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Progressive Rock DVD/Video Reviews

Glass Hammer

Live at Belmont DVD

Review by Josh Turner

This is the true definition of progressive rock in the modern era. Their songs are about fantasy and myth, and they take the topics quite seriously. Not a joke, their origins were forged exclusively in J.R.R.Tolkien’s world long before they ever partook from other sources.

They have six core members who build a wall of sound. Their keyboardist has as many separate pieces as a standard drummer; however, their drummer’s set is enhanced as well. Every item in their repertoire is used as much as possible, but that’s not where their breadth ends. They have epics that start slow and endure through many minutes. Aside from the basics, they typically enlist a choir and a string section. In this case, they have a trio for each of these sound enhancements.

While we’re on the subject, the three backing women not only harmonize but accessorize eruditely among themselves. This may be due to formal schooling and recitals. As for the others, each competes for the attention of the listener with busy notes and solo attempts. Then again, it’s hard to call someone a soloist with several other instruments concurrently at play. Still, they’re gamers anyway.

On top of chemistry and acoustic calisthenics, histrionics are history since roots are firmly implanted in the seventies. They sound more like old Yes than the latest side-projects of the original Yes-men. Fortunately, the aging process has not caused them decay. For the most part, imitations are tasteful and their homage never risks rancidity.

Continuing to be contrary, the band embodies many of the traits that have caused the genre heartache. Their size could easily be considered a hindrance. Transporting all that equipment around without the backing from a major label cannot be easy; but if they’re willing to do it, that’s their problem. Never does it strain the backs of spectators. In fact, effuse use of apparatus actually uplifts hearers’ ears.

Despite inverted cynicism, it’s not always fun and games. When they’re not causing rapid eye movement, insipid antics could induce a snoozefest. Atmospheric bridges and aimless noodlings knock on the doorsteps of a narcoleptic attack. For this reason, the included drum solo almost seems unnecessary when they practically have no song-oriented material in the first place.

“Run Lisette” is an instance where noises occur in the same capricious fashion as a cache of fireworks unintentionally lit too soon. Hard to tune in and hard to look away, it’s a bit of a mindbender. Schizophrenic episodes aside, “Farewell to Shadowlands” feels like Spock’s Beard at times; but where that discretely goes pop, this incisively fizzles.

If 12 coeds weren’t enough, they increase their already bold numbers to ludicrous levels when Belmont University’s 150-member choir is brought into the fold. While the sonorous alumni add value, most of the time they’re standing around humming the tune while Fred Schendel and Steve Babb sing lead. Glass Hammer’s nucleus is amped, but no chorister is near a microphone. When all is sung and done, a consistent uniform of black blouses and blue jeans is the assembly’s greatest standout.

On the bright side, these drawn out compositions are complemented by loads of supplementary material: a slideshow interview with questions from the fan forum, rehearsals, trailers, behind-the-scenes, and tokens from various gigs like NEARfest. Plus, “Tales of the Great War” and “Lirazel” are done in Dolby 5.1 and accompanied by their own set of frozen cells. So it’s apparent they intend to give the buyer their nickel’s worth. On the other hand, they cover eleven songs in the course of two discs. In the grand scheme, that’s not a lot of scenes. At least the perfunctory material doesn’t take up an entire shelf, which is one thing they don’t have in common with Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Lord of the Rings.

While the band has never tried to change their tunes or wander from the genre, they have shown considerable improvement over time. When stacked against their discography, Live at Belmont is one of their better works thus far. Their execution matches their enthusiasm. In other words, both are crisp.

To a degree, progress from this performance forward may relate to personnel. Over the years, they have acquired Carl Groves from Salem Hill. Yet, he was still considered a special guest at this event. Now a permanent fixture, he greatly augments preexisting skill sets.

In whole, this show is mostly splendid even if the sweetness comes from a derivative substance. Offsetting diamonds in the rough, the intro to “Through the Glass Darkly” is just right. Neither boring or rushed, it demonstrates Fred Schendels’ adeptness as a pianist and really gives the viewer no reason to snicker. Also, “Knight of the North” features an exceptional Neo-Progressive interlude. From here, they march triumphantly through “When We Were Young,” “Having Caught A Glimpse,” and “Heroes and Dragons.” This takes them in and out of Lex Rex’s halcyon savannas via a peaceful conduit associated with The Inconsolable Secret.

For better or worse, Glass Hammer epitomizes the outskirts of accessible music with classically-trained caprice. Petty demerits aside, they’re a talented band and this particular performance is truly one for the ages. If you answer to progressive rock, especially when it presents itself in veritable forms such as this, then go back and visit them in the shire or just traipse straight into your living room. A disc or two that binds them all will be revealed with the latter.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2009  Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.
 
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