Issue 2007-066: Glass Hammer - Culture Of Ascent - Round Table Review
Tracklist: South Side Of The Sky (9:24), Sun Song (9:33), Life By Light (7:29), Ember Without Name (16:33), Into Thin Air (19:14), Rest (6:33)
Geoff Feakes' Review
Such is the standing of some progressive rock bands each time they release a new album it’s regarded as a major event. One such band in that category must surely be Glass Hammer. Although they’ve been around in one shape or another since 1992, their profile rose by several notches with the release of the highly regarded 6th studio album Lex Rex in 2002. But then again I maybe biased as that was the first GH album to find its way into my CD collection. Since then, along with several live sets, their has been Shadowlands and The Inconsolable Secret, both of which received the DPRP recommended stamp of approval. Founding members Steve Babb and Fred Schendel have always worn their Yes influences on their collective sleeve including dressing their last studio outing in Roger Dean artwork. With Culture Of Ascent they go one (or two) better by enlisting Jon Anderson on backing vocals and opening with a cover version of a classic from Fragile. It fits neatly into the album's concept, which if the song titles are anything to go by is loosely connected with the four elements of earth, air, fire and water.
South Side Of The Sky is an ironic choice given that it has already been covered by Spock’s Beard, probably GH’s main rival as contender for No.1 US prog band. Although it doesn’t have the weight of the Beard’s crunching interpretation it’s certainly closer in spirit to the original including the wind sounds and classical piano bridge section jettisoned by Morse and Co in favour of acoustic guitars. For me the highlights of this version are the harmonies and gorgeous lead vocal by Susie Bogdanowicz. Like Annie Haslam’s Turn Of The Century, Judie Tzuke’s Roundabout, Nikki Squire’s Long Distance Runaround and Chrissie Hammond’s Starship Trooper this is another reminder that female vocalists are perfect interpreters of Yes songs. What works least for me is new boy David Wallimann’s lengthy metallic guitar solo that feels out of step with the rest of the song. I also missed the original’s sharp cascading guitar line that follows “the river can disregard the cost”. Schendel’s strident organ work on the other hand is spot on.
Wallimann’s fiery guitar style is for me more effective during Sun Song, providing a perfect foil for Schendel’s lush keys sounds. Exotic sounding violin and synths add a psychedelic Indian flavour supported by Babb’s booming Chris Squire influenced bass work. Some great synth, violin and guitar solo exchanges lend a Kansas vibe before playing out with as grandiose church organ fanfare. Had the Yes tune not preceded it, this Babb’s penned song would have made a perfect album opener in its own right. He is also responsible for Life By Light that follows, possibly my favourite track. It’s appropriate that in addition to South Side Of The Sky Jon Anderson adds his vocal talents here as this is the most overtly Yes-like of the original songs. This time the guitar has a sweeter Steve Howe ambiance joined by ringing synths and (I think) pipe organ adding a melodious seasonal flavour. The icing on this rich confection however are the lavish counter-point harmonies performed by Anderson and lead vocalist Carl Groves (Salem Hill) before the unmistakable sound of mellotron strings bring things to serene conclusion.
Ember Without Name is the first of two epic length pieces, bringing Schendel’s compositional skills to the table. The first half is dominated by a monumental guitar and strings overture featuring The Adonia String Trio that’s full of high drama bringing Neal Morse to mind, especially his most recent solo album. I particularly like the busy but disciplined drum work of Matt Mendians around the half way mark. Groves, who is superb throughout the whole album, provides a catchy vocal melody in the second half that could have come from the partnership of Chris Squire and Billy Sherwood. Several instrumental sequences include a frantic guitar break followed by a jazzy keys interlude before a barrage of bass and drums heralds a bombastic Keith Emerson style crescendo. Into Thin Air is a more melodic piece making it my favourite of the two, fittingly combining the writing talents of Babb and Schendel. Babb provides Rick Wakeman tinged rippling piano joined by mellotron and beautiful violin from soloist Rebecca James. The guitar is at its most lyrical early on sounding very Roine Stolt, contrasting with a sprawling heavyweight solo around the 16 minute mark. A strings riff reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir makes an appearance but the highlight is a sprightly keys led hook that has The Flower Kings written all over it.
The concluding Rest comes as something of a surprise with GH seemingly verging on REO Speedwagon and Styx territory. After many spins (and I mean many) I’ve concluded that this polished ballad stays just the right side of AOR cliché. Groves gives an emotive performance that curiously reminded me of Curt Smith (Tears For Fears) backed by sumptuous strings and a contemporary keys sound. It’s comparable to the big ballads that Steve Hackett occasionally produces (think Hoping Love Will Last from Please Don't Touch! and Days Of Long Ago from Darktown). It goes out in fine style with a strong finale courtesy of a soaring orchestral coda on a wave of mellotron choral voices.
This CD has been my constant companion over the past few weeks, at home, in the car and at the computer and I never tire of playing it. That in itself has to be some kind of recommendation although to be fair it did take awhile to weave its magic. The music has a rich diversity that will reward patience and repeated listens. It maybe too soon to say how it compares with previous Glass Hammer releases, suffice to say that the songwriting, musicianship and production is as good as you would expect from the band. Well crafted choral arrangements have always been an important factor in their music and I believe the vocals here are the strongest yet. Much of that credit has to go to Groves, and to a lesser extent Anderson in addition to smoother and less cluttered arrangements. With each successive release Babb and Schendel also seem more confident at distributing the instrumental duties including here excellent use of strings, resulting in a unified band effort rather than the work of two talented individuals. This is a sophisticated marriage of symphonic and progressive rock that will surely find its way into my top 5 of 2007.
Leo Koperdraat's Review
Glass Hammer has been around the progressive rock scene for quiet some years now, releasing their debut album Journey Of The Dunedan more than 14 years ago in 1993. During those fourteen years Glass Hammer proved to be a band that liked to keep things interesting for themselves not choosing for the easy option. Bands like Radiohead, U2 and Rush for example have that same attitude. The first two Glass Hammer albums were based of fantasy stories by Tolkien and A.C. Lewis. By album number four Chronometree they decided they wanted to sound more like the seventies prog bands - bands like Yes, Kansas and ELP, and which they pulled off brilliantly. After the release of Chronometree they surprised their fans again by releasing the The Middle Earth album, a live recording of the band's journey to J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth. After the Middle Earth album they released a couple of excellent albums combining Medieval stories with seventies analogue sounding progressive rock. All those albums got the DPRP recommended sign - but are Mr Babb and Mr. Schendel satisfied with that? No, they are ready for a next change of direction for their new album Culture Of Ascent.
As we all know a change of direction can be a tricky affair. Radiohead lost a lot of fans with the release of Kid A after the very successful OK Computer. Achtung Baby by U2 chocked a lot of fans. Now, don’t expect a change to the Glass Hammer sound as drastic as this but some changes were certainly made. For this new album Babb and Schendel wanted more modern edginess. First of all they started to use more modern sounds for this album. This means new modern keyboards and the use of loops and programming. Secondly to achieve this prog metal kind of sound they used French guitar player David ‘Schreddy’ Wallimann in combination with the fierce drumming of Matt Mendians (for his second GH album). The third change is the departure of long time collaborator and lead vocalist Walter Moore (part of the Glass Hammer family from the second album Perelanda). Although I really liked his singing, he is replaced for this album by Carl Groves of Salem Hill. And finally there is the bigger role of real strings. Oh……and Jon Anderson guests on the album.
Did all the above mentioned changes result in an even better album? Well, let’s find out. The album starts with Southside Of The Sky. It’s a cover of a Yes song from their Fragile album. The original is a great song so if you stick close to the original you really can’t go wrong. GH chooses to stick close to the original version. The lead vocalist on this song is Susie Bogdanowicz and while not being Jon Anderson (who is doing some chanting on the song himself) she does have a very enjoyable voice. They try to add something of their own to the song. Mainly in the intro of the song which features some loops and sounds which add an Indian feel to the song. But does it make the song even better? No, it’s a nice cover but no more than that.
The next song, Sun Song, again starts with modern sounds and some very nice upfront bass work from Steve Babb. There is excellent bass playing to be heard on the entire album. The same applies for the really good string arrangements throughout the record. Sun Song however doesn’t really do anything for me. Carl Groves has a very good voice but the vocal melodies are a not very interesting, however, the biggest problem I have with this song is the guitar playing of David Walliman - he has a prog metal style of playing which is not very subtle in my opinion. This song features some heavy soloing and I just don’t like his style. At the end of the song Glass Hammer uses a church organ which gives the song a Going For The One album feel.
Life By Light does start with a beautiful vocal melody sung by Carl Groves. Jon Anderson’s voice, the harp playing by Steve Babb and the church organ bring back that Going For The One album feel again. In the middle part of the song Jon Anderson takes centre stage (do I hear him sing `soon´). The song sounds very spiritual and moving. Beautiful!
Composing longer songs has always been a quality of Glass Hammer. The first long song of the album is Ember Without Name. It starts heavy but after two minutes the strings take over to bring us to a beautiful verse. The chorus is heavy (double bass drums) again and not very interesting. Carl Groves however is on great form on this song. Babb and Schendel keep the song interesting with a lot of breaks and different melodies leading us to a great finish of the song. And again the string arrangements give the song something extra. Next up is the nearly twenty minute Into Thin Air - this song also starts with a strong vocal performance of Carl Groves accompanied by some beautiful mellotron strings. After that the real strings take over followed by a really Flower Kings like part with a mellotron sound (brass??) that could have been played by Tomas Bodin. The Flower Kings feel returns again after nine minutes starting with that same Tomas Bodin part but progressing with a vocal part that is supported by a very FK percussion part. After that church organ and violin solos follow. The first thirteen minutes of the song are gone before you know it. Is that Jon Andersons heavily distorted voice again at the fourteen minute mark. The guitar solo that follows again is not for me. Susie Bogdanowicz adds some back up vocals to this song. Apart from here lead vocals on South Side Of The Sky her role on the album is limited. Lyrically the album deals with the world of icy landscapes and towering Himalayan summits. Higher Higher are the key words on this song and it’s certainly a high point on the album. The album closes with the beautiful ballad Rest. This song suits Carl Groves voice the best, although I felt that the heavier parts of the album needed another vocalist. On Rest he is joined by those magnificent strings again with the song really opening up after three minutes. After another verse and chorus we are lead to a very bombastic but excellent end of the album with just the real strings and mellotron choir.
Glass Hammer deserves respect for the way they try to keep things interesting for themselves. On Culture Of Ascent they changed things without losing their Glass Hammer identity. I really liked the greater role of the string arrangements and also the addition of Carl Groves is certainly a good move although I feel that his voice is a bit too sweet for the heavier parts of the album. The new modern sounds are also an interesting addition to the Glass Hammer sound. On the negative side I do not like the heavy guitar and drum parts and it certainly took me some time to listen beyond that and start appreciating what Babb and Schendel were trying to do. Also the first two songs on the album are not the best ones. All in all Culture Of Ascent is a very interesting album that does deserve your full attention. But really take your time and be patient.
Chris Jackson's Review
Glass Hammer have been a nagging curiosity to me for sometime now. They have often been compared to many great bands like The Flower Kings, Spock's Beard and ELP. Culture Of Ascent is my introduction to Glass Hammer and based on what they have presented with this release I am a little curious to hear what I have been missing all of these years.
I'll admit, I have never enjoyed Yes quite as much as other prog fans but, Fragile does have a special place in my CD player. Because of this I initially held some apprehension when first hearing this revamped version of the classic South Side Of The Sky. This is very different from the original and in many respects it is the exact opposite. I find this version has a very hypnotic and atmospheric feel to it as opposed to the more guitar driven original. South Side Of The Sky starts out very mellow and progresses gradually into harder, guitar oriented section. As quickly as it builds, it digresses into a short piano piece and a very nice vocal and synth driven theme. The last third of this song is the most like the original in terms of structure and presentation. Susie Bogdanowicz's vocals complement the music perfectly. This is an excellent rendition of South Side Of The Sky.
Retaining some of the hypnotic feel of the previous song, Sun Song begins with a simple drum beat, violin, synth, distorted guitar and vocals handled this time by Carl Grove. While instrumentally this flows nicely, I can't help but feel the vocals are somewhat too melodramatic for the musical backdrop. The style of conveyance contradicts the ominous feeling of the music. The bulk of this song revolves around a very Middle Eastern influenced theme that, in many forms, recurs throughout the duration. I really enjoy this approach because it makes for a very cohesive song.
Life By Light takes on a very different direction than the previous tracks. I would consider this more in the way of a pop song with some prog influences. I can't help but to be reminded of the old Counting Crow's hit Long December. With the exception of a few brief instances of some acoustic guitar, this is almost entirely piano, synth and vocals. Life By Light doesn't really hold my attention or pull me in at all due to this.
Ember Without A Name is the first of two epics. This begins very hectic with some heavy guitar and organ and mellows out after the vocals begin a few minutes in. As I usually fear with epics, it slows down significantly in the middle with some intermittent, jazzy guitar and organ work. Towards the end it begins to pick up again with a complex violin and organ passage. There are some interesting segments in this piece but I don't feel the ideas expressed in here need to be stretched out to sixteen minutes.
Into Thin Air is the last and more interesting epic on the album. While Ember Without A Name was patchy in many aspects this song stays well within the bounds of holding my attention. Containing most everything a prog epic should contain (complex instrumentation, harmony and a logical progression between sections), Into Thin Air has more than enough to satisfy the average prog fan.
Much in the same fashion as Life By Light, Rest is a more basic and stripped down song with a single underlying theme. This is a well written ballad with some great violin playing and interesting harmonized vocal parts. While perhaps not as engaging as some of the others on the album, it does fit well with the other tracks and the theme of the album.
Having not been familiar with any past Glass Hammer releases, I have nothing to compare this with. I feel some tracks, such as Life By Light and Ember Without A Name could have been structured better. As a whole this is a good album worth investigating if you are into lighter, organ based prog. People who like the heavier, more guitar oriented music may not enjoy this as much. The old prog cliché "The more you listen to it, the more you will like it" holds true in this case.
Edwin Roosjen's Review
Will the new album by Glass Hammer be different after the departure of singer/guitar player Walter Moore? The answer is simply yes and no. Yes, the sound has changed. And no, it's still very recognizable Glass Hammer. The biggest change is with the new singer Carl Groves (Salem Hill) and due to his efforts the vocals on this album have really improved in contrast to the somewhat static vocal lines on previous albums. Widely announced was the participation of Jon Anderson - not really singing but doing vocalizations, some background vocal melodies, however his contribution to this album is negligible. The contribution of The Adonia String Trio is anything but negligible. Glass Hammer got rid of the overkill of mellotron and the strings have been given a more profound role. What usually would have been played on a mellotron is now mostly played on violin and cello. The new guitar player David Wallimann has given Glass Hammer a slightly heavier sound. During his solos he lives up to his nickname "Shreddy", but that's not always a good thing.
The first song, South Side Of The Sky, is a cover from Yes. Very daring opening song for a band about which is said they sound more than Yes than Yes themselves. This song suits Glass Hammer perfectly and it's the only song sung by Susie Bogdanowicz. The keyboard solo in the middle is played exactly similar to Wakeman's and Fred Schendel almost reaches the skills of the master. The guitar solo is more of a free interpretation of Steve Howe's solo. Glass Hammer made a very fresh sounding cover but doesn't differ enough from the original. Consider this song a bonus track at the beginning of the album.
On Sun Song one by one all the instruments are introduced and the new Glass Hammer sound becomes more clear. Heavier guitar, more violins and less overkill on keyboard but still that very familiar Glass Hammer sound. The lyrics are mainly in the first part of the song and Carl Groves voice fits like a glove. The instrumental part is opened by a shredding guitar solo that seems really out of place. The string melodies are more suitable just like the typical multi vocal part at the end.
Life By Light opens very gentle with a cappella singing joined by a piano. When the vocals, or vocalisations, join in the song becomes as sweet as candy. The repeated chanting of "searing light now come light" and the organ make this song sound like a Christmas carol. Beautiful song but when not in the right mood the sweetness can become unbearable.
Ember Without Name shows the big contribution of Carl Groves, featuring his lyrics and vocal lines. This has a perfect balance between instrumental parts and vocal lines that to me are the best ever for Glass Hammer. The drummer is allowed some freedom in his playing which gives this song a lot of power. Best song on the album.
Into Thin Air starts with piano and just when you think the mellotron is gonna kick in the strings take over. The strings taking over the mellotron sound so typical to Glass Hammer is the revelation on this album. The keyboard solo spot on this song is not slapped on but nicely blended in the sound. The shredding guitar solo on this song is more bearable but still not in place. One very small critical note: the power chords during a transition melody are absolutely horrible.
Rest is a ballad with, again, lot's of violin and cello. The lyrics and vocal lines by Carl Groves are again refreshing and this song should be seen as a conclusion to the album as a whole. As a stand alone song it's not very exciting but after two epic songs it's a perfect cooling down.
Glass Hammer has changed a lot but still stayed very recognisable. The voice of new singer Carl groves fits perfectly and the vocal melodies have improved a lot. In the past mellotron played a huge role in the Glass Hammer sound but on this album it has been exchanged for violin and cello. This album bears more similarities to Shadowlands than to The Inconsolable Secret. The new guitar player David Wallimann made the sound heavier but his shredding solos are out of place. A minor point of criticism to a superb album of a band that has progressed in their sound. Just like every previous Glass Hammer album this one doesn't reveal it's beauty on the first couple of spins, patience is required. Highly recommended album that will appear in many year lists of this already outstanding prog-year.