U.S. proggers Glass Hammer follow up their 2020 Dreaming City album, with Skallagrim: Into the Breach; the second album in a planned trilogy paying homage to the sword and sorcery novels of the ’60s and ’70s, and by inference the prog-infused hard rock of the ’70s. Dark, heavy and bass driven at times, yet with enough of the band’s keyboard-led ‘proggery’ to please their loyal fanbase and bring in fresh devotees as well.
Formed back in 1992 by Steve Babb and Fred Schendel, Glass Hammer have always had a chameleon-like character to their sound – often defined by their shifting line-ups. This has often made it difficult to know what to expect from the band, from one album to another. Driving, retro classic and progressive rock, but also symphonic rock elements (the Jon Davison-era, especially), with folky and poppy moments throughout their extended back catalogue. It is very much a case of diving into Forrest Gump’s chocolate box and seeing what you find. It can be a leap of faith, but one that can reward prog rock listeners who enjoy a bit of diversity and some surprises along the way.
Dreaming City, the first part of the fantasy-based trilogy, was imbued with the spirit of Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné novels, with touches of the likes of the Hawkmoon and Eternal Champion stories that hooked many a teenager in the early ’70s – myself included. The band have not been averse to science fiction and fantasy themes in the past, including the works of Tolkien, and Steve Babb has been inspired to pen his own novel, Skallagrim: In the Valley of Pagarna, set for publication in 2022.
The narrative follows the thief, Skallagrim, armed with his screaming sword, Terminus, leaving Archon (The Dreaming City) to travel to savage and magical lands in search of his memories and the hope of finding the girl he has loved and lost. This latest album continues the quest and sees our protagonist going to war. As a result, the album is even darker, heavier and angrier than its predecessor – both musically and lyrically.
Babb and Schendel are joined by guest musicians Aaron Raulson on drums, with Reese Boyd and Brian Brewer sharing lead guitar duties. The album also introduces new vocalist Hannah Pryor, and it is her dreamy voice floating over a gentle piano theme that starts proceedings. Opening track He’s Got A Girl is an understated start, but it soon transforms into the powerful, riff-driven sound of Anthem to Andorath, which hits you right between the eyes. There is an almost Metallica-like feel to the guitars, and Babb’s huge bass sound dominates as Pryor’s vocals manage to glide over this dense foundation and yet pierce through it at the same time.
Sellsword continues in a similar style, with Sabbath-style guitar work joined by forceful keyboard chords. We are not in prog metal territory here – this is full-on ’70s hard rock with hints of Uriah Heep and Budgie to accompany the narrative, as the battle rages on. Steel has more light and shade and whilst still very muscular overall, there are more traditional prog-orientated chunks of keyboard within the ominous ensemble instrumentation. Pryor’s voice once again cuts through the wall of sound with both power and clarity.
A well-timed change in both atmosphere and tempo occurs with a trio of instrumental tracks. A Spell Upon His Mind has pulsating keyboards and effects, with the electronica accompanied by haunting guitar overtones. Moon Pool has a hypnotic jazz-influenced drum and bass beat dominating, but the unsettling, spacey atmosphere is maintained by the intertwining guitar and keyboards. Finally, The Dark re-emphasises the dark and menacing atmospherics with deep chiming guitar over a rich ELP-flavoured Hammond organ.
Moving into the heart of the album, The Ogre of Archon has Babb take over the vocal duties and this helps give the track a heavier Jethro Tull style at times, mixed with hints of Groundhogs and the Zeppelin-influenced sound of Rush’s debut album – with the bass propelling the music along with retro keyboards and soaring guitars aplenty. Into the Breach continues this driving amalgam of ’70s rock, including psychedelic/space rock at times, with the Hammond organ keeping the prog-quotient high.
Pryor’s singing on The Forlorn Hope contrasts nicely with the heavy music, as Skallagrim’s quest continues. However, there is a refreshing switch in tone as acoustic guitar and a pastoral Wishbone Ash-style is introduced mid-way, and the “dream on, dream on” vocal refrain signals a return of our thief’s memories, long dormant, of his lost love and her name – Lirazel.
The Writing on the Wall is dominated by a rumbling, swaying, funky tempo, and it definitely gets your head nodding in time to the music under the powerful vocals, as it progressively builds up in intensity. The band have fun with some Tarkus-like keyboard patterns and the catchy chorus makes this one of the most accessible tracks, encapsulating the overall feel of the whole album in one track.
At just under 10 minutes in duration, Hyperborea is pure classic Rush, with Lifeson-style guitar patterns from the very start. There is more light and shade here, with Xanadu touches to the synthesisers, bells and percussion. It comes over as a genuinely affectionate homage to the Canadian band in their late ’70s period, and everyone seems to be having a whale of a time as a result, as our hero sets out for the final part of his quest. Finally, Bright Sword sees Skallagrim reach the iron doors of Zagzagel and reprises the theme from A Desperate Man from the previous album – all setting everything up perfectly for the final album of the trilogy in the months to come.
If Dreaming City whetted your appetite for Glass Hammer’s epic, heavier-style of classic ’70s rock with prog flourishes and a dramatic retro-style fantasy narrative, then Skallagrim definitely delivers it once again. It is an album that rewards repeated listening, and whether you embrace the synergy between the music and storyline, or simply enjoy the shifting musical soundscapes, Babb, Schendel and the band are clearly in their element as they knowingly mix the old and new to create something fresh, heavy and powerful, and yet undeniably progressive.
01. He’s Got A Girl (1:02)
02. Anthem to Andorath (4:37)
03. Sellsword (6:07)
04. A Spell Upon His Mind (4:03)
05. Moon Pool (4:01)
06. The Dark (2:40)
07. The Ogre of Archon (6:13)
08. Into the Breach (7:56)
09. The Forlorn Hope (7:57)
10. The Writing on the Wall (6:59)
11. Hyperborea (9:41)
12. Bright Sword (1:33)
Total Time – 70:15
Steve Babb – Keyboards, Bass, Lead & Backing Vocals
Fred Schendel – Keyboards, Guitars, Lead & Backing Vocals
Aaron Raulston – Drums
Hannah Pryor – Lead Vocals
Reese Boyd – Lead Guitar
Brian Brewer – Lead Guitar
Record Label: Sounds Resources
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 15 th October 2021