Well it took me a while but i hope it encourages you guys today.
Having had some 40 listens to this new album (many days to and from work in the car) I feel that I can now give an in-depth and honest review. To me, this album just keeps getting more rewarding with each listen. I guess the reason I wanted to post a review and to share my thoughts was that lately I've read reviews of new prog that seem to be too quick to judge, seemingly not having given the music a chance to speak (especially when a review is posted a day or two after the release - there’s my two cents anyway). Granted, first impressions greatly influence how we think and feel about something, and musical tastes are subjective, but a quick critique can be unfair to both band and customer. This new Glass Hammer album is very deep both musically and lyrically. I’ve heard it said that prog is the ‘thinking-man’s music’ and this album is not unlike its predecessors (Shadowlands, Lex Rex) in that it asks those philosophical questions of, “What does dwell within me?” and “Who does my song call out to?”. With that said … permission to speak freely sir?
Immediately the listener is struck by a full sounding band, an infectious riff and a 1:30min opening that sets up the album’s main intent, and perhaps the direction the band wants to take those who have come to hear. Many layered keys and nice guitar work here. This is very Glass Hammer sounding, yet sounds new also. Of course those listening will quickly recognise some Yes influences, this not being new to their sound though, as both Fred & Steve I’m sure will unashamedly attest. The mighty Hammond (3:59), borrowed from prog of old, drives this and not long after (4:35) there is this fast and crazy moog-like key solo which is pulled off very nicely - immediately answered with a guitar solo of equal skill. Half way through the song now, calming back down (5:10) with subtle/minimal piano and synth, the question is put forward, “What does dwell within me? … How does my song come to be? … Am I the final meaning?”. With just enough stillness to think, the music changes direction (7:06) into a string-like section with bass accompaniment; very King Crimson sounding. Then a 30 second medieval-sounding jig with guitar/drums/keys (7:48) which goes back to a KC-sounding flange-bass just by itself now (yeah bass solo!). Back to musical theme heard halfway through the song (8:27) that feels like it rises in intensity to the final section (as the lyric suggests “Each one a soul to rise up and take flight”). And take flight it does! (10:00). What sounds to me a very Spock’s sounding tightness (drums are great here) as it winds up with some nice doowah’s and aah’s in the background with a very Tele-like sound ala Steve Howe on ‘Relayer’. The first riff brings this baby to an end.
‘Behold, The Ziddle’
A favourite on the album (only a close 2nd to the last track). Eclectic piano, some rolling reverby synth, touches of mellotron with some light cymbal work and probing bass that feels like the beginning of a mysterious dream… you get the feeling that the instruments are not quite sure where they’re headed either. Then all of a sudden you know you’re somewhere else as the music erupts into a great moment (0:48) of what I think is a very Italian-prog sound here with bits of ELP coming through too. After you’ve been hit with that, a voice comes over with some kind of welcome or greeting … what is this place? The next 2 minutes showcases some lovely Rhodes piano which always gives a certain dreamy feeling for me, a more fusiony side which is new to my GH ears. Some jazzy type drumming definitely helps this. Next (3:30) is a fun little bit, kinda Flower Kings I feel, as if to give the dreamer a 15 second sense that all is OK before a dark and jutted section (3:46) as the lyrics agree, very close sounding to VDGG. If you listen carefully, next you will hear the Ziddler (or is that Steve/Fred?) a Gollum-like sounding creature to whose hands is our fate in this strange nightmare. I think someone’s trying to tell us that if we stay too long we’re gonna turn out like this guy.
We’re halfway through the song now and a change of direction. (5:30) Brilliant use of percussion along with the drums as they kick it up a gear – such a cool groove. Organ and bass join in and not long after, the guitar too. Some Yes-like doowah’s and multi vocal parts ala Gentle Giant. The Rhodes makes a return (7:00) which sounds great turned up loud in the headphones by the way. Here the vocals penetrate deeply, sung quite beautifully, which speak of, ‘sad and lonely ways and how dearly the searcher would love to pray’. Very honest. The next line is, “Yet all is madness”. Musically speaking (7:30-8:04) this section is madness, as both basses (bass drum & bass guitar) handle a very intricate passage. I don’t know what timing it’s in but as a drummer myself this is the stuff that makes prog very cool! Turns out Fred wrote it and Steve & Randall pull it off wonderfully! A very nice guitar solo, with strong bass underneath and beautiful mellotron bring this mammoth track to a finale. It ends abruptly but you kinda get the feeling that its gonna pick up where it left off later in the album. Is it just me, or does the way this song ends suddenly bring back memories of the ol’ glory days of vinyl? It felt just like when you’d get to the end of Side A of a record, the needle’s just lifted up, and you desperately get up to turn the record over and continue the journey…
‘Grace The Skies’
A very Yes flavoured track that grooves in and out of 7, 5 and 6 at the start. Very tricky lyrics to sing (well they would be for me) in this first section and Jon does a great job with that (1:30). The organ and lap steel here (2:00) evocative of ‘Relayer’ and ‘Going For The One’ days and of course past GH albums, as is the little guitar run (2:20). The song becomes more mellow (2:40), acoustic guitar or is it mandolin does a lot to help this, bringing a bit of a folksy 7 groove with it. As fans would be aware, the lap steel is a distinctive part of the GH sound and plays a significant role in their previous work (think Farewell to Shadowlands). It definitely comes to the fore in this track, but seems to disappear from the rest of the album. There’s a feeling that they’ve just been more selective with it – in any case you hope that thing is firmly fixed down because Fred goes to town on it around 3:30. Tinges of Camel and Genesis can be heard as this little gem comes to a close (3:50) with the guitar sounding a lot like Hackett’s might. I love the bass and vocals here as they climb up and up towards the sky as the final line sings, “Fly, fly high, fly free … Carry me on your wing … Carry me home”.
‘At Last We Are’
We know that Fred loves the Beatles, and I think this may be his nod to them, but I’m hearing shades of Chronometree too. The intro is psychedelic and boppy, with multi-layered keys and sitar-like sounds in the background. Then some lovely duel acoustic guitar picking (0.46) that sounds a bit like Genesis’ ‘Ripples’, tied together with haunting vocal harmonies that give depth (1:20). The acoustic guitars come back and clavinet can be heard which may be the first time I’ve heard it on the album I think. Then (2:50) a moogy sound that has lovely tom rolls that leads into a very Gentle Giant interlude in a nice 5 groove (3:15). This is a wonderfully full-sounding section, every instrument demanding the listener’s attention, with some lovely bells hidden there and multi vocal harmonies – wonderful stuff! It sounds like you’re out in the garden with the instruments mimicking the sounds of nature or something, you know what I mean (hehe). This section of the song rides along quickly so one need’s to keep an attentive ear. Followed by some Yes-like vocals (4:15) talking of “summer nights, lingering lights, chasing starlight and racing moonbeams” and still holding to that cool groove in 5 baby. The keys and guitar exchange phrases (4:50) giving that feeling of your attention being bounced from speaker to speaker – the music has a great hold of the listener here. The song then changes time and slows down a little as it heads towards the finish. Some more vocal harmonies, softer and delicate, together with the moog and sitar winding it up to a calm and peaceful end. Nice.
‘If The Stars’
The song carries over from the peaceful ending of track 4, with chimes echoing and beautiful harpsichord-type keys. The drums are very controlled here on the toms (0:26) and all instruments are gently building the atmosphere up to a point, as though you were almost near the summit (2:09). Next penned are the insightful lyrics, “Man, just a grain of sand on an island … In a sea of stars” which bursts into some lovely guitar soloing and epic choral-like synth that gives you that sense of wonder, that you’ve reached the pinnacle of a mountaintop (those goosebumps-on-the-arm moments that makes prog so darn excellent!!). The story is now unfolding, as if waking from the dream with the feeling that we’re just starting to comprehend it – as the lyrics tell, “I heard the call to come home” (2:33). This next section is in true prog time, 7/8! It’s a very cruisy section that I think is very GH. Then at (4:17) is goes into double-time which is very rocky, and the next minute or so makes me think of Nektar a bit here. We’re exactly half way through the song now and a good change of direction is coming. The change is brought about by a very piercing mellotron (5:12), nice piano and a bit of classical guitar which will show up later too (5:28). Be prepared cause you’ll need to crank up that sub very soon as the bass begins to penetrate the walls of the mind (5:42), soooooo prog! (Steve you’re the master of that, and its so cool to see you doing those moments live cause you fully get into it). A very Yes-sounding section for the next two minutes or so, complete with chants, Alan White-esque drumming, tambourine, and wailing guitar. It comes to a complete halt and the listener is now met with a very beautiful piano piece (7:19). Chimes, pulsating tron, and a snippet of classical guitar (3:09) repeat an earlier section of the song (7:55) but with a sense of finality as we’re being lead through the closing stages. Cool chunky guitar (9:05) and sci-fi sounding synth rock this number out with an ending (10:14) reminiscent of ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’.
‘If The Sun’
If you thought the last track was an epic the you’d better sit down and strap yourself in. This track has everything a prog fan will love. With the drums bringing it in, we’re treated to some Hammond and mini-moog runs backed up nicely with some cool guitar runs before the tempo changes up a bit (0:37) into a swinging 6/8 groove. There is plenty going on here, guitars wailing – and a definite showcasing of Fred’s amazing keyboard skills. He’s pulling plenty of tricks out of his prog-bag baby! Lots of cool synthy sounds - very old school prog. The bass kinda has a Pink Floyd sense to it (1:09). This whole section could pass right over you if you’re not careful cause it’s pretty busy and there are many motifs vying for the listener’s attention … and its darn good! Very Glass Hammer! Silence for a milli-second as the bass by itself now continues to drive this song onward (2:05) and some nice jazzy guitar which has a very Canterbury feel to it. The timing is so spacey and gives you the feeling of being transported to another place. The pace slows just a bit (2:52) still in the same groove, before descending (3:04) into a heavier feel. Moog right in your face now. The next part of this song is lead by the piano (4:03) a touching piece that winds up later in the song (spoiler alert!). This section builds lovely a feels a bit Beatlesy, but I’m not quite sure where, maybe a bit of ‘Dear Prudence’ or the latter part of Abbey Road – or maybe that’s just me – or maybe it’s the whole McCartney bass-thing Steve does at (5:12). In an epic song there are going to be many directions in which you are taken … what better than 7/8 time with a bit of sitar and organ! (5:56) Gentle Giant bass lines (can you picture Steve doing his best Ray Shulman impersonation?).
Speaking of epic, is a 6:18min intro before the lyrics even begin prog-epic enough for you?!? Yeah that’s right ... the lyrics are just starting man. If you listen carefully (7:52) Fred makes a lead vocal appearance, showing glimpses of past GH glory. Next is a very ethereal section (9:14) of floaty synth that reminds you of the start of ‘Fool on the Hill’ or the middle of ‘Close to the Edge’. The sitar comes back (12:46) along with some really awesome organ (13:00), you know… the type of organ that transports you back to prog’s heyday. And when it’s backed with some funky bass and moog can it get any better? Jon holds his own here with some very superb singing (14:00) the type that sends a shiver. The song then shifts up again, with a bit of an ELP sound, mostly due to the bass and probably the organ that gives it this feel (15:05), as well as the ELP-like swinging section that follows (15:20) as guitar and keys trade solos again. Cool organ runs and some dual guitar harmonies (16:22) in there – nice! Then a lovely little acoustic guitar section in 3/4 that has some piercing organ, and when the bass comes in (16:44) this is very GH.
Only 7 minutes to go…
(17:38) Enter the classic triumphant prog section. Bass pedals! (although I see they weren’t listed in the liner notes but I’m imagining its done on bass pedals). Is there anything better than bass pedals in that pivotal epic-part of an epic! Toms and organs fill out next little bit and you’d think this was the end, but we’re not quite there yet folks. The lyric is repeated over, “If the sun could launch a thousand dreams and carry us away” (19:00) and if you don’t have hairs raising up on the back of your neck then there’s something wrong with you. I’ll have to take my hat off to these boys, this is an emotional rollercoaster (think ‘Having Caught A Glimpse’). Piano all alone (20:47) starts drawing this epic to its end – Only a marathon like this can have a 4 min outro. Moog comes to join the closing party (21:30) and makes itself known, as do all the singers, as if saying a farewell to the listener. How could you wind an epic like this up? Well, you could do the fade out (Having Caught A Glimpse) which is nice, or the electronic sounding repeat into the ether (A Maker of Crowns, Revelation/Chronometree), or even let the whole band milk that final note for all its worth (Knight of the North, Long & Long Ago) … or go out and buy it and find out for yourself.
It just boggles my mind as to where you would start to begin writing a monster like this!! Noticeable omissions this time around being the Adonia String Trio and female vocals that have been a staple of the GH sound for the last while. The double-kickers are absent (what you would hear with Mr. Mendians) but this album doesn’t call for that heavier sound. As I mentioned above, there are parts that will remind you of Yes, but there are also parts that sound like other classic prog bands too – so I don’t think some of the criticisms of it being a ‘Yes-copy’ are justified.
This album still has the same GH individuality and quirkiness we all love and is a pure delight of grandiose symphonic prog that borrows from that marvellous period of classic old-school prog, yet is firmly footed in the present-day. This is bound to be a GH classic and is easily up there as best album for me for 2010 (and there have been some other excellent releases this year) - A must buy for all fans of excellent symphonic prog!