I originally wanted to start this review by imagining what a cracked.com article on prog rock might look like (The 10 Worst Things Progressive Rock Bands Do – #6 Made Me Wish For Oblivion Upon My Immortal Soul). To my complete non-surprise they already made one. The point of all this is that if you took everything that the prog-dislikers disliked about prog and threw it together, the band you’d get would probably resemble Glass Hammer. Long compositions? Check. Songs that use odd meters and switch time signatures on a whim? Check. Fantasy-based lyrics with references to classic literature? Check. Lots of organ? Check. Constant lineup changes? Check (though in GH’s defense, this is mostly due to a “use whoever’s available” philosophy rather than the more tyrannical approach that Yes uses). A penchant for overindulgent concept albums? God, is there any other kind? After all, this is a band that did *two* albums based off the Lord of the Rings, non-Tolkeinites be damned. For the record, I think Glass Hammer are awesome for all these reasons. While most prog rock bands will claim “we’re not prog” (a similarity they share with boy bands), Glass Hammer have been in prog-revival mode from day one.
What Glass Hammer really do is satisfy the longing of every Yes and ELP fan who just wish that their favorite bands had produced several more albums along the lines of Fragile or Trilogy before going the route of Tormato or Love Beach. Granted, there are plenty of bands out there that aim for this, but Glass Hammer are one of the few that really make it work. The group revolves around Fred Schendel and Steve Babb, who play keyboards and bass respectively, though they wound up playing pretty much everything else during the first half of the band’s existence. I was on the fence about these guys for a while – some of their early releases could be a bit rough – but I always admired their dedication to going big. By their second album (1995’s Perelandra) they were already trying to imitate Yes’s “Awaken” (see the closing track, “Heaven”), which is a lofty goal for any band, especially one with such a DIY aesthetic. While repeated listenings revealed their next album On to Evermore as some kind of hidden gem, I think 2000’s Chronometree was where you can really hear the wheels starting to turn. It’s a prog rock concept album about a guy who takes prog rock concept albums too seriously, and the music really embodies that; Schendel plays like Keith Emerson circa 1972, and it’s not entirely clear if he’s paying tribute or mocking him. I reckon it’s a little of both.
If that album made one thing clear, it’s that Glass Hammer certainly had the talent. But they hadn’t really made a great album yet – Chronometree nearly was, but it relies really heavily on Schendel’s ability to play scales and transpose melodies really quickly, and probably wouldn’t work too well if you weren’t familiar with ELP. Their following release was The Middle Earth Album, which was full of madrigals and ballads that sounded like they were straight out of the Renaissance era. It was quite good for what it was, but it’s pretty far away from prog rock – if nothing else it had the bonus of trolling anyone who took the band too seriously.
Listening to Lex Rex (their third album in three years, by the way) you can tell that this was likely weighing on the band as well. Whether or not you consider it a masterpiece is besides the point – the album was clearly written to be the band’s big statement. Lyrically, it’s the story of a Roman soldier’s “quest for glory” (as you will likely discern by the 15th time those words are repeated), who winds up delivering the killing blow to none other than Jesus Christ himself. But it’s presented sort of as a play, with two halves bookended by spoken word segments (which do attempt to deflate the album a bit), plus an “intermission” and an epilogue. All of the music on here feels very pointed and composed; outside of a few guitar solos everything is tightly wound. It really is prog incarnate; long, circular melodies, songs with a bunch of sections, and full-band arrangements. This is done very deliberately; Glass Hammer know exactly what kind of band they want to be. I wouldn’t call it pretentious though, as a lot of this is done to keep the entertainment value high; the thrill of a band like ELP is certainly not lost here. I mean a lot of these keyboard parts are not exactly difficult to work out, though I certainly couldn’t play them with this kind of speed. Even though all the main tracks are long (one even going over 15 minutes), it never allows itself to get boring or repetitive, as the music just careens from one section to another. In fact it’s almost to the point where it’s difficult to distinguish the individual tracks – both “acts” are approximately a half-hour long and are structured similar to something like “Tarkus” or “Supper’s Ready”.
The band does tend to take some flak for this reason; they don’t really do anything new per se, and it’s tempting to talk about them in terms of the bands they’re clearly influenced by. I won’t do that, but suffice to say these guys know their classic prog well. More importantly, they have a good concept of what works and what doesn’t. I’d also point out that they seem to also be influenced by Christian hymnals; a lot of the melodies on here seem to be directly informed by them (for example, the vocal section of “When We Were Young”). Not to give this the dreaded “Christian rock” tag; in fact for once I think the Christian themes are sort of a boost, as the band derives a lot of their power from the melodies. And there are an awful lot of them. The album runs for over an hour and it does it the hard way, with very little repetition or jamming; even the jam sections that do occur are done in a very structured way. Given how great a lot of those melodies are (particularly any bit that involves harmonization, such as the first half of “One King”), the album is left with a lot of replay value. There’s too much to take in on the first few listens and they give you a lot to look forward to.
It’s worth mentioning that Glass Hammer were really not a full band at this point. A lot of musicians are listed in bit parts but Babb and Schendel probably handle about 95% of the work here. This might cause some warning sirens to go off in your head; certainly guys like Todd Rundgren and Adrian Belew can record entire albums by their lonesome, but they don’t often attempt music this complicated. The good news is that the arrangements are designed to play up their main digs – Fred’s keyboards and Steve’s bass are often driven to the forefront, with the guitar bits usually playing against them. But the drums don’t do so well – Schendel is not a bad drummer, but he plays the drums like he plays the keys, which is to say he has sort of a clinical and precise style without a whole lot of swing. They don’t really groove on this album; the drum charts are not very creative, especially in contrast to the incredible keyboard hooks that fill most of this album. Furthermore they’re undermixed, sort of nerfing a low-end that could’ve really injected some more thunder into the album. As for the vocals, all I can say is that Babb and Schendel are sort of an acquired taste. Neither have a real powerful voice; they can sing on key and they harmonize really well, but they don’t really fit with music this epic. When Walter Moore stepped in to sing a few bits for On to Evermore the difference was night and day – he’s credited here, though I can’t discern exactly where he is. Susie Bogdanowicz appears in some spots too; she’s underused, but the parts she gets are great. That’s one thing Glass Hammer would later be known for – they’ve brought in a lot of great vocalists, particularly female ones (and Susie is probably the best they’ve had). You wouldn’t know it on Lex Rex, but at least they load the thing with harmonies, and fairly ambitious ones at that.
Still, even for its flaws, there’s something admirable about Glass Hammer and Lex Rex. The band, because they’re so all-in on what they do, despite prog being such a niche genre these days. The album, because it really is a blast all the way through; 30 years of hindsight did these guys well. Though there are dozens of new prog groups trying to keep the spirit of the 70’s alive, few seem to realize that it’s the entertainment factor that makes this genre so endearing – a lesson you would hope Roine Stolt learns some day. Lex Rex is certainly that, and as such it’s an album I’m not getting sick of, even though I’ve spun it every day this week. It was probably intended to be their magnum opus at the time, but really they’ve come into most of their later projects with the same mindset, and have amassed quite an impressive discography in the process; the outro tells us to look forward to the next “Babb and Schendel production, Beyond the Great Beyond“, which it turns out would become an excellent 20 minute epic on their next album Shadowlands. You can speak to how bands like Glass Hammer tend to be regressive in nature; they travel a well-worn path and travel it often, but they have a sharp drive to get bigger and better each time out – something even the O.G. proggers tended to lose after a few years.
Anyway, that’s the end of the review, but I wanted to mention two things that I couldn’t manage to clumsily fit in before. First of all, the “intermission” piece, “Music for Four Hands (and Temporal Anomaly)” is an absolutely gorgeous two minutes of layered piano work, and might even be my favorite bit on the whole album (it’s either that or the first half of “One King”). I don’t know if it’s adapted from some classical piece a la Keith Emerson or if it’s totally original, but it’s astounding. Secondly, the band released a live album, Live at NearFEST, which contains nearly the entirety of Lex Rex, and even brings in a full choir for the last 20 minutes. It’s probably a better album as a whole though I’d say both are worth hearing. For a band that rarely gets the opportunity to play live, they really do make the most of it, and the more people they cram on stage the better. Glass Hammer certainly never forgot the virtue of “more”, and we should be thankful for that.