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Glass Hammer

Cor Cordium

Review by Scott Montgomery

This one is a rather a guilty pleasure – a pleasure to be sure, but one that at times feels almost too derivative for comfort.  That said, it caresses the ears like aural comfy food – familiar, satisfying, and not deviating from the traditional recipe.  Yes, it is unabashedly retro, but at a level that few can achieve, demonstrating that Glass Hammer are one of the greatest bands to give such exacting homage to the halcyon days of the 70s.  If this is Glass Hammer’s intention, they have certainly succeeded, serving up a plateful of lovingly-crafted and superbly-executed old school symphonic prog.  I am admittedly rather fond of overtly-retro 70s-style symphonic prog, and a long-time appreciator of Glass Hammer, so I come to the album with a degree of familiarity.  It needs to be stated up front that this is a great album.  In fact, Cor Cordium has rapidly become one of my favorite Glass Hammer releases and is certainly one of their best offerings, not to mention one of the most pleasing releases of 2011.  But oddly enough, to a degree Cor Cordium sounds somewhat less like familiar Glass Hammer (other than its sibling album If), than it does like Yes, or perhaps even Starcastle in its finer moments.  It could be an excellent legacy pendant to Yes’ impressive 2011 offering Fly From Here - at times almost out-Yessing much of the recent Yes material.  But therein lies my (unwarranted) guilty discomfort.  On Cor Cordium, Glass Hammer does not wear its influences on its sleeve so much as have it tattooed on its forehead.  Admittedly, there is a charming sense of celebratory homage in such overt, self-aware, and unabashed acknowledgement of Yes’ influence.  After all, if one can so exquisitely emulate the very best, it is no petty accomplishment.  While enjoying the album tremendously, I am occasionally left wondering “where in all this is the Glass Hammer that I previously knew?”  (And here is a bit of a prog conundrum….Glass Hammer changes its sound, but does so in an overtly derivative manner….so the band’s sound progresses through more overt symphonic prog retrospection.  What does this make Cor Cordium – retrospective progression or progressive retrospection?) Yet, the more I listen carefully, particularly to the compositional elements, there is a distinct Glass Hammer feel underlying the surface Yes-ness.  The impeccable musicianship, fine song craft, vintage instruments, and rich symphonic warmth assure that this is, in fact, the Glass Hammer with which I have become familiar.  Lush production, technical virtuosity, and tasteful arrangements underscore the album, as with much of the band’s output.  The heart of the band remains Steve Babb and Fred Schendel – the dynamic duo responsible for most of Glass Hammer’s compositional and instrumental achievements.  The ridiculously-talented Schendel demonstrates that he is one of the finest keyboardists around, providing a veritable feast of excellent vintage keyboard work – varyingly conjuring Tony Banks, Rick Wakeman, and well, Fred Schendel.  Babb, no slouch himself, contributes a propulsive, contrapuntal bass anchor.  As ever, they shine with their usual aplomb, even excelling most of their previous efforts.  Alan Shikoh adds very tasteful, and remarkably Howe-esque, guitar throughout.  His playing is more supple and suited to the vintage prog sound than some of the more “big rock” style guitar that seemed occasionally discordant on certain previous Glass Hammer efforts.  Jon Davidson’s vocals are bright and clear, but often come so close to sounding like Jon Anderson that I cannot help but think that if Benoit David decides that he is done with Yes, that Mr. Davidson could fill the almost-Jon Anderson slot.  In fact, a large part of the Yes-ness is due to the very Anderson-esque qualities of Davidson’s tone and accentuation, as well as the harmonic vocal arrangements.   (Of course, Mr. Anderson has himself worked with Glass Hammer, adding vocalizations on the excellent Culture of Ascent album, including the cover of Yes’ “South Side of the Sky”).  To be sure, Glass Hammer’s noble career has been marked by changes in sound, particularly in regard to the vocals which have been handled by a litany over the years.  Davidson is one of the strongest vocalists of the band’s career. (Though I do miss the under-utilized voice of Susie Bogdanowicz).  But, Davidson’s voice, while lovely, carries the Yes sound a bit close to the edge of a cover-band playing a lost Yes album.  But, theirs is no disgrace, for they do it unapologetically and impeccably – delivering a most satisfying collection of retrospective old school symphonic prog. 

In the adamancy of its epic symphonic prog format, Cor Cordium comes across as the natural successor to last year’s If, so much that it could be titled “If Only More.”  This is not only due to the same make-up of the band – the latest Glass Hammer incarnation consisting of Babb, Schendel, Shikoh, and Davidson.  Additionally, Randall Williams returns (from If) to ably hold down the drums.  The two albums even have similar composition in their six songs, with one lengthy epic, three songs around the 10-minute mark, and two shorter numbers hovering around 5-6 minutes.  However, in contrast to If’s more traditional (or stereotypical) prog glances to things celestial, lyrically Cor Cordium packs a more terrestrial and quotidian punch, emphasizing emotional landscapes and social commentary.  (Many will doubtless prefer this more humanly-accessible lyrical approach, but I will admit to preferring the “airie fairie nonsense” of celestial voyagers and topographic oceans).  But, if If was the sound of a band finding its new voice, Cor Cordium is the sound of that band really coming into its own.  In its coherence, fine songwriting, and brilliant execution, Cor Cordium surpasses its fine predecessor. The album might be divided into three sections, each comprised of two songs.  It begins on a high point (which fortunately lasts over seventeen minutes) with the first two tracks.  This is followed by a less elevated portion in the two middle songs (just exceeding fifteen minutes) which diminish in dynamics and sophistication.  Though it is the album’s nadir, it far exceeds the apex of many band’s recorded output.   This is not the meat of the album.  But, with nearly half-an-hour left – the length of some “classic” albums, Cor Cordium returns to the excellence with which it opens – beginning and ending on extended heights.  So, there is a tightly-pitched inverse arc, beginning with a high point and sliding toward a relative lull before remerging triumphant.  In this day of inflated releases and the ill-placed sentiment that one is being robbed if the album runs anything less than sixty minutes, I cannot help but wonder if Cor Cordium might be a more perfect release in a shorter, forty-minute, three song format.  In the halcyon days of the LP, we might find Side A featuring “Nothing box” and “She, a lonely tower” while “To someone” filled Side B.  Wow – that is the album version of Cor Cordium that I want.  Perhaps it would be like the ultimate Starcastle album, with long songs exclusively.  This would bring the configuration very close to Close to the Edge and Relayer – essentially perfect albums that clock in at roughly thirty-eight minutes and forty-one minutes respectively.   Sometimes less is more.  Were Cor Cordium compressed to the three abovementioned songs, it would be brilliant and pretty close to being a perfect symphonic prog album – kind of like a contemporary remake of Close to the Edge.  A contrivance? Yes, but a brilliant one. 

Visually, the striking cover art by Tom Kuhn fits the overall retro feel of the album, in its (intentional?) evocation of Roger Dean’s magnificent work.  Curiously, the covers of Cor Cordium and Fly From Here even have similarities in tonal palette, imagery and composition.  Largely due to his Yes artwork, Roger Dean imagery holds an iconic status as a visual indicator of the very essence of symphonic prog.  In conjuring Dean’s style, albeit in his own distinct manner, Kuhn’s artwork adds a visual assertion of prog credibility. (Of course, Dean’s splendid work graced the cover of Glass Hammer’s fine The Inconsolable Secret from 2005).  So, in look as well as sound, Cor Cordium flies its “classic” prog credentials high and proud.  And proud they should be, for this album is a most satisfying and noteworthy achievement. Cor Cordium fits perfectly into the oft-trodden debate about what is and is not prog.  Depending upon where one sits on the proverbial fence, it will either delight or depress.  Those who insist that progressive rock constantly “progress” by moving forward and offering something novel, will be horrified at the unabashedly retro quality.  Those who embrace the notion of symphonic prog as also being a particular style – namely an aesthetic developed in the 70s  – and are happy to enjoy current manifestations of this lush style will be extraordinarily happy.  So, as noted, there is much pleasure to be drawn from this excellent album, though it occasionally feels a bit overly derivative (or perhaps “homage-istic” would be a more apt term). Might we think of this as a new (or recent) “style” – retro symphonic prog?  There are many practitioners of this sub-genre, but Glass Hammer are certainly among the best.  They are not breaking new ground here, but in treading long-trodden pathways with deft footing they ably demonstrate that classic symphonic prog is still alive and well.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2011  Volume 6 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Nothing box

This is a great song and a perfect opener for the album, introducing the vintage symphonic sound.  Right away, it becomes clear whether or not one will like the album.   A nice instrumental header conjures “Close to the Edge” before dropping into the gentler vocal-keyboard passage that introduces a more overtly Glass Hammer compositional sensibility.  The entry of the vocals is lovely and somewhat subdued, though this is exactly where listeners might first feel that potentially uncomfortable jolt of “holy cow this sounds like Yes!”  But, there are enough dynamic twists and turns to satisfy any inveterate prog-head.  Alternating delicate passages with more dynamic parts (that thankfully never veer into metal territory), this first song sets the stage for an hour of symphonic progressive delectation.  Is it familiar sounding?  Yes, but quite enjoyably so.

One heart
Now that we are acclimated to the prog flashback feeling, we can settle in to enjoy the vintage homage.  This one too feels strongly like Starcastle (first album) or Yes, though occasionally like the better work of the later period (The Ladder), complete with a scat vocal harmony section in the middle.  Still, this is a tasteful, enjoyable shorter mid-tempo song that is still full of impressive variation in composition, arrangement and sonic coloration.
Salvation station

This is my least favorite track on the album.  It is among the most popularly accessible track and has a catchy (if rather standard) hook in the refrain.  (Why am I reminded of Kansas a bit here?).  Clocking in at five minutes, it could be an attempt at something close to a proggy single.  Still more interesting than most radio fodder, it seems a bit pedestrian on such a lushly symphonic album.  But a nice instrumental middle passage with tasteful synthesizer, guitar, and electric piano solos followed by some dynamic variations carries the song in a more musically substantial direction – one that probably destroys any chance of it actually attaining airplay in today’s largely vapid radiosphere.  Lyrically it is a commentary on the inanity of television programming and the fraudulence of TV evangelism.  The intent is worthy, but the lyrics somehow are a bit lackluster.

Dear Daddy

This is, perhaps, the other most accessible track, despite its ten and a half minute length.  Curiously, it is my other least favorite track – the other half of the album’s middle section nadir.  Not a terribly “prog rock” sounding piece, this one comes closer to a Styx ballad than a full-fledged prog epic.  Largely based on delicate acoustic guitars and vocals, the song lilts along comfortably without the strong dynamic variation of the other compositions on the album.  The addition of violin and viola, played by Jeffrey Sick and Ed Davis respectfully, provides a delicate lushness to the tune.  There is a slightly melancholic sweetness that might strike some as treacle and having a bit of cringe-worthy sappiness, but it all fits the cut’s content (and intent).  This very personal and poignant rumination on a strained father-son relationship comes across a bit like Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle” put through a Yes-ification machine. With the Yes-ness of much of the rest of the album and the title, one cannot help but think of Yes’ early song “Dear Father.”  Still, in the flow of Cor Cordium, “Dear Daddy” offers an effective respite before the epic centerpiece that follows.

To someone

The big epic of the album, this track is one of those that make the album a worthy purchase.  This one will continue to receive frequent listening around my abode; it’s a keeper.  Full of the dynamics, twists and turns, stunning keyboard bravado, and all-around impeccable playing, “To someone” is one of the most effective of Glass Hammer’s numerous grand compositions – and there have been many over the years.  Beginning with a brief acappella figure that seems lifted from an Anglican choirbook, the song soon slips into a most satisfying Yes-esque groove (with some nice Howe-isms from the fleet fingers of Shikoh).   This rollicks through a series of changes in a dynamic, complex overture that settles into the gentle, atmospheric opening to the first vocal section that introduces the song’s principal melodic figures.  An infectiously, upbeat middle passage (sounding a bit like Supertramp) is balanced by a lovely bit of keyboard quietude before again pulling out all the stops in proggy dynamism.  This resolves back into the form of the first vocal section and then on to a lush, grand conclusion.  The acappella coda (“da da dat dit…”) is remarkably redolent of Yes, again illustrating the strong homage that seems to guide the album.  On “To someone” the band’s Christian tendencies come to the fore with lyrics that muse on the existential interaction of social injustices, personal struggle, and the longing for (the Christian) God.  While ardent in its religious aspirations, it does not come across as too preachy (for my tastes, which admittedly have a very hard time with too much overt contemporary Christian sentiment).  But, more than anything, this impressive number illustrates Glass Hammer’s near-peerless ability to compose excellent and memorable new epic pieces in an old style without sounding tired.  Epic Prog ensues.  It is the heart of the heart – the Cor Cordium.

She, a lonely tower

This is a truly lovely ending to an excellent album and one of its strongest songs. This final number adds a perfect bookend to the equally strong opening number, tying Cor Cordium together nicely between these two highpoints in Glass Hammer’s career.  Beginning on a somewhat quiet, almost melancholic tone, this picks up into a softly ambling pace full of rich orchestration, beautiful vocals, and gorgeously lilting Howe-ish guitar coloration.  This may be the most overtly Yes-like song on Cor Cordium.  I hear a bit of “Awaken” here and there, particularly in the majestic conclusion. The strong Yes flavor asserts prominently itself (rather pleasantly, it should be noted).  This is another exquisite Yes (oops, I mean Glass Hammer) mini-epic.  Still, what’s not to like here? Good prog is good prog….and I would venture that this is great prog!

 
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