Wednesday 13 December 2023

Glass Hammer - Arise (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Oct 2023
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Glass Hammer have never sat around twiddling their thumbs in between albums. The longest gap between releases thus far has been three years and that was between albums two and three way back in 1995 and 1998. However, this matches their longest sustained period of annual releases, as the fourth in a row. I've reviewed all four and I've thoroughly enjoyed each of them. My favourite is surely the first of them, Dreaming City in 2020, but I could see other people choosing otherwise, Prog Archives raters putting Skallagrimm: Into the Breach top and this second. There's no correct choice.

Perhaps the consistency, both in schedule and quality, is because the line-up has remained rather stable of late, Hannah Pryor firmly establishing herself as lead vocalist on a third album running, Steve Babb performing on multiple instruments throughout and Reece Boyd gradually bulking up his contributions on guitars. He's played on all four, as has Fred Schendel, who's only on one track this time around. That just leaves Randall Williams, who I believe is new on drums.

This is a concept album, hardly a new approach for Glass Hammer who started out with one back in 1993. However, they've mostly restricted those to fantasy subjects, while this is science fiction, the story of an android who's sent out into the stars in a spaceship called the Daedalus to discover the most amazing sights that the galaxy has to offer. Babb has suggested that this is his "progressive rock spin on space rock" and that makes sense, because the biggest difference between this and its recent predecessors is in his keyboards, which are far from what they used to be.

He used to play far more traditionally with a Keith Emerson sort of mindset but this is very perky keyboard work, Babb almost treating his synths more like a prepared piano, programming chirps and bleeps as individual notes and then playing them in a way that we interpret rather than hear as music. On Mare Sirenum, he generates notes almost like stars sparkling in the firmament. It's a very impressionistic approach and it does a wonderful job at generating a particular mood of wild possibility.

There are other changes here too. Glass Hammer have been getting a little heavier of late and do so again here, but not throughout. It's an album of two halves, the first seven tracks serving as an initial journey out into deep space, racking up around half an hour between them, and the last two matching that timeframe on a journey back. However, that first half is also easily broken up into a couple of halves, the first light and airy, a journey full of hope but the second much heavier and full of darkness as the Daedalus returns.

It's worth considering that first half of the first half as very modern prog rock, which could easily be called neo-neo-prog if that wasn't so inherently clumsy a term. It's rooted in electronica and is so modern that it's fair to call it futuristic. While there's a bass on Arion (18 Delphini b) to move it forward and Babb's vocals are heavily manipulated, like a kid who's just found out what autotune is and wants to see how far the human voice can be distorted, it's fundamentally driven by Babb's keyboards. That starts to change in Lost, which is dense and fascinating before it opens wide with Pryor's voice. Then the hints become the norm in Rift at WASP-12 and Proxima Centauri B.

WASP-12 is psychedelic rock with the most metallic guitar thus far. There's Hawkwind in this sound for sure, but something more. I hear elements of doom metal but also nineties alt rock. Proxima Centauri B is heavier again, far more doom metal but with so much fuzz on Babb's bass that we're better off calling in stoner metal, even if Pryor's vocals are still clean. There's Sabbath in the riffs, but also in those vocals, which I expected a lot less. Halfway through, things smooth out, even with a fuzzladen bass, as if the Daedalus is leaving the darkness behind.

And so to the final two songs. Arise plays epic but it's not fundamentally unusual. It's just a longer song by far than those that came before, one that may well be my favurite, because it breathes so well. It's patient and has some neat ethnic tinges and Vangelis-like touches. While it runs a hefty twelve minutes, The Return of Daedalus is longer again by four, but it plays very differently. While it starts out epic with samples, it mostly turns into an instrumental jam. Now, it's a very tasty jam that moves through genres as diverse as stoner rock and jazz to and from prog, but it doesn't add to the concept behind the album. Arise does some of that, but nowhere near as much.

Glass Hammer continue to evolve, as perhaps prog rock bands always should, and I'm finding their growth fascinating. Not everything here works for me, the manipulated vocals on Arion a definite no and the concept not entirely clear, especially when it's apparently forgotten during that long final jam. However, most of it does and I thoroughly enjoyed the combination of spacier keyboard work and heavier bass and guitar. Hearkening back to Kraftwerk while also heavying up into more modern instrumental stoner rock at the same time is a strange approach but a very good one. I'm interested to see how the next album plays. And, right now, it seems likely that we can expect that in late 2024, which is getting closer every day.

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