[A review of Glass Hammer, ODE TO ECHO (Sound Resources, 2014). Please excuse any typos. I composed this on my ipad while waiting for a very, very delayed flight at the Detroit airport.]
For Glass Hammer, ODE TO ECHO means two things. First, and vitally, it’s a reference to a story of antiquity by Heroicus and dealing with the greatest of warriors, Achilles. Second, it’s a tribute to two decades of success as a band.
In every way, this album is packed with brilliance, beauty, and treats around every corner.
One of the most noticeable features of Glass Hammer’s latest, ODE TO ECHO, is its sheer diversity of styles and moods. Having four lead vocalists and three backup ones adds significantly to this, and it provides a wonderful listening experience. Over the course of eight songs, Babb and Schendel provide a journey into the fantastic and mythic. One could never find a dull moment here, even if one tried.
The second most noticeable aspect of the album is its self-assuredness. Progging since the early 1990s and rocking since the early 1980s, Babb and Schendel have every right to be confident. Creating Glass Hammer, a project that has always been self supporting, self sustaining, and impressively profitable, has proven significant not only for the history of American rock but, critically, for third-wave prog overall. These two geniuses emerged on the prog scene at the moment the genre was, almost certainly, at its nadir of popularity and influence. Through immense and never faltering talent, entrepreneurial initiative, and intense tenacity, Glass Hammer has reshaped much of the genre over the past two decades.
In almost every way, ODE TO ECHO, is a tribute and—musically—an autobiographical statement.
A third aspect of the album, and intimately connected to the second aspect, is Glass Hammer’s willingness to innovate as well as to borrow. Many reviewers have criticized the band for being too Yes-like. Babb and Schendel are nothing if not feisty, and such criticisms only fuel their desire to do whatever they want. If they want to reference Yes, they do so. If they want to reference Genesis, they do this as well. If they simply want to try something new, they do this, too! It’s endearing, frankly, contrarian, and very American. Hence, at a few points, this album references Yes from Going for the One as well as Yes from Magnification. At other points, it references Kansas (having David Ragsdale as a guest musician doesn’t hurt!). The Beatles creep in at points, too. Mostly, though, the album reveals the love Babb and Schendel bring to the art of music.
Frankly, I’m relieved Glass Hammer followed up their masterpiece, PERILOUS, with ODE TO ECHO. PERILOUS was so good and so mysterious as well as so profoundly moving that it would be most difficult for any band to follow. By moving away from a single story and embracing diversity of vocals and music styles, Babb and Schendel very successfully create a totally different kind of masterpiece.
While this is probably heresy in some circles, I find Jon Davison’s vocals fine but not glorious. I much prefer, for example, the vocals of a David Longdon, a Leah McHenry, a Sam Healy, a Jan-Henrik Ohme, or a Andy Tillison. Davison’s voice just comes across a little too fey at times. But, Susie Bogdanowicz? Be still my beating heart. She can sing, and she can sing with the absolute best of them. Indeed (and again I’m on possibly heretical ground), her version of Yes’s “South Side of the Sky” is better than the original. That she’s as gorgeous on the outside as she is in her vocals, of course, doesn’t hurt. But, once you’ve heard her vocals, you can’t imagine her as anything other than a truly beautiful person, nearly angelic.
Carl Groves and Walter Moore have much to offer as well, as do the backing vocalists.
No review of this album would be even close to complete without a reference to the actual playing. Babb and Schendel are certainly at their best. Indeed, their vast experience lends itself not to complacency but to the drive to perform better than ever. I have a feeling, these two do nothing half way. If a thing is to be done, it is to be done well. And, indeed, very, very well. I must also note the sonic excellence of the new drummer, Aaron Raulston. Sheesh, I’ve not heard anyone this good since Neil Peart and Nick D’Virgilio. Wow is all I can write. This guy will make his mark in the rock world, to be sure.
2014 has already proven to be a year every bit as good as 2012 and 2013, though we’re only in the fourth month. Whatever you do, do NOT bypass this album. ODE TO ECHO is not just great prog, it’s brilliant and shimmering Glass Hammer. Considering Glass Hammer never does anything that is not at the highest of standards, this is saying something.