In my usual long-winded, wordy style, first impresssions:

I've had COA barely 24 hours, but I'm already getting the lay of land.  The topology, if you will!  First impressions are dangerous in progressive music,
since they tend to change as the music begins to sink in.  And while I'll lay off the epics for the most part, this release has made some definite first impressions on me.

First, the "new sound" isn't so much a change of style - this is very much the known and loved Glass Hammer - as an integration of new century possibilities (rhythmic and riffing) and new compositional techniques into an ever-expanding toolbox, augmenting a symphonic rock sensibility firmly grounded in the '70s, not to mention the 1700's.  The choral polyphony, the lovely melodies, the lush synths and strings, clean guitar solos, it's all there, snuggled comfortably next to the trancy/techno-like rhythms and shredding prog-metal guitar.

Second, David's heads-up last month (David the Yeshead, not the Shredmeister) about the continued integration of the Adonia String Trio was right on - I do believe I heard a viola solo from Susan nestled tightly between Fred's keyboard and Shreddy's guitar solos on track 2!  (Right?  Wrong? I've misidentified viola before ;^).  From swelling the menacing sound of a power trio, to lovely obligato passages under the vocals, these ladies are everywhere.  Glass Hammer has made amazing progress - as a BAND - since the Belmont Show, and that show floored me!

Third, the "Mountains as Metaphor" theme of the album speaks to me in many different ways.  I was listening to track 5 I believe, driving up the Cumberland Plateau on I-24 yesterday, and found myself thinking about the time I went hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, around Long's Peak.  It was a cool but bright sunny May day as we started, but as we got up to the shoulders of the peak it clouded over, and began to hail, just as we reached a shadowed hollow containing a lake, covered completely over in snow.  That's one thing this album evoked immediately.  For a guy that lived in Colorado, near the edge of the Cumberland Plateau, and (briefly) on Lookout Mountain, these metaphors hit me where I, ahem, lived.  Even ignoring that my forebears came to the US from Switzerland.

Continuing on from here will be some thoughts on various tracks.  There are SPOILERS.

Track 1 - South Side of the Sky

...were we ever colder on that day, a million miles away...

The laid-back, trance-like take on South Side of the Sky from the on-line samplers works much better in context than I was expecting.  After the high-energy reading GH gave this piece at the Tivoli performance last year, I wasn't expecting this.  But again, context is everything.  The ambient, eastern feel of the opening provides a fine backdrop for the dreamy first verse.  But what's this?  Where is the intense inverted trio riff under "where we ever colder?"  Patience!  It's just one crescendo away.  The opening verse serves as a contrast to the power of the full band's entrance, and the wonderful trio riff underlies each subsequent chorus.  And the harmonies of the middle section are vintage Yes, er, GH.  The addition of the strings here is a nice touch.  Yes Purists may hate it, but then they aren't progressing, are they?  It's great.

Track 2 - Sun Song

...all is bathed in light...

A song about the Sun?  Well, I guess if you're channelling Yes ... and have Jon Anderson guesting ... you just gotta.  But then I read the lyrics.  Wow.  Wistful without senimentality.  Go read the lyrics.  Now.  Maybe if you aren't a parent this won't hit you the same, but I'm hit you it will, eventually.
 
Musically I haven't grokked this one yet.  It has a trippy opening, which I can groove to.  When it started, I thought it might be the tune they opened the Tivoli concert with last October (2006).  Now I'm not so sure, unless they expanded the original instrumental with vocal lines and lyrics.  Nice big thick bass sound, several shredding solos in the middle section from Monsieur Walliman.  And do my ears deceive me?  A viola solo?  My how well they've integrated the String Trio into the band's sound.  I'm going to let this one grow on me while I soak in the lyrics.  I feel like Carl's voice should be a bit more upfront on this one.

Track 3  - Life By Light

...longing for things, never even named...

Opens with unaccompanied vocal, then resolves to pure, unadulterated Yes musings: a meadow, harps, clouds skidding lazily overhead.  One of those broad, open instrumental passages that border on ambient, Awaken-esque.  Of course Jon Anderson makes his most extensive appearence here, largely through vocal loops.  Then it changes, and it's an unmistakable Glass Hammer ballad, soft and lovely melody and harmonies.  Carl Groves sounds great on this melody.  The later vocal loops Jon contributes are perfect for the song, understated and chant-like, with GH choral harmonies sometimes built around them.

I would have been disappointed if the Harmonized Rickenbacker sound hadn't come along.

Track 4 - Ember Without Name

...spark and fire touch...

This song opens with a hint of mystery then blazes with a menacing power trio, soon to be joined by keyboard and strings.  It's a powerful opening, and the section most unlike previous GH pieces to my ears.  Shreddy does shred, and Fred has some sound like demonic bat wings flapping frenetically around my head (sorry, best I could come up with on short notice!).  Being an epic, I thought I'd need several listens before coming to terms with this one musically, but the structure is pretty open and accessible.  Another beautiful melody, this one written by Carl, often sung over the Trio.  I heard a moving, legato cello lines under arpeggiated violin/viola lines.  Rebecca's turn to solo on violin. Much more going on here than I can write or speak or think, even.

It's hard to imagine picking a favorite tune this early, but the one is ahead, by a nose.  Or a measure, rather.

Track 5 - Into Thin Air

...there is very little air here...

This is the epic that will need repeated listenings for me to fully understand.  But again the lyrics have already made quite an impression.  The opening to this one screams PROG (much as I dislike that term).  A big piece for a Himalayan mountainscape.

Track 6 - Rest

...I will climb for you...

This is a beautiful piece of music.  Another fine melody and lyric contributed by Carl.  An uplifting, angelic chorus.  The layered, shifting lines in the strings and organ at the end remind me, I think, of a Goreki symphony, plaintive and gorgeous.  Another perfect place for an Anderson vocal loop.  Likely to become my wife's favorite, and I don't blame her a bit.

Okay I'll shut up now.