Album Reviews

Issue 2015-032

Glass Hammer - Breaking of the World - Round Table Review

Glass Hammer - Breaking of the World
Country of Origin: USA
Format: CD
Record Label: Arion Records
Catalogue #: SR3423
Year of Release: 2015
Time: 64:24
Info: Glass Hammer
Samples: Glass Hammer on Arion Records website
Track List:
Mythopoeia (8:35), Third Floor (11:04), Babylon (7:56), A Bird When It Sneezes (0:34), Sand (5:47), Bandwagon (6:20 ), Haunted (5:55), North Wind (9:26), Nothing, Everything (8:50)
Eric Perry's Review
It's hard not to admire Glass Hammer. Technically outstanding with a work ethic that puts most prolific contemporary song writers in the shade, they do come together to create new music almost yearly without fail, much to the delight of their core fan base. Yet for all their efforts, the results are sometimes patchy and uninspiring. Their 2014 release Ode to Echo was in many ways a prime example of this factor. In numerous places the writing only partially hit the mark and moments of brilliance are often bogged down with a rather over-elaborate, intricate jazz that often broke the flow and the appeal of the melody, creating a frustrating and disjointed output.

Thankfully the jazz, on their seventeenth studio album – The Breaking of the World, is better utilised and fits more smoothly within the song structure elevating the latest effort to one of their better releases in recent years. Fans however will be happy to know that it still resides within the music, and this time around it feels like it is better placed. An intense nugget of their jazzy style fits nicely in the self-contained, energetic, A Bird When It Sneezes. All 34 seconds of it.

With the flavour of this aspect of their sound reduced in the pot, what is left is a more balanced and appealing result. Just how good this band can be is evident in the excellent Third Floor. Delicately gorgeous tones from vocalist Susie Bogdanowicz marry effectively with a very listenable range of old and new progressive sounds from Steve Babbs's keyboard and bass guitar combination, a mixture that ranges from eerie to epic and even grandiose.

Babylon with its classical flourishes and mixture of Yes, Genesis and Tull influences typifies the GH sound and is one of the strongest parts of the album. It might not have a great deal of originality but what it gives is an excellent form of prog that will still appeal to a broad spectrum of music fans of the genre.

What does seem apparent on this new release is the diversity in the songwriting. In contrast to the complex bounce and depth of the opening three tracks, the stripped back piano-led, Sand gives a welcome change of pace and tone and coupled with the slightly creepy, dirge like Haunted, there is plenty of variety to appreciated. Haunted itself has so much within it, that the piece is worth the admission price alone.

What is evident this time around is that the song writing has found the right balance of sound in order to present the listener with a more palatable and enjoyable experience. The bright spots are certainly the excellent vocals from Bogdanowicz who returns again for a second consecutive time. Without doubt everything is still here that fans of the band would want, but somehow this has come together far more satisfyingly, making it a stand-out moment in their career to date.
Karel Witte's Review
What's wrong with bands trying to recreate classic 70s prog? Absolutely nothing. I just love to blast Transatlantic's The Whirlwind at full volume while driving home from work, with nothing stopping me from furiously drumming along with Mike Portnoy on my steering wheel, or singing along with one of Neal Morse's insanely catchy choruses.

To me, the qualities that make for a good progressive rock album are different every time, there's no formula. Whether the focus lies on plain good song writing or mind-boggling instrumental prowess doesn't really interest me. What does interest me, is character and passion. If those two things come to the forefront and I can really feel it, I don't care if the music is original or not.

Through the years, Glass Hammer have been a productive and reliable institute for progressive rock fans yearning for the glory days of Yes and ELP*, and for good reason. This album is no exception. The Chris Squire bass adoration is mixed to the front, as well as the band's impressive arsenal of traditional organs and analogue synthesizers.

Mythopoeia starts off with quite a bang, with the band sounding very powerful. A few perfectly timed breaks of huge hybrid organ/guitar chords overwhelm the listener, and it's a fresh move to start off a record like this. It immediately showcases the pristine production of this album.

As the lead vocals come in, my excitement gradually fades. Aside from a lack of power and emotion in the vocals, the songs just don't really go anywhere. These songs jump from one section to the other for no apparent reason at all, without a pay-off to award the listener. For all the odd-timed organ solos in the world, there's just not a single good chorus on this album. The female-led chorus in Third Floor comes close, but it sounds so incredibly middle-of-the-road. And that's my problem with this album, really.

Instrumentally, literally every classic prog trope can be found here, but the composition and energy just isn't there for me. It gets worse as the album progresses, with organ and synthesizer parts fighting for attention with each other. The vocal parts mostly sound like afterthoughts, and after the umpteenth 'unexpected' chord transition with a weird vocal melody on top I've gotten quite tired of the bland sounding vocals on this album. The instrumental fusion jam A Bird When It Sneezes is excellent and refreshingly different, but unfortunately only 34 seconds long. I wish they'd made a song out of that idea, but instead Glass Hammer choose to play it safe over the course of this album.

While the production is pretty good, the lack of good song writing and general overplaying fail to give this album the character that a good progressive rock album needs. Glass Hammer kind of tick all the boxes, but do nothing to leave a lasting impression. Fans of the band will think I'm crazy, but that's just how it is.
Joel Atlas' Review
Glass Hammer's steady and, for the most part, reliably good output of progressive rock since 1992 has made the band an enduring mainstay in the field. Now the band, the core of which is multi-instrumentalists Fred Schendel and Steve Babb, is at it again, and, with Breaking of the World (the band's 17th studio release), the band has provided yet another example of the genre.

Quite notably, vocalist Jon Davison, who heavily impacted Glass Hammer's recent releases but who is now a full-fledged member of Yes, is not present on the new CD. Instead, vocal duties are shared by Glass Hammer veterans Carl Groves and Susie Bogdanowicz, with Groves being the more prominent.

Nevertheless, the identifiable Glass Hammer sound remains, even if the magnitude of the Yes influence has faded with the absence of Davison. Throughout, bold keyboards, often crisp and occasionally ethereal, fill the environment while balanced with pronounced bass lines and active drumming. There's little doubt that fans of the band, particularly its pre-Davison catalogue, as well as fans of 1970s progressive rock generally, will find some, if not much, to their liking here.

Most of the tunes are solid. The opener, Mythopoeia, is attention grabbing, and, for the most part, the album continues its liveliness (but for the draggy Sand and the somber Haunted). Third Floor shows nice twists and turns and a diversity of sound; the keyboards and guitar play particularly well together here. Also a stand-out is Babylon, which features quivering, flute-like passages and soaring guitar. The fusion-tinged closer, Nothing, Everything, is also a well-composed winner. Mercifully, the CD lacks a full-blown clunker. (This has not always been true of Glass Hammer albums: consider Longer, the sappy cover tune from the otherwise excellent Shadowlands.)

Although this is a fine CD, there is a sense that the band is going through the progressive motions, and using all of the proper progressive sounds, but without breaking new ground, generating excitement, or creating anything epic. Indeed, despite the fine musicianship on offer, few of the songs here have much in the way of lingering hooks, and Carl Groves' singing is, overall, bland and "talky." But, as noted, the pleasant tunes roll on, and there's enough to keep the listener reasonably content -- even if, once the trip ends, there won't be all that much to speak about.
Peter Funke's Review
Glass Hammer have a long musical career so far with quite a lot of recording experience and even more concert practise. The nucleus of the band is extremly consistent - Fred Schendel and Steve Babb are now reigning the Glass Hammer imperium for 23 years. They are quite delingent, always touring and recording and publishing an album almost every year.

Many people are connecting Glass Hammer still with Yes. I am not sure if that is a good thing nowadays. The Yes fanbase is getting smaller and smaller and the band (band?) is disturbing their heritage. Maybe it helped to describe the musical character of Glass Hammer. Of course reviewers are guilty as well, just because we always have to put anything into a box for comparison. But are Glass Hammer deliberately taking a different direction? The last two covers are not made by Roger Dean. You don't get music a la Close to the Edge or Relayer. Even Turn of the Century or Awaken do not come to mind while listening to The Breaking of The World. Fortunately we don't get served with crap like Open Your Eyes or The Ladder. Sopranlike, polyphonic vocals are hardly present on this recording. So you can now forget about the Yes reference completely.

The music of Glass Hammer on this recording can be categorized as typical 70s progressive rock. Or retro prog. The instrumentation, the keyboard sounds and mostly the song structures of those genres are very present here. We hear long intros, long instrumental passages and songs that tell you something mystical about something mystical. The usual tempo is moderato - some shorter rocking passages are thrown in. Of course some parts are made of very symphonic and majestic sounding. Just on behalf of the way of using the flute you may sometimes think about Jethro Tull. Some really tricky sequences (Bandwagon) bring Gentle Giant to mind.

As indicated with my first phrases this album is recorded and produced with great experience and makes an very professional impact. The sound is clear and instruments and effects have been set where they belong - probably. Overall we have a very fine analog sounding output.

So everything is alright? I am afraid not. Music is art, but here we have artifically created complex structures, which doesn't really come to life. A lot of parts sound constructed overconscientiously. Beside that we don't find really great hook lines or melodies. It's kind of just going its way and does not create aahs and oohs. The vocals are not convincing. There are some great ideas and intros (especially Nothing, Everything), but they cannot be turned into an impressing track.

The whole scene is a bit like cooking. Different people take the same ingredients. Some are just feeding you but others are impressing you. Glass Hammer are feeding their fans of course, and if you are not familiar with them I encourage you to try them out. The Breaking of The World will not disturb your day, but it is nothing for the records. A mediocre album which is interesting in parts but not consistent throughout.
Andrew Halley's Review
I first came across this very website in 2005 and it was a revelation because it introduced me to new music that I'd never heard before. I bought the highly recommended Mimi's Magic Moment by Salem Hill and it was marvellous. The review mentioned that one of the guest musicians was Fred Schendel from a fellow Chattanooga band called Glass Hammer. Never heard of them, but totally randomly iTune'd Lex Rex and to this day love it so much that I have to give myself a restraining order so I don't over play it.

I then dipped my toes into their back catalogue and have continued to purchase their albums. However, I've been put off them in recent years because (shock horror) I don't like Jon Davidson's voice. I've never really bought into this band being Yes clones (if anything there's always been a bit of ELP in the the performances) so to suddenly have a Jon Anderson sound-a-like just annoyed me. Therefore I've never really enjoyed their later output and returned to Chronometree etc. for my fix.

Now we get a brand new album and I tentatively check the credits before I even hear a note... Hoorah! No Jon Davidson. This time we get the return of Susie Bogdanowicz and Carl Groves who has a lovely voice. That's right, the singer and multi instrumentalist from (drum roll) Salem Hill.

Glass Hammer have often turned to J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis for inspiration (the most blatant being Journey of the Dunadan and Perelandra) and this album kicks off with the very fine Mythopoeia. A reworking of Tolkien's poem explaining (and defending) creative myth making, straight off the starting grid the music is instantly recognisable.

This track alone defines what progressive rock music is,the bass and keyboard combination of Steve Babb and Fred Schendel have never sounded better,lovely organ and moogy parts just overflows with ebullience. Augmented by permanent guitarist Alan Shikoh, playing some beautiful acoustic and almost Chic style rhythm combined with the perfectly poised drumming of Aaron Raulston, this album is going to be a treat.

After a Watcher of the Skies style intro, longest track Third Floor uses the girl/boy combination vocal to great effect and I love the fact that it's about the band having a crush on the voice of an elevator. That certainly takes them out of out of Middle Earth and "lifts" them up to the next level of originality. There's a definite Gentle Giant feel to this track as soon as the electric piano solo starts. If (like me) you are fan of keyboards in rock music, this album has a music store full of them, played with the same virtuosity of any other player I can think of. The drums are very early Phil Collins, packed with some great fills and musicianship whilst the subtle guitar solos inbue a maturity of timeless production.

The guest flute player, Steve Unruh on Babylon veneers the intro with a hint of Jethro Tull, but the Mellotron and held organ chords soon bring it back to home territory. I love the acoustic guitar strumming back in the mix, it's like the icing on a cake...

The album continues it's self-assured course until we get to Haunted where Susie Bogdanowicz gets her own slot in a track that sounds like it's from their Three Cheers for the Broken Hearted album. A beautifully written tone poem based on an unexpected discovery of a child's grave miles from civillisation.

North Wind (just love that bass playing) and album closer Nothing, Everything which showcases the young guitarist with some great tones and chops, more of that organ, brilliant drumming and jazz Rhodes playing make this the reason I can't even look at the modern day top twenty.

Hugely enjoyable, an absolutely essential purchase for anyone who loves prog rock, The Breaking of the World unashamedly wears that particular heart on it's sleeve, of that there can be no doubt.

With music and lyrics shared by them all, this is a very cohesive collection, made even more band like thanks to only using two singers.

I can only hope that, like me all those years ago, someone who has never heared of this band before discovers this joy of a gem and opens up a whole new (not broken) world for that fortunate musical treasure hunter.
Eric Perry: 7 out of 10
Karel Witte: 5 out of 10
Joel Atlas: 6.5 out of 10
Peter Funke: 5 out of 10
Andrew Halley: 10 out of 10
Album Reviews