Issue 2013-011: Glass Hammer - Perilous - Round Table Review
Round Table Review
Tracklist: The Sunset Gate (7:36), Beyond They Dwell (4:00), The Restless Ones (3:36),They Cast Their Spell (3:21), We Slept, We Dreamed (7:41), The Years Were Sped (2:57), Our Foe Revealed (6:26), Toward Home We Fled (6:46), As The Sun Dipped Low (1:31), The Wolf Gave Chase (1:59), We Fell At Last (1:56), In That Lonely Place (6:10), Where Sorrow Died And Came No More (6:33)
Leo Koperdraat's Review
I always had a soft spot for Glass Hammer ever since I came across their music with the release of Chronometree in 2000. Why? Because the creative forces of the band, Fred Schendel and Steve Babb, are a couple of stubborn bastards in my book. You never know what to expect. That may result in albums that the fans do not like, but they don't seem to care. And so it happened that they included a cover of a popsong on the very proggy Shadowlands, employed a shredder on Culture of Ascent from 2007 (which I didn't like too much) and two years later released a very poppy album just as a three piece (Three Cheers For The Broken Hearted which I liked very much. What happened to the excellent singer Susie Bogdanowicz?).
That was part of the charm of Glass Hammer. They were firmly rooted in good old fashioned prog rock with some Yes influences but still you never knew what surprises they had in store and who they decided to work with. And I respect them for this. However; after the Three Cheers... album things got a bit predictable. There seems to be a steady line up now with singer Jon Davison and guitar player Kamran Alan Shikoh. But the music on If from 2010 and to a lesser extent Cor Cordium from 2011 turned out to be, and I know I am going to piss off Babb by saying this, too much Yes-lite (spot the Tales... reference at the end of If The Stars from If). As I said before, Glass Hammer's music has always been showing the love for classic progressive rock but at the same time they managed to have an identity of their own. On If and Cor Cordium this identity was lacking imho and I found both albums a big disappointment. On the other hand both albums got a DPRP recommended rating so what do I know. Of course the Yes comparisons have a lot to do with the voice of Jon Davison, which sounds very much like Jon Anderson and Kamran Alan Shikoh's guitar playing sometimes is a dead ringer of Steve Howe. And now, again a year after the last one, they release Perilous with the same line up. You can imagine that I had my reservations by now.
Perilous is a concept album about loss and letting go. At a certain age, people around us, people we love, pass away. How do we deal with these struggles in life? How do we cope with realization of our own mortality? The subject matter is something I can relate to very easily as I had to face my own mortality a couple of years ago when I was diagnosed with cancer. I survived and I am healthy again but the one thing I learned at that time is that we never ever should be taking our lives and the lives of the people around us for granted!
Now this album begins incredibly strongly with The Sunset Gate. A very good track chock full of great twists and turns. The string section that the band used on previous records has also returned (The Adonia String Trio) and in The Restless Ones they use a real choir to great effect. Kamran Alan Shikoh seems to find the spotlight a little more this time as can be heard in the beautiful and impressive They Cast Their Spell where he shines with a wonderful guitar solo. And also during the acoustic short instrumentals The Years Were Sped and We Fell At Last. And so there is a surprise in each track. We Slept, We Dreamed has a beautiful medieval atmosphere due to the use of recorders and oboe. The choral ending of the track is simply stunning and a highlight of the album. On a whole I find that on this album the urgency is back again (listen for example to the instrumental section during Our Foe Revealed) and with it the, if you like, Glass Hammer style. I still feel that Davison tries too hard to sound like Jon Anderson. Because of that I feel that he sounds strained sometimes and that's not necessary as he has a beautiful voice, as can be heard on In That Lonely Place where I feel he tries less to sound like Anderson, especially in the verses. Amber Fults sings co-lead vocals with him on this track and she's another great find! The track is another highlight as is album closer Where Sorrow Dies And Came No More where various melodies that can be heard throughout the album return one more time. And again Shikoh delivers another great solo.
This album contains all the elements that I used to like about Glass Hammer and then some. It's a very good album where the quality songwriting of Babb and Schendel is back again. But that's just my opinion because according to the reviews of their last two albums it never went away.
Jez Rowden's Review
First up, a confession. I have only heard one Glass Hammer album prior to this one, 2010's If which I really couldn't get into. I probably need to try listening again and on the back of Perilous I almost certainly will. In fact I'm now much more predisposed to investigate the rest of their catalogue as this album has certainly pricked my interest despite some misgivings that I will go into later.
The concept and delivery are very well executed, the 13 tracks forming a convincing suite that works best as a whole. Even the song titles have a poetic ring when read aloud together. This is a nicely conceived record that will have many naysayers changing their opinions I suspect.
The Sunset Gate sets things off in fine style, a string intro leading into some lovely retro keys from Fred Schendel reminiscent of Gentle Giant. The track works as an overture, the band getting up a nice head of steam with some wonderful organ from Schendel. The quality of the production immediately impresses with Steve Babb's bass in particular pressing all the right buttons for me. The guitar of Kamran Alan Shikoh covers a lot of ground and the ensemble feel works a treat.
And then Jon Davison's voice arrives and all thoughts of Glass Hammer are replaced by memories of Y*s, in their heyday admittedly. I was so hoping not to invoke the 'Y' word in this review but it really is unavoidable. It is not just that Davison's voice is in the same register as Jon Anderson's, he also uses phrases that I invariably associate with some of Anderson's best moments and it reduces much of the marvellous effect produced in Glass Hammer's music, at least initially, to a sort of pastiche. Now the thought is in my head Babb's playing resembles Chris Squire in tone and Shikoh often resorts to his best Steve Howe licks. Prime culprits for the sound-alike tags are the opening section of Beyond They Dwell and much of Toward Home We Fled. They're still great tracks though!
This is all a great shame in many ways and a massive disappointment to me as the music is almost universally wonderful, particularly Schendel's contributions on Hammond, Rhodes, piano, etc., but Glass Hammer don't seem completely able to develop their own personality. To be fair, once you get more used to the album you can enjoy it for what it is - and there is a huge amount to enjoy - it is just the initial hit is jarring and the comparisons inevitable.
The long and lugubrious tentacles of Yes do not spread everywhere on the album. The Restless Ones has a jazzy feel and the opening brings Bruford to my mind. The piano takes it to other places later and (apart from the voice) thoughts of Yes are completely dispelled. They Cast Their Spell features Davison in a slightly lower register that suits both him and the band well, accompanied by glockenspiel before a wonderfully emotive solo from Shikoh.
We Slept, We Dreamed has a marvallous opening section with piano, recorders and church organ that launches into a Jon Anderson-like strum along section. The song develops nicely but Shikoh could actually be Steve Howe here. The vocal harmonies and backing vocals are great but again sound...familiar. Schendel also takes a slight turn for the Wakeman but the track concludes in wonderful style with a haunting choral section that is simply beautiful.
Shikoh's instrumental The Years Were Sped is gorgeous and more akin to Hackett than Howe although it retains an individuality and is a pivotal moment on the album, as are the brief As The Sun Dipped Low and We Fell At Last later on which are atmospheric breaks in proceedings that add much.
I really like Jon Davison's voice, more so when he switches from his Anderson routine. He is a world class vocalist and in another age would have been as legendary as Anderson himself but as much as I enjoy his contribution, which, make no mistake, is faultless, it is the work of the band that holds my attention. This is a formidable unit that can pull off just about anything and has the skills to write complex yet engaging material that draws the listener in. All credit to them and what they have achieved but I still struggle with the overt Yes-isms that do nothing to enhance Glass Hammer's position, they just serve to remind me what a great band Yes are/were and have me reaching for Close To The Edge and Relayer. This is a shame.
Our Foe Revealed gallops along on Schendel's sprightly organ, bringing a solid mix of mid-period Genesis and Yes to mind. Babb's bass sparkles, just as I like it, and the track develops into a riffing instrumental monster, everyone getting a chance to solo.
The Wolf Gave Chase is a rollicking rough and tumble that ebbs away before rising to a climax that leads into We Fell At Last which forms the basis of one of the key tracks and probably my favourite, In That Lonely Place, where Amber Fults' gorgeous vocal takes the album somewhere new. She has a fragility that gives the story more weight and Davison also shines when he takes over the vocals, the band supporting beautifully with lovely piano from Schendel.
Where Sorrows Died And Came No More brings the album to a close, bookending nicely with The Sunset Gate, recapping themes and sections that have been heard previously in a rocking finale, with great things from drummer Randall Williams, that shows just what the band can do. The epic vocal section supported by rising organ chords and Howe-like guitar solo bring something from Yes' (again) The Ladder to mind, possibly Homeworld - only better - but the effect is very good and it all works well as a conclusion to such a well crafted album.
Glass Hammer have clearly cultivated the comparisons to Yes and it doesn't seem to faze them but they are too good a band with too much talent and too many good ideas to be held back by the inevitable 'sound-a-likey' comments. If you've never heard Yes before just buy this, you're sure to get something out of it and, if you do, then go and buy the classic Yes albums - you're in for a real treat of a discovery! If you love the best of Yes there is still so much here to enjoy but as mentioned, it is tempered somewhat by the comparisons and as much as I'd like them to be avoidable, they aren't.
This is without doubt a great album but my enjoyment of it is slightly tempered unfortunately. That said it is still more than worthy of a hearty recommendation.
Sue Doyle's Review
Nineteen years after their debut, Glass Hammer serves up a spellbinding and dark creation, clearly demonstrating that they are among the true heavyweights of Progressive Rock. I have to admit to being late in discovering GH; I have yet to add more than a couple of their back-catalogue to my CD collection so I'm not best placed to make comparisons with their earlier offerings. However this is undoubtedly a worthy album, regardless of what came before and what is yet to come from them.
Their previous album, Cor Cordium (which I do have) gave no hint as to the direction its successor would take; Perilous is a dark and sinister epic tale of trepidation, malevolence, foolish optimism and, ultimately, death.
Jon Davison's vocals throughout are clean, clear and pitch-perfect - this guy's vocal acuity never ceases to astonish. His delivery takes us with him on his journey through fear, hope, joy and abandonment and I, for one, was utterly spellbound by Steve Babb's exquisite lyrics. His phraseology is redolent and theatrical, painting a very visual picture of the album's theme.
Perilous is, in my favourite sense of Prog, an epic story with a beginning, a middle and an end and bucketloads of atmosphere thrown into the mix...not a hint of any 4-minute stand-alone tracks on THIS album. Not a bit of it. Perilous swoops and soars its way for 53 and a half minutes, playing with our deepest fears and insecurities throughout each of the 13 (unlucky for some?) parts.
Part 1, The Sunset Gate, opens the album in true epic fashion, kicking off the proceedings with a short instrumental introduction of doleful strings, followed by a fast tempo piano, then a sudden burst of guitars and drums, keys and eventually a short "church-organ" flourish, announcing the story about to unfold and, of course, JD himself (no...not Jack Daniels...). Here we are introduced to the characters of the story as they stand, uncertain and fearful before a gate of "cruel iron...opened wide...", as it lures them with a glimpse of "gleaming starlight ahead...into peril...".
We are led seamlessly into Part 2, Beyond They Dwell. A faster tempo than its predecessor but nonetheless heavy with unease and conveying images of menacing shadows, "...the hindering, hooded ones...". This is truly the stuff of our innermost fears, the dark theme continuing into Part 3, The Restless Ones, which leads us through the overgrown graves of unquiet souls. The variance of tempo and time signatures throughout this track are nothing short of incredible - I am in awe....
Part 4, They Cast Their Spell, is deliciously macabre and evocative - lyrics such as "something in the fog", "wraith-like", "a serpent slithers" slice deep into our psyche. Fear seems almost palpable at this stage yet the tale continues in much gentler fashion into Part 5, We Slept, We Dreamed, a track whose lyrics strike a chord with us all as we look back to youthful, carefree and reckless days when time seemed to stand still. Then we stop to look around and find time has fled on ahead of us. I love the brief but beautiful sweep of keys two-thirds into this track, however brace yourself for a spine-tingling Latin chant, deep and resonant and Medieval in its delivery. (Very) roughly translated it says "...Black gemini tomb, pale and shivering through cold, still and unmoved hearts roam forever, unfulfilled...". No sooner have we begun to absorb this, than we arrive at the instrumental Part 6, The Years Were Sped, and are treated to a gorgeous interlude of Classical guitar, courtesy Kamran Alan Shikoh. This section of the album exceeds all expectations in its diversity.
Part 7, Our Foe Revealed carries an air of optimism, chasing away the shadows, even confronting the face of fear itself. The track is interjected by a superb keyboard solo before breaking into a rockier instrumental segment, accounting for around half of the track's length, perfectly showcasing the musical prowess of this talented collection of individuals. Hammond organ and a great bass-line take us deeper into our journey and into Part 8, Toward Home We Fled. Hope rises with the sun as the quest toward light and happiness continues. Reflections of the fear behind give way to the promise of "Heaven's realm".
Three instrumental sections, Part 9, As the Sun Dipped Low, a slow and gentle segment featuring keyboards and guitars, Part 10, The Wolf Gave Chase, fast, urgent and heavy with keyboards, and Part 11, We Fell At Last, a feast of Classical guitar soloing, bring us to the closing stages of the story.
Part 12, In That Lonely Place is, for me, an outstanding piece of music. A duet at first featuring the ethereal vocals of Amber Fults and later JD, this enchanting piece begins with acoustic guitar and Amber's lovely vocal delivery, the lyrics suggesting that death comes to us all, regardless of rank or station..."and as to paupers, so to kings...".
Finally we arrive at Part 13, Where Sorrows Died and Came No More, which fittingly begins in similar vein to Part 1, bringing the story to a close. This final track is rounded off with an uplifting instrumental and finally ends with a crescendo of organs. Prog heaven. The journey of life and death is complete, the circle is closed.
Seldom does a piece of music conjure such vivid pictures. Glass Hammer has mastered the art of storytelling in superb style - I'm just wondering how they'll follow this....
In the words of Longfellow, "music is the universal language of mankind". What this album does with such grace, beauty and poetic lyrics is to bring to the listener a revelation in the art of imaginative storytelling. I have listened to the album dozens and dozens of times and have not tired of it. I can't imagine I ever will.
The way is open
What lies beyond is
Brian Watson's Review
Perilous is the third Glass Hammer release in recent years to feature the current stable lineup. It is, for me at least, one of the strongest albums they have ever made, and comes perilously close (see what I did there?) to unseating Lex Rex and The Inconsolable Secret as my favoutite GH release. Ever.
Which is saying something.
It's nice now that the interminable comparisons made to Yes can finally be boxed off. Glass Hammer's singer on the last three records was, as some of you may have heard, head-hunted by said seminal symphonic proggers to replace Benoit David. So of course there's a Yes flavour to the sound. Moving on...
It's a 13 part song, for those who like some length to their prog. I guess you could, if you were minded to, call it epic. You can call it 'Steven' as far as I'm concerned. Quality will always, to my mind, win out over quantity. Except in respect of money. And wine. Obviously. But apart from those two things it is all about the quality, innit?
In the unlikely event this wins 'Review of the Year' in some magazine's 2013 Best Of poll then I would like to thank my parents, my daughter and everyone who knows me and, of course, The Artist Formally Known as Gerald the Psychic Stoat. This eventuality will not happen unless the category 'Prog Heart Throb' (or is it Hearth Rug?) is abolished. I mean... Come on... Might just as well call it 'Best Tits' or 'Female Singist who you have Masturbated the Most to'.
There is, however, a 'Best Album' category. And Perilous, for me, comes mightily close.
The first three and a half minutes of opener The Sunset Gate contains more melody, more musicianship, more thought and more 'oomph' than all of 2012's more generic 'prog by numbers' releases put together. And, as I said, gives classic albums by echolyn, BBT, Beardfish and a few select others a damned good run for their money. Strings, piano, keys, synths, organ, guitar, bass and percussion combine for a quite sublime instrumental opening. It is, put simply, a mini-epic in itself. Symphonic prog perfection personified. Perfect, to these ears at least in every way. And then of course Jon Davison's vocals kick in, taking the song, if it were possible, to even higher levels of wonderfulness. Vocal harmonies to die for put one in mind of the GH of old. And throughout the keyboard wizardry and superbly powerful, yet tuneful bass of Messrs. Schendel and Babb respectively allows Davison to put flesh on the lyrical bones, summoning up a masterclass of prog vocals. Young guitarist Kamran Alan Shikoh again amazes with his precision, his feel, his one-ness with the material. The aforementioned four members have truly blossomed as a band. Whilst If and Cor Cordium were both very very good records, this is a great one. Drummer Randall Williams appears again and his dextrous and sensitive playing is just what you would want of a drummer playing material this complex.
There's a heap of guest musos too, including again the Adonia String Trio, Amber Fults (vocals on In That Lonely Place), a girls choir, a Latin choir, recorders and oboe. The whole thing is mastered again by the incomparable Bob Katz of Digital Domain.
As I've mentioned this really needs to be listened to as one long song. The 13 sections perfectly flow and segue into one another. On headphones if possible and, if your budget allows, on limited edition double vinyl (available from planegroovy.com).
Perilous is an auto-buy for symphonic progressive rock fans. Oh but I could afford to go on the Cruise to the Edge thing.
Anyway, as this is my first review for quite some time I need a lie down in a darkened room and a rub down with some old fish and chip papers. I appreciate I have not mentioned badgers, or antler hats but, as they say, the year is young. Love to you all. Bri.
And so to the rating. As a top 10 contender by a country mile, in a year that has seen some great releases it has, of course, got to be a resounding...9/10