2015 continued the trend of the past few years of providing tremendous offerings for lovers of prog.
For starters, Best Reissue:
The number of exciting and revelatory reissues of prog classics is growing at an exponential rate. The best one of 2015 is La Grande Edition of Jethro Tull’s Minstrel In The Gallery. Ian Anderson was at his peak, songwriting-wise, at this point in his career, and this lavish set (including a new 5.1 surround mix) does one of the band’s best albums true justice.
And now for some new music:
8. Failure: The Heart Is A Monster
A great Seattle band of the ‘90s that never received the acclaim it was due. They have reunited 20 years later. They are all older and much wiser, and it shows in their music. It’s still tough, melodic, and full of energy, while exhibiting a confidence and ease that is very gratifying.
7.Gazpacho: Night Of The Demon
A very nice live set that provides a good sample of Gazpacho’s output. The band is incredibly tight while performing some demanding pieces. This is an excellent introduction to a band whose music is often enigmatic.
6. Dave Kerzner: New World
Technically, this is a 2014 release, but the expanded double album came out this year, so I’m including it in this list. Strong Pink Floyd/Genesis influences which Kerzner uses to springboard into new territory. This is a concept album with an intriguing storyline – a stranded astronaut has to make it back to civilization on a planet. This is the most “classically prog” rock I’ve heard in a long time, and it’s tremendously appealing.
5. Kevin Keller: La Strada
Kevin Keller is a classical pianist and composer who loves Rush in general and Neil Peart in particular. His compositions are melodic yet challenging, and his production values are top-notch. His latest album is the perfect accompaniment to a relaxed Sunday afternoon.
4. Lonely Robot: Please Come Home
Before 2015, I knew nothing of John Mitchell; this year I immersed myself in his work, listening to Frost*, It Bites, and above all his solo project Lonely Robot. This is prog with a pop orientation that never disappoints. He is an incredibly talented guitarist and vocalist, and I hope this is the first of many Lonely Robot albums.
3. Glass Hammer: The Breaking Of The World
Wow. Ode To Echo was an amazing album, and “The Breaking Of The World” tops it. Carl Groves is the best vocalist they’ve ever had, and he’s no slouch in the lyrics department. His voice works perfectly with Susie Bogdanowicz, as you can experience on their other fine release of 2015, “Double Live”. On this album, the band is fire, powered by Steve Babb’s endlessly inventive bass and Fred Schendel’s keyboards.
2. Neal Morse Band: The Grand Experiment
Neal Morse continues his streak as one of the most prolific artists in prog, and this time he offers up a true group effort, with all the band members sharing songwriting credit. “New Jerusalem” may be the best short-form song he’s ever been involved in, while “Alive Again” ranks up there with his finest epics. The band tore down the house when they performed these songs live; here’s hoping this is more than a one-time experiment.
1.Riverside: Love, Fear, and the Time Machine
For their sixth full-length album, Riverside has tightened up their sound to deliver their best set of songs ever. Mariusz Duda marries the ambience of his Lunatic Soul project to a definite ‘80s sound – Discard Your Fear would be right at home on a Tears For Fears album, while Duda’s bass work has Peter Hook’s influence all over it – and the result is the most beautiful album I’ve heard in years. I listen to it two or three times in a row, I put it aside for a while, and I bring it back out. I have yet to tire of it. Be sure to read Erik Heter’s excellent and illuminating interview of Duda.
Leave it to Babb and Schendel to make a truly gorgeous album out of the ACADEMIC work of Tolkien and Lewis, not just out of their fantastic works. Amazing. From the opening note to the closing one, THE BREAKING OF THE WORLD soars. Ever since CHROMONOTREE (itself, a thing of beauty), Glass Hammer has just gotten better and better, more adventurous, and, lyrically, more interesting. Add to Schendel and Babb the others in the band, and you realize that Glass Hammer is as much a movement–a community of true artists–as it is a band. In particular, I challenge anyone in the prog world to find someone better on vocals than Susie Bogdanowicz. She has equals, but not betters. I assume she had some kind of secret voice lessons in heaven at some point in her your life. And, Aaron Raulston, though too little known, is the equal of Peart, Portnoy, and NDV when it comes to the drums. What an astounding group of musicians to come together. While I generally prefer albums that are strictly concepts–such as LEX REX and PERILOUS–THE BREAKING OF THE WORLD is a rare and precious gem in a world torn apart by commercialization, ideologies, and fundamentalisms. Babb and Schendel, as always, are quite humane and quite exceptional. Long live Glass Hammer!
In a recent post, I (belatedly) sang the praises of Glass Hammer’s Ode To Echo. As good as that album is, their latest release, The Breaking Of The World, is even better. Every detail demonstrates this group’s striving for excellence: the beautiful cover reminiscent of Albrecht Durer, the individual photos of the band members, the layout of the lyrics in the booklet, the lyrics themselves, the MUSIC. Glass Hammer exemplifies the definition of arêtemore than any artist currently active.
From the opening blast of Mythopoeia to the closing bars of Nothing, Everything, there is not a wasted note. The creative fire that gave birth to Ode To Echo has not abated one bit, and one can only hope they continue on this extraordinary run of inspiration.
Highlights? There are too many to list them all, but Mythopoeia is the track I keep returning to. A tribute to J. R. R. Tolkien, it is a paean to divine inspiration that matches its ambition. Veering from some of the hardest rock they’ve ever done to marvelous acoustic sections, this is eight and half minutes of sheer bliss. And how about a shout-out to guitarist Kamran Alan Shikoh! He is masterful on both electric and acoustic instruments.
I also have to mention the incredible work of Steve Babb. Very few bassists can take the lead in a melody while continuing to provide the rock-solid foundation necessary to propel a band. Babb makes it look easy; he is one of the most inventive bassists I’ve ever heard.
Finally, we must recognize the enormous contribution Carl Groves makes. In my opinion, he is the best male vocalist Glass Hammer has ever had, and his lyrics are delightful. Bandwagon skewers the hypocrisy of our age of social media:
“We care!” Isn’t that what you said from your ocean-front home?
I know it’s got to make you feel so much nicer.
Groves’ clever use of paradox in Nothing, Everything would make G. K. Chesterton proud. In a lament on the brevity of human life and humanity’s short memory, he sings,
We are nothing
A small imperfection on the flip side of a grain of salt
We are everything
The light that unthreads all our webs of doubt
It’s been said that Glass Hammer is heavily influenced by the sound of classic Yes. They are light-years beyond being influenced by any group’s sound. They have forged their own unique sound, and it is brimming with unquenchable confidence. May they never abandon their quest for perfection.
I’m relatively new to Glass Hammer’s music; 2012’s Perilous was the first album I heard. It’s a fine album, but it didn’t knock my socks off. So I wasn’t prepared to give their 2014 release, Ode To Echo, more than a cursory listen. Big mistake!
The release this week of Glass Hammer’s The Breaking Of The World led me to go back and give Ode To Echo another spin. Am I glad I did – in the words of our beloved editor-in-chief, “Holy Schnikees!” Ode is a shining example of how prog can be both sophisticated and fun. Even though Brad Birzer has already published an excellent review of it, I wanted to put my two cents in.
Maybe it’s lead vocalist Carl Groves’ presence, but there’s real power in both the lyrics and the playing on this album. For example, take the first song, Garden of Hedon, which begins with a description of what sounds like Eden, but gradually introduces some disquieting details:
Sensory – the flies a constant choir for your ears
(In Hedon even bugs we hold dear!)
Taste, touch, see – the sky a vivid uncensored screen
Showing everyone’s deepest dreams
Sensory – as always there’s the fruit of the tree
No restrictions, everything’s free
Taste, touch, see – the Garden offers you everything
In Hedon you can always be king.
Sure, you could say this song is another warning against the temptations of the hedonistic side of the internet, along the lines of Fear Of A Blank Planet. But where Steven Wilson keeps his concerns on a relatively mundane level (the internet anesthetizes its users), Glass Hammer takes it to a whole new one:
When the end comes will we stand tall
Without any shame when we hear our name?
Misantrog is a wonderful musical offering of Trick of the Tail-era prog which paints a sympathetic portrait of a man in a hell of self-imposed isolation:
Leave me safe to be
In a place where there’s no need to see
Where the shadows are so real
And the coldness that I feel reminds me I’m alive.
Crowbone is an understated masterpiece which uses a few lines by Robert Low to impart the desperate nihilism of Viking raiders on a “black-glass sea”. They are mere “feathers on the breath of gods”, while the music progresses from a gorgeous acoustic backing to roaring, full-throated rock.
The centerpiece of Ode isI Am I , which features a dialogue between Echo and Narcissus. Echo tries to reach Narcissus, but he is too self-absorbed to even be aware of her. Susie Bogdanowicz’s vocals as Echo are flawless.
Lest the listener get a little down in the midst of all this hedonism, loneliness, and narcissism, the band resurrects the classic Monkees hit, Porpoise Song. A delightful slice of ’60s psychedelia, Glass Hammer outdo themselves in recreating that first era of prog. Their version is now the definitive one.
I could on and on; there isn’t a single weak track on Ode. It is an album of remarkable depth, both musically and lyrically. It is also a modern-day Book of Ecclesiastes – life is short, so don’t waste it in vain pursuits. It doesn’t hurt that this sobering theme is delivered with such extraordinarily good melodies.
A review of The Breaking Of The World is forthcoming, but I wanted to give Ode To Echo the praise it is due. 2014 was such a bountiful year for prog, I almost missed this one. Don’t make my mistake!
Review: Glass Hammer, THE BREAKING OF THE WORLD (Sound Resources, 2015).
Tracks: Mythopoeia; Third Floor; Babylon; A Bird When it Sneezes; Sand; Bandwagon; Haunted; North Wind; and Nothing, Everything.
The band: Steve Babb; Fred Schendel; Kamran Alan Shikoh; Aaron Raulston; Carl Groves; and Susie Bogdanowicz.
Additional musicians: Steve Unruh and Michele Lynn. Produced by Schendel and Babb.
Birzer rating: 10/10
A mortal yet strives in his fallen state
Blessed is he
Who hears yet the strains of the song eternal
Just when you thought the greatest and most venerable American prog band could get “none more prog,” along comes THE BREAKING OF THE WORLD, the best work of Glass Hammer’s career and, in some related fashion, their most progressive album thus far. This is not just album number fifteen in a list of fifteen sequential studio albums. Of course, there’s no such thing—and never has been—as “just another Glass Hammer album.” Each is a treasure, in and of itself. At the risk of sounding somewhat bizarre, I must write that THE BREAKING OF THE WORLD is so progressive, that it probably goes beyond progressive rock. It’s not genre-less, but it is probably genre-creating or, at the very least, genre transformational.
Glass Hammer has never shunned or forsaken its loyalties, and one always hears a bit of their loves and admirations in their music. Sometimes it’s Yes, sometimes Genesis, sometimes Kansas, and sometimes, ELP.
For everything there is a season. For better or worse, the music of Glass Hammer did not enter into my life and penetrate my very soul until 2002. Fortuitously, a close friend and academic colleague knew of my love (obsession wouldn’t be inaccurate) of everything prog. She also, amazingly, knew Babb and Schendel really well.
As I’ve proudly mentioned elsewhere and frequently, LEX REX, Glass Hammer’s prog saga from 2002, just utterly floored me. I mean floored me. Really, utterly floored me. LEX REX did not merely become another part of my rather sizeable and ever-growing album collection, it became a defining album and remains so to this day, 13 years later. One of the problems with encountering a masterpiece from a band is that every subsequent release not only has to match that one, but it must best it. The standard is pretty amazingly high, and it only goes up for every album release. “Now, without further ado. . .”
No way could these two guys from Tennessee do that again, at least not without re-writing and re-hashing LEX REX. But, then, came SHADOWLANDS (2003) with its overwhelming intensity; THE INCONSOLABLE SECRET (2005) with its depths of imagination and poetry; CULTURE OF ASCENT with the glorious voice of Susie Bogdanowicz (the best voice in rock, to my mind, with David Longdon and Leah McHenry standing at the top with her); the playfulness of THREE CHEERS (2009); the sonic horizons broken with IF (2010) and COR CORDIUM (2011); the soulfully penetrating story of PERILOUS (2012); and the classical reach of ODE TO ECHO (2014). I guess two guys from Tennessee really can do astounding things, repeatedly!
The stench of morality, real or imagined
Reeking like burning hair
All those meddling fools, all those pious Judases
Let them all burn in the world they hold dear
I sail away, crossing the Rubicon.
Following this band rather seriously for almost a decade and a half, I can state a few things rather certainly. First, this band never settles. Second, this band never stops pursing excellence. There’s almost a holy fidelity in Babb and Schendel’s struggle against the tapioca conformity of so much of this post-modern world. In true romantic fashion, the two wield a number of finely-honed (most likely, Elvish) blades against such demons of conformity and the whirligig of the abyss. Third, not content to fight alone, they lead not only their fellow artists, but also their fans in a righteous rage against all that grates in the here below.
It’s worth pondering the sheer amount of talent Babb and Schendel have gathered around them and their two-decade plus project. Of course, Babb is one of the best bassists alive, topping Squire and equaling Lee, and Schendel can plays the keys as well and, frankly, far more tastefully than the standard bearer of prog, Wakeman. Then, add in Aaron Raulston, one brilliant pounder of skins. And, with Raulston and Babb, you have the single best rhythm section alive. Shikoh plays with mighty innovation and verve. Groves gives everything he has in his singing, presenting melodies in a divine fashion. And, then, of course, there’s Bogdanowicz, who, I assume, must’ve been given some preternatural glimpse of heaven, for her voice is something out of Dante’s Paradiso.
On this album, Babb and Schendel have also brought in Michele Lynn to contribute on vocals and Steve Unruh to play violin and flute. Each adds considerably to what is already an incredible album.
Indeed, THE BREAKING OF THE WORLD holds together perfectly. The album begins with a re-working of J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1931 poem, “Mythopoeia,” dedicated to his closest friend, C.S. Lewis. In many ways, this is Glass Hammer dedicating not just this album—but its entire body of work—to its many, many fans. Through the mysterious turning of the spheres, Babb and Shendel have been offered a glimpse of all that matters here and in eternity. This album, then, is nothing less than a gift.
Track two, “Third Floor,” is equal parts serious intensity and playfully quirky. ON the serious level, the lyrics seem to be a mythological story dealing with the loss of reason as well as of imagination. At a more playful level, it’s about an elevator’s frustration at being limited in its movements.
“Babylon,” the third track, has a Neil Peart-quality, a righteous anger against those who wield a falsely righteous anger. At what point does a warning become mere unrelenting bitterness?
Possibly a sequel to Yes’s “Man in a White Car,” the fourth track of the album, “A Bird When it Sneezes” is a very humorous wall of jazz fusion, thirty-four seconds in length. As with “Man in a White Car,” “A Bird” is more mystery than story.
Melancholic, “Sand” considers the endless devouring of time, the wasting of time, and our inability to recapture what has come before.
Track six, “Bandwagon,” is the most traditionally progressive of the songs, something from the GOING FOR THE ONE and the POINT OF NO RETURN era. Pounding, energetic, and hyper, it presents the perfect counterpoint to “Sand.”
“Haunted,” the seventh track, might very well be the conclusion to the story so beautifully told in PERILOUS. The guitarist, Shikoh, writes the music, while Babb pens the lyrics. Babb, an accomplished and published poet, offers his best verse here. If the opening track, “Mythopoeia,” presents a Glass Hammer mission statement, “Haunted,” offers the highest of the high, a sort of liturgical desire. This is my favorite track of the album, and its essence certainly lives up to its title, with Babb giving us words equal to those of T.S. Eliot and David Jones in their penetration and pervasion. If I’m interpreting this correctly, “Haunted” is about the tragedy of the seasons and the seemingly endlessness of human follies. But, as with all haunted things, there’s a hopefulness, as it reveals there is something vital beyond the present moment. Certainly, the words that Babb writes here are worthy of his next book of verse.
The penultimate track, “North Wind,” immediately brings to mind George MacDonald’s classic, AT THE BACK OF THE NORTH WIND. Lush, the song, driven by bass and keyboards, contemplates the meaning of the warmth or coldness of a emotional responses. As with so much on this album, whatever problems exist, the world will right itself in its own time. Or, in God’s own time.
Also beautiful, especially lyrically, is track nine, “Nothing Everything,” a meditation on how the smallest thing represents the largest, but also how the smallest thing influences the world in ways uncounted and uncountable.
For a band known for their tightness, they’ve never sounded tighter.
For a band known for its soaring melodies and harmonies, they’ve never soared high or this rapidly.
For a band known for its poetic lyrics, they’ve never been more poetic.
In 1950, J.R.R. Tolkien expressed his desire to create a mythology and a world so rich that artists, poets, and architects of a million backgrounds might play around in it. Babb and Schendel have never shied away from their profound admiration of all things Inklings. As mentioned earlier, the opening song references and rewrites much of Tolkien’s poem of appreciation to his best friend, C.S. Lewis.
It’s worth repeating two stanzas from the original poem:
I would that I might with the minstrels song
and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.
I would be with the mariners of the deep
that cut their slender planks on mountains steep
and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
for some have passed beyond the fabled West.
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.
I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends–
if by God’s mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name.
I will not treat your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.
I’ll come back to these stanzas in a moment.
Before getting back to them, though, it’s vital to discuss the meaning of the album title, THE BREAKING OF THE WORLD. The idea also comes from Tolkien, specifically from the end of the Second Age of Middle-earth. In Tolkien’s legendarium, he wrote that the men of Númenor, blessed by all of the gods, took their gifts for granted, listened to the lies of Sauron, and began to worship death itself. In a final act of hubris, the men of Númenor decided to invade the Blessed Realm, the land of the gods.
To save the world as a whole, Iluvatar (God the Father) broke the island kingdom, though not before the Men of the West, such as the human ancestors of Aragorn, made their way to Middle-earth. The story is long and involved, as mythic as it gets (this is Tolkien, after all), and the lesson is clear: never take for granted all that is given us and never make a god of false things.
In one of Tolkien’s many writings, he put the following into the mouth of a wise woman: “We cannot dwell in the time that is to come lest we lose our now for a phantom of our own design.”
And, this brings us back to Tolkien’s poem, “Mythopoeia.”
In every word, every note, every piece of art that Glass Hammer presents or ever has presented, Babb and Schendel refuse to compromise, they refuse to give in, and they refuse to worship false things. They are progressive, but only if that progress leads us to Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.
Glass Hammer’s 17th studio album, “The Breaking Of The World” to be released March 31st 2015 with pre-ordering of autographed copies starting March 1st. Featuring Babb, Schendel, Groves, Shikoh, Bogdanowicz and Raulston. Nine new tracks with audiophile mastering by Bob Katz of Digital Domain and art by Michal Xaay Loranc.