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Glass Hammer Goes Heavy on 'Arise'
The Tennessee-based progressive rock project releases a weighty and entertaining space opera.
Thank you for spending part of your day with Michael’s Record Collection. This week, I am revisiting a band I’ve enjoyed for a couple of decades but one that has also managed to somehow surprise me.
I found Glass Hammer somewhere around their Lex Rex album (2002) and really jumped on board with The Inconsolable Secret (2005). The Tennessee-based progressive rock band, which constantly changes its lineups outside of founders Steve Babb and Fred Schendel, has absolutely shocked and delighted me with a heavy new album that drops on Oct. 27. I was fortunate enough to speak to Babb about the record recently.
Let’s get to that story.
One of the best descriptions I’ve heard of Tennessee prog rockers Glass Hammer is that they are the Steely Dan of progressive rock. That’s an apt description, as both bands have two principal founding members who surround themselves with great musicians and frequently change lineups.
The current iteration goes one step further. Glass Hammer’s forthcoming release, Arise, is practically a Steve Babb solo album. He plays keyboards, rhythm and lead guitars, bass, and percussion on Arise, as well as providing some vocals. Co-founder Fred Schendel co-wrote and appears on only one track. The lineup is rounded out by superb vocalist Hannah Pryor, guitarist Reese Boyd, and drummer Randall Williams.
Glass Hammer will drop Arise on Oct. 27 from Sound Resources. It’s the band’s 22nd studio album (depending, perhaps, on how one counts them) in a 30-year career that began in 1993 with Journey of the Dunadan.
Fresh off the heels of the band’s Skallagrim trilogy, which wrapped up last year, the band is going back to the concept album well once again. This time, however, Glass Hammer is doing it a little bit differently. Arise is a horror-infused space opera centered around an android sent to explore the universe. ARISE, in the context of the album’s story, stands for Android Research Initiative for Space Exploration. The android protagonist is working for the nebulous (and possibly nefarious) bureaucratic organization called the Advanced Space Technology and Research Agency (ASTRA).
There are excerpts of “transmissions” from ARISE and ASTRA printed in the liner notes between the lyrics for the songs that help fill in the story. They’re not necessarily essential to enjoying the album, but they do flesh out the story and make it less ambiguous. It also serves the songs in that Babb doesn’t have to spell out everything from the story lyrically. Babb has always been a gifted storyteller through his lyrics, but to fill in all the nuance of the narrative, you’d need at least a double album’s worth of music if it was entirely dependent on the lyrics to tell the tale.
As it is, the transmissions do a great job of providing background to the story if you want it, but without the requirement of reading the liner notes to enjoy the music.
And what music it is! Babb has unleashed a heavy album that draws on such influences as Rush, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, and space rock for Arise, while there are also hints of Deep Purple. Perhaps it’s the space theme, but I also picked up an Ayreon vibe from the album, although Babb said that project wasn’t a direct influence, despite the fact that he has worked in the past with that band’s mastermind, Arjen Anthony Lucassen.
The album starts with “Launch of the Daedalus,” a short, introductory instrumental that sets the stage for the space opera to come. It shares a little musical DNA with Pink Floyd’s “On the Run” from Dark Side of the Moon without sounding much like that song.
The album fully kicks in with “Wolf 359,” which provides the mood of the album. There’s tension and drama in this cinematic piece that features almost a military feel as our android protagonist is sent into deep space on the Daedalus. Although the lyrics are hopeful and it’s sonically majestic, there’s a bit of darkness in the recurring “chorus” (such as it is) of the track that offers up some foreshadowing of the story to come.
They say that God is watching over me
I’m not sure what He wants or what He hopes to see.
The android protagonist is already discussing God in the early lyrics. Babb’s faith often frames his lyrics and his stories, and Arise is no different in that regard. An android on a spiritual journey, as well as a literal one, is an intriguing premise.
Musically, “Wolf 359” already displays that this album is heavier than what fans are used to from a Glass Hammer album with the drum and guitar sounds, but the band is just getting started. There’s a lot heavier music to come deeper in the album. Although I felt there was something sinister sounding already with “Wolf 359,” Babb said that wasn’t his intent on that particular song.
“Just something that would sound like a launch,” Babb said of what he was going for with the song. “Something big that would evoke feelings of a big rocket. More soundtrack-esque, I guess.”
“Arion (18 Delphini b)” offers up Babb on synthesized vocals in the verses over heavy, driving, space rock. Pryor belts out the chorus vocal, as the android finds a place of peace and enjoyment in its travels. Babb’s bass work on his Nathan East Yamaha four-string — some of his finest throughout this album in a considerable catalog of fantastic moments on the instrument — and Williams’ drumming propel the song forward with tremendous energy, with some exquisite guitar work from Boyd and spacey keyboards. Boyd’s guitar solo sounds very Alex Lifeson inspired, and there also seems to be a keyboard nod to 1970s Rush at the end of the track. I’m not sure if it’s intentional or not, but that is the era of Rush’s music that Babb loves most.
“That one was tough. It almost didn’t make it on the album, because I could not get a mix that I was satisfied with,” Babb said of the song. “I had Hannah sing the verses originally. I had her do it a certain way. Her first instinct was to sing it real powerful, and I made her get real quiet so it could get real powerful on the chorus.
“And I heard it back after a few weeks and I’m ‘No, no,’ and I could never get her back in for that. She’s a brand new mom, so we just couldn’t time it out to get her back in the studio to finish it, so I ended up singing it. And then I didn’t like that. And then I convinced myself I did. I went back and forth for that thing. I finally got a mix that I was happy with. Those lead breaks are so cool, what Reese did, and I like what the bass is doing on those lead breaks too. I couldn’t ditch it. It made it on. It’s kind of an uplifting, happy song on an otherwise dark and spooky album.”
“Mare Sirenum” is a short instrumental number featuring keyboard textures layered on top of one another, with Babb’s bass entering the song about midway through. It’s a moment of light on a generally dark album, with ARISE standing on the shore of a beautiful extraterrestrial body of water and is filled with wonder. The end is evocative of Pink Floyd’s more ethereal moments. The song somehow manages to sound modern and retro at the same time.
“Lost” is where the story turns dark and that’s apparent from the opening notes of the song. There’s something out there and it isn’t pleasant. The song quiets to allow Pryor to sparkle on vocals over a beat by Williams and some deft keyboard work from Babb. The song morphs into haunting, otherworldly keyboards and low guitar chords. It’s quite a cinematic piece and one that has grown on me more over repeated listens.
“Rift at Wasp-12” is the album’s only song with Babb collaborating with longtime Glass Hammer partner Fred Schendel, who plays guitars and drums on the song. It’s a heavy, driving, hypnotic, space rock number — reminiscent of Hawkwind — with Babb on vocals. The horror element grows in the song’s lyrics.
Something’s clawed its way in from another time and place
Somthing’s broken through a rift in time and space
I’ve come too far, I’ve come too far
Stars may rise again that once were dead
Carried forth upon these rushing winds of fear, of dread
We’ve come too far
Nevermore to roam!
The song includes a blistering guitar solo over a heavy, driving bass riff. It’s one of the album’s highlights and sounds nothing like the Glass Hammer I originally fell in love with — but that’s OK!
“That came together super quick,” Babb said. “I imagine (Schendel) put a lot of that together in about an afternoon because I had it really soon after and added my stuff to it. It went fast. That was an easy song to do. That tells you that it’s good. You don’t have to shop around for ways to make it good. It’s just there.
“I think my directions to him were go spacey, not so much doom, go space rock. You know, he did the lead (guitar) on that. I think he was kind of struggling with ideas for a while. If I remember correctly, ‘Steve Hillage,’ is what I told him. He nailed that.”
Schendel isn’t stepping back or anything, officially. Babb simply wanted to get to writing and sent out the schedule and the musicians who were available helped him work on it.
“Proxima Centauri B” continues the heavy guitar work. It’s almost like a slower version of the guitar work heard on the heavier songs on Porcupine Tree’s In Absentia album. It’s a delightfully dark and sinister five minutes of melt-your-face riffage.
The title track is the first of back-to-back epics to close the album. More of the dark, sinister vibes kick the song off and the slow pace builds drama and tension while the keyboards continue to dazzle with their eerie, spacey tones. The bass work again is superb and is almost a lead instrument in how vital it is in setting the mood and tone. There’s some bluesy guitar soloing about five minutes in that gives way to some Deep Purple-esque organ chords.
I won’t spoil the story, which leaves some room for interpretation (and perhaps further exploration in future albums) but things are looking dark with horrors unleashed in the universe and the android seems to have completed the spiritual part of its journey.
“The Return of Daedalus” is the epic showpiece at the end, and it is unlike anything in the Glass Hammer catalog. It features an incredibly incendiary extended jam. The band has had songs longer than its run time of 16:51, but not a full-on monster instrumental jam like this. Babb said it was the first song written for the new record and it’s his favorite. The musicianship is impressive.
“I think it’s our only real jam song we’ve ever done,” Babb said. “I’ve been kind of flirting with the idea of some sort of extended ‘By-Tor and the Snowdog’ type of aggressive track. I don't think it sounds like that so much except that it’s just a big feast of guitar noise and leads, and there’s some cool keyboards in it too, I think. But I started the whole thing with a swing beat.”
ARISE (or possibly something else?) is returning to Earth in the Daedalus and ASTRA isn’t happy about it. There is room for interpretation as the story is written in the liner notes, and Babb said that he might opt to return to the story in the future if the inspiration strikes. But the section titles of the final epic track don’t sound good for the people of Earth:
Part 1: Battle at MARS-WRM-001
Part 2: Re-entry
Part 3: The Doom of the World
Meanwhile, the song begins with extended guitar soloing over a bass and drum groove. It sounds very organic and improvisational, with some spacey Pink Floyd sounds coming in past the eight-minute mark, followed by some organ around the nine-and-a-half-minute point as the song builds nicely. The monster jam continues with more guitar soloing and then a keyboard solo takes the song back into more organ bits, giving way once again to lead guitar. The groove slows toward the end and there are some late vocals in this otherwise instrumental, with Pryor revisiting the album’s most haunting line a few times near the end.
Nevermore to roam
“I kind of like to leave it hanging to see if I’m inspired to keep doing something else for that story, and I may,” Babb said.
He added that the story behind Arise wasn’t sparked by any one particular thing but he did want to give it a little of the vibe from Interstellar, a film he admires, and he wanted to infuse it with a little horror from some of his other favorites.
“I’m a big Lovecraft fan, and Clark Ashton Smith,” he said. “So, combining these weird horror, cosmic horror, cosmic dread ideas and mixing that with my own faith (for the story). They don’t seem like they would marry well, but I think it’s pretty neat.”
For now, this is the only way for fans to hear these songs. Babb said there aren’t any plans for any live gigs at the time. He hasn’t ruled it out, but touring is a bit cost prohibitive for a band like Glass Hammer, while rehearsing and doing gigs also limits the time he can spend writing and creating, which is what he loves to do.
I would recommend Arise to fans of 1970s Rush, space rock, or vintage Black Sabbath or Deep Purple fans, as well as sci-fi / horror nerds. If 1970s Pink Floyd had been part of the writing process for Rush’s “Cygnus X-1” or their Hemispheres album and gotten a woman to sing vocals, it might have turned out a bit like this album.
And if you’ve tried Glass Hammer before and didn’t find it to your liking, this album might still be up your alley.
Launch of the Daedalus
Arion (18 Delphini b)
Rift at Wasp-12
Proxima Centauri B
The Return of Daedalus
Pre-orders of the CD digipack version at the Glass Hammer shop or Bandcamp site prior to the release will be autographed, while those who preorder the digital download will receive a bonus track.
For more information on the band, visit GlassHammer.com.
For my full interview with Steve Babb, please watch the video embedded below or download/stream Episode 122 of the Michael’s Record Collection podcast. In addition to discussing Arise, Steve talked about his musical background, how he met Fred Schendel and formed Glass Hammer, how the band’s first album was discovered and amplified by the QVC home shopping network, and much more.
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