Issue 2010-056: Glass Hammer - If - Round Table Review
Round Table Review
Tracklist: Beyond, Within (11:44), Behold, The Ziddle (9:11), Grace The Sky (4:29), At Last We Are (6:46), If The Stars (10:25), If The Sun (24:02)
Geoff Feakes' Review
Most bands have a benchmark album by which all subsequent efforts are judged or compared although in Glass Hammer’s case the chose is less obvious than most. In a career spanning 18 years they have 10 studio releases plus a handful of live recordings to their credit all of which, in one way or another, have signposted the bands development. Whilst Shadowlands, The Inconsolable Secret and Culture Of Ascent undoubtedly have their merits, my personal favourite remains Lex Rex from 2002. Although I’d been aware of GH’s previous recordings this particular album really struck a chord with me elevating them to the ranks of Spock’s Beard, The Flower Kings and Pendragon who are collectively responsible for some of the most stimulating progressive rock of the past couple of decades.
Following 2009’s (for me) disappointing Three Cheers For The Broken Hearted which saw keyboardist Fred Schendel and bassist Steve Babb taking a more (Beatles influenced) mainstream route, they’ve come bouncing back with a bonafide slice of prog in the classic tradition. Musically they continue to emulate Yes although this time around they take things one step further. Given the premise that it’s acceptable for Yes themselves to employ a Jon Anderson sound-alike, GH do likewise in the shape of Jon Davison who replaces Susie Bogdanowicz on lead vocals. Susie did a fine job on Three Cheers as she did on Culture Of Ascent along with Carl Groves, another singer to have passed through the GH ranks. In addition to JA, Davison sounds very like Terry Luttrell of Starcastle fame, another US band conspicuously influenced by Yes. Other GH newcomers include guitarist Alan Shikoh (replacing David Wallimann and Josh Bates) and drummer Randall Williams (replacing Matt Mendians).
The energetic opener Beyond, Within is blessed with a memorable hook first heard courtesy of Schendel’s strident organ and later as the melody behind the catchy chorus. With its generous measures of synth and mellotron, soaring guitar, upfront bass and busy drum fills this would appeal to Yes’ loyal fan base if only they could see further than the end of their ageing record collection. Behold, The Ziddle features intricate instrumental interplay in Gentle Giant and King Crimson fashion where organ is again at the heart of the action. Shikoh comes into his own here with a variety of showy guitar flights without once resorting to the metallic shredding adopted by Wallimann on Culture Of Ascent. Even though he’s only 22 years of age, on the evidence here Shikoh’s role models appear to be prog veterans like Steve Howe and Robert Fripp.
All too often when an album begins on a high it fails to sustain the momentum right through to the end. No such problems here however, culminating with two of the best pieces ever recorded by the band. If The Stars opens with lilting harp, a Jon Anderson style chant from Davison and a hint of heavenly choir like voices. The overall effect bears more than a passing resemblance to the instrumental bridge in Yes’ epic Awaken before blossoming into one of GH’s most infectious and uplifting choruses ever. When this reappears in its fully developed state later in the song it’s underscored by a rippling guitar effect borrowed from Yes’ Onward.
Despite the consistent excellence up to this point, GH still have it within them to pull out all the stops for the monumental If The Sun. Throughout its near 25 minute length it ebbs and flows, weaving elaborate instrumental passages with evocative vocal sections. My favourite part is a restrained but lyrical song around the midway point where the barebones arrangement sees Davison’s beautiful vocal against a simple rhythmic keys and bass line. I’m tempted to say that it reminded me of the haunting mid-section to Close To The Edge but that could be taking the Yes comparisons a little too far. If The Sun in the meantime contains more memorable themes than any one song deserves all of which come together superbly for the extended finale.
In Davison and Shikoh I’m convinced that Schendel and Babb have found their perfect soul mates and I would really love to see this particular line-up go the distance (i.e. last for more than one album). That remains to be seen of course but for now If in my opinion marks a high point in Glass Hammer’s output, right down to the Roger Dean inspired logo and artwork (courtesy of digital artist Tom Kuhn). The production is also their most incisive to date, free from the over fussy sometimes cluttered arrangements of the past. A truly excellent album that should appeal to prog aficionados of all persuasions.
Oh, and by the way, did I mention that Yes fans would love it?
Brian Watson's Review
Dave Sissons considered that The Inconsolable Secret was the symphonic album of the year. That was in 2005 and it got a 9/10. Last years Three Cheers For The Broken Hearted was a very good album, and rated a 7/10 by Geoff Feakes. 2007 saw Culture Of Ascent, with a certain Jon Anderson adding guest vocals and that garnered between 7 and 9 out of ten in a fourhanded Round Table Review. Geoff called it “a sophisticated marriage of symphonic and progressive rock that will surely find its way into my top 5 of 2007”. So, how does If stack up to the rest of Glass Hammer’s canon which, let’s be fair, is pretty fine?
Well, it’s a pretty different line-up who made this record, that’s for sure. The core of Fred Schendel (keyboards, steel guitar, mandolin, backing vocals) and Steve Babb (bass guitar, keyboards, backing vocals) remains of course but they are joined by Jon Davison on lead vocals, Alan Shiko on guitars and Randall Williams on drums.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I once jumped on a plane purely to see Glass Hammer play at The Belmont in Nashville. So you can imagine how I was every time the postman came to our door, and how desolate I was when I realised that it wasn’t If that had been delivered, but some flyer for a roofing company. At least the real mail isn’t like electronic mail. Although, let’s be fair, who doesn’t want a bigger penis and a Rolex? And yes, I whooped like a girl when it landed on the doormat. And I don’t mean my penis.
But don’t let all of this banter make you question my objectivity in the reviewing area. Oh heck. Who am I kidding? Professional music reviewers do I think sometimes try to dress up their reviews in faux objective garb. And end up being as objective as a Ukrainian Eurovision voting jury. And we all know that last year some of them were probably working for a gardening, or an aeroplane modelling magazine rather than the latest glossy prog-zine where they get to rub shoulders with ‘rawk’ stars who wine them, dine them and fly them off to glamorous places. Infinitely preferable to rubbing any part of the body with hydrangeas, or grown-up men who still live with their mum. A good friend of mine was editor of a magazine that focused entirely on the architecture of airports. Not because he was an airport architecture enthusiast, mind you, but because it paid the mortgage and put bootees on his baby’s tiny feet. He’d have edited a magazine about hot oil wrestling if it paid enough. And he would probably have had much better lunch meetings. We spoke about these things often.
Me? Well, I played Onward (and, seeing as I’m sharing, Don’t Fear The Reaper, from Some Enchanted Evening – with extra cowbell) at my mother’s funeral and walked down the aisle to Future Times/Rejoice. We walked out to Parallels. Beat that journo-boy. Oh, and these Yes references are relevant, since new vocalist Jon Davison, quite apart from sharing a first name with the little Bolton maestro, sounds uncannily like said Culture Of Ascent guest artiste.
But this reviewing lark should, surely, be subjective given its subject matter. We are dealing, after all, with emotion, with creativity, with feeling and with passion. With symphony. Trying to encapsulate all this in a pseudo-scientific way is like trying to write, say, a theory of beauty. I think, for example, that Having Caught A Glimpse (from The Inconsolable Secret) is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever committed to disc. And when performed live with a 100+ person choir it caused a moistness in the eye area that could not be explained by motes of dust.
I absolutely love this record. It’s in my top 5 of the year without question. It’s the album Yes should have made instead of 90125, or Big Generator, or Union… (you get where I’m going with this, don’t you?).
This is classic symphonic-progressive rock. It is unashamedly retro, but with the audiophile benefits of 21st century recording, and mastering (by Bob Katz of Digital Domain no less) technologies. There are pipe organs, Hammond solos, Moogs, Mellotrons. What’s not to like?
There are six tracks, across about sixty-six minutes and it all ends with a twenty-four minute long epic. Buckle up, sympho-fans.
Beyond, Within begins in a suitably upbeat manner, and it’s not Yes, but early Genesis that is suggested by the first few mellotron-y, keyboardy moments. As soon as Jon Davison clears his pipes, though, there can be no doubting just who the classic touchstone is for this newly re-branded version of American symphonic supremos Glass Hammer. With vocal harmonising aplenty, gloriously retro-sounding keyboards, a throbbing bass line and Shiko’s delicate guitar phrasing weaving intricate guitar patterns throughout this is a wonderfully strong opener. A multitude of changes in pace, and tempo, across all eleven and a half minutes tick all the symphonic boxes. The lyrics are suitably ethereal and Anderson-esque – “I can see you, I can know you, I can hear you” – and the whole thing ends not, as you might expect, in a symphonic crescendo but abruptly, a la Tormato-era Yes.
Behold, The Ziddle is a more reflective, more contemporary-sounding piece of symphonic prog, yet with choir mellotron and ELP keyboard flourishes that still ground the piece in the ‘classical’ school. The song showcases the varied keyboard stylings of Fred Schendel and is an altogether more angular song than Beyond, Within - jazzier, more improvisational, even Crimson-esque in places. Yet it still finds time for a Yes-like bit of vocal harmonising, and, as a quirkier piece, reminds me a little of Trick Of The Tail era Genesis, especially lyrically and in some of the keyboard flourishes. So, what’s the song all about? This is what Fred had to day when I interviewed him recently:
"The lyric idea was based on some things that Steve's son saw in a dream he had, and I reworked. I think his son was a little disappointed that I changed some of the details a little but that's creative license."
So now you know…
Grace The Skies, at a touch under four and a half minutes, is by far the shortest song on the album. Pipe organ and slide guitar are to the fore, and it packs quite a symphonic punch despite its meagre length. With lyrics like “Rejoice, Freedom’s Blessing” it should come as no surprise when I tell you that this one reminded me a tad of Yes, too. Whilst we’re on the subject of lyrics, Glass Hammer seem, with this album, to have moved somewhat away from some of the more explicit and overt Christian imagery of earlier records and, lyrically, appear to have engaged with, and embraced wider, more inclusive spiritual themes.
At Last We Are has an Eastern, mystical vibe going on, and Shiko’s sublime guitar playing, in both electronic and acoustic modes, gets a chance to shine.
If The Stars begins with harp, a choir, a slow pounding rhythm and Jon D chants. It’s not long though before we are in full symphonic mode, as guitar, organ and keyboards explode periodically to provide a soaring sonic backdrop to Davison’s beautiful voice. Schendel and Babb provide background vocals as the song gradually gathers pace, and volume, and there’s a nice rock-out moment reminiscent of, say, On The Silent Wings Of Freedom. More spot-on vocal harmonising, more harp, and more mellotron take us “homeward bound”.
The album’s closing epic, If The Sun, tips the scales at a healthy twenty-four minutes. It’s all you’d have hoped it would be. That sublime Steve Howe guitar sound Shiko seems able to conjure up at will leads us to another Eastern, mystical acoustic section with layered harmonies, piano and some vocal stylings from Fred Schendel. It’s a wonderfully modern progressive rock song, which pays, as the album does, an immense amount of respect to the band(s) that got us into this kind of music in the first place. Babb and Schendel are fans of classic progressive rock, as are you and I and they have been releasing albums for people like us since 1993. They don’t fly from gig to gig on jumbo jets, they don’t snort coke from hookers’ navels, nor do they have toilets in the shape of their band logo made out of gold.
There was a lot hanging on Glass Hammer’s latest opus. After the somewhat lukewarm reaction (in some quarters) to Three Cheers… this album represents an unabashed, unapologetic return to their symphonic prog roots. The personnel changes, and Davison in particular have ensured that this is a refreshingly different (and yet reassuringly familiar) Glass Hammer. I do occasionally miss Babb and Schendel’s lead vocals, but can absolutely see why, in Suzie Bogdanowicz’s absence, they have drafted in a singer of Davison’s calibre. An Opeth-style growler, grungy mutterer or a balls-out rocker just would not suit the beautiful music this band makes when it really puts its mind to it.
The sound quality is the best you’ll hear, the booklet is lovely. Now, I've bought a signed copy. Yes, despite my glamorous status as a “prog journalist”, I’ve bought the record. If you care about this genre, I’d suggest you do to.
So, the vote from the Ukrainian jury is neuf points: Brilliant, one of my top 5 of the year.
Menno Von Brucken Fock's Review
If is the ninth studio album (not including the Middle Earth album and compilations) by this American band, who I would rather refer to as 'duo'. In essence it's the nucleus Steve Babb (bass, keyboards) and Fred Schendel (keyboards, mandolin, steel guitar) with a different cast of musicians and vocalists. This time Babb & Schendel chose to conceive a 'retro' album reminiscent of Yes in the mid seventies. New vocalist Jon Davison's voice seems to me a cross-over between Jon Anderson, Terry Luttrell (Starcastle) and Colin Carter (Flash). However in my perception, Davison misses a characteristic vibe (like Carter) or that distinct warm tone (Anderson) and for me his singing is too clean and emotionless. Not a false note and a good performance but as said, for me there's something missing and it's not very original.
The first track, Beyond, Within opens with lush keyboards (organ and synth), gracefully filling by drummer Randall Williams and the powerful Rickenbacker bass. The guitars, played by Alan Shikoh, sound like a mixture of Howe and Banks. The music is quite varied and typically 'prog': many changes in tempo, multi-vocal pieces and then just a single bass, orchestral parts versus only a piano as accompaniment. At the end the guitar is very low profile in the mix while the organ seems to dominant. The singing is unmistakably 'Yes'.
Piano, bass and keyboards open the second track called Behold, The Ziddle and because of the more difficult rhythm patterns and intonation one has to think of E,L&P or even Gentle Giant. Some of the melodies are very catchy, others are definitely not, but they are nevertheless well crafted and certainly intriguing. Grace The Skies is the shortest track on the album, a tasteful mid tempo tune with mellotron-like orchestrations, next to the organ. This song could have been on the Tormato album by Yes as far as I'm concerned. In the vein of the songs on Going For The One, again by Yes, but with a warmer and richer sound is At Last We Are. A lot of different keyboards in If The Stars, a bombastic song combining the emotional feel of And You And I and Awaken by Yes (of course).
The longest epic is the last track, instrumentally the most interesting one. On the foundation of drums, mellotron and bass there's a variety of melodies and soloing by guitar, synth and several other sounds by keyboards. At around 4 minutes an instrumental theme, started by piano, keyboards and guitars similar to Supertramp playing their interpretation of the first part of Würm by Yes. There's also a section in the vein of the vocal parts of Siberian Kathru by Yes. In the next bit, the vocal harmonies show some influences of the Beatles and is followed by a rather slow, subtle section with keyboards, vocals and bass at first, later joined by drums and guitar. Then suddenly a very different, almost 'heavy' passage with a powerful bass, organ and the best guitar solo on the record, finally not a Howe or Banks sound! Again quite another very melodic 'Yes-sounding' piece with Davison reaching for his highest notes and richly orchestrated by Schendel. The grand finale that could be expected however is missing: the last part is a melodic tune with Davison singing and Schendel mainly using the piano.
Intelligent compositions, excellent musicians and a nice production: absolutely recommended for fans of seventies prog by band like Yes, E,L&P and perhaps Gentle Giant. Although If will not be ranking among my favourites of all Glass Hammer albums (and I've got them all!) it's a truly nice album indeed, but... for my taste the music, the vocals as well as the sound of most instruments are far too close to the legendary mid seventies Yes. Even the artwork by Tom Kuhn, though quite tasteful, too much resembles Roger Dean's to be called original. I never have been fond of 'clones' and that is a strictly personal preference; this album definitely sounds too much like a Yes-clone to me.
John O'Boyle's Review
GENIUS BUY, BUY, BUY
Glass Hammer is a bit of a hard shout for me really. My very good friend Mr. Watson will be foaming at the mouth for a couple of reasons, (hopefully all of them being positive and not medical reasons), due to the release of this album. Brian has often labelled me as the guy who loves all the weird, out there, wacky, strange noise, music, (I’m not too sure he believes that I know what real prog is all about?). Some of you who may have read my reviews may well agree with that statement, as I don’t always choose the path of least resistance, I do like a challenge. Every so often I do like to return to a more commercial sounding arena, where excessive, scaling, stunning musical workouts are exercised, If being a prime example of what I am talking about. I have one caveat to that statement which is going to be a bit of a, well not an easy thing to say really, maybe deemed as heresy, by some, but I just struggled to get past Jon Davison’s vocal presentation / phrasing. It’s not that he can’t sing it’s just, well he sounds just like Jon Anderson. Also, whilst on the topic of controversy, this really could have been a missing Yes album. Once you get past that though, you will be rewarded far beyond your wildest dreams. Remember though it may take some time as it’s not immediate. Well it wasn’t for me, but now I could use one word to describe the whole affair. GENIUS!
Glass Hammer have used a different line up this time consisting of Fred Schendel (keyboards, steel guitar, mandolin, backing vocals) and Steve Babb (bass guitar, keyboards, backing vocals), Jon Davison (lead vocals), Alan Shiko (guitars) and Randall Williams (drums).
Eight out of the last ten reviews of Glass Hammer releases have been DPRP recommended, which in my eyes is quite an accolade, which begs the question. Does this review need to be written?
We are presented with a soundscape of retro sounding prog that carries all the familiar pre requisites, mellotrons, Moogs, Hammonds etc, making it sound familiar but fresh too.
There is no need for me to break this review down into a point by point blow of what the album consists of, as I feel that will already have been done by a very excited/excitable pre named DPRP reviewer, but I will anyway, (It will prove to him once and for all that I can engage in his world).
Below is my account of what has been created unquestionably by one of America's finest and most under rated Symphonic prog bands ever. This is an album that is going to be in the top five lists for a lot of people, there is no doubt about that.
Beyond, Within is a fairly up beat number paving the way for the delights to come. We see the keyboards drive to orgasmic levels, powerful bass lines. Davison’s vocal phrasing leaves nothing to the imagination. Close your eyes, you are there. The heady guitar interaction really creates some beautiful dynamics, making it a more than fitting opener. Symphonic prog doesn’t come much better than this. Or does it?
Behold, The Ziddle is for me, a somewhat quirky song, reminiscent of early Genesis, (Squonk from A Trick Of The Tail), lyrically. The track musically has some stunning guitar work, creating some very nice improvisational pieces throughout; the backline is solid without a doubt, but the star of the show is the differing keyboard approaches that create a solid retro sounding song. The art of good story telling during songs has become a somewhat lost art, which Glass Hammer have re-addressed here.
Grace The Sky the shortest workout on the album is for me the greatest example of, dare I say, Yes vibe. The song itself has a very spiritual, religious feel, which is re enforced by beautiful sounding slide passages and almost angelic pastoral sounding keyboard structures. Grace The Sky more than highlights that Glass Hammer are comfortable creating short epics as well as working with the closing twenty four minute plus If The Sun.
At Last We Are the second of the so called short pieces on the album sees guitar and keyboard working in perfect harmony, the timbre is perfection personified, an emotive track that some bands would love to be able to create. The tones just peak and trough carrying the vocal excursion through the whole piece, regally, but still allowing for some nice time signature changes.
If The Stars begins with a slow pace that has been used to great effect through the album. As the track starts you get the impression that the whole piece is going to build to a driving crescendo. It’s not long before the band confirms this suspicion. The lead breaks send shivers down your spine, no sooner have they begun to have that effect, they just fade away again; brooding choral passages, layered sonic’ that are monumental, powerful and emotional word play, no sooner do you think you’ve figured out where it’s going, the band take a sharp right, Glass Hammer rocking out Glass Hammer style, this really does have it all.
If The Sun is another prog epic, unfortunately the album closer, with it dancing passages of keyboards, sturdy and steady guitar runs, jazzy interjection, towering crescendos; essential time changes, atmospheric vocal passages, intelligent lyrical content, solid bass and drum work. Such is the strength of this track; you could be woefully forgiven for jumping straight to this piece. It’s really is tracks of this quality that sets prog apart from other musical genres. Unfortunately it’s not what sets these bands apart from each other?
Glass Hammer really does deserve to be up there with the greats. This is worthy of being listed with the classics, aligned with the masters. I usually give a quick note on who this would appeal to. Today what I am going to say is this,” IF YOU LIKE PROG, IF YOU LIKE AWESOME SOUNDSCAPES, WELL THOUGHT OUT AND CONSTRUCTED MUSIC, CLASSIC RETRO SOUNDING PROG THAT'S SOUNDS FRESH OR MUST OWN STUNNING ALBUMS. LOOK NO FURTHER, THIS MAY JUST BE THE ALBUM OF THE YEAR”.
Jon Bradshaw's Review
You can never be entirely sure what a new Glass Hammer album will deliver. Messrs Babb and Schendel are notorious (in my head) for keeping their work fresh and varying their sound from album to album. This is a trait that I adore in musicians. It’s almost a defining idea. It’s one thing to play an instrument and it’s another to play it well. It’s then another to be able to compose with that instrument. To then have the ability to arrange your compositions across a range of instrumentation is another skill. To do all of this and then be able to shift into other styles and modes begins to elevate you into the rarefied ether wherein reside the musicians for whom my aforesaid adoration is held. It’s why I like Prog. It’s why I like Glass Hammer.
And yet, they somehow remain on the fringes of the Progverse, unable to rise to those upper echelons where the famous names of our beloved genre spill effortlessly and trippingly from our tongues. Even so, you can dip your toes into the waters of any of their releases since 2000’s Chronomotree and be guaranteed an absorbing, often thrilling, experience. Their consistent DPRP recommendations stand as testimony to their prevailing excellence, only fumbling the pill on 2009’s Three Cheers For The Broken Hearted. In this instance, If can be considered a return to form. For Glass Hammer, this means a return to an analogue-driven, ‘70s sound palette that refashions the Yes, ELP and Genesis style with which they have become synonymous; highly melodic keyboard-oriented music that is mature, cultured and often very delicate with a mid-tempo or legato feel.
This is not to say that If lacks power, but when Glass Hammer want power, they achieve it like Genesis do, with intensity and density rather than force or wattage. Either that, or they open wide the sonic windows for Steve Babb’s mountainous bass to provide the kind of power that comes with size and scale. Combined with Schendel’s giant Hammond these two instruments create a formidable and cavernous sound. Beyond, Within is a fine example of this and a potent opener. It conjures the caverns of cosmic space, lyrically and musically whilst harking back to Yes at their metaphysical best, circa Fragile and Close To The Edge. The same can equally be said of Behold, The Ziddle in terms of it being strongly Yes influenced, this time reminiscent of Union or the Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman & Howe album in tone and style. It is a truly extraordinary composition with its enigmatic lyrics and its astonishing range of meters; moving from 7/8 to 15/8 to 6/8 to 13/8 to 7/8 and back with compound measures in abundance as well some standard 4/4 in the opening verses. Its melodies are elusive and its harmonies dissonant. At first, this is punishing to listen to, never mind play! However, and very cleverly, there’s a narrative to the lyrics which helps us follow this brilliant, zany stuff section by section, and once you’ve established the overall journey of the of the piece in your mind, it becomes a joy to encounter each of its musical characters in turn, but, like Alice, In Wonderland, one is left slightly bewildered by their determined oddness. I am also highly entertained.
Grace The Skies is a sort of tonal poem and does not spare us from the difficult rhythmic patterns which go something like: 7/4, 5/4, 7/4, 5/4, 6/4, 7/4, 7/4, 6/4 in consecutive measures. However, this is not consistent, or rather, it’s not easy to count so I don’t know how consistent it is. It seems eventually to settle down into a steady 7/4 but none of this is exactly conducive to singing in verse. Again, the lyrics are excellent, but the phrasing, the scansion, the melody and the rhythm jar against one another and I cannot get myself to enjoy this one, as hard as I try. There is some mandolin in here, and I do love a bit of mandolin as well as some Going For The One lap-steel guitar which is also very lovely, but this relatively brief track is something of an interlude before the next act. I use the word ‘act’ advisedly because something of a theme is emerging in the lyrics by the time we reach At Last We Are. Again, this concerns a singer and a captivating melody as the character of the lyrics’ narrative is guided safely home by its power. This is a deeply intelligent composition with so many musical ideas clamouring for expression (reflecting the urgency of the lyric) in its six and a half minutes that it defies sensible description. What I can talk about is a magnificent second half of the song in a compound 5/4 tempo with a jazzy feel, especially in Alan Shikoh’s guitar playing which is nothing less than beautifully and brilliantly understated throughout the album.
And so to If The Stars. To carry on with the Yes comparisons, this takes us into Yours Is No Disgrace territory. It’s another stunningly complex arrangement, mostly in 7/4 and again, I find it more than difficult to articulate the incredible diversity, richness and breathtaking musicality on display here. I’ll just mention Shikoh again whose guitar lines channel Steve Howe in a wonderfully feverish counterpoint to the main theme whilst Steve Babb’s gymnastic bass reaches through the mix with elegance, strength and power. Awash with mellotron and organ supported by some lovely work on harp and a range of chiming percussion this is a real highlight of the album musically, vocally and lyrically.
If The Sun is the first time on the album that Glass Hammer slough the overt Yes references to cut something in a Spock’s Beard cloth, and my goodness, do they wear it well?! Opening in a standard 4/4 this treatment of the various themes we are about to hear also takes us back to some of the earlier work on Chronomotree and Lex Rex. The second phase is gorgeous: The Fool On The Hill meets I Get Up I Get Down before an instrumental phase where organs, Moogs and guitar enter into a discourse, exchanging solos and establishing the theme for the next vocal section. Lyrically, this ties the whole album together in a majestic, devotional, uplifting finale. These twenty four minutes fly by and If The Sun must be a contender for ‘Epic Of The Year’, if there is such a thing.
I have banged on about tempo and I have mentioned size and scale and Alice In Wonderland. Taken together, these three things can offer a useful indication of the overall experience of If. Firstly, the unusual time signatures that permeate the album lend it a conspicuous and exceptional eccentricity. I’m slightly in awe of Randall Wilson’s drumming and of the rhythm section as a unit. To be simultaneously as robust and inflective as Babb and Wilson, supported by Shikoh’s diverse array of guitar voices and rhythmic phrasing is an outstanding feature and notable achievement of If. Secondly, size and scale is pertinent to the studio production committed to disk here. If is a feat of sonic engineering that matches anything you’re likely to hear or have heard. The detail is spectacular. Instruments are shifted in the mix with incredible variety and provide the music with a tangible, three-dimensional staging that ‘visualises’ the sound flowing along a spectrum from nano-intricacy to meta-structures with height, width, and depth in sophisticated and artful clarity. There is proportion here, and within it lie perspective, purpose and power. Thirdly, the Alice In Wonderland reference is related to the album’s lyrical themes (I suppose the notions of size and scale have a resonance here too). Many of these songs are about a journey home, called by song and its intention and meaning are spiritual in nature. It is about the journey of life, the relation of the individual to the whole and ultimately, the relationship of the soul to God. Whilst Glass Hammer (by whom I mean Babb and Schendel) are open about their religious beliefs, there is nothing overtly scriptural or doctrinal in their lyrics. Rather they is positioned into the realm of fantasy or, perhaps more clearly, into the realm of the Gnostic, ie what it is to know and experience the divine. Glass Hammer seem to be suggesting that music is a direct link with the transcendent and, in this regard, there is a beatific and celestial quality to these songs that I embrace, in spite of my own fierce rationalism and humanism. This is evidenced most acutely in the voice of Jon Davidson which touches the seraphic. This is the best vocal performance I’ve heard of 2010. Yes, the inevitable comparisons with Jon Anderson will abound (I’ve just made one), but it is no matter. Mr Davidson has brought something ineffable and empyrean to the music of Glass Hammer that is not only appropriate to the lyrical themes but is genuinely beautiful and heartfelt.
I have waxed lyrical and though I have had a lot of time with this album, it has grown and grown and grown on me and I know it’s not finished with me yet, there is still so much to explore and come to know. In a world where it is so difficult to stand out and be noticed as a band or a musician or an artist, Glass Hammer have produced something in If that deserves as much exposure to the prog market as it is possible to achieve. In the proliferation of releases, it becomes nigh on impossible to fashion something that can become regarded as a classic, but this is as close as anything I have heard in recent years to warrant such an accolade. Perhaps when we look back on 2010 in thirty years, we’ll view If in the same way as the work of the artists Glass Hammer seek to emulate and honour. This could be the Fragile or Brain Salad Surgery or Selling England By The Pound of our age.