Glass Hammer: Progressive rock's knights of the South

It’s a long way from Middle Earth to Tennessee, but for fans of Chattanooga-based Glass Hammer the Volunteer State is just one step of a musical journey whose road goes ever on — from the Smoky Mountains to the Misty Mountains.
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By Todd Whitesel

It’s a long way from Middle Earth to Tennessee, but for fans of Chattanooga-based Glass Hammer the Volunteer State is just one step of a musical journey whose road goes ever on — from the Smoky Mountains to the Misty Mountains.

For more than a decade, Glass Hammer have been writing and playing progressive rock music, with a nod toward the formative days of prog when Yes, ELP and others were establishing the analog keyboard sound associated with the genre. Drawing upon literary influences such as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, GH founders Steve Babb and Fred Schendel spin large tales against backdrops of symphonically inspired arrangements.

Goldmine spoke with GH founders and chief songwriters Babb and Schendel about the band’s latest album, The Inconsolable Secret, a two-disc set that sprung from Babb’s epic poem — the 19,000-word Lay Of Lirazel and the state of progressive rock in 2005.

Goldmine: What was the inspiration for writing an epic-length poem?

Steve Babb: I had always wanted to write something big like that, and I’ve always been a fan of big Victorian epics. Also, more currently, something called the Lays Of Beleriand by [J.R.R.] Tolkien, which is pretty much The Silmarillion as a poem. I was amazed by how sprawling it was, and I thought I might try something like that. Fred and I had both discussed making the new album a soundtrack; we just didn’t know what it would be a soundtrack to. I had the bright idea, “Let’s try to put this big poem to music.” I based it somewhat on the Tale Of The Lady Of Shallot [by Alfred Tennyson] but only very loosely. I pretty much made my own world and characters and, hopefully, made a pretty nice poem.

How much did it change as you wrote it?

The big picture behind the story happened really, really fast. So as I would sit down to type I already knew ahead of time where I was going with it. But neat little things would appear as I progressed through it, and different characters appeared with different qualities. So it was always kind of a surprise to me everyday as I’d sit down to work on it. And then as the music progressed, actually the lyric writing passed up the poem at one point and helped dictate how I would end the poem.

Did you know from the beginning that this would be a double album?

Fred Schendel: Yes. It developed out of a lack of knowing whether we wanted to progress in one direction or another. We weren’t sure, after the last album, whether we wanted to go for a more, kind of stripped-down, raw live band sound or go for the big symphonic, plush, orchestrated sound. Basically we realized we could do two different albums, and instead of figuring which to do first we just decided to record them simultaneously and put them out as a double CD.

They’re really not, in our view, one big double album. It’s the same story told on two albums, and they’re totally different listening experiences.

Babb: We worked hard on it. We really wanted to do something beyond our own capability, if that makes sense. We wanted to set ourselves a really impossible goal, especially with regards to orchestra and choir, and work toward something we had absolutely no hope of completing and then see if we could do it. So now we have to figure out how to top that.

What’s the process behind writing large-scale pieces of music? When do you know they’re finished?

Schendel: Usually there’s a very definite point at which you just kinda realize that, it’s not necessarily that you’re out of ideas, it’s just at a comfortable point where you could wrap it up. Both of these [“A Maker Of Crowns” and “Knight Of The North”] just seemed to wrap themselves up in a logical fashion. I felt real good about both of these as far as being able to sustain themselves as single pieces of music and falling a little bit less into that, kind of typical, “We just wrote four songs and strung them together into one big song.” That works, and we’ve done it in writing epics in the past, but I felt my tastes worked out a little better as cohesive pieces of music.

Babb: I think, sometimes when I’m working with a concept I know, for instance, that we want the album to end big. So we’ll move our music in that direction and shoot for the really big, glorious ending. We tried that, I think, on both discs this time — you get two big endings.

Schendel: Another interesting thing with the two songs on disc one is that each of them opens up with a section of music that was written before. The beginning of “Maker Of Crowns” actually dates back to the early ’90s, and the opening section of “Knight Of The North” dates back to around 1998 or ’99 — somewhere in there. They both came out of pieces that never actually got used, for whatever reason. Both of those things have been floating around in my mind, gelling and wanting to go somewhere else, and we wound up writing completely new things around these two opening sections.

“Knight Of The North” certainly has that majestic ending you spoke of.

Babb: We’re hearing a lot of good things about that track, and it’s been added to our live set. We’re going to try and pull that piece off with a full choir in November.

“Walking Toward Doom” could have been part of the Lord Of The Rings movie soundtrack.

Babb: About a year ago, I decided I was going to see Howard Shore conduct Lord Of The Rings symphony. I saw him in Atlanta and had a great time, but I thought, “Whoa. That’s not so hard.” [laughs] I became a big fan of Lord Of The Rings soundtracks, and that’s when I think noticed how good soundtracks were. “Walking Toward Doom” is kind of a nod toward that and even the score to Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, which I always thought was really good. We wanted to do some big-sounding things, and we love choirs so here was a chance to do something we figured the other prog bands probably couldn’t get away with.

What are the musical challenges working around lyrics that don’t fall into the typical rock-rhyming scheme? You’re often creating melodies for each line.

Babb: I think we’ve done it so long that we don’t notice anymore.

Schendel: Yeah, it feels kind of natural. I grew up listening to a lot of Jethro Tull in the ’70s, and when Ian Anderson went through his prog-rock concept-album phase like Thick As A Brick and A Passion Play, he was doing that. I think I picked it up somewhat from that possibly. Whereas Steve tends to write things that rhyme, a lot of times I’ll write things that don’t rhyme. It works either way, but Steve definitely will write — and sometimes I’ll force him into the weird meter schemes.

Babb: Lex Rex was really difficult lyrically, because there were so many bizarre time signatures, and I felt like I’ve got to tell a story and I’ve got to make it work in all these little strange spaces. It was difficult.

Schendel: This one, a lot more of the lyrics came first — especially on disc two.

Babb: It all came pretty easy this time: Fred layed a lot of melodies down, and I would go out with the intention of completing one song a day. I would come back in with my legal pad full and type it in and it was done — just very easy this time.

How much of the vocal scheme do you establish before Walter [Moore] comes in and sings the parts? Do you say, “Just follow this line and see what happens”?

Babb: In the past, I’ve wound up having well-established melodies so I’ve kind of forced him into singing. I always kind of feel guilty about that — we’ve always wanted to give him more free reign to sing something more natural and comfortable for him. I think we managed to do more of that this time around.

He lives a couple of hours from here. And instead of just having him come to the studio and handing him lyrics and telling him to sing or mailing him a copy, I actually went up and sat with him. We sang it back and forth to each other until I knew everything was going to work for his range. We did the same with the girls this time: They all came in two or three times, before we ever recorded anything, and just worked to make sure that Fred and I were putting everything in its proper place.

Before, I think, Fred and I mainly were so focused on the music we’d just hand everybody lyrics and expect them to do miracles for us — it doesn’t always work. They sing a little stiff when you do that, so we tried this time to pay attention to the singers and know the challenges they would face and help them through it.

Schendel: Different things work different ways. “Maker Of Crowns,” for the most part, had a fairly well-established written melody that we wanted to try to adhere to, but there was room to work around it. But some of the other songs we would kind of just say, “OK. Here you go. Sings something, and we’ll see what sounds good.” [laughs]

This is a great-sounding recording — no one is buried in the mix. What’s the trick?

Schendel: The trick in this case was mainly not to do a whole lot to it. We decided early on, largely because of the orchestral parts and the idea that the orchestra wasn’t going to be particularly processed — when you record those kind of things you tend just to put them there and maybe add a little reverb and that’s it. I think we just kind of decided at some point, the rest of the album we should do kind of the same thing — not really go for a fancy, heavily compressed modern drum sound but go for the fairly true drum sound. We didn’t EQ a whole lot — we started to — and we started to apply some mastering processes after the fact to kind of punch up the low end and add an extra bit of stereo spatial enhancement. And we listened to it on some different systems and found that the high end was getting a little smeary and there were some artifacts that you could really hear on high, high-end stereos. We planned a mix that was, literally, just like a flat mix. The flat mix sounded amazing, so we said, “Let’s go with that; let’s take the purist approach.”

Babb: What you’ve got is pretty much the way everything was recorded, with no tampering; we undid all of our tampering and just went with our first instincts — you’ve got a pretty natural-sounding album.

How did you get Roger Dean to do the album’s artwork?

Babb: We have a mutual friend who does promotions for Roger and for Jon Anderson. He picked us up about a year ago and started trying to connect the pieces, and Roger was the first piece. He connected with us. We asked if he’d like to work with us — we’d met him a couple of times but didn’t ever have any real hope of ever working with him. So it was a thrill.... He actually named his piece after the album. So it will always be The Inconsolable Secret.

Literature is obviously a big influence in your music. What other themes would you like to explore?

Babb: We’ve talked about doing something humorous, but that kind of material is kind of a bridge burner. I tend to lean toward the serious stuff. I haven’t got a clue what we would do next. There’s people that just cringe, and they tell me they do, when they see a prog band doing songs about knights and kings and maidens — it’s kind of a cliché. But I like that stuff; they’re the kind of things I read about so that tends to end up in the lyrics. I’m a firm believer in happy endings, and I think you can hear that in the music we do. It’ll touch on a lot of darkness, but it turns a corner. It’s something Tolkien referred to as the “eucatastrophe”: It’s the ultimate catastrophe when joy enters the picture and everything ends on a great note. That’s what I believe in so I try to put it out into music.

I’m really not a fan of lyricists who wine and moan and complain about all the disappointments in their lives. I have disappointments, but why do you want to hear about them? I don’t want to waste your time or mine focusing on negative things in our lyrics, unless there’s some point to it. I like to show that good wins out over evil as a lot of famous authors and famous movies do. We just tend to be a band that does that too. I like to show people heroes taking on insurmountable odds, defying evil, and it makes me feel good. I think there’s a lot of people who don’t want that in their lives; they don’t want to feel good, and typically they don’t like us very much.

Who is Glass Hammer’s audience?

Babb: I’ve talked about this with my wife recently. We think there’s actually a Glass Hammer gene — we just haven’t found all the people with that gene yet. We have a lot of fans that aren’t necessarily prog-rock fans; they’ve come to us because of the fantasy themes and the Tolkien and [C.S.] Lewis connections. We have a big audience of 18-20 year olds and a lot of girls, which I think is pretty odd for a progressive-rock band. Then we have the guys that are in their 40s and 50s, who are fans of prog from their youth. So we’re kind of spread out.

Why do you think prog has made such a comeback recently?

Babb: We predicted it, or tried to predict it, as early as ’88. I was in kind of a pop-metal glam band; Fred was playing country. And we were begging people to listen to us — all the musicians loved it, but they wouldn’t play it. They were scared to play it for anybody — it was kind of like you were in the closet. Fred and I said, “Enough is enough” about ’92. Apparently about four or five other groups did the same thing, like Spock’s Beard, Echolyn and a handful of others. It just so happened the Internet came to life at the same time, and a handful of distributors and magazines were there and ready and in place. No one tried to make it go commercial. All the pieces were in the right place, say back in ’93-94. Then up popped some festivals on the West Coast, and those proceeded around the world. Suddenly we can all talk via e-mail, and a lot happened really really fast. Fred and I consider ourselves lucky that we jumped in when it started.

Schendel: I think it’s less of a resurgence than simply that the scattered people who were out that would be interested in being part of a small movement have been able to electronically congregate.... There also seems to be a tendency in kids to be disinterested in what rock has been doing for the last decade or so. It’s kind of like the well has run dry, and I think there is a gigantic interest in kids going through their parents’ and grandparents’ album collection and listening to a lot of ’70s music and really liking it. That may, ultimately, end up being a good thing for the prog-rock movement.