middle of their collective chests and are rightly proud to do so. It’s obvious who their influences are and they take them and mould them into something that, whilst it is instantly recognisable, has a character and soul all of its own. It feels like a labour of love and the skill, energy, blood, sweat and tears that have been invested in this production can be felt by all who hear it.