Glass Hammer performing live, 2009

For well over a decade, Glass Hammer has been one of the most impressive and productive rock bands while remaining resolutely independent from the music industry’s star-making and -consuming apparatus. Taking advantage of that independence and the liberty it affords, the Chattanooga, Tennessee-based group led by multi-instrumentalists and songwriters Fred Schendel and Steve Babb has produced some of the most musically impressive and thematically interesting albums of our time.

Releases such as Lex Rex, Perelandra, On to Evermore, and The Inconsolable Secret are classics of modern rock, while Culture of Ascent and Chronometree are likewise impressive and thoroughly enjoyable. All are well worth owning, and the band’s entire catalog, extensive as it is, is well worth exploring.

Their musical and lyrical adventurousness and their virtuosic instrumental abilities placed Glass Hammer firmly in the category of progressive rock, an assessment which the group embraced without seeming to let it limit their creativity. As appears to be the case with most of those who gravitate to progressive rock, Babb and Schendel seem to revel in stretching their musical and compositional abilities and exploring far beyond the confines of three-chord rock music while always keeping in mind the premise that music should be entertaining and enjoyable.

Thus it’s interesting and pleasing to see them venture to the roots of the progressive rock and beyond in their latest album, Three Cheers for the Broken-Hearted, into a classic late-1960s sound incorporating elements of pop, soul, funk, folk, and psychedelia. It sounds as if the album might actually have been recorded in the late 1960s, when rock musicians enjoyed a level of creative freedom that only independent, self-financed artists such as Glass Hammer can have today.

Overall, the songs are driven strongly by Steve Babb’s bass guitar, and the band largely avoids the virtuosic instrumental solos for which they have previously been known and rightly admired. Instead they work the various instruments together in intricate ways to create varying sound textures over the aggressive, driving rhythms Babb lays down.

The songs are mostly in the three- to five-minute range, with just a couple stretching out toward six or seven minutes, just as one might expect to find on a popular late-1960s record by the Beatles, Moody Blues, or Traffic.

Yet there is nothing nostalgic or archly retro about the album. The band works in a familiar style but brings their typical creativity to the effort, as a song-by-song outline makes clear.

The opening song, “Come on Come On,” establishes the immensely appealing late-1960s, psychedelic-pop feel of the album: melodic, musically inventive, full of passion, but logical and coherent without ever descending into the musically quotidian. There’s a heavy backbeat from the drums matched with a strong  bass line, and keyboard chording is prominent in the mix. An ethereal lead vocal by Susie Bogdanowicz conveys the song’s very catchy vocal melodies. “Come on Come On” also includes a very appealing use of guitar processed through a Leslie speaker.

The song deserves to become a classic.

“The Lure of Dreams” immediately sets a new tone that contrasts strongly with “Come On Come On” and establishes the other musical texture that dominates the album: hard rock driven by a strong bass line from Babb. “The Lure of Dreams” has another expressive vocal melody for Susie Bogdanowicz, but this one has a more ominous tone, matching the rest of the arrangement. A swirling, tastefully virtuosic Hammond organ solo by Fred Schendel contrasts well with the thumping rhythm established by the bass and drums.

Synthesizing these two approaches is the band’s cover of “A Rose for Emily,” from the classic 1968 Zombies album Odessey and Oracle (a must-have). Glass Hammer give the song a significantly stronger backbeat than the Zombies’ did, and Susie B’s vocals are even more ethereal than those of the incomparable Colin Blunstone in the original. This arrangement and performance aren’t better than the Zombies’ version, but it’s a classic and underappreciated song, and their choice to cover it shows excellent taste.

“Sleep On” follows, with a complex, winding instrumental opening, and a firm but appealingly sinuous rhythm from drums, bass, and guitar drives the song. It comes off as particularly inventive take on hard rock.

“The Mid-Life Weird” is piano-driven and conveys a strong sense of late-’60s-style pychedelia (which I like). Interestingly, it sounds more like the Zombies than the band’s version of “A Rose for Emily.” The rather callow-sounding lead vocals by Fred Schendel are appropriate to the type of song, but are not as powerful and expressive as one would like or as Blunstone and other ’60s vocalists routinely achieved. Nonetheless, the song has great appeal, and Schendel’s vocal works in context.

“A Bitter Wind” follows, a mid-tempo ballad sung affectingly by Susie B. Mellotron is prominent in the arrangement, and the song’s overall melancholy sound is moderated by Susie’s soaring vocals as she sings “All is well in my world” in the choruses. It’s a very pretty song.

The next song changes to a different musical style while still fitting with the overall sound of the album. “The Curse They Weave” is an upbeat, synth-driven song in a rather ’80s fashion, with another strong, sinuous melody line sung by Susie B.

“Sundown Shores” is a melodic and musically forceful ballad, with a strong lead vocal by Steve Babb, perhaps his best recorded vocal yet. The song has a distinctly Beatlesque sound, heard particularly in the use of keyboards to play the rhythm chords. Fred Schendel’s drumming is impressively melodic here—yes, melodic.

In “Schrodinger’s Lament,” echoey vocals by Fred Schendel backed by sparse drums and keyboard chords evoke a sense of loneliness, but the lyrics are strongly positive and hopeful. Harder-rocking passages featuring slightly distorted spoken-voice effects create an interesting musical contrast with the quieter passages.

“Hyperbole” switches moods to upbeat hard rock, including some power chords, a rare occurrence on the disc (which is good), sinuous bass guitar lines, and another strong vocal by Susie B.

The record closes with “Falling,” a ballad sung very well by Schendel. It opens with just voice backed by piano chords; then bass, drums, and organ join in as the song takes on an anthemic quality.

That’s a particularly smart touch, as the song’s title, lyrics, and spare musical arrangement in the first couple of minutes tell the story of a person who is drifting through life without hope, but then Schendel sings the phrase, “I’m falling,” and the true meaning of the song comes forward: the character’s life now means something to him because he’s falling in love.

It’s an impressively beautiful love song and a wonderful way to close out this intelligently conceived and brilliantly executed collection of songs.

Somehow, Glass Hammer just keeps getting better and better. If you haven’t heard of them before, be assured that this is part of what makes the band’s work so enjoyable: their independence is essential to their brilliance.

More information and sound samples here.

Three Cheers for the Broken-Hearted, by Glass Hammer: Recommended.