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
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
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
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.