Glass Hammer Breaks the World

Review: Glass Hammer, THE BREAKING OF THE WORLD (Sound Resources, 2015).

Tracks: Mythopoeia; Third Floor; Babylon; A Bird When it Sneezes; Sand; Bandwagon; Haunted; North Wind; and Nothing, Everything.

The band: Steve Babb; Fred Schendel; Kamran Alan Shikoh; Aaron Raulston; Carl Groves; and Susie Bogdanowicz.

Additional musicians: Steve Unruh and Michele Lynn. Produced by Schendel and Babb. 

Birzer rating: 10/10

The cover art is as gorgeous as the music.  Now, THIS is a real album cover.
The cover art is as gorgeous as the music. Now, THIS is a real album cover.

A mortal yet strives in his fallen state

Blessed is he

Who hears yet the strains of the song eternal

–Mythopoeia

Just when you thought the greatest and most venerable American prog band could get “none more prog,” along comes THE BREAKING OF THE WORLD, the best work of Glass Hammer’s career and, in some related fashion, their most progressive album thus far. This is not just album number fifteen in a list of fifteen sequential studio albums. Of course, there’s no such thing—and never has been—as “just another Glass Hammer album.” Each is a treasure, in and of itself. At the risk of sounding somewhat bizarre, I must write that THE BREAKING OF THE WORLD is so progressive, that it probably goes beyond progressive rock. It’s not genre-less, but it is probably genre-creating or, at the very least, genre transformational.

Glass Hammer has never shunned or forsaken its loyalties, and one always hears a bit of their loves and admirations in their music. Sometimes it’s Yes, sometimes Genesis, sometimes Kansas, and sometimes, ELP.

But, it’s always, also, distinctively Glass Hammer, wonderfully Schendel and Babb.

I tire of moving in place

I want to see what is beyond these walls

Confinement is death to my soul.

–Third Floor

For everything there is a season. For better or worse, the music of Glass Hammer did not enter into my life and penetrate my very soul until 2002. Fortuitously, a close friend and academic colleague knew of my love (obsession wouldn’t be inaccurate) of everything prog. She also, amazingly, knew Babb and Schendel really well.

My Glass Hammer collection, pre-ODE TO ECHO.
My Glass Hammer collection, pre-ODE TO ECHO.

As I’ve proudly mentioned elsewhere and frequently, LEX REX, Glass Hammer’s prog saga from 2002, just utterly floored me. I mean floored me. Really, utterly floored me. LEX REX did not merely become another part of my rather sizeable and ever-growing album collection, it became a defining album and remains so to this day, 13 years later. One of the problems with encountering a masterpiece from a band is that every subsequent release not only has to match that one, but it must best it. The standard is pretty amazingly high, and it only goes up for every album release. “Now, without further ado. . .”

No way could these two guys from Tennessee do that again, at least not without re-writing and re-hashing LEX REX. But, then, came SHADOWLANDS (2003) with its overwhelming intensity; THE INCONSOLABLE SECRET (2005) with its depths of imagination and poetry; CULTURE OF ASCENT with the glorious voice of Susie Bogdanowicz (the best voice in rock, to my mind, with David Longdon and Leah McHenry standing at the top with her); the playfulness of THREE CHEERS (2009); the sonic horizons broken with IF (2010) and COR CORDIUM (2011); the soulfully penetrating story of PERILOUS (2012); and the classical reach of ODE TO ECHO (2014).  I guess two guys from Tennessee really can do astounding things, repeatedly!

The stench of morality, real or imagined

Reeking like burning hair

All those meddling fools, all those pious Judases

Let them all burn in the world they hold dear

I sail away, crossing the Rubicon.

–Babylon

Following this band rather seriously for almost a decade and a half, I can state a few things rather certainly. First, this band never settles. Second, this band never stops pursing excellence. There’s almost a holy fidelity in Babb and Schendel’s struggle against the tapioca conformity of so much of this post-modern world. In true romantic fashion, the two wield a number of finely-honed (most likely, Elvish) blades against such demons of conformity and the whirligig of the abyss. Third, not content to fight alone, they lead not only their fellow artists, but also their fans in a righteous rage against all that grates in the here below.

Grove, Bogdanowicz, Shikoh, Babb, Raulston, and Schendel.
Grove, Bogdanowicz, Shikoh, Babb, Raulston, and Schendel.

It’s worth pondering the sheer amount of talent Babb and Schendel have gathered around them and their two-decade plus project. Of course, Babb is one of the best bassists alive, topping Squire and equaling Lee, and Schendel can plays the keys as well and, frankly, far more tastefully than the standard bearer of prog, Wakeman. Then, add in Aaron Raulston, one brilliant pounder of skins. And, with Raulston and Babb, you have the single best rhythm section alive. Shikoh plays with mighty innovation and verve. Groves gives everything he has in his singing, presenting melodies in a divine fashion. And, then, of course, there’s Bogdanowicz, who, I assume, must’ve been given some preternatural glimpse of heaven, for her voice is something out of Dante’s Paradiso.

On this album, Babb and Schendel have also brought in Michele Lynn to contribute on vocals and Steve Unruh to play violin and flute. Each adds considerably to what is already an incredible album.

Indeed, THE BREAKING OF THE WORLD holds together perfectly. The album begins with a re-working of J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1931 poem, “Mythopoeia,” dedicated to his closest friend, C.S. Lewis. In many ways, this is Glass Hammer dedicating not just this album—but its entire body of work—to its many, many fans. Through the mysterious turning of the spheres, Babb and Shendel have been offered a glimpse of all that matters here and in eternity. This album, then, is nothing less than a gift.

Track two, “Third Floor,” is equal parts serious intensity and playfully quirky. ON the serious level, the lyrics seem to be a mythological story dealing with the loss of reason as well as of imagination. At a more playful level, it’s about an elevator’s frustration at being limited in its movements.

“Babylon,” the third track, has a Neil Peart-quality, a righteous anger against those who wield a falsely righteous anger. At what point does a warning become mere unrelenting bitterness?

Possibly a sequel to Yes’s “Man in a White Car,” the fourth track of the album, “A Bird When it Sneezes” is a very humorous wall of jazz fusion, thirty-four seconds in length. As with “Man in a White Car,” “A Bird” is more mystery than story.

Melancholic, “Sand” considers the endless devouring of time, the wasting of time, and our inability to recapture what has come before.

Track six, “Bandwagon,” is the most traditionally progressive of the songs, something from the GOING FOR THE ONE and the POINT OF NO RETURN era. Pounding, energetic, and hyper, it presents the perfect counterpoint to “Sand.”

“Haunted,” the seventh track, might very well be the conclusion to the story so beautifully told in PERILOUS. The guitarist, Shikoh, writes the music, while Babb pens the lyrics. Babb, an accomplished and published poet, offers his best verse here. If the opening track, “Mythopoeia,” presents a Glass Hammer mission statement, “Haunted,” offers the highest of the high, a sort of liturgical desire. This is my favorite track of the album, and its essence certainly lives up to its title, with Babb giving us words equal to those of T.S. Eliot and David Jones in their penetration and pervasion. If I’m interpreting this correctly, “Haunted” is about the tragedy of the seasons and the seemingly endlessness of human follies. But, as with all haunted things, there’s a hopefulness, as it reveals there is something vital beyond the present moment. Certainly, the words that Babb writes here are worthy of his next book of verse.

The penultimate track, “North Wind,” immediately brings to mind George MacDonald’s classic, AT THE BACK OF THE NORTH WIND. Lush, the song, driven by bass and keyboards, contemplates the meaning of the warmth or coldness of a emotional responses. As with so much on this album, whatever problems exist, the world will right itself in its own time. Or, in God’s own time.

Also beautiful, especially lyrically, is track nine, “Nothing Everything,” a meditation on how the smallest thing represents the largest, but also how the smallest thing influences the world in ways uncounted and uncountable.

For a band known for their tightness, they’ve never sounded tighter.

For a band known for its soaring melodies and harmonies, they’ve never soared high or this rapidly.

For a band known for its poetic lyrics, they’ve never been more poetic.

glass hammer ode to echo
Last year’s excellent Glass Hammer album, ODE TO ECHO.

In 1950, J.R.R. Tolkien expressed his desire to create a mythology and a world so rich that artists, poets, and architects of a million backgrounds might play around in it. Babb and Schendel have never shied away from their profound admiration of all things Inklings. As mentioned earlier, the opening song references and rewrites much of Tolkien’s poem of appreciation to his best friend, C.S. Lewis.

It’s worth repeating two stanzas from the original poem:

I would that I might with the minstrels song

and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.

I would be with the mariners of the deep

that cut their slender planks on mountains steep

and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,

for some have passed beyond the fabled West.

I would with the beleaguered fools be told,

that keep an inner fastness where their gold,

impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring

to mint in image blurred of distant king,

or in fantastic banners weave the sheen

heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.

I will not walk with your progressive apes,

erect and sapient. Before them gapes

the dark abyss to which their progress tends–

if by God’s mercy progress ever ends,

and does not ceaselessly revolve the same

unfruitful course with changing of a name.

I will not treat your dusty path and flat,

denoting this and that by this and that,

your world immutable wherein no part

the little maker has with maker’s art.

I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,

nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.

I’ll come back to these stanzas in a moment.

Before getting back to them, though, it’s vital to discuss the meaning of the album title, THE BREAKING OF THE WORLD. The idea also comes from Tolkien, specifically from the end of the Second Age of Middle-earth. In Tolkien’s legendarium, he wrote that the men of Númenor, blessed by all of the gods, took their gifts for granted, listened to the lies of Sauron, and began to worship death itself. In a final act of hubris, the men of Númenor decided to invade the Blessed Realm, the land of the gods.

To save the world as a whole, Iluvatar (God the Father) broke the island kingdom, though not before the Men of the West, such as the human ancestors of Aragorn, made their way to Middle-earth. The story is long and involved, as mythic as it gets (this is Tolkien, after all), and the lesson is clear: never take for granted all that is given us and never make a god of false things.

In one of Tolkien’s many writings, he put the following into the mouth of a wise woman: “We cannot dwell in the time that is to come lest we lose our now for a phantom of our own design.”

And, this brings us back to Tolkien’s poem, “Mythopoeia.”

In every word, every note, every piece of art that Glass Hammer presents or ever has presented, Babb and Schendel refuse to compromise, they refuse to give in, and they refuse to worship false things. They are progressive, but only if that progress leads us to Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.

THE BREAKING OF THE WORLD will be available for pre-order on March 1.  To pre-order (starting March 1), go here.

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