It is an impressive fact that Tennessee’s Glass Hammer are now on seemingly their 17th studio album since their debut in 1993, the core duo of Steve Babb and Fred Schendel still at the heart of it all. With vocalist Jon Davison otherwise engaged with all things Yes, whilst still a member of the band he does not appear on The Breaking of the World, his shoes filled by Carl Groves (from fellow Tennessee-ites Salem Hill) who preceded him in the role. Also returning is Susie Bogdanowicz who provided lead vocals between 2001 and 2009. Both Bogdanowicz and Groves rejoined for last year’s Ode To Echo (which also featured Davison) but here get the opportunity to sing throughout, Groves getting the bulk of the material.
The quality of Schendel and Babb’s production certainly makes the music sparkle, the bass sound being particularly impressive and all of the players benefit from the quality and clarity. With the writing credits split between most of the main members of the band there is a wide variety of songs on display but the core sound in the main doesn’t stray too far from the influence of the classic Prog era of the 1970s. The playing is superb in songs that are engaging and very enjoyable without straying too far into new territories. What you get is an album of real quality produced by people with a passion for what they do, but if you are looking for something groundbreaking then it would be better to look elsewhere.
The sound of Yes has always been a touchstone for Glass Hammer and, although somewhat diminished with the removal of Davison’s Jon Anderson-like vocals, it is certainly still evident. There are also elements of classic Genesis throughout the album with smaller doses of Saga, Gentle Giant and even King Crimson influences here and there. To my ears – bearing in mind that I am not familiar with the whole GH catalogue by any means – there does seem to be a more definitive GH sound on this album, albeit buried within a stew of obvious influences.
The album is bookended with pairs of the longest pieces with tracks of more manageable length as the filling. And it is the filling of this particular sandwich that I find most appealing. Themes of fantasy and mythology feature prominently, as in opener Mythopoeia, a three parter that uses J.R.R. Tolkien’s poetical explanation of creative myth making as its base. It starts with a flourish and a definite Yes feel from the Chris Squire bass sound, high register vocals and Wakeman keyboard leads, Shikoh’s guitar also edging into Steve Howe territory. Luckily the whole thing falls short of becoming a pastiche and the Yes elements are not overriding. An acoustic second part links to a more Genesis influenced third and overall the track is very enjoyable.
Impressive and well put together as Mythopoeia is, it also shows up Glass Hammer’s limitations. Despite quality at all levels the listener is drawn to reminisce and rather than thinking about Glass Hammer it makes me consider how much I enjoy Yes and Genesis. Prog fans are by and large a funny bunch, praising music that pushes the boundaries one minute but being only too happy when someone else constricts themselves within those boundaries the next. There is nothing wrong with bands channelling the Golden Age and the classic music that changed everything in the first place but this often appears to be seen as being more desirable than actual progression within the genre. There is certainly a place for nostalgia but the legacy bands and those that sound much like them still get the lion’s share of the attention over artists who are trying to do genuinely groundbreaking work.
Don’t get me wrong, there is skill and passion here and the results are certainly impressive but as with the previous Glass Hammer albums I’ve heard there is too much homage within their sound. Yes and Genesis are prevalent again within Babylon‘s instrumentation but it is well done with Steve Unruh’s flute successfully taking the music somewhere different. The references come thick and fast in the mid-section, again well played, although at 8 minutes long it does outstay its welcome a bit and this seems to be another issue for Glass Hammer as they shoehorn in sections of incendiary instrumentalism that although great in themselves are too similar to their influences. By cropping these a little or changing their tone Glass Hammer would be in a position to define their own sound more clearly and become a much more intriguing proposition.
Third Floor is far more interesting. Subtitled “A Play in One Act” it features two protagonists, “I” and “She” – voiced by Groves and Bogdanowicz respectively – with “The Voice of Reason” adding balance but deciding to call time on their relationship at the end. Setting it in an elevator is an unusual device that works well – one wants to go up, the other sideways. Musically Shikoh is all over this and the organ work is excellent as the music flows with the words. Groves vocal has a very different feel to elsewhere on the album and the instrumental section is great stuff that moves through a number of different feels although they can’t resist more Genesis influences towards the end which, for the reasons noted above, is a bit of a shame.
Far be it from me to tell Messrs Babb and Schendel what to play, they clearly enjoy using classic sounds and structures. They’re great, I don’t dispute their use per se, however for a band two decades into their recording career I would have expected something more of an individual voice to have emerged. As noted, there is definite variety within The Breaking of the World and overall it is an enjoyable listen but next Christmas it would be nice if Mrs Schendel bought Fred something other than Tony Banks keyboard patches…
So, three tracks in and we already have a surfeit of Yes and Genesis on board. The cargo is heavy and not stowed securely but although the ship is listing slightly the band have managed to keep it upright and heading in the right direction.
Another interesting distraction is the VERY brief but intense jazz fusion of A Bird When It Sneezes. Lasting as long as the proverbial expulsion it is a nice idea that could – and should – have been developed further. Sand is an intriguing piece, quiet and meditative, the verse sections do bring the quieter bits of Lucky Seven from Chris Squire’s wonderful Fish Out of Water to mind although the two songs are very different. That said this is much less derivative than some of the other pieces and Schendel’s piano work is impressive as it accompanies Groves’ lovely vocal.
A change of pace for Bandwagon, bass heavy with Hammond in a thumping tune that Saga would be happy with. It works well after Sand and the violin from Unruh adds a great deal. The Yes-like fugue section, reminiscent of a much less iconoclastic Awaken, moves into a Gentle Giant polyphonic passage and it is all extremely well done. High energy and fun, it’s good – really good – but still a little disappointing as by parachuting in familiar themes and sounds rather than adding a larger dash of their own brand of sauce Glass Hammer diminish themselves somewhat.
The album is currently on a roll however as Haunted gives Bogdanowicz a chance to shine eerily with a wonderful vocal amongst the suitably spooky keys and graveyard at midnight feel. It’s all very different to the rest of the album with no overt influences and as a result is one of the more diverting and interesting tracks here for me. Shikoh’s guitar section is impressively unusual and there is a real mournful quality to the track that is well realised, particularly the final voice and acoustic guitar section. Nice indeed.
And so to close the album out we get two final extended tracks. The references within North Wind are there to be spotted – and they aren’t too well hidden. Chris Squire. Tony Banks. Steve Howe. Some camouflage or fake bushes would be nice to throw the listener off the scent a little. It’s nice but slightly more “epic” than it needs to be, as can be said of Nothing, Everything which opens with drive and purpose, Babb’s bass again upfront as Shikoh gives his guitar a good dose of edginess verging on King Crimson here and there. The chorus is nice with a jazzy feel to the instrumental sections, another good piano and vocal section ending with the other instruments being brought back in on a wave of Hammond organ and bass pedals. Fiddly bits and some polite KC are thrown in for good measure but the whole thing is, again, a little too drawn out.
Fans of Glass Hammer will lap this up. Those unfamiliar will find much to enjoy and I think it would be a good introductory vehicle for the band. Anyone looking for something completely new should continue the search but that is not in any way meant to denigrate what Babb, Schendel et al have produced with The Breaking of the World. New drummer Aaron Raulston drives things along with an excellent performance and all of the musicians are on top form. The songs are a perfect fit for each other, the writers coming up with some interesting constructs and there is loads of variety. So what’s not to like?
Well despite being shot through with masses of quality there isn’t much in the way of real excitement.
If none of the influences existed this would no doubt be seen as a work of genius. However they do and some listeners are sure to baulk at all the references and similarities to familiar music and bands. Glass Hammer wear their influences all too visibly on their sleeves, and that’s fine whilst being slightly annoying as there is talent and ingenuity here in abundance and I’d love to hear it all come together to produce something truly groundbreaking and unexpected. Some days nostalgia fuelled sounds suit me down to the ground – the quality of the music here is certainly a huge plus – but at other times I just need something new and less derivative. This is a listen of two halves that, for me, depends on my mood. There is in no way anything terrible here, no skippers and nothing that should never have seen the light of day but the volume of references make The Breaking of the World rather unbalanced.
01. Mythopoeia (8:35)
02. Third Floor (11:04)
03. Babylon (7:56)
04. A Bird When It Sneezes (0:34)
05. Sand (5:47)
06. Bandwagon (6:20)
07. Haunted (5:55)
08. North Wind (9:26)
09. Nothing, Everything (8:50)
Total Time – 64:27
Carl Groves – Vocals
Steve Babb – Bass, Keyboards, Backing Vocals
Fred Schendel – Keyboards, Vocals
Susie Bogdanowicz – Vocals
Kamran Alan Shikoh – Guitar
Aaron Raulston – Drums
Steve Unruh – Violin, Flute
Michele Lynn – Vocals
Record Label: Arion Records
Cat. Number: SR3423