October 10, 2021

The second installment of a trilogy is always the deepest part of the story…

As a youngster, I quickly learned from movies such as The Empire Strikes Back and books like The Two Towers that the second instalment of a trilogy is always the deepest part of the story. With the latest musical offering from Glass Hammer, one of America’s most respected latter-day progressive rock bands, that appears to still be the case. Now twenty studio albums into their impressive career, they’ve followed up last year’s well-received trilogy opener Dreaming City with second volume Skallagrim – Into The Breach, and it’s a cracker of an album.

Bassist and lyricist Steve Babb is clearly in his element authoring this multi-part fantasy tale (in fact, his first written volume of the book series is due for release next year, a 400-pager titled Skallagrim – In The Vales Of Pagarna). It’s clear that by putting pen to paper (or was it quill to scroll?) he believes strongly enough that his storytelling should also adorn bookshelves worldwide – and he’s probably right. His love for the genre is palpable, further evidenced by the effort he and founding bandmate Fred Schendel have put into crafting these lush albums. As with Dreaming City, snippets of the story are provided in the liner notes for each track along with the lyrics and accompanying sketches, adding another dimension to the full album experience. I won’t get into spoilers about the story itself, but suffice to say that it’s got enough substance to place it a cut above the more surface-level sword-and-sorcery tales out there, and the more fleshed-out book should prove to be a worthy companion. Fantasy for grown-ups? Perhaps, young warrior, perhaps.

Following the album’s opening bookend, the first proper song Anthem To Andorath comes storming in with its grungy riff, deep groove, and infectious chorus, showcasing the broad vocal abilities of Hannah Pryor. A newfound gem in the band’s ever-evolving cast of players, Pryor croons sweetly and belts out passionately with the same apparent ease. Although longtime listeners may lament the absence of Glass Hammer veteran Susie Bogdanowicz, Pryor really delivers here. It’s always a gamble shuffling the deck – particularly in an age when some fans make up their minds before hearing a note – but Babb and Schendel are seasoned pros who know a thing or two about what works with their music. They’ve made a winning choice here, and any fans wary of this change should find their fears quickly eased.

Hannah Pryor confidently glides over top of the fray with soaring and soulful vocals

Glass Hammer in 2021 is an edgier affair than fans of their earlier catalogue may be used to. They’ve relished exploring darker and heavier roads on these first two volumes of the Skallagrim chronicles, without straying too far from their core. Enough of their past elements are retained that this music still sounds like them, it just isn’t filled with angelic choirs, pipe organs and celestial 20-minute symphonic epics. There are still gentler sections, spacy moments and ethereal prog rock, but there’s a dominant ballsy crunch too, a doomier tone that places these albums on a different shelf. But as we know, they will venture again into different territory eventually, never content to stay in one place too long… AC/DC, they are not.

The heavy guitar and Hammond organ vibe of Sellsword will draw the usual comparisons to the classic… well, heavy guitar and Hammond organ bands. But it’s separate from that music in its complexity and modern feel, and again Pryor confidently glides over top of the fray with soaring and soulful vocals. Likewise with the track Steel, which finds the band exploring even more style shifts within the heavy rock-riff blueprint. Thus far, we’ve been given the best opening run of music on a Glass Hammer album since at least 2016’s Valkyrie. Young session player Reese Boyd has been fairly prominent on the last few albums in his role of guitar prodigy, and contributes some dazzling playing once again. While Schendel can bash out killer riffs with the best of ’em, Boyd is able to colour the tracks with terrific solos and deeper textures. Time to make this cat a fully-fledged member, methinks.

The album drifts into electronic instrumental territory with a pair of what are essentially solo tracks. The moody A Spell Upon His Mind finds a lone Babb delivering a piece that is about as far removed from the preceding heaviness as you could imagine. Schendel, too, performs unaccompanied on the quirky Moon Pool, a more upbeat track complete with drum loops and percussion sounds. They’ve injected these kinds of interludes into albums before, but they are always welcome, and I suspect they’d excel at a full album crafting this kind of electronic noodling, as they seem to have a knack for it.

Beauty & the beards

The meat of the Skallagrim story is largely found in the album’s second half, beginning with Babb’s turn at the lead vocal mic on The Ogre Of Archon, a return to the appealing heavy riffage reminiscent of Sabbath and early Rush. If I’m mentioning ‘heavy riffs’ a lot, that’s because they are here in spades, but the album is far from one-dimensional, and its this variety that is perhaps the most impressive feature of Into The Breach.

Babb hangs on to vocal duties (with some brief assistance from Schendel) on the expansive title track, the first of back-to-back eight minute pieces which features an instrumental breakdown allowing for some fine tradeoff solos. Sometimes with so much focus on how Glass Hammer produce their albums, we forget to acknowledge what great players these guys are. Babb’s striking bass tone bouncing around underneath Schendel’s keys and Boyd’s blistering guitar is one of the major album highlights. This song simply must be played live in the future… or I assure you I will be loudly asking to speak to the manager.

The Forlorn Hope is likely to be mentioned by fans eager to rattle off favourites, with its powerful and thudding heavy rock verse structure and brighter choruses eventually dissolving into a dreamy acoustic second half. Pryor returns to deliver melodic and tuneful vocals in what is surely the album’s prettiest moment, and longtime session player Brian Brewer (scheduled to appear with the band on the next Cruise To The Edge) adds some subtle slide guitar to accent the piece. It’s an odd arrangement, but then nobody’s crossing their fingers for it to be on the radio anytime soon – even if it should be.

In a return to the Rush-infused sound of Dreaming City, the shimmering Hyperborea serves as the album’s lengthy climax, and though it may be a groaner to choose the ‘proggy epic’ as my favourite track, I can’t help it – this is a joyous piece rich in Glass Hammer-isms and with Hemispheres/Permanent Waves-era nods that make me smile – but the song could stand on its own even without those. Drummer Aaron Raulston’s heavy groove has been a key component of Glass Hammer dating back to 2014’s Ode To Echo, and he peppers this new music with a hybrid of metallic energy and tasteful nuance. Any band benefits greatly from a drummer who knows when to leave space and when to let fly with everything he’s got. Raulston is one such drummer, and he lifts this material by at least one full notch.

Not every album is a ‘masterpiece’ simply because the listener likes it.

With any catalogue as broad and sweeping as Glass Hammer’s, it’s impossible to predict where the latest entry will eventually settle in the hearts and minds of listeners. And when they’ve set their own bar so high for so long, they will certainly be aware that there are going to be peaks and valleys, often not apparent until looking back in hindsight a few years on. Not every album can (or should) be lazily described as a ‘masterpiece’ simply because the listener really likes it, as it cheapens the term in the process (I still say theirs is The Inconsolable Secret, for what it’s worth). Although these stalwarts of the scene always maintain a consistent level of quality, for my tastes they seem to really smack one out of the park every four albums or so, and they’ve done it again here. While I wouldn’t necessarily elevate Skallagrim – Into The Breach to ‘masterpiece’ status, it’s certainly among their finest, with nary a duff track to be found, and coaxes broad smiles of genuine appreciation. Great work, guys and gal. I look forward to many more listens… and no pressure, but I’m already jazzed to hear part three!