Issue 2011-054: Glass Hammer - Cor Cordium - Round Table Review
Round Table Review
Tracklist: Nothing Box (10:53), One Heart (6:20), Salvation Station (5:08), Dear Daddy (10:30), To Someone (18:15), She, A Lonely Tower (10:57)
John O'Boyle's Review
Twelve months on and Glass Hammer release Cor Cordium, their fourteenth album, an album that is a bit of a mixed bag of mashings that travels the same road as IF and could in all honesty be construed as an extension of IF or IF part 2. Cor Cordium is Latin for Heart of Hearts being a true statement of what these six are about.
The initial feel of the album is that of turbulence, creations that come across as a mixture of Yes, ELP and Genesis and The Who - four highly regarded and influential bands.
The Yes comparison is quite obvious for two reasons; firstly the vocal approach of Jon Davidson which mirrors that of Jon Anderson or Terry Lutterall of Starcastle for that matter and secondly the musical presentation at times sounds very YES-ified.
Nothing Box’ dark atmospheric and brooding opening soon climbs, being a pulsating and memorable piece that eloquently delivers. Musically its approach pulls at your heartstrings as the piece ebbs and flows, making for a very powerful entrance filled with convoluted and complex musical dalliances.
One Heart really has a profound delivery filled with emotion which I believe was the fundamental ethos of its creation which really states what Glass Hammer's creative integrity is all about. Lyrically this is a piece that will seriously move you as it exudes its compassion to its writer, being the first of two epitaphs, the other being Dear Daddy.
Salvation Station the shortest song on the album that has a slight refrain that called to mind The Who in places. I can hear a few eyebrows being raised when I made that comparison, but when you hear Salvation Station which is quite addictive, you will understand what I am talking about. It does sound like it could have quite comfortably sat on the Tommy soundtrack. The mandatory keyboards and Randall William’s percussive work really are the dominant choice of instrumentation whilst the rest of the contributions especially the acoustic guitar adds the ambience and depth to the song. Just as an added comment Alan Shikoh’s dynamic electric work oozes class which isn’t immediate on first listening.
Dear Daddy is a stark statement that sees’ Jon Davidson deliver the albums most gorgeous vocal presentations, intimacies that delve into a deep introspective of some of life’s harsher realities being accompanied by a stunning layered musical structure making it the standout song here. It maybe all about the estranged and difficult relationship between a father and son, never being over bearing, in essence as a movement, it offers succinct beauty. The defining lyrical line “did you ever notice me?” confirms it power. The upper registers of Davidson’s vocals compliment the whole proceedings perfectly aligning itself with the musical content.
Throughout the longest and epic album track To Someone the Emerson toned keyboards can be heard punctuating the piece which are perfectly partnered with some absolutely stunning guitar work, interactions that work at separate times and then together in rapidity. The approach is that of grandeur, angelic vocal phrasings, the piano break in the middle is based on the guitar intro of Dear Daddy which in turn is repeated as a big organ break and guitar solo. This is definitely a song that could have sat quite comfortably on the IF album and being another standout track.
She, A Lonely Tower is a passage about isolation, a musical metaphor that has been cleverly constructed. As a song it isn’t immediate, it is sedate at times and powerful at others, a passage that has been designed to ignite interest and intrigue being another perfect creation making this album what it is.
Steve Babb (bass and keyboards) and Fed Schendel (keyboards and guitars) leave their quality interactions and trademarks imprinted throughout with the help of Alan Shikoh (guitars) and Randall William (drums) managing a final result that rewards the listener. As an album it is another fitting addition to their back catalogue.
Be under no illusions, if you loved IF then you are going to be just as enamoured by Cor Cordium. The music is powerful, climatic, pressing, sedate, emotional and at times urgent. We have the unification of prog, blues and jazz co-existing harmoniously, approaches that have been constructed and bonded, presenting rotund and solid soundstage. It maybe a controversial statement, but Cor Cordium could be the best album Yes didn’t make this year!
Brian Watson's Review
Four songs over 10 minutes. How prog is that? Glass Hammer are back after last year’s DPRP recommended album IF, with a settled core line-up, comprising founder members Steve Babb on bass/keyboards/backing vocals and Fred Schendel on keyboards/steel and acoustic guitar/backing vocals, together with Jon Davison and Alan Shikoh on vocals/acoustic guitars and acoustic/electric/classical guitar and electric sitar respectively. Once again Randall Williams plays the drums and contributes a great deal to the overall sound with his understated but perfectly pitched playing.
After so many top quality albums (this is their fourteenth!) then the discerning Glass Hammer fan will have a fair idea of what to expect, and they won’t be disappointed, as this new release is to my mind even stronger than IF. And that was a belter. Indeed all fans of soaring, spiritual, sumptuous, symphonic progressive rock music are well served by this release which needless to say has made it straight into my top 5. No small feat given the calibre of this year’s releases.
The Yes comparisons made after IF will again be made, due in no small part to Jon Davison’s wonderful voice. But then the band have always had a Yes-like sound, due to Fred Schendel’s terrific analogue keyboard sound; the virtuoso bass playing of Steve Babb; the vocal harmonies and the spirituality of the lyrics; and no one ever really mentioned that negatively in reviews. Davison’s on even finer form here than he was on his debut with the band, I think, and his vocal range is truly astounding. He seems perfectly at ease with the band and the songs, and as a consequence of not ‘trying’ so hard he turns in, for me, one of the very best vocal performances of the year. His voice is perfectly suited to the material, and, as much as I enjoyed the band’s earlier work (I am a big fan, in fact) Davison has truly placed his own inimitable stamp on Glass Hammer.
Guitarist Alan Shikoh is no slouch, either. Two albums in and his mastery of his instrument is glaringly evident. Texture and mood are added (seemingly) effortlessly, and when he rocks out there’s a wonderful fluidity to his playing that draws comparison with Luke Machin of The Tangent, whose ability is also towards the ‘genius’ end of the spectrum.
Babb and Schendel’s talents have been well commented upon in these pages before. It’s their instrumental interplay that gives the band its defining sound, one soaked in first wave progressive rock music most notably Yes, ELP and Genesis. Perfectly exemplified by the strident, bombastic symphony that is opening track Nothing Box, that has trace elements of Salem Hill and It Bites in its DNA too. It’s packed to the gills with inventiveness, and staggering musical prowess, Shikoh’s guitar runs in particular a joy to behold. Once again, the production quality is the best you’ll hear all year. And it’s all wrapped in sumptuous artwork courtesy of Tom Kuhn.
One Heart sounds like it could have been recorded during the Going For The One or Tormato sessions, with a tune that won’t dislodge itself from your head. There’s joyous organ; synths; Rickenbacker bass lines; Hammond (run through guitar processors); soaring yet delicately fragile guitar and perfect vocal harmonies. And ‘cha cha chas’. I appreciate that doesn’t read as well as it sounds, but you’ll know what I mean when you hear the track. It was written by Steve for his wife, whose mum had only days to live, belying the upbeat nature of the music.
Salvation Station is one of Jon Davison’s songs about TV evangelism, a refreshingly honest song about the ‘mass production’ of faith. There’s a quirky Gentle Giant vibe to it, and it’s a towering success.
Dear Daddy is another of Jon Davison’s contributions, a deeply personal song about his father. With viola by Ed Davis it’s an incredibly poignant, gentle tune. “But most of all, dear daddy… Did you ever notice me?”
I believed I could fly high
Safe with my dad by my side
Wish you could know me now
We’d be great friends.
Pass me a tissue.
To Someone is a collaborative effort between Fred, who provides the music, and Jon who does the vocal parts. Again, we see Glass Hammer defining their sound, truly a band now. In an interview I did with Steve and Fred recently, Fred speaks of how this track, above the others best sits with the vibe that the band created on IF, and how “the piano break in the middle is actually based around the guitar intro to Dear Daddy if you listen carefully and it then repeats as the big organ break and guitar solo, so it ties the two pieces together, albeit loosely”. It’s an 18-minute epic, and is everything a symphonic progressive rock epic should be, with some stonkingly good Emersonian keyboard virtuosity. As you might expect from one of the very best keyboard players in progressive rock. God gets one mention, but you never feel that the band’s beliefs are anything other than something they just want to celebrate themselves. Which is very cool and groovy. It’s never proselytising and the secret to it all, we are told at the end, is Love, pure and simple. Whatever, or whoever that might be for. Can’t disagree with that.
She, A Lonely Tower is an 11 minute slice of classic Glass Hammer, that Jon wrote the lyrics for and which Steve wrote most of the music for, that allows Shikoh to let rip a bit more with the geetar. As always, Babb’s bass is worth listening to on its own, growling, prowling and swaggering in around and on top of the mix as appropriate. We get to hear quite a bit of Babb and Schendel’s background vocals too. Which is always a pleasure. It’s a multi-layered, symphonic epic with a Narrator, a Man, a Woman and ‘The Tempest’. And God. But again it’s not a preachy piece.
I posted a link on a certain social networking site when this record arrived, and a comment, from a supremely knowledgeable (and highly personable) fan of progressive rock sums this album up, really. On hearing I’d received it, he added, merely, “it’s excellent”.
That, then, is my review. It’s excellent.
A must-buy and a top 5 album.
Basil Francis' Review
I jumped on the Glass Hammer bandwagon last year when I happened to notice their then-latest album IF on the shelves in a record shop. I promptly purchased the album and upon the first listen, I thought they sounded like a Yes tribute band, much like Starcastle or Druid of the 70s. Now, the same band deliver a brand new album.
You just have to look at the cover of Cor Cordium to see if it's going to be similar to IF. For a band who supposedly 'change their sound dramatically between albums', they've certainly stuck to the formula of the last one here. The high-pitched vocals, retro-keyboards and squeaky guitars of the last album have returned. But there's a difference. Last time, the album seemed to be smothered with a layer of cheese, making for a fairly cringeworthy listen. With Cor Cordium however, the band have matured somewhat, bringing more powerful and meaningful compositions, without compromising any of the adventurousness of IF. Moreover, the 'comfiness' of IF is still present; all the instruments on this album have been produced in such a way so that they have a very softer feel that's easier on the ear, with no harsh sounds whatsoever. Marvellous!
Nowadays, there seem to be two classes of albums: those that make prog seem alive and happening, and others that just make prog seem a bit stale. Cor Cordium fits firmly in the former class. I realised this just 77 seconds into the first track Nothing Box, when the band cut out the 6/8 riff they've just been engaging in to knock out a very brief, yet very complex fanfare-type theme. This musical device lasts about four seconds, but after that, I was turned on; I knew this was going to be a great album. In this way, Nothing Box continues to be a great song. The subject of the song appears to be the surreal concept of a 'nothing box' where the narrator lives. Provocative imagery is delivered over some mesmerising time signatures and tight structures. The fanfare theme is even used again as a segue between the first verse and the bridge, making this reviewer very happy indeed. All in all, it's a highly complex rollercoaster of a song, and takes more than a few listens to understand, each listen more pleasurable than the last. Fortunately enough, the same could be said for almost every song on the album.
Two shorter songs follow, One Heart and Salvation Station. One Heart is a little slow for me, and a tad unexciting, although the band decide to reprise the cringeworthy 'cha cha chala'-wordless vocals in this song, just in case you'd forgotten how much they sound like Yes already. Salvation Station is much better, an upbeat song blending classic rock with a touch of prog. Interestingly enough the lyrics include the phrase 'I'm living in a sequel', which is essentially what this album is to IF. The instrumental in this song is particularly pleasing, quite groovy, with a hint of Gentle Giant caused by the inclusion of a harpsichord.
After this, all the songs are epic, but the first of these is quite a standout from the other tracks. Dear Daddy, at over ten minutes, this appears to a truly personal song based on a fictional letter written from singer Jon Davison to his departed father. Throughout the various movements of the song, we learn that Jon had a difficult upbringing, with his father often being angry and losing his temper. This lead Jon to stay away from his father in later years, although deep down he knew he still loved him. The last section of the song is Jon forgiving his father, ending on truly moving lyric that brings tears to my eyes: 'Wish you could know me now, We'd be great friends.' Compared to the airy-fairy subject material of the other songs of this album, this down-to-earth track is really meaningful. Musically, this track is very different to anything else on this album or last, showing a more original side of Glass Hammer. The influences are quite varied too: I could swear that the first section reminds me of Rush's Rivendell from their Fly By Night album, whereas later sections remind me of Yes (standard) and even The Beatles.
Now we reach the album's main epic, the 18-minute To Someone. What's quite strange is that there appears to be no catch with this track: no 5-minute ambient spot, no fade-ins or fade-outs, and no clear segments where the band have obviously cut and pasted two songs together. In fact, To Someone is actually a bona fide symphonic masterpiece; Glass Hammer's Close To The Edge if you will. Funnily enough, the mellotron chords that permeated that classic 1972 track seem to be present here too, and can be located just before the first verse which includes the hilarious lyrics 'I saw the small boy and the fat girl take the ridicule'. This is another progressive rollercoaster, with more than your average amount of musical ideas, even for an 18 minute track! There's not a dull moment here, being choc full of great stuff to rock out to. All too often it seems as if progressive artists try to force an epic song of this length in order to entice fans like you or I to purchase their album, because they know we are easily persuaded by double digits; indeed, as of this year, even Yes are guilty of this crime. However, there is definitely nothing forced about this track, with the whole song flowing naturally from beginning to end.
Unfortunately, this fine album ends on quite a convoluted note. She, A Lonely Tower, continuing the trend of very silly song titles, is a truly bizarre concept track. The liner notes show that the lyrics give a sort of conversation between a man and a woman and someone called 'The Tempter'. As far as I can make out, the man saves the woman from a tower, and they defeat The Tempter by flying and catching the sun. Looks like it's based on a true story then! Musically, the song is just a little too complex, and doesn't quite pull you in like Nothing Box did.
Nevertheless, Cor Cordium has grown to become one of my favourite albums this year, in a very short space of time. The mathematician in me gets quite disappointed that the band didn't take the chance to call this album 'Only If' (the logical opposite to the statement 'If'). Although some may accuse the band of sounding too much like Yes, I will gladly step in and defend them, pointing out that Yes themselves haven't sounded like Yes in years! This year I was bitterly disappointed with Fly From Here, and it is tracks like Nothing Box and To Someone that I would have liked to have heard on that album. If another band will produce good 'Yes' tracks then I don't care what they are called! To those who enjoy tight, structured, symphonic prog played skilfully by technically brilliant musicians, this is the album for you. Three cheers for Glass Hammer!
Alison Henderson's Review
Next year is the 20th anniversary of Glass Hammer’s coming together as a band, a long enough period for any musical ensemble to go through the obligatory changes of personnel and style, and reach some kind of tangible destination. Well, they may have arrived at that particular destination a few months ahead of schedule.
The band’s website history reveals the back story of Tolkienesque musical journeys into vinyl plus a very interesting sideline in the development of their own recording studio, the very aptly-named Sound Resources shared by other related bands.
The Tolkien phase always seems to be an important part in a band’s rites of passage and this in turn led to them being embraced by a wider fan base of Middle Earth followers. Moving swiftly on to Lex Rex in 2002, a concept album based on a Roman soldier’s encounter with Jesus, where the Hammer demonstrated their prog credentials and extended their global fan-base even further. This reputation was again enhanced through the release soon after of Shadowlands. More albums have followed but last year’s IF again re-established themselves as a real force in prog, so was Cor Cordium too much or too little too soon afterwards?
Cor Cordium, for the record, means Heart of Hearts in Latin and is the epitaph to the memory of English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley that appears on his grave in Rome after he drowned at sea off the Italian coast.
This is an interesting choice for the Tennessee based band as they have looked to the British shores to draw the influences of the classic 70s prog rock era and the beauty of Cor Cordium is that those influences come thick and fast as this lovely, all-embracing album progresses.
From the staccato opening Hammond organ chords on Nothing Box, you cannot help but think that perhaps another classic band, whose album earlier this year polarised the whole prog community into yes-sayers and naysayers, totally missed a trick here when they flew off on a journey back 30 years in time and effectively created a vacancy. Wobbler was the first such band to capitalise on this vacancy but Glass Hammer now has taken over occupation of that considerable space.
Nothing Box sets the compass for some of the most beautiful prog compositions of the year. The arrangement patterns of organ, guitar, synth, piano and vocals (which we will address in greater detail shortly) – all underpinned by some chunky Squiresque bass from Steve Babb and brilliantly modulated drums from Randall Williams just shimmer and sparkle throughout.
One Heart ups the ante even further with stunning keyboard flurries, a piano/synth passage then bringing in the most extraordinary ability of Jon Davison to sound just like Jon Anderson and Benoit David in equal measures. His glorious angelic pitch brings in visions of Jon for this song through its phrasing of the words and cha cha cha lines. Still chasing the sound there!
The tempo and mood changes for the acoustically-driven Salvation Station, probably the most unYes-like of all the tracks but full of interesting little twists and turns coming in with a jazzed up synth and then a harpsichord sound courtesy of the multi-skilled Fred Schendel, an instrument probably not heard in prog since Yes’ Madrigal and ELP’s Tank.
The sound of waves and children’s voices begin Dear Daddy, another acoustically-led song which would have graced one of the first two Yes albums with its gentle lilting melodies, including a violin (Jeffrey Sick) and viola (Ed Davis) never swamping the vocal lines. This sounds like a very personal story being played out between son and now absent father, including some interplay by Davison singing out both roles.
The longest track (18 minutes) To Someone is in many ways the least complicated of all the tracks as there is a certain logic to the way it unfolds with a vocal chorus opening up into synth followed by Alan Shiloh’s stunning and precise guitar. It then morphs into a gossamer light piano passage with mellotron swelling underneath so suddenly you hear Heart Of The Sunrise fusing with Fly From Here. Not even Yes could achieve that feat! The whole sound dynamic just washes over you and takes you into a different dimension full of space and peace. Then Schendel’s chunky Hammond organ returns with Shiloh’s guitar and ye Gods, there is The Tangent – Andy Tillison and Luke Machin – coming out of the mix! What is the song about? It sounds as though it is about finding yourself in this lifetime before the inevitable parting of the mortal way comes to pass. But the song in its completeness is one of the greatest achievements by any prog band this year.
Rounding off is She, A Lonely Tower, which is split into different “voices” in the lyrics and gives another chance for Shiloh to step up to the plate and this time, there is no getting away from the Steve Howe comparisons. This song has a medieval lilt to it and contains some delicious harmonies. And now Davison appears to be channelling Benoit David in his Mystery role as the song progresses to its conclusion.
Well, can an amalgam of so many classic bands on one album be a good thing? There will be those who think Glass Hammer are too much like Yes to be taken seriously on their own merits. But as previously stated, Yes themselves created the vacuum into which they have so seamlessly stepped.
Cor Cordium is a real crock of gold in prog’s 2011 treasure trove irrespective of what influences can be heard in the stunning production. As one friend remarked earlier today, and I shall credit with him this line, “It does rather leave other albums stuck on the ground in the hangar.” I cannot agree more.
Geoff Feakes' Review
Following Neal Morse’s departure from Spock’s Beard in 2002, Glass Hammer in my opinion inherited the mantle as the USA’s premier progressive rock band (and no I haven’t forgotten about Dream Theater). With each release GH have raised the bar reaching a peak of sorts with last year’s magnificent IF. Revolving around the core partnership of keyboardist Fred Schendel and bassist Steve Babb the line-up has remained fluid over the years although given my closing comments in my review of IF I was pleased to find that for Cor Cordium they’ve retained the services of singer Jon Davison and guitarist Alan Shikoh. Both men were key to the success of the last album as was drummer Randall Williams who also returns here.
GH bassist and spokesperson Babb’s acknowledges that although they “never set out to make IF Volume 2” the similarities are plain to see and hear, from Tom Kuhn’s striking artwork right through the album proper. Like its predecessor there are two tracks around the five minute mark, three around ten minutes and one epic length piece. Also like IF (although I except this is purely a matter of opinion) it’s the albums latter half contain the most memorable moments. And one final comparison, although tempo changes abound, the music once again remains highly melodic and very easy on the ear throughout with Yes clearly being the principle role model.
Opener Nothing Box is perhaps the album’s most strident track thanks to a weighty organ sound that drives the song along joined by Shikoh’s edgy guitar work bringing Robert Fripp to mind. This is offset however by shimmering mellotron interludes, a strategy that occurs throughout the album.
The engaging One Heart features some striking Keith Emerson style piano playing and colourful, fluid guitar flights. Not only does Jon Davison sound uncannily like his namesake Jon Anderson (he could certainly give Benoit David a run for his money in the sound-alike stakes) the song contains that familiar and compelling streak of Anderson optimism.
The breezy Salvation Station is a telling observation on TV addiction although musically it’s my least favourite track here with a quirky, almost calypso style rhythm. That said it has several points in its favour including Babb’s nimble bass line and Schendel’s jazzy electric piano soloing that recalls the Canterbury bands of the 70’s (not to mention the more recent work of Andy Tillison).
The bittersweet Dear Daddy is a familiar tale of a dysfunctional father and son relationship underscored by rippling Steve Hackett flavoured acoustic guitar. The counterpart vocal lines and harmonies against the acoustic backing are reminiscent of vintage Simon and Garfunkel as the song builds cleverly reaching several false endings before the heart-warming finale. A real highlight with orchestral colouring from violinist Jeffrey Stick and viola player Ed Davis.
From the uplifting wordless choir intro to the rapid fire Yes style chant that brings it to an abrupt conclusion, To Someone pulls out all the stops in fulfilling its role as the album’s main statement. Melodic soaring guitar, showy drum fills, synth fanfares, lush mellotron strings, a noodly organ motif (Emerson style circa Tarkus), upfront Chris Squire style bass lines and uplifting vocals, they’re all here. Perhaps the only thing missing is a grandiose, sweeping finale.
With the epic piece out of the way it’s left to She, A Lonely Tower to bring the album to a close and it fulfils its role in fine style. The song ebbs and flows with lyrical vocal passages bursting into strident instrumental sections with some particularly fine organ – guitar –synth exchanges. The guitar playing throughout is very Steve Howe whilst Babb’s vocal contributions are more apparent here adding weight to the inventive harmony parts.
Like its predecessor, Glass Hammer has produced an album that’s unashamedly prog with a capital ‘P’. Keyboards are everywhere (piano, organ, synth and mellotron) but not at the detriment of guitar, bass or drums which equally shine through at every given opportunity. The vocals are obviously a key factor and it’s interesting to note that like Yes, GH very rarely indulge in purely instrumental tracks. With all four members sharing writing credits perhaps my only reservation is that although there are hooks aplenty, overall the material doesn’t for me engage in the same way as previous works like Lex Rex, The Inconsolable Secret and Culture Of Ascent. That said Cor Cordium (the band’s 14th recording) is a slow grower revealing fresh twists and turns with each successive play.