America’s single most innovative and interesting rock band is also, sadly, one of its least known and appreciated. This needs to end, and the sooner, the better for all concerned.
Amazingly enough, the band Glass Hammer is now celebrating its 26th birthday, and is about to release its 17th studio album. This is an astounding achievement in the world of art and, especially, in the world of rock. To add even more accolades, the band exists because its two founders were and are perfectionists, refusing to compromise on their own vision of what excellence is.
Creating Glass Hammer in 1992, long-time friends, Steve Babb and Fred Schendel—who had played in several 80s metal bands—decided to dive into what they loved most: complicated, intricate, baroque, over-the-top rock. At the time of the band’s creation, the term “progressive rock” was more than out of favor, evoking for most the horrors of bloated songs, the wearing of capes, the stabbing of keyboards with knives, and lyrics about Hobbits. Though, if Babb and Schendel had hoped to avoid the “progressive rock” stereotype, they failed miserably. If anything, their music—what they called “fantasy rock,” bringing the speculative and imaginary worlds of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and others to life—was inordinately more nerdy than “progressive rock.”
Promoting their music on TV in the early 1990s, they readily found a market for their particular brand of fantasy rock. Singing about Hobbits, it seems, was far from unpopular. Indeed, the band has made money on every one of their releases, whether studio, live, or compilation. And, while their fanbase might be fewer in number than, say, the many who appear regularly on pop and rock radio, their fans are dedicated and, not surprisingly given the type of music, quite intellectual and serious.
Rock DJ Chris MacIntosh (a.k.a., “Grandfather Rock”) proclaims the albums of the band to be “sonic masterpieces.” Another longtime devotee, Dennis Cussen, notes that the band’s integrity and artful lyrics have not only inspired him but have also sustained him during difficult times. That the band can inspire while also pursuing excellence, Cussen claims, “is a gift from above.” Babb’s childhood and now, lifetime, friend, Robert Clay Smith, first introduced him to progressive rock in high school. As Smith so accurately writes, “These are sincere and truly gifted musicians and singers whose hearts are in the right place and are providing people with uplifting music which is truly good not only for the ears but also for the heart, soul and spirit.” It would be hard to disagree with any of these statements, at least from this author’s perspective. And, none of these statements are unique to these three quoted. Glass Hammer fans across the years would all say something similar.
With the release of its first album in 1993, Journey of the Dunadan, Glass Hammer also inadvertently and, at the time, unknowingly contributed significantly to the current revival of progressive rock, now known as “third-wave prog.” In this, they joined Britain’s Marillion, California’s Spock’s Beard, and Sweden’s The Flower Kings as third-wave prog’s founders.
To support the band and their vision, Schendel, Babb, and Babb’s lovely and brainy wife, Julie, founded a state-of-the-art sound studio in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1994. The studio, Sound Resources, records anything that can be recorded, but it specializes in album, music, and audio book recording, engineering, and production. As studio owners, Babb and Schendel can also spot, identify, and cultivate talent. As such, Glass Hammer has existed as much as a project as it has a band over its 26 years. The only real constants have been Babb and Schendel, with the two men recruiting the best of those they meet.
Among the most important recruits over the years has been Susie Warren Bogdanowicz, a very talented and extremely attractive mother of four from Florida. Babb and Schendel recognized her many gifts immediately, bringing her into the Glass Hammer family with the release of their fourth studio album, Chronometree, in 2000. Though the band has had many singers—including, most famously, Jon Davison (now of Yes)—Bogdanowicz not only possesses the most angelic voice in rock, she also, quite frankly, possesses the single finest voice in all of rock in this year of our Lord, 2018. Certainly other rock vocalists—such as Big Big Train’s David Longdon as well as Headspace’s Damian Wilson—offer as much integrity, but none have the range and the power of Bogdanowicz. Prior to joining Glass Hammer, she had been the lead singer of an alternative rock band during the 1990s.
Over their first sixteen studio albums, Glass Hammer has proven itself, time and again, to be expert storytellers and myth makers. They have certainly embraced the works of Lewis and Tolkien, but they have also gone beyond just their heroes. They have become—in word and note—every bit the bards that their heroes were. Their albums have dealt rather profoundly with everything from the Roman empire to the mysteries of death to the horrors of H.P. Lovecraft to the nobility of soldiers of World War I. And, while the vast majority of bands see their creativity and purpose ebb after their first and second albums, Glass Hammer has just gotten better with age. As I look back over my own notes and reviews of the band since 2002, I see a constant. In almost every review of every new album, I write something to the effect: “This is a band at the top of their game, with this release being better than all previous releases.” And, I’ve meant it every time. That kind of excellence and integrity is rare in any place in any time in history.
The latest studio album to appear from the band, Chronomonaut, will be released on October 12, with autographed pre-orders getting underway on September 12 via the band’s website. It shows both the creative as well as mischievous side of the band. It’s a sequel to the 2000 album, Chronometree, the album that brought Bogdanowicz into the Glass Hammer family. That album, the fourth by the band, was as hilarious as it was inventive. The story of that album revolves around “Tom,” a young man obsessed with the lyrics of progressive rock albums. More than a tinge satirical, Babb and Schendel were making fun of themselves, noting that not uncommon perfectionist and OCD streak that runs through all lovers of progressive rock.
Truth be told, we progressive rockers are not just the nerds of the rock world, we’re the snobs of the rock world. Every note, every lyric, every album cover, and every credit has to be analyzed over and over and over some more. While non-proggers could accuse us of many things, inattention to detail is not one of them.
Tom, the protagonist of Chronometree, though, takes this even farther than most of us did in the 70s and 80s. He becomes convinced that the lyrics from Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Kansas, and other progressive rock bands are, in actuality, a secret, coded, perhaps scriptural language from another world.
In a series of social media posts and videos—all very much in the vein of Stranger Things—Tom has returned over the past year. He calls himself “The Elf King” now, and he signs his name Tom Timely. Though the posts from Tom are current, the videos date back to the summer of 1983. A young Tom [ok, a little spookily, this could easily be a young Brad, yours truly] in 1983 ponders the deeper meanings of life, space, and time, but he also complains that his efforts to create the perfect progressive rock band have been foiled by his bandmates caring more about their girlfriends than about the band itself. Because Tom seeks perfection, the actions of his friends and bandmates is nothing short of the Platonic betrayal of the True.
When asked about the meaning of the sequel, Babb responds:
Chronomonaut deals with nostalgia, which I think every modern prog fan can relate to. How many of us, fans and musicians alike, are trying to recapture some lost glory of our youth? In a way I try to musically and lyrically elaborate on a C.S. Lewis quote, the same one in which he coined the phrase “the inconsolable secret” : “These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers,” Lewis wrote. “For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
Babb cautions, though, that there’s nothing wrong with romanticizing the past (and, it would be harder to find a greater romantic than Babb); there is always the danger of mistaking our past for perfection and failing to prepare ourselves not just for our future in this world, but in the next as well. Babb, it should be noted, not only cares about the artistic integrity of his music, but he’s admirably unafraid to share his own faith and beliefs through his art.
For Chronomonaut, Glass Hammer is: Fred Schendel (keyboards); Steve Babb (bass); Aaron Raulston (drums); and Susie Bogdanowicz (vocals). Though I have singled out Babb and Bogdanowicz for praise for this piece, I must also note that Schendel is one of the best keyboardists you will ever hear, certainly the superior to even such greats as Rick Wakeman, and Raulston’s drumming is, at once, forceful and nuanced. Certainly, he is one of the top drummers in the world today. Babb, too, is an excellent bassist, the equal to Geddy Lee and the late Chris Squire.
If you’re interested in the worlds of art, myth, and fantasy; if you believe in excellence; and if you desire to reach the Socratic good, true, and beautiful, you have no further to look than Glass Hammer.
Bradley J. Birzer is The American Conservative’s scholar-at-large. He also holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.