The Tennessee-based progressive rock band Glass Hammer, led by songwriters and virtuoso instrumental performers Fred Schendel and Steve Babb, has created some of the most interesting and impressive music of the past few years, as readers of my essays on music for National Review Online and other publications know very well. Their new album, Culture of Ascent, takes the band to a new level by strengthening the emotional connection with the listener while retaining the musical intelligence and sophistication for which the band is justly celebrated.
The album begins audaciously with a cover song, "South Side of the Sky," which originally appeared on the classic album Fragile, by Yes in 1971. Whereas Yes’s version was driven by an innovative guitar sequence of impressive elaborateness and intelligence, one of the first real instances of progressive metal music, Glass Hammer rethinks it completely, employing a triphop arrangement that is more nuanced and delicate than the original, centering on rippling keyboard sounds by Fred Schendel. Susie Bogdanowicz’s vocals capture the beauty and power of Jon Anderson’s in Yes’s original version without ever imitating his techniques or timbre.
"Sun Song" has a similarly unusual sprung rhythm, uses violin effectively as a textural element, and includes some impressive and appropriate guitar shredding by Frenchman David Wallimann in the middle section. Also adorning the middle section are energetic violin and synthesizer solos. The song closes with a passage of complex multiple-person vocals incorporating unexpected harmonies and fairly complex interweaving of voice lines.
The next song, "Life by Light," opens with a forthright solo vocal by Carl Groves, who is then accompanied by several other singers, including Jon Anderson of Yes, in a complex but emotionally involving vocal arrangement rather reminiscent of Anderson’s gorgeous, classic 1976 solo album Olias of Sunhillow. The song rises to an instrumental crescendo at the end, establishing a stronger emotional impact than Glass Hammer’s music usually achieves, while still retaining the musical sophistication and complexity.
In general, the vocal melodies of Culture of Ascent are the best the band has ever written; they are melodic and singable, and carry clear emotional meanings instead of just fitting well with the surrounding music, as is often the case with modern progressive rock and has frequently been true of Glass Hammer, where the musical intelligence and complexity have tended to overwhelm the emotional meanings of the vocal lines and underlying story of the lyrics.
"Ember Without Name" opens with some more very impressive guitar shredding, this time accompanied by a set of truly amazing keyboard arpeggios by Schendel and a perfectly complementing chordal backing of stringed instruments. The presence of solo violin in much of the track provides an emotional counterpoint to the appropriately subdued use of power guitar chords. Groves who leads another excellent Tennessee-based progressive rock group, Salem Hill, contributes particularly strong vocals on this cut. At sixteen minutes, the song goes through several ineresting musical changes, including some solo acoustic piano, more amazing guitar shredding, and a jazzy electric piano solo, and hence never loses momentum.
At nineteen-plus minutes, "Into Thin Air" is even longer and more ambitious than "Ember Without Name." It builds from an opening solo vocal to a crescendo led by organ, suddenly dropping to solo acoustic guitar accompanied by a violin solo. Other instruments including keyboards and electric guitar join in, as the music goes through different time signatures suggesting a journey through previously unvisited geographical regions.
This is all perfectly appropriate to the overall theme of the song, as the first-person lyrics tell the story of the tragic 1996 Mount Everest climb that resulted in fatalities. As the danger heightens, Babb contributes a powerful organ solo dramatizing it.
Another standout element of the track is Steve Babb’s bass guitar, which is given more prominence here than elsewhere on the album and is both melodic and rhythmically driving. Both the music and the lyrics of the song project Glass Hammer’s usual positive approach, evoking not only the perils of the climb but also the stunning beauty of nature and the greatness that human aspirations can reach.
The final song, "Rest," opens with airy, ambient keyboard sounds that evoke a lonely landscape. These are soon replaced by peaceful piano chords and arpeggios accompanied by two violins, leading to a warm and earnest solo vocal by Carl Groves, later accompanied by others as the song rises to a crescendo. The lyrics deal directly with the importance of emotional connections, and the vocal melody line is very effective at conveying a sense of longing and the human need for a sense of completion by connections to other people and above all to something greater than oneself.
Groves’s impressive singing of the melody lines is critical to the song’ success, and the use of violin also adds to the the emotional effect. The arrangement has the complexity and inventiveness we expect from Glass Hammer, but it has a simplicity and directness that give the song unexpected emotional power.
Thanks in great part to the more singable, natural vocal lines devised by composers Babb and Schendel, Culture of Ascent makes a stronger, more direct emotional connection with the listener than has been characteristic of previous Glass Hammer albums. Given that the music is as intelligent and complex as we have come to expect from this band, and that the lyrical concept is equally intelligent and sophisticated, this is Glass Hammer’s best album yet. And that is saying a lot.
Most highly recommended.