Album Reviews

Glass Hammer – Ode to Echo

Some bands are forever destined to be damned by faint praise, often unfairly compared to giants of the music industry by critics and ‘so called’ music lovers alike who, really, ought to know better. Sometimes dubbed a ‘poor man’s Yes‘ by these self-appointed guardians of the prog world, Glass Hammer, to me have had to contend with this small minded attitude for the majority of their career when, especially on their previous 2 or three albums, they have produced material that has been much superior to the recent output of the seminal prog giants from the UK.

The band were formed in 1992 when multi-instrumentalists Steve Babb and Fred Schendel wrote and recorded Journey of the Dunadan, an unexpectedly successful concept album based on the story of Aragon from The Lord of the Rings, this success convinced them that the band was a project worth continuing. Both musicians have remained at the core of Glass Hammer over the years and, between 1993 and 2011 they went on to release 12 studio albums.

2012 saw the veteran US proggers release what, in my opinion, was their best record for many a year, the fantastic Perilous and this year also saw their lead singer , Jon Davison, join Yes, whilst also remaining a member of Glass Hammer.

2014 sees the release of ‘Ode to Echo’, the much anticipated 14th studio album and, one that takes a walk down memory lane. Marking the return of former singers Carl Groves and Susie Bogdanowicz, the album is also notable for featuring all the vocalists in the band’s history. Along with Groves and Bogdanowicz, Jon Davison and Walter Moore share lead vocals and, the band’s original singer, Michelle Young provides backing vocals. Joining Babb and Schendel in the musician department are Alan Shikoh (electric and acoustic guitars) and new drummer Aaron Raulston. Guest musicians include Rob Reed of Magenta, David Ragsdale of Kansas and Randy Jackson of Zebra.

Lyrically the album deals with mythology and narcissism, not your average good time album then but, good progressive music has never been afraid to tackle darker subject matter, I mean, if you want lyrics about trivial, day to day things that are incredibly mind numbing and, let’s face it, any 5 year old could write, well, you’ve got One Direction and Katy Perry haven’t you?

‘Ode to Echo’ is one of those albums that does not, initially, strike you down or bowl you over, like some of the best albums, it grows on you, burrowing under your psyche and you get a eureka moment where an inspiration particle hits your cerebral cortex and a world of wonder opens up, first track Garden of Hedon begins with the hallmark Glass Hammer sound, heavily rooted in 70’s Prog, am effortless bass line, funky guitar note, steady and precise drum beat and super smooth vocals. The complicated time signatures and lengthy instrumental sections that drift off into a world of their own are present and correct too and the delicious piano note adds a little ‘je ne sais pas’ to a start to the album that is gentle and featherlight.

With a title that could come from any Tolkien novel, Misantrog is one of the tracks that deals with narcissism, this ten minute mini-epic begins with an introduction of overlaid voices before that funky, jazz inspired sound of organ and guitar take over, delivering a meandering instrumental section that precedes a vocal that has a more defined focus. Whilst never becoming too dark or mysterious, the song has an incessant keyboard rhythm and disjointed guitar note that speaks of things not entirely right. The vocals, once again, are of superior diction and quality, not that you’d expect any less and, give light to the instrumental sombreness. With a song construction deeply rooted in an era three decades earlier, this is never going to appeal to a society of instant gratification which, for them, is a shame as there is a divine brilliance to the way the songs are composed and delivered.

Crowbone sees Glass Hammer collaborate with an outside lyricist for the first time ever. Steve Babb became a fan of british historical fiction novelist Robert Low after reading his Oathsworn series and the song is based on a poem penned for Low’s novel Crowbone. The song itself has a windswept vista, the powerful use of the violin being especially rewarding. The halting vocals and piano add a gentleness to the overall feel. It is a track that rewards concentration, as does the majority on the album, elevator music it is not, precisely put together and performed and, as it moves into the second part, becomes something more strident and assertive, for fans of the band, this is what they signed up for.

We venture back to narcissism with I Am I, says it all in the title really doesn’t it? A bass heavy, gloomy intro leads into a softer vocal section, delivered with precision by Susan Bogdanowicz. The song seems to verge on the edge of something much more mysterious and obfuscous at times, especially when the darker, male vocal contrasts with Bogdanowicz’s. Distorted guitar notes and that grinding bass give hints of confusion, almost bi-polar, like two sides of the same personality, a fight between dark and light. It constrains itself from becoming too clever for its own good, complicated but accessible.

Coming in at under 5 minutes, The Grey Hills is another ode to the myths and yarns of the past, listen close to the lyrics and you could be forgiven for thinking you’d awoken in an Arthurian age. The jaunty delivery and clever keyboards give the track an uplifting feel, you will never find yourself dancing to it but, it is certainly has a lively rhythm and uses overlaid vocals to good effect.

The Porpoise Song  has an organ heavy intro that segues into a melancholy vocal, more precise and methodical than what has gone before. The guitar is heavier than previous and the whole song screams psychedelic at me, like an oriental, multi coloured vision, a shame it’s so short, I really think the band missed a trick by making this the shortest track on the album, the run out with church bells ringing in the background is genius.

A delicate piano intro hails Panegyric, solemn and austere accompanied, at first by a muted guitar. As the track continues it takes on a note that is more suspenseful, epitomised by the hesitant and nervous keyboard. The wistful vocal just adds to the general feel of anxiety, a song that leaves you on tenterhooks.

The album closes with Ozymandias and a lilting, playful introduction, the vocals adding some seriousness with their softly delivered tone and the song gets into full swing with deliberate keyboards and harder riffs. This is Glass Hammer delivering their usual polished finished product, something that fans of traditional progressive music will appreciate, the instrumental sections being particularly well composed, delivering a musical vista that can be enjoyed and appreciated. The harmonised vocal sections flit in and out of the technically excellent musical interludes, this is music that exercises the brain and makes you think, not for the faint hearted but, worth the effort.

Ode to Echo is Glass Hammer doing what they do best, it is astute and inventive songwriting and accomplished musicianship. For those who persevere and are prepared to open up and delve fully into the album, you will be richly rewarded, the shame is, for the majority of the impatient society we live in today, that may be too much to ask.

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