Glass Hammer seem to get better with age. Their most recent album, Skallagrim, is phenomenal. Now Steve Babb has released the first of four fantasy albums to go along with the fantasy story created in that album and in 2020 record Dreaming City.
From Babb’s website: “Stephen R. Babb’s novel, Skallagrim – In the Vale of Pagarna, is a deep dive into a world of epic fantasy. The book is a tale steeped in all of the classic elements of the Sword and Sorcery genre and will no-doubt delight fans of the work of Robert E. Howard, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis (with maybe even a hint of H.P. Lovecraft for good measure).”
And those monsters saw not a young man with a sword but a scarred and screaming horror with the rising red doom of the sun at his back and a hellishly shrieking, flashing, living sword in his hands.
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!
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!
In my not so always humble opinion, there is no greater or more fetching voice in the rock world than Susie Bogdanowicz’s. Here, you get a full seventy-plus minutes of her, Steve, Fred, and Aaron. It really doesn’t get much better than this.
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.
A really insightful interview with Steve Babb and Fred Schendel of Glass Hammer–about the band, the state of prog, the state of technology, and the state of culture. The interviewer is not only intelligent, but he also knows which music to play.
Prog Magazine, led by the ever-amazing Jerry Ewing, has asked for a vote of the best of 2016 in a variety of categories. The Prog Readers Poll, as Ewing describes it:
Here’s your chance to vote in the Prog 2016 Readers’ Poll. 2016 might not be year many of us will remember too findlay, for a variety of reasons. But music is the great leveller, and in music we all seek the great escape. Having just compiled our Critics’ Choice album of the year list, and casting an eye back over the past 12 months, then maybe 2016 did have something going for it… There were great new albums from Marillion, Opeth,Big Big Train, iamthemorning, Radiohead and more. Vibrant gigs from Haken, Public Service Broadcasting, Dream Theater and others. And new arrivals on the scene like Kylver, The Anchoress, Teramaze. Oh, and some blokes called Anderson Rabin Wakeman… Maybe 2016 wasn’t too bad after all… So who made your 2016 a real prog rocker? Let us know – you can fill in the form on Page 25 of the current issue of Prog. or you can e-mail us your picks for the following categories. Use the subject Line ‘Readers’ Poll 2016′, and e-mail your choices to firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’ve never (and I’ve never) done anything like this before, but I ask that you consider voting for Susie Bogdanowicz of Glass Hammer as BEST FEMALE VOCALIST. I’ve been praising her vocals for well over a decade now, and I find that she simply gets better and better, though I did not think this possible when I first heard her voice. Her lead vocals on this year’s VALKYRIE by Glass Hammer are nothing less than astounding. Indeed, I consider her the single best voice in all of rock (in every form) today.
In case you’re in doubt, however, I’ll let you decide for yourself. Here she is, singing a prog classic.
Dare I note, she’s even better than the original vocalist! Heresy, I know. Still, proof as well that Bogdanowicz deserves best female prog vocalist of 2016.
Well, I must admit, I am a bit sorry to have taken so long to get all my “best of 2016” out. Four parts is outrageous, even by prog standards. Too much music, too little time, too many keys on my keyboard!
So, the final part of 2016 list is nothing less than a bit of cleanup, an attempt to give coherence to a number of disparate things.
First, I want to offer a huge thanks to all of you for reading Progarchy and also to all of our writers. Obviously, we do what we do for love, not profit. But, it’s truly a community effort. Again, a profound thank you–to all members of the progarchy community.
Second, I’d like to single out three companies for making reviewing so much easier than it might otherwise be. An amazing slap on the back to Roie Avin and Jeff Wagner at Insideout! Incredible guys, incredible company. Another loud and hearty shout out to Brian Rocha of Fresno Media not only for his wit and friendship, but also for all of his excellent support. And, again to Steve Babb of Sound Resources (Glass Hammer).
Third, there are a few musical releases from 2016 that don’t fit easily into the lists I’ve offered thus far.
One album I’ve thoroughly enjoyed but have not had long enough to offer it a place within my lists is The Gift’s latest album, WHY THE SEA IS SALT. It’s extraordinary, and I very much look forward to spending more time with it.
I must also recognize Steven Wilson’s ep, 4.5, and The Tangent’s single, “A Few Steps Down the Wrong Road.” Each is simply outstanding.
Finally, this year’s progarchy audiophile award goes to Steven Wilson for his work remixing so many classic albums. Indeed, Wilson has remixed so many, it’s becoming hard to keep track of them all. But, I’d like to single out the ones that meant so much to me this year: Jethro Tull’s STAND UP and AQUALUNG; XTC’s SKYLARKING; King Crimson’s BEAT; and Yes’s TALES FROM TOPOGRAPHIC OCEANS.