American prog rock stalwarts Glass Hammer conclude their ambitious and diverse ‘Skallagrim’ trilogy of albums with the impressive At The Gate. Following on from 2020’s Dreaming City and 2021’s Skallagrim – Into the Breach, Steve Babb’s homage to the sword and sorcery novels of the 1960s and ’70s is accompanied by their trademark sound of lush symphonic prog mixed with edgier and heavier ’70s-style hard rock and prog-metal influences.
Steve Babb and Fred Schendel are once again joined by Hannah Pryor on vocals and Aaron Raulston on drums, along with guest vocals from John Davison and John Beagley and some fine lead guitar contributions from Reece Boyd on a couple of tracks. The heavier sound of recent albums remains on many tracks, but there is also more of a return to the sweeping symphonic prog sound of earlier releases, producing a diverse musical soundscape to please fans both old and new.
Steve has produced an actual novel from this creative endeavour, called Skallagrim – In the Vales of Pagarna, which is likely to be expanded into a series. The narrative presented over the trilogy of albums, though similar, does differ slightly from the book, so both offerings can be enjoyed without one spoiling the other, according to Steve. Whilst obviously it is best to enjoy all three albums together as a single body of work, following the many adventures of our warrior thief, I also feel that At The Gate can stand on its own merits as a highly enjoyable slab of heavy symphonic and retro-prog.
Opening track The Years Roll By is an excellent, prog-orientated piece, and one of the album’s highlights. It starts off with rich and vibrant organ chords before Aaron’s energetic drums are joined by uplifting keyboards and Steve’s rumbling bass guitar, through to Hannah’s beautiful voice, acoustic guitar and then an amalgam of guitar and keyboards. The mid-tempo beat propels this accessible song throughout and there is an epic, grandiose feel. Our hero, Skallagrim, ponders the centuries that have passed him by in Anderoth, as he recalls and dreams of a love now long lost.
Leaves me wondering
Don’t ask me why,
We froze, and our lives just passed us by.”
By contrast, Savage has a much darker and heavier feel. A slow bass and guitar lockstep pattern moves into Sabbath-like guitar riffs and a driving drum beat, settling into a strutting Zeppelin-style slice of classic hard rock, with wonderfully retro keyboards weaving between Hannah’s siren-like vocals, bass and guitar as Skallagrim reflects on his own life so far and the vision of a quest forms in his mind.
North of North is an intriguing instrumental dominated by a pulsating synthesised electronic rhythm – part Tangerine Dream, part Alan Parsons Project – with piano notes and later some guitar and lovely stabs of ELP-style Hammond organ before returning to its original, dreamy, hypnotic soundscape, whilst our hero journeys further on from Andorath, towards the frozen gate of Zagzagel, searching for Lirazel.
Although there are metal and even grunge elements within the dark and brooding All Alone, for me it is a knowing nod to that late ’60s/early ’70s heavy blues rock of the likes of Cream, Free, early Jethro Tull and the Groundhogs, with a heavy, dark bass-driven sound, along with echoes of tracks like Spoonful and I’ll Be Creepin’ to my ears. A midway upping of the tempo has fresh and vibrant elements of Thin Lizzy and ’70s classic hard rock, as Hannah’s vocals take over from Steve’s darker sound and soar over exuberant guitar soloing, with Deep Purple-like organ flourishes which Jon Lord would have been proud of. The narrative sees Skallagrim’s quest for his lost love continue.
And I’ll be going where,
The dark is deep and blood runs cold
Don’t leave her there
All alone, all alone.”
All For Love continues the heavy, dark tone with a galloping, urgent and resonating drum and bass rhythm with Hannah’s dramatic vocals over powerful prog-metal riffs. Reece Boyd delivers bursts of stratospheric guitar as more retro-style keyboards join in the fray.
Snowblind Girl starts with an atmospheric keyboard soundscape, but some heavy guitar work and more soloing from Reece follow, keeping pace with a busy and undulating rhythm. Hannah’s haunting, powerful, symphonic prog-metal vocals impress again. Whilst it is true that these last three albums have leaned towards the heavier, edgier side of Glass Hammer’s persona, Steve and Fred still throw in enough proggy moments to satisfy many longstanding fans, and some twisting free-form keyboard runs and acoustic guitar chords break up the busy track very effectively. As ever, Aaron’s drumming fills out the sound superbly.
Standing at the Gate (of Zagzagel), with its discordant guitar chords, has a real progressive rock feel, reminiscent in many ways of the more complex, heavier moments of Yes albums such as Relayer and Tales From Topographic Oceans. This is emphasised further by Steve’s most Chris Squire-like bass playing on the album, some lovely sweeping keyboards, expressive guitar and by the return of former vocalist Jon Davison (now of Yes). There is some welcome light and shade, but also an unsettling atmosphere throughout as Skallagrim waits at the frozen gate and pounds it until it finally opens.
Poignant piano and wistful vocals dominate In the Shadows, the track slowly gaining gravitas before chiming piano notes and an ethereal wash of keyboards transition into the sweeping epic It’s Love. Hannah’s vocals are heavenly, well supported by those of John Beagley, amongst others later on. This is truly symphonic prog of the highest order with twinkling keyboards, Queen-like harmonised vocal and melodic guitar passages over a stirring bass and drum foundation that triumphantly fades through to the end to provide a satisfying conclusion to the album – with a subtle musical link back to A Desperate Man from the previous Dreaming City album.
Steve Babb’s epic sword and sorcery story has concluded with Skallagrim, his sword Terminus in hand, finding Lirazel (who is then taken to safety by his friend Hartbeth) and taking her place to fight the dark powers within the ruins, lovingly sacrificing himself for her – although not without a glimmer of hope that they will meet again in the future.
More brightly than the sun.
It’s always love, my friend.”
Glass Hammer have produced three albums of progressive rock that are well worth exploring, with At The Gate possibly being the best of this fascinating fantasy trilogy. The more modern, harder-edged sound of the band still remains, but it has been joined by more sweeping symphonic elements of old to give a better overall balance. It both challenges and comforts in equal measure and has clearly been a real labour of love over the last few years for Steve and Fred. Glass Hammer continue to evolve even after 30 years of making quality prog rock. If you like your prog with a heavier touch at times, but also a clear link to retro symphonic prog and classic rock, there is much to enjoy in this album, and the previous two as well. Check them out!
01. The Years Roll By (7:37)
02. Savage (6:25)
03. North of North (4:28)
04. All Alone (6:03)
05. All For Love (6:55)
06. Snowblind Girl (7:42)
07. Standing at The Gate (of Zagzagel) (5:02)
08. In the Shadows (3:41)
09. It’s Love (13:29)
Total Time – 61:22
Steve Babb – Bass Guitar, Keyboards, Guitar, Lead & Backing Vocals
Fred Schendel – Keyboards, Guitars, Backing Vocals
Aaron Raulston – Drums
Hannah Pryor – Lead Vocals
John Beagley – Vocals (tracks 1 & 9)
Jon Davison – Vocals (track 7)
Reece Boyd – Lead Guitar (tracks 5 & 6)
Record Label: Sounds Resources
Formats: CD, Digital
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 7th October 2022