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Glass Hammer

Culture of Ascent

Review by Gary Hill
Let me just say that this is pretty much without question one of the best progressive rock releases of the year. It’s not perfect, but comes pretty close. Combining classic prog with modern sounds in a nearly seamless structure, Glass Hammer have produced a new classic of the genre. They enlist the aid of prog legend Jon Anderson on two songs and cover a song by Anderson’s band Yes for the opener. The thing is, while the music is certainly enhanced by his presence, this is not a band that needs any helping hands. They craft powerful music that’s both catchy and evocative while still remaining musically challenging. That’s a real accomplishment. My only real complaint comes in the track “Sun Song” where the band seems to feel obligated to bring in some fairly generic heavy metal sounds. I personally think that (as much as I like great metal) they don’t do that sound all that well and it simply serves to cheapen the tune. That said, it’s only a minor complaint and applies just to one song. This is really an incredible disc with just a few small blemishes. I’d highly recommend it to fans of modern and classic progressive rock equally.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2007 Volume 6 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
South Side of the Sky
The disc opens with the classic Yes song (in fact one of my favorites from that band) “South Side of the Sky.” They start if off with an extended effects oriented introduction. Then it rises up very gradually. Once it kicks in the modernization of the sound works well. There is enough of the original (Jon Anderson even lends some vocals to this) here but more updated sounds can be heard, too. I am reminded a bit of the version from the Tales From Yesterday tribute disc. This is just such a wonderful piece of music no matter who plays it, but Glass Hammer put in a great rendition.
Sun Song
Modern percussive textures open this, but as the other instruments enter I’m reminded a bit of Rush. Some points here call to mind Kansas, and in fact even the vocals on the verse give me that impression. This is a strong track that becomes even more like Kansas as they carry on. It’s just that little would hold up well compared to the powerhouse of an opener they chose. So, this pales somewhat in the context. Still, it has a lot of intriguing changes and is quite evocative. The violin is a nice touch, but the metallic guitar solo is a bit too generically hard-edged for my tastes. I think it takes away from the piece a bit. The instrumental segment where the keyboards and violin trade off control of the track works quite well. Even then, they wander out into some overly generic metallic guitar territory after this point. I’m not sure why they feel compelled to bring in such blatantly crunch for crunch sake type sounds, but it really detracts from the beauty and presence of the band when they do. The nearly neo-classical section that comes in after a cool a cappella movement is great, though. So is the movement that resolves out from there. This song is mostly strong but there are a few short sections that clunk a bit. They surely pull it together nicely in the final segments, though.
Life by Light
Jon Anderson shows up on this track, too. The track opens gently with unaccompanied vocals. Piano joins after a verse and it remains a quiet ballad as other instrumentation joins into the arrangement. This really calls to mind Going For the One era Yes quite a bit. The composition becomes more complex and lush as they continue to rework and recreate it, expanding on the musical themes. Some of the guitar work on this one is so much like Steve Howe that it’s scary. At around the two minute mark they’ve built it into quite the powerhouse, but still remain fairly sedate. Violin weaves across the top for a time and then they drop it back down to carry onward. They build it back up more quickly this time. They shift this out into a more bouncy, modern Yes sounding arrangement later and it’s here that Anderson returns to deliver some trademark vocalizations. This is a powerhouse section that could easily have fit onto a modern Yes album. This is definitely one of my favorite cuts on show here.
Insubstantial Liberation
A four-part suite, this begins with neo-classical piano, then pretty atmospheric strains come over top. The song begins a very gradual building process from there, moving upward ever so slowly til a bit of a crescendo gives way to the second section. Pretty, intricate and fast piano serves as a backdrop for the vocals here and this feels a lot like Spock's Beard. They pump this up after a time by adding the rest of the band to the mix and pound it out til a new soaring mid era Genesis-like movement takes it. As the spoken vocals come over top, the Beard leanings return. They eventually drop it back to the piano that has been ever present then a Beard meets Starcastle section takes it before they launch into another new section - rather fusion-like. This doesn't last long, though, dropping to just keys, and as the vocals enter it feels a bit like Klaatu. This section grows and intensifies for a long time til a crunchy guitar takes over. They ramp up the speed here and launch into another frantic prog jam. Then neo-classical piano takes over. The band eventually moves this up into a new jam again, then rework it all into the next verse segment. They drop it down to just the rhythm section after a crescendo and the elements begin to come over top, at first seeming to struggle for control, then eventually jumping into a new crunchy and powerful jam that calls to mind a number of prog bands both old and new. This gets very powerful then moves to back to the verse segment. Piano takes it to end.
Ember Without Name
The first of two consecutive epics on the CD, this one is the shorter at roughly sixteen and a half minutes. Ambient textures start it off tentatively. They launch out into a smoking hard edged jam that works far better than the metallic sounds that appeared in “Sun Song.” Once again this feels rather like Yes, but more along the lines of modern Yes when the group have powered out into near metallic territory. The screaming guitar comes in over the top after a time, but it’s far from generic this time and that, along with the proggy jamming that accompanies it, saves this from falling into mediocrity. You might hear some Dream Theater in the mix here, but it’s tempered with more classic prog textures and some of that killer violin. They drop it way back to a balladic motif (again quite Kansas-like) for the verse. This builds up gradually and then launches out into the more metallic after a time. It works out from there into a rather classically tinged prog ballad arrangement and the Kansas sounds are again all over this thing. This shifts out to dramatic harder edged, but far from metallic, sounds as it carries forward. Then they turn it around corner after corner, even feeling a bit like the more melodic of old King Crimson at times. This then drops way back for a short piano solo and they use the opportunity to recreate the number again, this time coming up in a modern prog balladic motif that has lots of those classic elements in place. Another hard rocking jam takes it later with a chord based rhythm guitar pattern accompanied by Chris Squire-like bass work and some great retro keyboards. It moves into more stripped down textures for the next vocal movement and weird warbly sounds bring in a psychedelic sound that reminds me a bit of Spock’s Beard. A Satriani-like guitar weaves lines of sound over the track as they move onward. This gets a bit noodly at times and I think the track would be better off had they not put this section in there. We do get a killer retro keyboard section after this, though. Then it shifts out into an almost Beatles-like dramatic movement. They drop it to a very mellow, early Genesis-like approach as they keep reworking the track. Then it powers straight out into Focus meets Dream Theater territory for the next jam. This then turns into another powerhouse excursion that’s among the best musical moments on show here. Another change brings in dramatic King Crimson meets Kansas sort of sounds for the next instrumental portion. Another keyboard solo takes over from there and they grow the track upwards from that point. Earlier themes are revisited with more powerful reincarnations as they work this towards the killer resolution. A crescendo finally closes things out.
Into Thin Air
Weighing it at almost nineteen and a half minutes, this is the longest track on the CD. Piano starts it as they work this into a mellow keys and vocal ballad arrangement. Other instruments join to fill out the arrangement as they continue forward and then it bursts out into a soaring, inspirational motif. They work through a couple changes in this style, feeling a bit Yes-like at times. Then it crescendos and they shift out into something that blends neo-classical ballad structures with early Genesis sounds and some hints of Kansas into a great arrangement. They work this up for a time and then pull it out into a staccato sort of pattern that has Kansas, Crimson and even Pentwater woven into its musical tapestry. This instrumental section serves to work it through after a time to a mellower movement that gives way to the balladic structure that serves as the backdrop for the next vocals. This works upward in a triumphant pattern as the vocals say that “we must climb.” The Kansas sounds are still quite prominent here. They work out into another more energized instrumental movement. Retro keys wander across the Kansas-like backdrop. Then violin takes its turn as the lead instrumentation in this wondrous arrangement. At about five and a half minutes in they drop it away to a powerful emotional mellow arrangement. This drops down even further for the next vocals. They build up gradually from there. The piano and voice rule the day here. They turn it a bit jazzy as they pull it out from there with more Genesis-like stirrings. This is another powerful segment, in fact, while it’s still a bit subdued in terms of volume, this is one of the most effective and awe-inspiring passages of the whole CD. The Kansas-like tendencies return with the violin as they build this ever higher. This merges even more effectively with the Genesis leanings as the track continues ever higher. They resolve out into a mellower balladic section. After another summit they shift out into a new motif, this one somewhat classical in orientation. This takes it through a varying soundscape and then gives way to Yes meets Spock’s Beard and Kansas for the next movement. This grows and matures into another great movement and then gives way to a new sound for the next section. A crunchy guitar solo enters, but manages to avoid wandering into “noodle” territory. They turn in a series of changes and recreations making this another dynamic thrill ride. At around the twelve minute fifteen mark a violin solo takes it and then they shift out into another smoking instrumental exploration. This resolves into more melodic, but no less powerful or dramatic, zones from there and they continue to rework and revitalize this arrangement with one killer iteration and changeover after another. They shift it out into almost frightening, mysterious tones after a while. This then serves for the next building approach. It doesn’t remain long, though. At around the fourteen minute mark they pull it back for another verse in a rather Kansas-like fashion. Then this gives way to another killer jam. It shifts towards the more mysterious territory from there, turning a bit like more sedate Pink Floyd at times. They work through in this pattern for a time before charging back up from there. Another metal guitar solo takes it, but once again they manage to keep it tasty and neither generic nor over the top. This thing swirls and pounds in a great pattern until they crescendo out and drop to the next balladic movement. This serves as the backdrop for the return of the vocals. They shift out towards even more sedate sounds from there, but then power up the musical theme into a harder edged version of itself that’s quite effective and powerful. They drop back to dramatic, evocative sounds for a time, but then pull harder edged textures across this backdrop in a stellar contrast of sounds. This then gives way to the next vocal section and they build and build the arrangement from there, creating more and more energy and power, while still maintaining all of their progressive rock sensibilities. This epic is a masterpiece and the quintessential work of the disc. It stands up to the vast majority of output of the greats from the golden age of progressive rock. When it’s done the only real response is, “wow.”
Rest
Effects laden sounds start things in atmospheric ways here, serving as a great respite (or “rest”) after the emotional powerhouse that was the last number. After a time this stops and gives way to a gentle and pretty keyboard arrangement. The violin returns over the top of this motif. They build up gradually from there. They never move far from the general song structure, instead recreating this in more and more powerful and inspired arrangements. It’s a great way to end the disc in a satisfying manner, pulling the listener back to the ground after such a stellar adventure.
 
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