Glass Hammer fans have no doubt been aquiver with elation since the announcement of their favourite band’s soon to be released eighteenth studio opus Dreaming City. As the album begins arriving on doorsteps the world over, expect to see glowing reviews emerge across the board, as this one is clearly destined to fall in with their most beloved titles. One of their heaviest but most balanced albums to date, the sword-and-sorcery tale told in Dreaming City takes listeners on a journey through the eyes of a desperate man faced with deadly obstacles and very little time to rescue his love. Glass Hammer listeners are no strangers to concept albums such as this, and this time they’re able to enjoy a story told through written chapters with accompanying artwork. Musically, the album is loaded with spirited riffs, feet-tapping grooves and memorable melodies, and delves into electronic music, bubbling keyboards, hazy, distant soundbite narratives, atmospheric jams, foreboding interludes, gentle tranquility and of course the gripping, epic majesty we’ve grown to expect over the last quarter century from the minds, hearts and hands of Steve Babb, Fred Schendel and company.
Make no mistake: despite the prevalence of guitar on the album, the familiar keyboards of Schendel (and sometimes Babb) are far from absent – they are interwoven throughout the album and assume roles of varying degrees and styles. And it’s imperative to acknowledge drummer Aaron Raulston, who I dare say turns in the finest drum performance on a Glass Hammer album to date (no joke). He’s handled the throne duties admirably over the course of the last four or five releases, but here he provides such an impressive performance, one simply must give him the tip of their cap. It’s no small feat to command the listener’s attention in a band already long proven to consist of overachievers in their respective areas of the sonic landscape.
The album is often reminiscent of – and an homage to – 70s Rush, but in a warm, respectable way that is never in danger of being a clone or a cheap imitation. This band is far too talented and established for such tricks. Babb’s usual excellent bass playing packs a huge wallop, and as it often does, threatens to steal the limelight (even during a particularly killer guitar solo) – and that tone is to die for. Velvet Thunder chatted with a proud and eager Babb about this superb new platter, the band’s first of this new decade.
It’s always been: ‘Here’s what Fred and Steve are into, and here’s who they’re hanging out with right now’…
VT: Congratulations on your eighteenth studio album. I’ve listened through quite a few times now and it’s definitely a winner. You always manage to keep things fresh and in some ways unpredictable, but it always sounds exactly like Glass Hammer.
SB: Thank you! Yeah, we don’t try to forecast the evolution of the sound so much, it’s not really something we think about, it’s something that just happens. A few months can go by, and in that short time Fred and I have heard new things, or are thinking new things, or seen some movie or read some book, and it just kind of turns us around. But the bottom line is: we sing like we sing, and we play like we play, and arrange like we arrange, so no matter what the style is or the new sounds, I think it’s still anchored in the original sound. I think there’s a definable Glass Hammer sound – I think you can tell when you hear it who it is! (Laughs)
VT: When we last spoke in 2016, you guys felt that the response to The Breaking Of The World was a tad underwhelming, and that people seemed to feel it was ‘nice’, but weren’t bowled over by it as you had hoped. In the time since then, how did you find the response to Valkyrie and Chronomonaut?
SB: Something I discovered is that it’s partly the way I promote things and partly what our fan base is expecting. Every now and then, we thought ‘Let’s just do an album of songs’. They don’t have to be connected, maybe there’s some loose theme – and The Breaking Of The World was an album like that. So I go back to things I used to hear from fans in the mid-90s, after maybe our second album. People would say ‘The third album – what’s it going to be about?’ which struck me as odd, that an album is about anything. But I enjoy concept albums and I enjoy stories, so I think it’s been easier for me to focus an album and market it and talk about it if there’s a story to it. Concept albums go hand in hand with progressive rock, and that’s fine. So I think I’ve kind of driven us that way ever since The Breaking Of The World, that if we’re going to do an album, it needs to be a concept album – and that’s not something I have to force, I enjoy doing them. So Valkyrie was certainly a concept album with a story that people could relate to. The same with Chronomonaut, which was kind of silly, but nevertheless, it kind of touches something in prog fans. And I’ve done the same with this one. It’s a story about a man trapped in a bad situation – and I’ve already heard from people that have advance review copies that they can apply it to their lives and tragedies they’ve been through. It’s not just ‘I like song A or song B’, the whole thing tells the story, which is an easier sell for us, I believe.
VT: The first thing you notice with this one is how heavy and rocking it is. Very riff-based with a lot of guitar. And an overall darker feel than Chronomonaut.
SB: Oh yeah, definitely! I put Chronomonaut back on the other day for the first time, and was amazed at how bouncy and happy the whole thing starts off, I was like ‘Wow! That didn’t seem like that to me at the time.’ But it really is. So yeah, Fred wanted to go more of a rock direction this time, and I was thinking that way too. I asked him the other day ‘What do you call this stuff?’ and he said ‘Well, it’s riff-prog! It’s not prog-metal, it’s songs built around riffs’. But it’s still progressive rock, I tried to inject some space rock elements to it myself, and Fred and I both kind of went the way of Rush on some things. And I think that heavier stuff mixes well with some of that Tangerine Dream dark synth wave in some of those tracks too. It’s all dark, and I hope it comes across as a ‘dark masterpiece’!
VT: There’s a large cast of players on this one. How much of a difference to the overall sound do you think it makes to have eight or ten people, compared with something like Three Cheers For The Broken-Hearted which basically only had three?
SB: Well, the songs were there and we didn’t really have an established singer for them. And I worried at first about having so many different male vocalists – will the thing hold together well when you’re continually changing things on people? But the way the tracks are arranged, you kind of get a familiar sound with me singing the first song, followed by somebody unusual but who sounds a little like Walter Moore who sang with us years ago. So I was concerned about it, but I’ve heard no complaints, we’ll just have to see. Over the years, we’ve introduced a lot of people. I’ve never counted how many people have been involved – seriously involved, not just guests – but there are dozens, I’m sure. It’s always been: ‘Here’s what Fred and Steve are into, and here’s who they’re hanging out with right now’.
VT: I am seriously impressed with Aaron Raulston’s drumming, some of the best I’ve ever heard on a Glass Hammer album.
SB: Great, I’m glad to hear it – the guy’s a monster! He’s a serious hardcore metal fan, that’s his thing. And of course, he’s a jazz drummer, a rock drummer, anything you need him to be, he can be. A phenomenal guy, super easy to work with.
VT: Let’s go through some of the new tracks. The heavy opening cut, The Dreaming City, is a new kind of album opener for Glass Hammer. I like the way the vocals sound almost like the protagonist is struggling to emerge from within the heaviness of the music. Like he’s buried and trying to escape as he sings “…lost in the maze of this city of lies”
SB: Yeah, he’s mad! That’s the key thing. I’ve even rough drafted a few thousand words of a story that goes behind this – I don’t know that it’ll ever be finished, but while we’re sitting here in quarantine, that’s what I want to do. And I play these stories out in my head, it’s a little crazy how I do it, but I can see this stuff in my head – and that’s how I can make these songs work. In my mind, this guy’s back is literally up against a wall, he doesn’t even know how he got there, there’s people trying to kill him – that’s how the album starts. So that’s a very desperate situation, and it’s allegorical for things that have happened in real life, so I can at least feel at least a fraction of what this character might be feeling. He’s angry and hurt and scared, and there’s no way out of this situation unless he gets help.
VT: Do you mean you want to produce a book, as you did with The Lay Of Lirazel?
SB: Yeah, I’d love to! It’s a time consuming thing, there’s about 30,000 or 40,000 words already written for the story behind The Inconsolable Secret. But as much as I’ve tried, I always found I would have to set these things aside, because music is what keeps the studio going, not my literary aspirations. So I’d like to finish it one day, I’ve already had somebody tell me they’d love to see a continuation of this character’s story. And I’m not opposed to that, so it’s a possibility that if we come back to this on a followup album, there could be an accompanying book, I’d love to do that.
VT: Without warning, we’re into the second track Cold Star, also a heavy riff-based rocker. That’s an interesting way to open an album, with back-to-back seven-minute rockers that rarely let up.
SB: Yeah, I think this album needs to get moving. We worried a little bit about how it does kind of dip in the middle and goes into some ballads, but we at least wanted those first two – and even the third one, though not metal, to have a great pace to them. The album is about a man racing to save somebody, himself included, and he’s only got so much time to do it, so I think it’s important the music just starts to… ‘go’.
VT: That third track (Terminus) is one of the highlights of this album for me, a different style to the first two, but as you say, keeps the high energy levels running.
SB: Yeah, I think it might be one of the most commercial-sounding tracks we ever did, and I mean commercial in a good way. It was a thing that Fred wrote the music for, for a solo project, and John Beagley from London had sung some lyrics to it. That project got shelved, and I heard it some months later, and said “Oh my gosh, why isn’t this song on the album?” (Laughing) So I got with John Beagley, I re-did the lyrics – and I think they had called it Terminus. And I ended up thinking ‘Well, that will be the name of the sword, we’ll just keep the title, I’ll change the words’. So that’s a Fred Schendel work, and I think I did most of the melody for it. It’s a cool song, I don’t take much of the credit for it!
VT: Pagarna is the second one that hit me as a favourite right away. Your bass lines almost steal the show from the guitar soloing!
SB: Good! (Laughing) It’s unusual how that one came about. To me, this is funny stuff: the bass track that you hear is me playing the bass as I wrote it. I didn’t re-do it, that’s literally the track. You’re hearing it for the first time, and it was never played again. I was shooting for a kind of a Geezer Butler thing, but I don’t play like him so it just comes off really spastic – with a few Geddy Lee things thrown in there. (Laughing) Yeah, it’s a cool, heavy track, I wanted it to be kind of like a Black Sabbath track, and a little bit like a band I had back in the early 80s called Wyzards. It does really sound like that some of that stuff we were doing when we were kids. So I’m glad you like it… I worried about it, because it was kind of underdeveloped and we were trying to come up with keyboards to put in it. And Fred didn’t have any inspiration for it, so I just left it, and I think it ended up working! I’m used to hearing it that way now.
VT: I’ve got that Wyzards CD (The Final Catastrophe) on my shelf.
SB: Oh my! (Laughing) That album was an attempt to recapture something that happened when we were kids, seventeen years later. It’s a good document, I guess, but it just couldn’t capture what that original band was, we were I think seventeen to nineteen when we formed that band, and it was just on fire. And you know, seventeen years goes by and you try to put that together in a studio… it did not work. But at least we got to do it.
I’m not a big fan of ‘Frankenprog’, where you just cut and paste and slam things together disjointed – I hate that stuff.
VT: Once again you’ve created some instrumental interludes with The Lurker Beneath and The Tower, and delved into some electronic sounds much as you did on the previous couple of albums with pieces like Clockwork and Nexus Girl – these are effective pieces of music I think, you guys do this kind of thing very well.
SB: Thanks! It’s kind of where Fred and I started, I had an electronic music project in the mid-80s, and he heard that and contacted me, and turned me on to some of his prog stuff on cassette, and that’s kind of where we started, we wrote that sort of stuff together. And I love dinking around with synthesizers and moody things. I’m not a good finisher – I’ll come up with the basis for that stuff and it’s real atmospheric, but then Fred would come back in and lay guitar parts over top of it and kind of finish it off for me. So I would do albums full of that stuff, I’d do it all day long, I love doing it.
VT: This Lonely World has a nice and relaxed, laid-back vibe, with shimmering guitar and keys. A lovely change of pace.
SB: Yeah, definitely a little bit of a Camel flavour to it. And there are some newer psychedelic bands, young guys that came around maybe the last ten years, who I watch or listen to on YouTube – it’s not really attached to progressive rock so much, but when old guys like us do it, it kind comes off a little like Camel, I think. And I think ballads are an important thing for Glass Hammer.
VT: Speaking of which, the one full-on ballad on this album, October Ballad, is the only lead vocal from Susie Bogdanowicz this time around.
SB: Yeah, and that’s really a logistical thing. The subject matter, of course, was a very masculine idea. It’s a man, and he fights with a sword and he fights monsters and other evil men… it just wasn’t something that we wanted to give that musical quality to it that Susie can do. And also, she lives in Daytona Beach, Florida, we’re in Chattanooga, Tennessee – it took weeks just to get her in a studio to do the one song. We tried to set her up with a home recording situation, and that was kind of a technical fail. So as things progressed, it was obvious it was going to be mostly guys singing on the album, and we’ll get with her on other songs in the future. She was going to sing most of our show for Cruise To The Edge, and still will be, whenever that happens.
VT: Yet another favourite track of mine is The Key. This is definitely a song I would play for people who have never heard Glass Hammer. Such a killer groove the entire way through – the main riff, the verses, chorus, solo section – And I’m always a lover of the flute.
SB: Cool! And I’ll give Fred credit for that one, that’s his riff and his rhythm guitar. And can you tell that there’s more than one lead singer on that?
SB: Okay, because I wondered if they were even distinguishable. A guy named Joe Logan came in and sang that for us, but Reese Boyd was working out so well, we were on the fence about how to treat that song. Do we throw one more new singer in at the end of this thing, and really confuse everybody? So we had Reese come back in and do some alternate lines, and engineered it to try and make them sound a little different than each other, so it became a duet. And Barry Seroff from Edensong played the flute.
VT: You know what’s coming last. The finale Watchman On The Walls is going to be a lot of people’s favourite track, for sure.
SB: I hope so!
VT: It’s got everything you want. And loads of that Rush vibe we talked about earlier. I’m thinking Hemispheres, Permanent Waves-era. And I call the ending “The By-Tor ending”.
SB: Good, that’s what I wanted! (Laughing) That came together in an unusual way. Fred mentioned the Rush thing to me before we started writing – I had written The Dreaming City track, and I said ‘Okay, you want some Rush? This is what we’re going to do.’ So I came up with what you hear as the main verses and choruses for Watchman On The Walls. And he had these other pieces that he had been working on. And I’m not a big fan of ‘Frankenprog’, you know, where you just cut and paste and slam things together disjointed – I hate that stuff. But he said ‘No, this will fit, I think it’s going to work.’ And we went round and round about it, and I said ‘Why are we ruining this song? Let’s just make it a six minute song’ – because that’s all it was. And then he talked himself out of it. And then I started listening to the idea again, more and more and I said ‘No, you were right! We should do this!’ (Laughing) It took weeks to settle on what that song was going to be. But as it started to come together, it was obviously a finale. It’s a cool finale for Glass Hammer, it doesn’t have the big, soaring ‘We all die and go to heaven’ kind of ending. It just rocked out at the end – and that’s all that I insisted to him, was if we were going to put all these pieces together, then the end of this thing needs to be like By-Tor And The Snowdog – it needs to just jam out. So we’re thrilled with it, and I imagine we are about half-and-half on that song (writing-wise).
VT: Maybe not the ‘soaring’ aspect, but an epic quality nonetheless.
SB: Yeah, no pipe organs and angel choirs! And we’ve got this young guy singing for us, Reese, who is nineteen. And to me, that’s a really good way to move this band forward, with a male voice that’s youthful – I don’t know if he comes across like that, he’s kind of an old soul. He’s a phenomenal lead and rhythm guitar player, and his voice is coming along just great, so we put him on that song, and we thought ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve got something here!’
VT: Over the course of the last several years, you re-released a few of your more well-known albums in remastered or deluxe editions like The Inconsolable Secret, Lex Rex and Chronometree. Any plans for further reissues?
SB: Gee, right now… things have been so strange the last few weeks and we were so caught up in rehearsals, that all got stopped… our heads were in completely different places. Who knew two weeks ago they were going to shut all our businesses down? So there are no plans right now. I guess we focus on pushing this one out.
I said ‘Okay, you want some Rush? This is what we’re going to do.’
VT: What about re-issuing some of the long out of print stuff? I never got the compilation of early material you simply titled One.
SB: Uh-oh! I don’t even know where I have it, to be honest with you.
VT: The Middle Earth Album is another that’s difficult to find.
SB: Middle Earth was such a hiccup in our catalogue. We just thought it was great and it sold really well, because it happened right before the Lord Of The Rings movies came out. But it was kind of taking us back into that fantasy realm, with a completely different set of fans. But personally, I would do an album like that every year! We had a blast, we laughed all the way through that thing, and it wasn’t hard to do – not nearly as hard as this other stuff is. So yeah, I would love to do it, but… it came out right after Chronometree, and people were like ‘What? What are they doing?’ I’m going to put that back on our website again, at least as a CD-quality download. But I don’t think we’ll print ’em anymore.
VT: So I’m stuck forking over on E-bay then.
SB: Yyyyyeah, sorry.
VT: I’m going to throw five song titles at you. All you need to do is tell me what springs to mind about each of them. I have stumped other musicians with this, but I don’t think that will happen with you, somehow…
SB: It’s a possibility! (Laughing)
VT: Third Floor.
SB: Sleep deprivation, jet lag and silly guys in an elevator – that’s what comes to mind!
VT: The Lure Of Dreams.
SB: Rocks! Kicks butt! Cruise To The Edge.
VT: Oh, you played that there?
SB: We’re going to, yep.
VT: In The Court Of Alkinoos.
SB: Wow! Ummm… a burden to write. I had to go back and read The Odyssey when we were asked to do it! (Laughing) A lot of people really like it, but it was hard to write.
VT: Do you like it?
SB: Yeah, I think it could have been recorded better. I haven’t heard it in a while.
VT: Beyond, Within.
SB: A bewildering… how to put it… a fascinating, underappreciated song. Fred Schendel wrote it, and my only credit to that song is that I insisted he expand on it and make it longer, which he did. Just one of the coolest tracks I think we’ve done. I don’t hear a lot about it.
VT: Time Marches On.
SB: Fun to play live, I can say that. We’ve done it a lot of times and it’s a lot of fun to play.
VT: Finally, if you can look beyond the current world climate, what can Glass Hammer fans expect in the future?
SB: We talked about maybe doing a Christmas project. We’ve had a lot of people request that over the years, and we’re a great band, I think, to do that. But then, I’m on the fence because I really like the momentum that I think this album is going to have, and the edgy sound it’s got, so I kind of want to push ahead with that, and keep doing more music. So as long as the world opens up again (laughing) and everyone can get back to normal, there’s no definite plan as to what we’ll do. But we’ll certainly keep making music.
Dreaming City concurrently acknowledges the Glass Hammer legacy and ambitiously carves out its own unique and prominent spot within it. Where the album eventually settles in the general consensus will, as always, take time to be revealed. It’s easy to listen to a great new album and blissfully declare that it’s the best thing a band have ever done, but Glass Hammer have set their own bar unnervingly high with their fan favourite works such as The Inconsolable Secret, Perilous, Lex Rex and Valkyrie. Is Dreaming City as good as those? That’s not for me to decide right here and right now… but after a dozen listens, I’m confident enough to say that it just might be.
Available to order now from Glass Hammer and soon from all usual vendors.