Friday 11 November 2022

Glass Hammer - At the Gate (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 7 Oct 2022
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Glass Hammer certainly aren't keeping us waiting for new material nowadays, this one being their third in three years and their twentieth over all. I gave Dreaming City a highly recommended 8/10 in 2020 but only a 7/10 for Skallagrim - Into the Breach a year later. I'm going with the same on this one because it's clearly a good album, especially after a couple of listens to sink in, but nothing on it stands out particularly in memory. Sure, I don't expect to be humming any Glass Hammer hooks in the shower because they just leap into my head, but this is very much an album to befriend over time.

It's a little softer, I think, than Skallagrim, but that had ratcheted up the heaviness from the album before it. Savage has heavier riffing and there's a neat grungy riff early in All Alone before it goes for the Sabbath sound, even down to Ozzy-esque vocal phrasing, though Hannah Pryor doesn't aim to sound like him otherwise, which would be weird. She's back again as lead vocalist, which in Glass Hammer means that she sings most of these songs, but with Fred Schendel and Steve Babb taking over every once in a while. I like Pryor's voice but it generally plays out as softer and folkier, which takes an edge off even the heavier songs.

She also often takes a lighter approach, starting with the opener, The Years Roll By, which is... well, it's very pleasant and if that sounds to you like a backhanded compliment, I guess you could take it that way. I liked the song and feel that it's inherently likeable, but it feels rather like a cool breeze on a hot day—it's nice and it's refreshing but there's no bite to it. Much later, because once again, this album nudges its way past an hour, she takes on a more pop-oriented style for In the Shadows. Again, that one's acutely likeable but you'll need to engage with it because it's too polite to begin that conversation.

Oddly, I found that I liked Savage not only because every instrument, from guitar to keyboards and not excluding Pryor's voice, gains edges, but because there's a neat if short drop into what sounds like a koto. I wanted a lot more of that sort of thing on this album, perhaps all the more given that I'm listening right after the latest Sigh album, but the band keep on rolling to maintain the groove that they've built on pretty much every song. Where they mix things up, which they do at points, it tends to be by shifting the groove between songs. North of North, as an example, plays out rather like Tangerine Dream, deploying their memorable pulsing synth approach with overlaid melodies. It stays instrumental, except for a vocalisation or three deeper in the mix.

It took me a couple of listens to get used to this album, but each song popped eventually and found its own identity. The catch is that they popped so well that, while all the best details stood out well for me to appreciate, so did the worst, though that seems like an overly harsh word to use. It's just that little decisions here and there bugged me, which isn't a good thing because I'm not remotely able to call myself a musician—the only thing I can play is the fool—and I should be trusting in the decisionmaking of talented and experienced musicians like those in Glass Hammer at every single time.

For instance, I didn't get why the bass was so high in the mix. I don't mean that the sound is made heavier by boosting the bottom end, just that this is the most audible bass I've heard in forever, a decision I don't get. The guitars and the drums are lower and the vocals below them. Maybe that's in part because Pryor has a strong voice but lowering it in the mix makes it feel more delicate and folky. That means that songs like All for Love, where she does a particularly good job, subdue her effect somewhat.

I love the opening keyboard riff to Snowblind Girl, but it transfers to guitar almost immediately in place of developing it more on the keyboard first. I liked In the Shadows but I don't get why it has a pop vocal instead of a folky rock vocal. I liked It's Love too, the epic of the album at thirteen and a half minutes, but it doesn't play out like an epic. It feels like other songs here, just longer with no special emotional resonance. It also begins with a single repeated piano note that gets annoying over repeat listens, even though it builds well from there, each additional layer elevating it more.

I should emphasise that these are minor things but there are a lot of them and they made my list of notes look far more negative than it ought to have been. This is another good album from Glass Hammer, even if it's not up to the standards of Dreaming City. Factor in that they're giving us over an hour of music every year nowadays and that seems even more impressive. Somehow, though, I would throw out North of North, the instrumental, as my favourite track here, even if I'm enjoying Hannah Pryor as lead vocalist. That's just another reason why this one feels just a little awkward.

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