Little did Glass Hammer masterminds Fred Schendel and Steve Babb know the uphill climb their new effort Dreaming City would face. Not only has the album’s release taken a hit from the coronavirus pandemic’s overall toll on the music industry— Schendel and Babb have also been dealing with the aftermath of a 1500-yard wide tornado that hit Chattanooga, Tennessee on Easter Sunday.
Nevertheless, they’re persisting — and well they should. Dreaming City is another fine, fine Glass Hammer album; its thrilling musical voyages mesh marvelously with an unexpectedly apropos narrative, and the result is surprisingly suited for these unprecedented times.
The big news here (and the big hook for me) is how Dreaming City’s concept channels a very specific vibe — the vintage fantasy paperbacks that glutted newsstands and drugstores in prog rock’s golden era. No, not the thick multi-part epics that sprouted like kudzu after The Lord of the Rings’ mass market breakout — I’m talking about the 200-pagers (frequently mash-ups of short stories) that leaned toward the grittier “sword and sorcery” end of the genre. Steve Babb’s story steers directly for the classic archetypes of Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga and Robert E. Howard’s Conan tales: an alienated adventurer battling beastly creatures and fiendish wizards, racing against time to save a damsel in distress from a horrific fate — and armed with a mystical sword, no less. Books like these were a major thrill of my middle school years (and still provide the occasional pleasurable re-read) , so I’m delighted by Babb’s tapping into them for inspiration here.
The varied musical palette pairs perfectly with the ups and downs of the story; especially compared to the winning, poppy sheen of 2018’s Chronomonaut, Dreaming City is a moodier, more ferocious beast. The core team of Babb (bass, keys, lead and backing vocals) Schendel (keys, guitars and backing vocals) and Aaron Raulston (drums) rock hard from the start, summoning the ghosts of synth-heavy Rush (the title track, “Cold Star”) and Hydra-era Toto (“Terminus”) but giving each multi-sectioned tune an up-to-date spin. The menacing drone of “The Lurker Beneath,” the monstrously heavy “Pagarna” and the Floydian soundscape “At the Threshold of Dreams” downshift into the spacious mid-tempo reveries “This Lonely World” and “October Ballad” (the latter featuring yet another standout Susie Bogdanowicz vocal). Ramping up via the tangerine-dreamy “The Tower” and the menacing doom-synth crescendo of “A Desperate Man”, the stage seems set for a stereotypical final confrontation. But the riff-go-round of “The Key” doesn’t just upend musical expectations (check out Barry Serroff’s stunning flute work), it serves up a deft, unlooked-for plot twist, leaving the protagonist bereft in a way you’d least expect.
And that’s where the final, towering epic “The Watchman on the Wall” builds from. Musically, it pulls off another nifty Rush tribute — kicking off as a long-lost Moving Pictures outtake, but somehow winding up in 2112/A Farewell to Kings territory before its big finish. Lyrically, it’s a classic Glass Hammer closer, retconning the hero’s adventure into an ongoing spiritual quest: heading into an uncertain future, but ready to “Find hope in the morning/Even in the dark of night”.
There are plenty of other cool moments to enjoy on Dreaming City — guest shots from vocalists Reese Boyd, John Beagley and Joe Logan, guitar work by Brian Brewer and James Byron Schoen, Schendel’s delightfully spindly organ and synth solos. All these details slot into a powerful portrait of determination and hope in the face of adversity and devastation. That’s what makes Glass Hammer’s latest not just another winning album, but — just maybe — a work of art to inspire everyone with ears to hear during this strange season.
Dreaming City is available directly from Glass Hammer.