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Glass Hammer - Chronomonaut CD (album) cover


Glass Hammer

Symphonic Prog

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4 stars Glass Hammer releases another solid epic with Chronomonaut. Much more melodic and lyrical, the progressive rock elements may remain a bit muted, but the song writing and orchestration is excellent. Added instrumentation, winds and strings, add another layer to their repertoire. Track 4 "The Past is the Past" stands out as a longer more progressive work that I keep going back to. Enjoy the variety of vocals and guest artists, Matthew Parmenter (vocals) and Chris Herin from Discipline is a pleasant surprise. Glass Hammer led Fred Schendel and Steve Babb continue to craft some great stories with music, excellent tone painting, yet they continue to evolve and change, not settling for old formulas. I may be partial to the Cor Cordium and Perilous era, but sometimes you don't need something that heavy musically, the melodic elements are very strong with this release. Buy it, dissect it, enjoy it!
Report this review (#2044931)
Posted Tuesday, October 16, 2018 | Review Permalink
Rock Progressivo Italiano Team
4 stars Eighteen albums in and showing no signs of slowing down and/or lacking inspiration, American prog-rockers Glass Hammer return in 2018 with `Chronomonaut', something of a sequel to an album in their discography that has become a cult favourite among their fans, 2000's `Chronometree'. It's always welcome when a prog band has a sense of humour about themselves and can laugh at the stereotypes associated with our favourite genre (this latest CD even arrived with a free coupon that states `The bearer of this card is entitled to multiple prog-rock induced time travel excursions'!), and the disc tells the tale of Tom, the `ultimate prog-rock fan' who hears subliminal messages in the lyrics of his favourite Seventies prog-rock band and seeks to travel back to the golden era of the genre! There's much more to it than that, but it's all really just a cue for another colourful and eclectic symphonic-edged album from one of the modern masters of the style, and it's full of all the first-rate musicianship and strong singing that the group always deliver.

There's plenty of changes in Hammer land for this effort, some of which takes a bit of getting used to! Founding members, bassist Steve Babb and keyboard player Fred Schendel, are still the core of the group alongside frequent leading lady Susie Bogdanowicz and powerhouse drummer Aaron Raulston, but with guitarist Kamran Alan Shikoh exiting the band, several guests have offered guitar contributions for the album, and stepping in for vocals here is Discipline's lead singer Matthew Parmenter, as well as a local acquaintance of the group, Patton Locke. The band are also determined to avoid repeating themselves, and while much of `Chronomonaut' is instantly recognisable as them, orchestration and brass instruments feature this time around, along with touches of blues, progressive-electronic, ambient and psych rock, making `Chronomonaut' a highly distinctive GH album all its own.

After `The Land of Lost Content's introduction of pretty piano, announcing organ and sighing voice, the strident `Roll for Initiative' kicks in with Steve's chunky upfront bass rumbling, Aaron's punchy n' purposeful drumming and Fred's emerging synth gloss. It's quickly blasted with funky horn blasts, a swaggering lead vocal from Patton carrying a catchy tune and soaring group harmonies that rapidly twist the track in endless directions with buoyant infectiousness. `Twilight of the Godz' initially appears on the surface to be a ballad, but some treated effects on Susie's first lead vocal on the disc brings a lightly psychedelic twist (and listen to the way her voice moves between soft and raw!), there's a tastily shambling drowsiness to much of the instrumental second half and plenty of sun-kissed ragged guitar soloing from guest Brian Brewer that flirts with some reaching Steve Howe-like touches here and there that weaves in and out of the entire piece.

Van der Graaf Generator fans will dig the heck out of `The Past is Past', a ten minute epic in the classic storytelling/character- driven approach of many a vintage prog album. Jamison Smeltz's saxophone that darts through the track reminds of how effectively the instrument was incorporated into Seventies rock albums, the vocal chameleon that is Matthew Parmenter moves through everything from everything from bluesy raspy croon to deranged Peter Hammill-esque theatrical snarl, and Fred's mischievously devilish keyboard runs carry a wink in their eye! `1980 Something' is an reflective Susie-led acoustic ballad that wouldn't have sounded out of place on a Mostly Autumn album, `A Hole in the Sky' is a playful pop-rocker with a punchy chorus, and `Clockwork' is a short atmospheric electronic interlude of shimmering synth programming that could pass for a `Force Majeure'-era Tangerine Dream outtake - more in this manner later too!

The gloomy `Melancholy Holiday' conveys a heavy mood thanks to Susie's impeccably haunting delivery, but light slowly infiltrates with humming keyboard ambiance and ethereal guitar strains that lift the piece to soaring heavens of beauty. Schizophrenic two-part instrumental `It Always Burns Sideways' initially rumbles with grumbling guitar menace, mud-thick distorted bass and plodding aggressive drumming, but trickles of Hammond organ and whirring keyboards quickly turn inviting and dazzling, and there's some tasty Yes-like licks flitting in and out as well.

`Blinding Light' is a rocking Patton-sung saunter powered by energetic pumping horns, the song frequently splintering off into delicious jazz-fusion-esque electric-piano laced runs and Hammond organ soloing that reminds of everything from Atomic Rooster, Uriah Heep and Deep Purple and probably could have shown up of any of the last few Neal Morse discs, and `Tangerine Meme' (you'd never guess which group inspired this one!) starts as a stark ambient synth/organ drift before slinking into moody electronica. Ten-plus minute epic `Fade Away' works sweeping orchestration, delicate piano passages, spiralling Moog solos and regal organ pomp into an unhurried and perfectly executed dramatic closer, with Matthew, Susie and Patton all sharing striking lead vocal moments to close the album in sophisticated fashion.

While it's a shame that Fred and Steve don't handle any of the proper lead vocals this time around (as they're such a strong part of the GH identity overall) and it will remain to be seen if Discipline's Matthew returns for more, Glass Hammer here again nail a vintage symphonic approach that still experiments and always remains contemporary. `Chronomonaut's true strengths won't reveal themselves on a single listen, instead - like all the best prog albums - it takes multiple spins to truly reveal just what makes it so impressive. Take the time to listen to the words of the clever song-writing, marvel at the diverse range of styles the band tackle, enjoy the confident singing, take in the sly humour and appreciate this love-letter to prog's golden era that isn't a mere retro throwback, and you'll be rewarded with a superb album from an ever-talented band.

Equal parts fun and dramatic, vibrant and diverse, `Chronomonaut' is another winner from Glass Hammer, and absolutely one of the prog-rock highlights of 2018.

Four and a half stars.

Report this review (#2048937)
Posted Sunday, October 28, 2018 | Review Permalink
4 stars I'm wary of early band/fan/reviewer comments that always proclaim "This is the BEST album this band has ever made!". What are the odds that's true of every album the band has ever made? Glass Hammer's official website highlights this quote from Progradar: "Without a doubt their best album yet." Is it really?!? Well, actually, it almost might be. It's certainly up there with Glass Hammer's best albums, and a huge step-up from what was (for me) a disappointing effort from their previous album (Valkyrie).

I'm still feeling a little bit guilty that I left such a scathing review here for Valkyrie. I'm sure GH have enough confidence, artistic integrity and independence that they'd totally ignore anything I'd say, but the complaints I had about Valkyrie (dirgy sound-effects, total lack of melody, choice of lead vocalist, etc.) have all been addressed and fixed here :-) Chronomonaut is packed full of wonderful tunes; Susie takes a more prominent role in both lead vocal, backing vocal and vocalizations, and the result is a shift from an album that had barely one listenable track on it to an album that doesn't have a weak spot anywhere. The imagination and creativity behind the concept makes the album a lot of fun too (a follow-on to the story of Tom from Chronomotree), but there are also parts that are much more haunting and tug on the heart-strings way more than anything on Valkyrie (which was supposed to have had the more poignant theme). It's not that I don't want Steve or Fred to sing ever again - it's just that I feel their strongest talents lie elsewhere. I didn't mind their lead vocal roles on albums like Lex Rex, but that material was so strong that it would probably have sounded amazing even if I'd taken lead vocals. The songs on Valkyrie just weren't up to that level. Chronomonaut is a much stronger album than Valkyrie, but I like the Glass Hammer flavor that comes through with Steve and Fred on backing vocals.

Musically, the only part of Chronomonaut that reminds me of Chromonotree is the first few opening bars of the piano, in "The Land of Lost Content". Clever title, which I guess we're supposed to be able to read in one of two ways? From the piano introduction, this breaks into some organ chords, pretty lyric-less vocalizations from Susie and some wonderful proggy guitar overlays. This is one of many highlights on this album.

"Roll for Initiative" starts off with the classic Glass Hammer bass/keyboard, with another lead vocalist added to the Glass Hammer collection. (I believe this is Patton Lock here.) He sounds fine. But I still miss Flo Paris (dang, she was awesome). And Jon Davison (surely he's now regretting leaving Glass Hammer? It's quite depressing to hear what has become of his "new" band). In any case, this track sets the narrative for the story, with a good amount of classic Glass Hammer instrumentation supporting the vocals.

"Twilight of the Godz" is one of my favorite tracks. Just gorgeous guitars, vocals, beautifully recorded and performed. There are stand-out, atmospheric performances from Susie all over this track. Just awesome.

"The Past is Past" is a heavily jazz-influenced track. Wonderful saxophone and brass sections make for an interesting diversion from the more typical prog-rock sound. Matthew Parmenter takes lead vocals on this one and hijacks the narrative with an interesting and expressive twist. It's quite a long track, with some curious keyboard and vocal diversions around the 7 minute mark. Lots of imaginative writing here.

"1980 Something" - another cool track title! This one takes a turn for the mellower with acoustic guitar and Susie singing (initially through some kind of vocoder?). Again, Susie does a fantastic job even when she doesn't actually have any words to sing. Look out for the nice spacey keyboards and guitar solo, plus more lyric-less Susie around 3:40. Another great track.

"A Hole in the Sky" is more of a pop/rock-sounding track, with Susie taking a back-seat on vocals.

"Clockwork" is the most amazing instrumental that Alan Parsons Project never wrote. I love the super-atmospheric keyboards. It's only a short track, but it's awesome.

"Melancholy Holiday" seems to have been the one track GH decided to make into a video. I think this was the first track I saw as a teaser for the album. It's a slower track that appears to be featuring Susie on both lead and backing vocals, with a sort of spooky keyboard sound in the background. Very pretty.

"It Always Burns Sideways" is another of my favorite tracks. It's an instrumental featuring heavier guitar riffs that remind me of Porcupine Tree on a good day. Then half-way through, it starts to sound like Camel (also on a good day), before the introduction of some wonderful keyboard tones. This may be a minor point, but if there's one thing I'd change on this album, I'd like to have heard a little more like this from Fred's keyboards. I feel like the heart of Glass Hammer has always been the combination of Steve's bass with those amazing overlaid keyboard tones and tunes. Schendel is one of my all-time favorite keyboard players. He has the technicality of players like Lyle Mays, but also an ability to create amazing tunes and amazing keyboard tones. (As much as I love Rick Wakeman, this is a talent he never had.) Schendel could literally break your heart with the emotional impact he puts into playing one note. What a great track this is.

"Blinding Light" again starts with that jazz influence and (I think) Patton Locke's return to lead vocals. It sounds like a part 2/sequel to "The Past is Past". The brass (trumpet) backing in this track is a highlight for me. (Big Big Train regularly do an awesome job of melding brass band sounds with prog rock. It's something that just really works.)

"Tangerine Meme" is an obvious nod to another famous band. Brilliantly done, very atmospheric with all the sound effects, and surprisingly original, yet clearly in the style of somebody other than Glass Hammer :-) (I recently heard the new Cosmograf album and the last track on that album - Goodbye To All Illusions- has a similar electronica-type vibe. Both Cosmograf and, here, Glass Hammer make it work remarkably well.)

"Fade Away" is the highlight of the album for me. Amazing, epic-sounding track with so much emotion in it. It's built up through several sections, each of which is fantastic. I especially love the symphonic prog sections and the keyboards. All the vocalists are absolutely on top form here. This is as strong as any track Glass Hammer have ever written.

This is definitely a return to form and if not their best album, then certainly the best album they've released in many, many years. Congrats Glass Hammer! :-)

Report this review (#2184861)
Posted Monday, April 22, 2019 | Review Permalink

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