CHRONOMETREE: Glass Hammer’s 3rd-Wave Prog Masterpiece

Glass Hammer, CHRONOMETREE (Sound Resources, 2000).  Artists: Steve Babb and Fred Schendel with Brad Marler; Walter Moore; Arjen Lucaseen; Terry Clouse; Susie Warren Bogdanowicz; Sarah Snydor; and Jamie Watkins.

Tracks

  • “All in Good Time/Part One”—Empty Space & Revealer; An Eldritch Wind; Revelation/Chronometry; Chronotheme; A Perfect Carousel; Chronos Deliverer.
  • “All in Good Time/Part Two”—Shapes of the Morning; Chronoverture; The Waiting; Watching the Sky.
Taken when PERILOUS came out.
Taken when PERILOUS came out.

Fifteen years ago, Glass Hammer released a masterpiece: CHRONOMETREE.

I almost modified “masterpiece” with bizarre and unexpected, but masterpiece probably doesn’t need exaggerations or qualifications.  All masterpieces are bizarre and unexpected.  They don’t fit the norm.  Neither does CHRONOMETREE.

A gorgeous cover or a gorgeous album.
A gorgeous cover or a gorgeous album.

Originally, Fred Schendel had written the music to be a part of a solo instrumental release.  Steve Babb liked the music so much, he asked Schendel to make it a GH album, a concept about concepts.  Schendel happily agreed.

I remember my wife and I left town for a week’s vacation and when we returned a lot of Chronometree’s music had already been written by Fred. He wanted it to be an instrumental solo project, but the sound of that Hammond organ and the retro style of the music was such that I insisted we make it a full blown Glass Hammer project with a storyline. We never imagined it would be such a turning point for us. That’s the moment we embraced our roots and we have never truly repented of it. Prog fans couldn’t resist the storyline, as everyone could relate to our character “Tom” and his slacker friends. Chronometree was a prog album about taking prog albums too seriously. We’re all guilty of it. Leave it to Glass Hammer to call attention to that.—Steve Babb, July 28, 2015

It’s worth remembering at this point that GH had not fully established itself as a major and globally-known progressive rock act when CHROMONETREE first appeared.  While Babb and Schendel had been friends since the 1980s, they had been releasing Glass Hammer albums only since 1993.  Though they loved progressive rock, they had no idea where the genre existed in the early 1990s.  Many now label them—in hindsight—as “neo prog,” a part of the second wave of progressive rock.  They are really, however, pioneers of 3rd-Wave Prog and have maintained their status as one of the two or three premier bands of 3rd Wave over the past fifteen years.  Their music, always deep and often overblown (when necessary), really defines the American aspect of 3rd-Wave Prog.  They are, to put it bluntly, quintessential to 3rd-Wave Prog.  They define it, they embody it, and they progress it.

In the early 1990s, however, Babb and Schendel labeled themselves “fantasy rock,” blending the imaginary worlds of the Inklings (C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien) with the musical talents and stylings of Kansas and Yes.  To their surprise, they sold well, supported by their own successful recording studio, SOUND RESOURCES, which had recorded everything from country music to audio books.  Indeed, they have never lost money on any Glass Hammer releases, and their popularity and profitability has grown at the same pace as their artistic innovation and confidence.

Let me admit a personal bias here.  I know Steve Babb, and I consider him a very good friend.  He is, from my perspective, a man of immense talent as well as as integrity.  Every dollar he and Schendel have earned is much more than justly earned.  They appeal to the soul and the mind, not the emotions or the pocketbook.  Yet, they have done well where so many others have failed.  Indeed, the less commercially viable and artistic their art has become, the more successful they have been.  A beautiful paradox.

The titles.
The titles.

I have had the privilege of writing about their history over at Carl Olson’s magnificent Catholic World Report: http://www.catholicworldreport.com/Item/2988/the_music_of_glass_hammer_an_appreciation.aspx

Prior to CHRONOMETREE, Glass Hammer had written and produced three of their fantasy rock albums: JOURNEY OF THE DUNADAN (1993); PERELANDRA (1995); and ON TO EVERMORE (1998).  In almost every way, CHRONOMETREE signaled a new era for Glass Hammer.  Though still rooted in fantasy, the story of CHRONOMETREE is as much science fiction and psychological study as it is fantasy.  While it is only a notch below LEX REX in terms of artistic expression, it was a necessary precursor to LEX REX and to all of the albums that have followed.

Star voice changing feel call it out

sounding round the bright sized time

We never saw again

Forgot between the real pulse

The breath of life attain

Let play the sonic wind revealing

Not turning form loose tale

Of awesome thunder turn around the scene

To passion shall not surely fail

–From the opening of CHRONOMETREE.  Tom, it seems, is getting word from 1972’s CLOSE TO THE EDGE.

As mentioned above, every single Glass Hammer album has been better than the previous one.  And, yet, there’s not a dud anywhere in GH’s discography.  GH really do define excellence at every level: song-writing; lyrics; production; and packaging.  One consistent criticism of GH has been that they are “retro-prog.”  Forgive me a pet-peeve, but this is total nonsense.  There is no doubt that Babb and Schendel possess a healthy piety toward those who come before them.  But, so does any great artist.  Art cannot be so radical that it is not recognized by the larger community.  It also is never totally derivative unless it is an obvious mockery.

Do Babb and Schendel love Yes and Kansas and Genesis?  Of course.  So does probably everyone reading this article.  Yet, Babb and Schendel move well beyond their inspirations.

If nothing else, Glass Hammer should be praised not only for their very healthy innovation (Have you ever heard an album like LEX REX?  No, it’s unique.), but especially for their never-ending pursuit of excellence.  I offer the following two pieces of evidence out of a hundred such: 1) Susie Warren Bogdanowicz as singer.  This woman is a goddess of song and voice.  Outside of David Landon and Leah McHenry, she is the single best voice in rock right now.  2) Aaron Raulston, drummer.  This guy could easily hold his own against Peart, NDV, and Portnoy.

Lesser men than Babb and Schendel might be intimidated at having such talent in their band.  But, NOT Babb and Schendel.  They seek the excellent and incorporate it whenever they can.  They’re leaders, not cowards.  And, they wisely realize, adding the extraordinary talents of a Bogdanowicz or Raulston only serves to make them all better.

Glass_Hammer-Chronometree-3-CD-

CHRONOMETREE is the last of the somewhat original lineup, though it should properly be considered a nexus for the band as well as for 3rd-Wave Prog.  Brad Marler provides lead vocals, and even the brilliant Dutch prog master Arjen Lucassen plays on the album.

As most describe the album, CHRONOMETREE is as a “tongue-in-check” concept album about being too obsessed with concept albums.  Having spent many hours of my pre-marriage days wearing headphones and listening intently to progressive rock over and over again in the dark of my bedroom, analyzing every lyric to the point of absurdity, I very well understand the obsessive element.

And eldritch wind howls and moans

Through the space that I was shown

Can you hear their urgent call

Hidden in the sound

As this smoky room begins to fade

And eldritch wind howls and moans

Through the space that I was shown

I’ve been called to other stars

(and the heavens know my name)

I’ve been shown another world

As the vinyl turns

As the vinyl turns

–An Eldritch Wind

Perhaps by grace alone, I have turned this teenage obsession into a healthy hobby as an adult.  Regardless, I can relate to the protagonist of the album, though I can also assure the reader that I have never believed that the albums or bands were sending me gnostic messages.

I have always, however, looked for the symbolism and deeper meanings in progressive rock albums.  Obviously, Babb and Schendel have as well.  For me, the lyrics are the biggest draw to prog.  But, equally important is how artists mingle and match the word and the note.

With just the moon

To light our way

We headed back to Tom’s house

To wait for the day

The voices in his head

Had told him wrong

Science reduced to the musings of a song

All mixed up with the essence of his bong

Chronometree!

–Watching the Sky

If you know Glass Hammer, nothing in this article has been a revelation to you.  You know very well that Glass Hammer should be the proper synonym for beauty, truth, goodness, and excellence.  You also know that Babb and Schendel would NEVER release anything that is less than perfect.  And, you know that as natural leaders and artists, Babb and Schendel readily and properly form community around them and their art.

If you don’t know Glass Hammer, I envy you.  I would give so much to listen to GH for the first time. . . again.

Thoughts?

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