Pensive, deep, and resonating strings eagerly invite listeners to immerse themselves utterly, fully, and completely in the album. From there, keyboards swirl in anthemic Emerson-esque majesty until the entire orchestra begins what is nothing less than an all-encompassing and fetching fanfare.
We the listener feel not the abstraction of the music, but its tangibility. We might very well be able to touch it. We are not “fans” witnessing a spectacle from afar, hoping to catch a mere glimpse from our balcony seats the smiles that pass between Susie and Fred, the nods between Aaron and Steve, or which guitar Alan is using on this or that tune. No, nothing like any of this. With UNTOLD TALES, we the listeners are members of the artistic endeavor as a whole, as much a part of the band as those on stage, and just as fundamental to the artistic success of it all.
With the band’s latest release, UNTOLD TALES, Glass Hammer proves once again why it’s North America’s single finest band, growing better and better with the passing of time.
Indeed, its only rival for the top spot in the entirety of the rock world of 2017 is England’s Big Big Train. Each band cares deeply about its art, and each makes us—the audience—better because of the integrity and innovation demonstrated for all to see and all to share.
Unlike last year’s, VALKYRIE—the single best release of 2016 in this world or in any other—UNTOLD TALES is a compilation of what would’ve once been fondly called “b-sides” and alternative tracks. Or, if you were lucky enough to have come of age during the Reagan years, you might very well remember them as “12 inch singles.”
True to form and true to Glass Hammer’s default M.O., the lucky thirteen tracks of UNTOLD TALES come with extensive notes detailing the context, the authorship, and the meaning of each track. As a historian, I can’t help but smile to myself. Babb and Schendel have already done all of the work of the archivist! We just get to sit back, listen, read, and enjoy.
The thirteen songs include reworkings of the band’s older music, live tracks, tracks written for other groups and albums, and covers. As to the latter, I have yet to hear Glass Hammer cover a song without making it better than the original. While the Argent and George Harrison covers on UNTOLD TALES don’t match the sheer genius of the band’s cover of “South Side of the Sky” from 2007, they are really, really good. And, yes, they are better than the originals. Some of the tracks are orchestral, some are folkish, and some of traditional and, for lack of a better term, “cozy.”
There are also several instrumentals. I was skeptical at first, as I consider Susie Bogdanowicz to possess the best voice in rock, and I felt I might be deprived of enjoying the songs without her magnificence. But, once again, GH proved their own excellence.
And, at this point in the review, I must make another note. Being audiophiles and perfectionists, Babb and Schendel know exactly how to make an album flow. This album, though constructed of previously released and disparate pieces, becomes a gloriously cohesive whole.
One of the songs that surprised me most is track 12, “The Impulsive Type,” featuring Neil Peart on drums! Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love Raulston’s drumming. The guy is astounding, but I wasn’t expecting Rush to show up on Glass Hammer. Yet, there is Peart, drumming in the way only Peart can. Glass Hammer takes advantage of this to write a rather Rush-ian song.
I suppose it’s predictable, but my favorite track on the album is track 11, “Cool Air.” It’s the proggiest song on the album, and it retells an H.P. Lovecraft story. Prog, Glass Hammer, and Lovecraft? What’s not to love?
Admittedly, I’m obsessed with Glass Hammer, and I own everything that is available from the band. I’ve hunted down even the most obscure of their releases. So, if I’m biased in this review, so be it. Still, as someone who has spent his adult professional life studying history and myth, I can state with certainty that Babb, Schendel, and co are some of our best and most interesting story tellers. How many times have you picked up a fantasy novel with the blurb on the back reading: “A worthy successor to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings”? Well, Babb and Schendel ARE the worthy successors to Tolkien. If last year’s VALKYRIE was The Silmarillion, this year’s UNTOLD TALES is Unfinished Tales.
I’m already awaiting next year’s release!