Monday, July 7, 2014

Who is the More Foolish? Glass Hammer's "Chronometree"

There was not a lot of music that made it through the divorce. Most of what I was into at the time was rendered unlistenable for quite awhile. The good news was, however, that I could listen to whatever I wanted to without fear of judgment or complaint. When I started brushing the dust off my shoulders and standing on my own again, I was relatively free to delve into whatever progressive rock nuttiness I pleased. For several years already, I had been listening to several variations on the “neo-progressive” style. Spock’s Beard, Porcupine Tree, and The Flower Kings had already proven to be bands with distinctive sounds worth a devoted following, but, predictably, I was convinced that there was more out there.

Although my horizons were widening in the progressive rock scene, there was a lot out there I could not get behind. The founders of the progressive style made music that I identified with, but I was mindfully critical of “clone” projects. Every argument could be made that Glass Hammer falls into this category. Especially in their more recent iterations, they wear their influences on their sleeve. Back in 2000, however, when Chronometree was released, it seemed that they might have the potential to take a different direction than they have.  Certainly, they still toggled between Emerson- and Wakeman-isms with fluid ease. However, aside from these stylistic keyboard affectations, I thought that Chronometree was relatively distinctive, and I really came to enjoy it in the wake of my newfound bachelorhood.

The primary way in which Chronometree stood on its own was due to the contributions of vocalist Brad Marler. In some circles, Marler had received some criticism on this release, but I always thought that his unique style stood in opposition to Jon Anderson, Greg Lake, and other classic singers in the style. Most importantly, Marler was impassioned without coming off as overly melodramatic, which is the downfall of many progressive rock singers.

A Perfect Carousel by Glass Hammer on Grooveshark

Like many classic progressive rock albums, Chronometree is a concept album, and in this regard it really shone above its contemporaries. The protagonist in its narrative is a pot-smoking prog-rock junkie that starts to think that aliens are trying to contact him through lyrics. In the end, he drags his friends out to a field where he waits, “Great Pumpkin”-style, for four-dimensional alien enlightenment. In other words, it’s a rock opera/concept album about a guy who listens to too many rock operas/concept albums.

Obi-Wan Kenobi once posed the question, "Who is the more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?" Chronometree makes the hard-core progressive fanboy its fool. At its core, it is a self-referential satire, gently poking fun at the listener for looking too closely at its meaning. It’s more musically derivative moments reinforce this point while paying respectful tribute to the pioneers of the style.

I hoped that Chronometree would be the baseline for further work, so I followed Glass Hammer. None of the albums that followed, however, really stuck with me. While the level of playing and composition on Lex Rex and Shadowlands are respectably high, they seemed a little sterile in execution. There were also constant lineup changes that prohibited a clear chemistry from arising between anyone but primary writers Babb and Schendel.

The consistent participation of Jon Davison in recent years has seemed to lessen this issue, but has also strengthened their status as a Yes clone project in my mind. His rise to prominence as Glass Hammer’s ad hoc lead singer occurred after I stopped following the band, though, so this opinion is based on an outsider’s impression. Glass Hammer has gained some visibility recently, however, due to the installation of Davison as the lead singer of Yes. His participation in Glass Hammer seemed to help the group gel in more recent years, and it is my hope that his presence will do the same for Yes in the band's twilight years.

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