Glass Hammer have never been afraid to try something new. From the Tolkien-influenced symphonic prog of the early albums, to full on sword and sorcery concepts, to prog pop, to heavy prog and back again, co-founders Steve Babb and Fred Schendel have never shied away from progressing as artists. Like a prog Steely Dan, the band was whoever best helped them chase the muse. The results over the years have been surprisingly consistent, despite the numerous styles, singers and musicians that have come and gone. Having recently wrapped up the Rush-influenced Skallagrim trilogy, Glass Hammer have taken yet another left-turn with a space opera. Ostensibly a Steve Babb solo album (Schendel appears on only one track), Arise is the hardest rocking Hammer effort to date. The power trio of guitar, bass and drums rules this album, with keyboards used judiciously for colour and texture. Hannah Pryor is back on vocals along with past contributors Reese Boyd (guitars) and Randall Williams (drums). But make no mistake, this is Babb’s show, and all the better for it.
Sequencers, guitar feedback and frantic On The Run-style percussion patterns set the stage for something different on instrumental opener Launch of the Daedalus. This song’s tension and power come into full bloom on Wolf 359. The music is all crunch, a perfect foil for Pryor’s expressive vocal skills. She manages to cut through the aggressive music with her pure, clear voice, imbuing the lyrics with emotional resonance. Although the music is heavier than what we’ve come to expect from Glass Hammer, it is full of dynamic range. The central character of the story is an android, yet this is an album as much about spiritual exploration as it is space exploration. Take, for example, the following lyric: “Time to face all that I fear now / And time to find / Who I am and why I’m here now / They say that God is watching over me / I’m not sure what He wants or what He hopes to see.”
Steve Babb takes the lead vocal (with some electronic treatment) for Arion, with Pryor joining on the chorus. This is a high-energy track with a heavy Rush influence on the instrumental break. The bass is mixed way up front which, considering how powerful and melodic Babb’s playing is, is a good thing. The six-string interplay between Babb and Boyd is incredibly sympatico and full of fun bits. Mare Sirenum pulls back the reins for a few minutes, allowing the keys to dominate the proceedings, capturing the wonders of both deep space and technology. Unlike the Tangerine Dream influenced instrumentals on the last few albums, this one has more than a touch of Kraftwerk in its rhythmic pulse. Still, Babb never loses sight of the melody and keeps it an indispensable part of the song. Cutting edge sonics have always been a hallmark of Glass Hammer’s albums, and Arise does not disappoint in that regard. The layered instrumentation at the beginning of Lost allows each nuance to stand on its own while contributing to the satisfying whole. A variety of synth sounds expose themselves around every corner. Embodying the human element, Pryor’s vocal performance embraces and emphasises the humanity of the android. Once more, the spiritual aspect comes to the fore as the android sings: “I thought I could live my life without you/Thought I’d fly the heavens, find all that’s true/But all I found was empty space, then I finally knew/No one can love me like you”.
The lone track on which Fred Schendel appears (both as co-writer and instrumentalist) is Rift at Wasp-12. With guitars and bass verging on metal, Babb carries the vocal solo this time. Sounding like an offshoot of Troll from the Untold Tales album, Rift is the track that most stands out here. The guitars grind, buzzsaw, and soar like birds of prey over the rock-solid drum and bass foundation. You can’t help but stand up and take notice that this is not your typical Glass Hammer affair. The sonic assault continues on Proxima Centauri B with Pryor back on vocal duty. The wah-wah guitar leads are like molten metal coursing through the labyrinthine subterranean bass riffs. The Hammond and synths that support the bridge stand out for the sparseness of their use, softening the doomy guitar onslaught ever so slightly on this triumphant cut.
The album closes with two epic tracks. Arise begins with another mesmerising bass riff. The ’70s synth sounds enhance the sense of trepidation and apprehension. Listen closely for the Kashmir influences in both the synthesiser and percussion tracks. There is even a touch of jazz in the approach to the guitar, while Mellotron and string synths enhance the otherworldly vibe. Once more, I cannot praise Babb’s bass enough; it punches, slides, sings and thunders, proving that he is one of the best bassists working in the genre today. Every few minutes another instrument takes the lead, yet Arise never loses its continuity. This is a band playing at the peak of its powers, rendering show-off excess worthless. The lyrics double down on spirituality as Pryor sings: “I’ve seen a light up there as bright as any sun / And have you ever felt the hand of God upon you / It’ll change you, brother.” The artwork adjacent to the song shows a Christ-like figure standing before a burning sun into which people appear to be rising, Rapture-like. The final track is the near seventeen-minute instrumental, The Return of Daedalus. There simply is no precedent for it in the Glass Hammer catalogue. Think of it as a By-Tor and the Snow Dog for the Twenty-First Century. With the drums and bass laying down a bed hard as concrete, synths and guitars are given free rein to run amok. This is more about heavy metal soundscapes than flashy soloing, although there is some of that. The musicians are clearly telling a story, as evidenced by the titles of the three sections of this opus: Battle at MARS-WMH-001, Reentry and The Doom of the World. Take the angularity of Rush, the heaviness of Black Sabbath, and the melodicism of Ayreon, throw it all into a pot, simmer for seventeen minutes, and serve up as a cauldron of deceptive surprises. The only lyric, coming in the final moments of the song, are words of foreboding – “Nevermore to roam”.
Thirty years on, Glass Hammer continues to mature, expand their boundaries, and provide top-notch progressive rock. Steve Babb has proven himself time and again to be one of rock’s premier story-tellers as well as one of its finest bassists. Listen to Arise on headphones to appreciate just how well the album has been recorded and surrender yourself to an hour of proggy bliss. Arise is the sound of a band one-upping itself at every turn. God knows what they will come up with next…
01. Launch of the Daedalus (1:12)
02. Wolf 359 (5:35)
03. Arion (18 Delphini b) (5:14)
04. Mare Sirenum (2:57)
05. Lost (6:33)
06. Rift at Wasp-12 (4:11)
07. Proxima Centauri B (5:16)
08. Arise (11:44)
09. The Return of Daedalus (16:50)
Total Time – 59:32
Steve Babb – Keyboards, Lead & Rhythm Guitars, Bass, Percussion, Vocals
Hannah Pryor – Vocals
Reese Boyd – Lead & Rhythm Guitars
Randall Williams – Drums
Fred Schendel – Guitars, Drums (track 6)
Record Label: Sound Resources
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 27th October 2023