Style: Progressive Rock
Release Date: 17 Apr 2020
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I've seen a lot of prog bands lately come out with their best work in years and Glass Hammer are no exception. Where they become an exception is in how they've grown up to this point. The golden years of most of these bands was a long time ago, probably when they started out, and they lapsed in quality over time before rediscovering what they did so well and doing it better. I may only have heard the first couple of Glass Hammer albums, from the first half of the nineties, but I don't remember being impressed at all. It seems that they found themselves in the new millennium and keep on getting better, which means that I have a lot of catching up to do.
I'd love to hear how they came to this sound because it feels to me like an acculumation of the history of prog poured out in the form of new songs. It isn't difficult to find influences because they're everywhere here, but they have a habit of morphing into different ones, so that songs aren't just like this band or that; they're what would happen if these three bands decided to jam in the studio on new material, bringing their own styles with them.
For instance, The Dreaming City, which kicks off the album, maintains almost a Hawkwind vibe with a heavy bass and an effect layered onto the vocals. It feels a bit more modern though, with verses that attempt a rap but are more like spoken word poetry. The overt seventies organ in the second half isn't Hawkwind at all but Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
Cold Star retains the ELP feel but adds Deep Purple riffs; some Jethro Tull in the use of flute and pastoral mindset; and the vocal playfulness of Yes. There's even some Led Zeppelin swagger towards the close. This Lonely World sounds like solo Peter Gabriel and there's Gabriel era Genesis in songs like The Watchman on the Walls, which merges acoustic Genesis with electric Rush.
The Lurker Beneath brings in another key influence, namely Tangerine Dream, in what's only the first of a number of instrumentals to create a pulsing soundscape mostly or entirely with synthesisers. At the Threshold of Dreams is another, but it adds samples and so trawls in some Pink Floyd. Talking of Pink Floyd samples, there's a great deal of Alan Parsons here too. Pagarna may be the first song to feel highly reminiscent of the Alan Parsons Project but it's certainly not the last.
In other words, you'll hear a lot of different bands here but what the band does so well is to merge their sounds into something that's both new and far more consistent than the last few paragraphs might suggest. That may well be the greatest success of this album, because it doesn't feel like we tuned in to a classic prog radio station in an alternate universe or threw on a comp of unheard songs from seventies prog bands we otherwise know. It feels like an actual album, written and performed consistently, wherever the style play happens to go.
The core of Glass Hammer is in Fred Schendel and Steve Babb, who founded the band back in 1992 and haven't left it during the nearly three decades since. Both of them sing and play keyboards, but Schendel also provides guitars to the mix and Babb the bass. Aaron Raulston has provided drums since 2013 but everyone else involved comes in as a session musician and there tend to be a lot of those, eight of them on this album alone.
That's perhaps highlighted best by October Ballad, eight songs in, which has a female lead vocal from Susie Bogdanowicz, a regular collaborator. Prior to this song, the vocal was always male, even if we completely failed to notice that it was provided by three different people. A fourth shows up on The Key and we still can't really tell the difference. Maybe one of the reasons that I heard so much Alan Parsons Project here is because those different singers are all archetypal commercial prog rock vocalists, just like the six on Eye in the Sky. A female lead shakes that up completely.
I'd be hard pressed to choose my favourite piece, because of the variety on offer, but I loved the Tangerine Dream style pieces, like At the Threshold of Dreams and The Tower, as well as the longer ones like The Dreaming City, Cold Star and The Watchman on the Walls. The more commercial songs left me a little drier but they're still good. The oddest song here is surely The Key, which adds a little sleaze into its riffs. It's really not an Aerosmith song any more than it's a Boston song, but it's like those bands transformed into an Alan Parsons Project song.
My last note is that this is a generous slab of music. By the time we get to The Watchman on the Walls, we've already heard fifty minutes of it, but this one adds eleven and a half more, almost as a substantial reprise, summing up all the different influences in play thus far and adding that 2112-era Rush for good measure. If you're into all these influences, this may well be your favourite album of the year, whether you care about the loose Lovecraftian concept in play or not.