Glass Hammer Smashes Time

A Hole In The Sky

Do you long for the days when listening to FM rock radio meant hearing classic Todd Rundgren, early Chicago, ELO, ELP, Pink Floyd, and maybe a little Autobahn courtesy of Kraftwerk? Do you miss watching Rockford Files and Barney Miller on TV? If so, then you will love Glass Hammer’s new album, Chronomonaut. It is a trip back in time to those heady days of the 1970s when DJs thought nothing of playing an entire album side in the middle of an afternoon.

Brad Birzer has already written an impossible-to-improve-upon review of Glass Hammer’s latest, but I am so captivated by this album that I had to add my voice to the chorus of praise it is garnering. While Valkyrie was a beautiful and sympathetic examination of the horrors of WWI trench warfare and the toll it took on soldiers, Chronomonaut is a much lighter affair, at least in its brilliant mix of styles of music. Tongues are firmly in cheek throughout this update on the hapless protagonist, Tom Timely, whom we first met in 2000’s Chronometree.

Tom’s still convinced he’s receiving secret messages via prog music, and he is not a happy inhabitant of the 2010s. He is sure that he can travel back in time to the 1970s and fix whatever it was that made his life go off the rails. Where Chronometree was pretty much all in fun, though, this new chapter has some deeper messages lurking beneath the surface.

The music is all over the place, and I mean that in a good way. I hear snatches of early Chicago in the horns, some Houses of the Holy – era Led Zep, some early-80s new waviness, and a heavy dollop of Something/Anything? – era Todd Rundgren. Babb and Schendel put it all in a blender and it comes out sounding pretty glorious. Susie Bogdanowicz is still on board, thankfully, contributing her trademark angelic vocals. Aaron Raulston is solid as a rock throughout. He is the most adaptable drummer I’ve heard – regardless of the musical style, his percussion is a perfect fit. Steve Babb is now my favorite bassist – he is endlessly inventive and melodic without dominating the proceedings. And of course, Fred Schendel is marvelous on guitar and keyboards, pulling all kinds of vintage sounds out of his instrumental arsenal.

In the end though, amidst the sheer pleasure of listening to all of this ear candy, there is a sobering message: nostalgia for its own sake can be dangerous. As they sing in the album’s final and finest song, “Fade Away”,

“If you could truly travel back

You’d still not find the things you lack.

The glories you seem to recall

Were not glory after all.”

Tom, it turns out, is searching for Truth, and in the end he finds it. It’s a deeply moving moment in the arc of the album’s trajectory. There are not many bands who could pull off such a mix of engaging melodies with such a serious message. Glass Hammer, however, are not your typical band. They make it look easy, which is all the more impressive. Long may they run!

Catherine Wheel’s Missing Link

 

For some reason yesterday, it popped into my head to pull out Catherine Wheel’s 1997 Adam and Eve for a spin in the CD player. I had not listened to it in years, but four consecutive listens later, I am compelled to share my love of this album. I think it is because it is the missing link between classic Pink Floyd,  late-era Talk Talk, and ’90s Britpop, three of my favorite genres of music. And yes, it is definitely proggy!

Adam and Eve is Catherine Wheel’s fourth proper album, following the B-sides compilation Like Cats and Dogs. Their first two, Ferment and Chrome, had most people lumping them in with the “shoegazer” crowd – as a matter of fact, many consider Ferment a founding document of shoegazing, along with My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and Ride’s Nowhere. CW’s third album, Happy Days, went for a more American grunge feel and earned the band some stateside success. However, there was something unusual and intriguing stirring beneath the surface of those amped-up guitars. For one thing, there was a pronounced Pink Floyd influence (Storm Thorgerson of Hignosis fame was responsible for the art) and, even better, Tim Friese Greene and Mark Feltham from Talk Talk’s classic Spirit of Eden were on board contributing keyboards and harmonica. Eat my Dust, You Insensitive F***k sounds like a lost track from that album, with Rob Dickinson crooning in his best Hollis voice while Feltham’s harmonica shivers and shakes behind him.

So, attentive CW fans should have known something special was in the works for Adam and Eve, and the band did not disappoint. The lead track is not even listed – it is a spare acoustic blues with Dickinson singing, “Let’s get started” that immediately segues into Future Boy. The discordant opening chord recalls Talk Talk’s The Rainbow, as does the spare percussion and wide-open spacey production. Dickinson pleads with a woman that he’ll be anything she needs – “I’ll be your future boy/cos if that is what you need” – while acknowledging “A boy should know his limitations/but I’ve talked myself through less”.

Next up is the “hit” off the album, Delicious, which is a pure blast of guitar-based aural pleasure that builds and builds to a catchy chorus. Broken Nose continues the hard rock mode, with Dickinson’s vocals sounding ironically gentle while his and Brian Futter’s guitars swirl and intertwine. I love the line, “Hey you, with your public displays of pain/You’ve been painful for too long”. (A reference to Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who released OK Computer the same year as Adam and Eve?)

The pace slows down with the keyboard-heavy Phantom Of  The American Mother and the achingly beautiful Ma Solituda. The latter features the finest vocals of any CW song – Dickinson is an incredibly versatile singer, and on this track Futter and bassist Dave Hawes harmonize perfectly. It is followed by Satellite, another infectious rocker – it is a driving song in the best sense: it begs to be played full blast in a convertible while roaring down the highway.

To my mind, the final four tracks are an organic whole, beginning with one of the finest songs of the ’90s: Thunderbird. Here is where the Talk Talk influence is absorbed and used to full advantage. Beginning with a spare drum beat and brittle bursts of guitar, it builds to a shattering chorus that immediately pulls back into an open and sparse instrumental section.

Here Comes the Fat Controller continues the slow burn begun in Thunderbird, and it boasts these excellent lyrics: “Don’t you think the sarcasm’s a little hard to stomach/The cynicism’s boring/How do you feel/How do you feel?” Adam and Eve closes with two epics, Goodbye and For Dreaming, which, even though they are each more than seven minutes long, do not have a single wasted or superfluous note. Another unnamed acoustic track ends the album on a somber note.

Adam and Eve was the last album Mercury/Fontana Records released by Catherine Wheel, and it didn’t get much promotion. It received very positive reviews, but where Radiohead’s OK Computer has (deservedly) grown in stature year after year, A & E is slipping into oblivion. It is not even available on Spotify, and used copies are fetching hefty prices. If you come across one in a used record store, buy it! Adam and Eve is Catherine’s Wheel’s perfect amalgamation of Pink Floyd, Talk Talk, and Britpop. There’s nothing quite like it, and they never reached its heights again. It is truly a masterpiece of rock and deserves to be heard by a new generation of prog fans.

Glass Hammer Lives It Up In Italy

 

Full disclosure – even though I arrived late to the party, I am a big admirer of Glass Hammer’s music. So much so, that I have spent the past four years since Ode To Echo was released steadily acquiring their discography. While they continue to sell most of their titles at their official site, some of their earlier albums are hard to find (thanks, discogs!). It’s been a real delight tracking their development from hobbit-obsessed Celtic proggers to seasoned philosophers. Along the journey, through many personnel changes, a few things have remained constant: the outstanding musicianship of Steve Babb and Fred Schendel, the angelic vocals of Susie Bogdanowicz, and uniformly excellent songwriting. All of these qualities came to a head with 2016’s Valkyrie, a concept album set in World War I and its immediate aftermath.

So it was with great anticipation that I heard the band was going to record a live performance of Valkyrie in Veruno, Italy. (Quick aside – what’s it take to get you all to do a show in Nashville, just a couple of hours north of Chattanooga?). Pared down to a core group of Babb, Schendel, Bogdanowicz, and longtime drummer Aaron Raulston, this is a satisfying and invigorating performance on all counts. Maybe it’s the fact that they rehearsed Valkyrie for several weeks before recording that album, but in this Veruno show, Glass Hammer powers through even the most demanding musical passages with confidence and ease. Babb, Schendel, and Bogdanowicz all sing lead, and their voices blend beautifully throughout the show.

From the moment Babb’s shivery bass notes boom out at the beginning of “The Fields We Know” to the impassioned closer, “Hyperbole”, Glass Hammer delivers a state-of-the-art progressive rock triumph. Along the way are many highlights – the swirling, kaleidoscopic “No Man’s Land”, where Bogdanowicz, Babb, and Schendel effortlessly harmonize while the music ping-pongs between frenetic riffs and ominous chords; “Fog of War” which, to my ears, is a wonderful tribute to Hemispheres-era Rush; “Dead and Gone”, which slowly builds from a tender Bogdanowicz vocal to a thunderous climax; and “Eucatastrophe”, which may be the most appealing melody the band has ever written. The pièce de résistance, though, is “Rapturo”. A delicate theme is played on piano, then Raulston enters on drums, and the music builds as Bogdanowicz sings of the sufferings of a veteran with a heartbreakingly beautiful performance.

Things lighten up with a nice medley of old favorites – “Chronos Deliverer” and a tremendous “If The Sun”. “Hyperbole” from the underrated Three Cheers for the Brokenhearted closes things out. This version made me rethink my initial impression of that song; it’s a monster of a rocker and a blast to listen to. And speaking of monsters of rock, Aaron Raulston’s work on drums deserves special praise. For the entire show, he lays down a solid foundation with impeccable timing that allows Babb and Schendel to work their instrumental magic on bass, keyboards, guitars, and synthesizers.

The bottom line: this is a performance that does full justice to one of Glass Hammer’s finest albums. Susie Bogdanowicz has never sounded better, Steve Babb remains one of the most inventive bassists in prog, Fred Schendel is simply amazing on keyboards, guitar, and vocals, and Aaron Raulston complements his bandmates perfectly. If you’ve never heard anything by Glass Hammer, Mostly Live In Italy is a perfect introduction, and you get to hear a progressive rock masterpiece from start to finish in an inspired performance. If you’re already a fan, Mostly Live In Italy is a must-own. ‘Nuff said!

Rush Living In The Limelight

Few bands have released as much video documentation of their live performances as Rush. Some are definitely better than others, so, in chronological order, here’s a handy Buyer’s Guide to Rush on DVD and Blu-Ray:

Released in 2001, Chronicles is just a collection of music videos Rush made for Hemispheres through Hold Your Fire. It was originally released on VHS, and the picture quality is correspondingly poor. Anyway, it has been rendered obsolete due to YouTube. Highlight: “The Big Money” video, with primitive computer graphics that were amazing for the time, and Alex Lifeson looking like he just stepped off the set of Miami Vice. Easter eggs: if you hit the skip forward button after the last video, you can access two more “hidden” videos for “The Enemy Within” and “Afterimage”.

Replay x3 (2006) is a very nice collection of two shows that were originally on VHS (Exit Stage Left and A Show Of Hands), plus a previously unreleased video of a concert from their Grace Under Pressure tour. [Update: Rush fan Kevin Williams pointed out to me (see comment below) that the Grace Under Pressure concert was available on VHS via special order.] In these days of HD Blu-Ray, the picture and sound quality leave something to be desired, but that’s more than made up for by the passion of Rush playing at the peak of their power. A CD of the Grace Under Pressure show is included, as well as reproductions of the three tour programs.

Rush In Rio (2003) is a video of a concert in Rio de Janeiro. The audience of 40,000 people almost drown out the music, their nonstop roar is so deafening. As a result, the band sounds like they are playing in a tunnel. However, there is undeniable energy in their performance. This tour was in support of Vapor Trails, the album that signaled the renaissance of Rush as a working unit after Neil’s personal tragedies. Most Rush fans thought they would never see Neil, Geddy, and Alex perform again, so the ecstatic reception given them by Brazil is understandable. Easter eggs: A. On Main Menu, press 2; when you see the picture for the drum solo, press Menu; back at Main Menu, press 1; when you see the picture for YYZ, press Menu; at Main Menu, press 2; when you see the drum solo picture, press Menu; now the Main Menu shows “Special Bonus: Anthem 1975”. B. In the documentary, when Alex mentions By-Tor, press enter, and the By-Tor Movie will play.

R30 (2005) is from a performance in Frankfurt, Germany, and it’s excellent. The sound is a 5.1 mix, and the setlist is terrific. The 2DVD/2CD package also includes a ton of special features that span Rush’s entire career: interviews, Juno Hall of Fame induction, and live performances going way back to 1970s television shows. Easter eggs: A. In disc 2, press the right arrow several times, you will see an option, “Rush hits St. John’s”, which is a bunch of fan interviews. B. In disc 2 in the interviews menu, navigate to the lower right corner. Press the right arrow several times, and the figure in shadow will light up in yellow. This lets you access “Alex’s Interview for Artist of the Decade” (which is hilarious, BTW).

Snakes and Arrows Live (2008) is a 3-disc set that was filmed in Holland. The performance is top-notch – the boys have two albums under their belts since the return of Neil, and they are firing on all cylinders. This set also includes one of the funniest special features Rush ever made: the mini-movie “What’s That Smell”, featuring Harry Satchel (aka Geddy Lee). Watching Geddy trying to stay serious while Alex is goofing off around him is worth the price of the whole thing.

Time Machine (2011) is a one-disc set of a performance in Cleveland, Ohio. No album was released between this tour and Snakes and Arrows, but interestingly they perform “BU2B” and “Caravan” from the not-yet-released Clockwork Angels. The mini-movie for this tour is another hysterical production: The ‘Real’ History of Rush, which takes place in an alternate universe where Alex is an obese sausage lover, Geddy is a cook in a diner, and Neil is a cop. The band playing “The Spirit of Radio” is a polka trio called Rash. Lots of puns and silly sausage jokes ensue.

Clockwork Angels Tour (2013) is definitely one of their best. While the first set features some rarely played songs like “The Body Electric”, it’s the second set where things really take off. Augmented by an eight-piece string section, Rush performs the entire Clockwork Angels album. After that, they continue to deliver with excellent renditions of YYZ, The Spirit of Radio, and Tom Sawyer. 

And so we come to the end of the line – R40 Live (2015). A very special set that covers practically all phases of Rush’s career. On every tour, they included creative props on their stage (dryers, chicken roasters, giant tube amps), but this tour is brilliant: start with all the trappings of an arena production, and gradually pare it down until it’s just a couple of amps on chairs in a school auditorium. You have to admire a band that goes out on their own terms with such style.

Bonus! Rush Beyond The Lighted Stage (2010) is a documentary of the band, made with their full coöperation, and it is a sheer delight. Lots of footage from vintage performances, interviews with everyone connected with the band, and tributes from other musicians. What comes through clearly is the deep bond the three men have with each other, and the humor that has kept them grounded for 40 years. The Dinner with the Band at a Hunting Lodge segment is uproariously funny and not to be missed.

If I had to recommend one set to someone who is unfamiliar with Rush and is wondering what all the fuss is about, I would go with R30. It’s a great performance, and the extras provide a nice history of the band. If I had to recommend one set based on performance and setlist, I would go with Snakes and Arrows Live. But if you’ve read this far, you probably have them all, right?

 

Tad’s Favorites of 2017

10. KXM- Scatterbrain

If you’re missing King’s X, then this one will satisfy your craving. Ray Luzier (KoRn) is on drums, George Lynch (Dokken & Lynch Mob) is on guitar, and Doug Pinnock (King’s X) is on bass and vocals. This is their second album, and it is much more varied in its music styles than their debut. I never was into Dokken, but George Lynch’s guitar work is killer -especially on “Breakout”.

 

9. Big Big Train – Grimspound

I give Grimspound the edge over its sister album, The Second Brightest Star. What a great collection of tributes and vignettes of everything that is good about Great Britain. Using small details to convey big ideas is really difficult, but BBT are masters and make it look easy.

 

Continue reading “Tad’s Favorites of 2017”

Rounding Up Some Live Ones

Several bands have recently released some nice live albums. In no particular order, here are a few of the most notable:

Pineapple Thief: Where We Stood

 

Wow, when I first heard this, I wondered who or what lit a fire under this group’s collective backside. After watching the excellent film that accompanies this recording, I have to say it’s having Gavin Harrison behind the drum kit. As good as Pineapple Thief’s 2016 album Your Wilderness is, I think the versions from this show are better: tight, energetic, and riskier. And if you ever wondered where Bruce Soord came up with the band’s name, now you can find out. By the way, every song from Your Wilderness is performed here, except for “Where We Stood”. Go figure.

Spock’s Beard: Snow Live

A lot of us fans of the classic Spock’s Beard lineup never thought we would see them reunite, let alone perform the double-album masterpiece, Snow. Well, Neal Morse managed to get all the Beardsters – past and current – together at his 2016 MorseFest, and they delivered a tremendous performance of Snow in its entirety. I’m probably biased (because I was there), but it is quite an emotional experience.

Yes: Topographic Drama Live Across America

I approached this set with trepidation – it is the first recordings of Yes without the late Chris Squire participating. However, as I got into the music, I was very pleasantly surprised. Jon Davison does an excellent job on vocals and acoustic guitar, while Billy Sherwood fills Squire’s huge shoes. Steve Howe is still full of fire, and Geoff Downes is uniformly excellent on keyboards. They perform all of Drama (one of my favorite Yes albums), as well as “The Revealing Science of God” and “Ritual” from Topographic Oceans. Add in “And You and I”, “Heart of the Sunrise”, “Leaves of Green”, “Roundabout”, and “Starship Trooper”, and you have a set to satisfy any Yes lover. It definitely helps that Jay Schellen was able to play drums and assist Alan White. God bless him, but Alan’s timekeeping has gotten a little shaky over past few years. That said, this is a surprisingly strong set of performances from Yes.

Jeff Lynne’s ELO: Wembley or Bust

Holy cow, this is a fun concert to watch! I wish I’d been there in June of this year when Jeff Lynne, supported by a crack band, played songs from every phase of his career, including The Traveling Wilburys. The love for Jeff from the huge crowd is evident, and he delivers an outstanding performance. I had forgotten just how many popular (and beautiful) songs he’s written. Takes me back to my high school days when ELO’s music was inescapable on the radio. How far we have fallen…. Anyway, this show had me grinning from ear to ear from start to finish.