Review by Scott Montgomery
This one is a rather a guilty pleasure – a pleasure to be sure, but one that at times feels almost too derivative for comfort. That said, it caresses the ears like aural comfy food – familiar, satisfying, and not deviating from the traditional recipe. Yes, it is unabashedly retro, but at a level that few can achieve, demonstrating that Glass Hammer are one of the greatest bands to give such exacting homage to the halcyon days of the 70s. If this is Glass Hammer’s intention, they have certainly succeeded, serving up a plateful of lovingly-crafted and superbly-executed old school symphonic prog. I am admittedly rather fond of overtly-retro 70s-style symphonic prog, and a long-time appreciator of Glass Hammer, so I come to the album with a degree of familiarity. It needs to be stated up front that this is a great album. In fact, Cor Cordium has rapidly become one of my favorite Glass Hammer releases and is certainly one of their best offerings, not to mention one of the most pleasing releases of 2011. But oddly enough, to a degree Cor Cordium sounds somewhat less like familiar Glass Hammer (other than its sibling album If), than it does like Yes, or perhaps even Starcastle in its finer moments. It could be an excellent legacy pendant to Yes’ impressive 2011 offering Fly From Here - at times almost out-Yessing much of the recent Yes material. But therein lies my (unwarranted) guilty discomfort. On Cor Cordium, Glass Hammer does not wear its influences on its sleeve so much as have it tattooed on its forehead. Admittedly, there is a charming sense of celebratory homage in such overt, self-aware, and unabashed acknowledgement of Yes’ influence. After all, if one can so exquisitely emulate the very best, it is no petty accomplishment. While enjoying the album tremendously, I am occasionally left wondering “where in all this is the Glass Hammer that I previously knew?” (And here is a bit of a prog conundrum….Glass Hammer changes its sound, but does so in an overtly derivative manner….so the band’s sound progresses through more overt symphonic prog retrospection. What does this make Cor Cordium – retrospective progression or progressive retrospection?) Yet, the more I listen carefully, particularly to the compositional elements, there is a distinct Glass Hammer feel underlying the surface Yes-ness. The impeccable musicianship, fine song craft, vintage instruments, and rich symphonic warmth assure that this is, in fact, the Glass Hammer with which I have become familiar. Lush production, technical virtuosity, and tasteful arrangements underscore the album, as with much of the band’s output. The heart of the band remains Steve Babb and Fred Schendel – the dynamic duo responsible for most of Glass Hammer’s compositional and instrumental achievements. The ridiculously-talented Schendel demonstrates that he is one of the finest keyboardists around, providing a veritable feast of excellent vintage keyboard work – varyingly conjuring Tony Banks, Rick Wakeman, and well, Fred Schendel. Babb, no slouch himself, contributes a propulsive, contrapuntal bass anchor. As ever, they shine with their usual aplomb, even excelling most of their previous efforts. Alan Shikoh adds very tasteful, and remarkably Howe-esque, guitar throughout. His playing is more supple and suited to the vintage prog sound than some of the more “big rock” style guitar that seemed occasionally discordant on certain previous Glass Hammer efforts. Jon Davidson’s vocals are bright and clear, but often come so close to sounding like Jon Anderson that I cannot help but think that if Benoit David decides that he is done with Yes, that Mr. Davidson could fill the almost-Jon Anderson slot. In fact, a large part of the Yes-ness is due to the very Anderson-esque qualities of Davidson’s tone and accentuation, as well as the harmonic vocal arrangements. (Of course, Mr. Anderson has himself worked with Glass Hammer, adding vocalizations on the excellent Culture of Ascent album, including the cover of Yes’ “South Side of the Sky”). To be sure, Glass Hammer’s noble career has been marked by changes in sound, particularly in regard to the vocals which have been handled by a litany over the years. Davidson is one of the strongest vocalists of the band’s career. (Though I do miss the under-utilized voice of Susie Bogdanowicz). But, Davidson’s voice, while lovely, carries the Yes sound a bit close to the edge of a cover-band playing a lost Yes album. But, theirs is no disgrace, for they do it unapologetically and impeccably – delivering a most satisfying collection of retrospective old school symphonic prog.
In the adamancy of its epic symphonic prog format, Cor Cordium comes across as the natural successor to last year’s If, so much that it could be titled “If Only More.” This is not only due to the same make-up of the band – the latest Glass Hammer incarnation consisting of Babb, Schendel, Shikoh, and Davidson. Additionally, Randall Williams returns (from If) to ably hold down the drums. The two albums even have similar composition in their six songs, with one lengthy epic, three songs around the 10-minute mark, and two shorter numbers hovering around 5-6 minutes. However, in contrast to If’s more traditional (or stereotypical) prog glances to things celestial, lyrically Cor Cordium packs a more terrestrial and quotidian punch, emphasizing emotional landscapes and social commentary. (Many will doubtless prefer this more humanly-accessible lyrical approach, but I will admit to preferring the “airie fairie nonsense” of celestial voyagers and topographic oceans). But, if If was the sound of a band finding its new voice, Cor Cordium is the sound of that band really coming into its own. In its coherence, fine songwriting, and brilliant execution, Cor Cordium surpasses its fine predecessor. The album might be divided into three sections, each comprised of two songs. It begins on a high point (which fortunately lasts over seventeen minutes) with the first two tracks. This is followed by a less elevated portion in the two middle songs (just exceeding fifteen minutes) which diminish in dynamics and sophistication. Though it is the album’s nadir, it far exceeds the apex of many band’s recorded output. This is not the meat of the album. But, with nearly half-an-hour left – the length of some “classic” albums, Cor Cordium returns to the excellence with which it opens – beginning and ending on extended heights. So, there is a tightly-pitched inverse arc, beginning with a high point and sliding toward a relative lull before remerging triumphant. In this day of inflated releases and the ill-placed sentiment that one is being robbed if the album runs anything less than sixty minutes, I cannot help but wonder if Cor Cordium might be a more perfect release in a shorter, forty-minute, three song format. In the halcyon days of the LP, we might find Side A featuring “Nothing box” and “She, a lonely tower” while “To someone” filled Side B. Wow – that is the album version of Cor Cordium that I want. Perhaps it would be like the ultimate Starcastle album, with long songs exclusively. This would bring the configuration very close to Close to the Edge and Relayer – essentially perfect albums that clock in at roughly thirty-eight minutes and forty-one minutes respectively. Sometimes less is more. Were Cor Cordium compressed to the three abovementioned songs, it would be brilliant and pretty close to being a perfect symphonic prog album – kind of like a contemporary remake of Close to the Edge. A contrivance? Yes, but a brilliant one.
Visually, the striking cover art by Tom Kuhn fits the overall retro feel of the album, in its (intentional?) evocation of Roger Dean’s magnificent work. Curiously, the covers of Cor Cordium and Fly From Here even have similarities in tonal palette, imagery and composition. Largely due to his Yes artwork, Roger Dean imagery holds an iconic status as a visual indicator of the very essence of symphonic prog. In conjuring Dean’s style, albeit in his own distinct manner, Kuhn’s artwork adds a visual assertion of prog credibility. (Of course, Dean’s splendid work graced the cover of Glass Hammer’s fine The Inconsolable Secret from 2005). So, in look as well as sound, Cor Cordium flies its “classic” prog credentials high and proud. And proud they should be, for this album is a most satisfying and noteworthy achievement. Cor Cordium fits perfectly into the oft-trodden debate about what is and is not prog. Depending upon where one sits on the proverbial fence, it will either delight or depress. Those who insist that progressive rock constantly “progress” by moving forward and offering something novel, will be horrified at the unabashedly retro quality. Those who embrace the notion of symphonic prog as also being a particular style – namely an aesthetic developed in the 70s – and are happy to enjoy current manifestations of this lush style will be extraordinarily happy. So, as noted, there is much pleasure to be drawn from this excellent album, though it occasionally feels a bit overly derivative (or perhaps “homage-istic” would be a more apt term). Might we think of this as a new (or recent) “style” – retro symphonic prog? There are many practitioners of this sub-genre, but Glass Hammer are certainly among the best. They are not breaking new ground here, but in treading long-trodden pathways with deft footing they ably demonstrate that classic symphonic prog is still alive and well.