Everyone wants to sound like Genesis, nobody wants to sound like ELP. If you ask me that’s the issue with progressive rock today; too many bands trying to make their music respectable and tasteful by throwing out what made it so damn entertaining in the first place. Luckily we’ve got Fred Schendel, a man who cultivated and embraced his inner Keith Emerson from the very beginning. Schendel, who plays in Glass Hammer with bassist Steve Babb and whoever else happens to be hanging out in the studio, originally intended Chronometree to be an instrumental solo release, until Babb convinced him to make it a Glass Hammer album.
The idea: a full-blown tribute to classic 70’s prog that was also an over-the-top parody at the same time. Just look at the tracklisting: most of it is one really long composition called “All in Good Time” which extends all the way to Part J. It is, of course, a concept album (as most Glass Hammer albums are), telling the story of Tom, a guy who gets so stoned that he becomes convinced that aliens are speaking to him through his prog rock LPs, directing him to find something called the “Chronometree” in the middle of a forest or something. Though you may have trouble discerning this given how obtuse the lyrics are; everything sounds like it’s gone through the Jon Anderson word salad generator, leaving piles of adjectives or backwards-sounding lines. “Let play the sonic wind revealing/not turning from loose tale/of awesome thunder turn around the scene/To passion shall not surely fail” – all sung rather matter-of-factly, through a singer who does not seem to realize how ridiculous the lyrics truly are. In fact sometimes I know they’re messing with us: “Welcome all you merry Marys from the rain/Your fairy’s staring at the prairies on the plain”, or if you prefer, “Welcome all you clever clowns from the drown/Your angel dangles at an angle going down”. In both these cases I had to look up the lyrics – did he really just say that? I’m convinced that “A Perfect Carousel” is an attempt to replicate ELP’s “Someone get me a ladder!” moment, especially considering that it follows the same pattern as ELP’s ballads usually do, even closing with a big astral synth solo.
But the whole thing is loaded with ELP references, particularly “Karn Evil 9” (which I swear gets checked multiple times), but also in the way that Schendel draws heavily from Emerson’s bag o’ tricks, quickly transposing melodies and shifting into boogie-woogie territory on a whim. Babb, too, plays the same rubbery bass that Lake does (check out the nimble parts on “Revelation”), though perhaps he’s a bit more talented than Lake was. They don’t have anyone to play like Palmer, but two out of three ain’t bad. Arjen Lucassen (of Ayreon) and Terry Clouse (of Somnabulist) contribute fiery some guitar parts, though I think most of it is handled by either Schendel or Walter Moore. I guess you can never tell with such a studio-bound group like this. Glass Hammer never exactly had a stable lineup – case in point, vocalist Brad Marler, who stuck around for this album only. His tone is too AOR-ish to really go into nutso territory, so he’s used mostly to ground the music, which so often flies off the handle. But he handles the ballads well, and he’s a better lead man than Babb or Schendel, though I question why they didn’t use Walter Moore, as he’s got a real balls-out, hair-metal type voice. Perhaps they felt that Marler was a better fit for Tom – his voice is fairly middle-of-the-road, and often strains to give itself the sort of self-importance that the character has.
For Glass Hammer, it was a chance to live out all their classic prog fantasies, and as a result they’re more focused than they were on their previous albums; clocking in at “only” 48 minutes, Chronometree is about as lean as GH gets. Both of the pieces in the middle are really good – as mentioned before “Perfect Carousel” is a pitch-perfect imitation of Lake’s best ballads, but “Chronos Deliverer” is the real standout. I guess this would be the “classical cover” bit on an ELP album, since it takes the vocal melody from “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” (borrowing from hymns is a GH specialty), though as far as I know the rest is original. But it is totally bombastic, the biggest sound that they’ve come up with to this point, featuring a full choir and a bunch of ascending melodies. As for “All in Good Time”, I guess the first half is probably more notable than the second, as the narrative thread sorta runs out there (lo and behold, nothing happens, perhaps because he misspelled something when he was decoding the secret messages). The second half jams around a lot, sometimes pulling out a great melody (“Chronoverture”). But it’s all good; even the more repetitive parts don’t last long (“The Waiting”) and Schendel has a tendency to tear things up at a moment’s notice.
Unsurprisingly, this was the album that put Glass Hammer on the map, albeit with the dreaded “copycat prog” tag that’s dogged them for much of their career, mostly from those who either don’t like the band or aren’t listening too closely. They haven’t done themselves too many favors in that regard; they’d later cover “South Side of the Sky” and hired a singer that sounded so much like Jon Anderson that he eventually wound up in Yes. Granted, this band is not exactly “progressive” in the traditional sense, but not a whole lot of ’em are these days. But even still, I haven’t seen another group pull off the rotating, multi-singer approach like they do (on most albums besides this one), and I don’t think that any other prog band would attempt something like The Middle Earth Album (okay, maybe Tull would). What Glass Hammer does is embrace the showmanship and the ridiculousness of it all in a way that I think doesn’t sit well with some people. Make no mistake, Chronometree is a great album (despite what I may have told you earlier), and the band got even better from here. Every self-respecting ELP fan owes it to themselves to get a copy.