It takes a lot of guts to kick off your latest release with a cover of the Yes classic "South Side of the Sky", but leave it to Chattanooga's Glass Hammer to attempt just that on their brand new prog rock opus Culture of Ascent. After the sprawling 2CD concept piece The Inconsolable Secret, the band decided this go-round to keep things moderately sparse with a 70-minute single CD set filled with just six tracks, but fear not, all the expected Glass Hammer elements are in place.
Their take on "South Side of the Sky" is actually quite good, as their arrangement stays fairly faithful to the original, with Susie Bogdanowicz handling the lead vocal quite well, and Jon Anderson himself putting in a guest appearance doing some vocalizations. As always, expect plenty of wild keyboard work from the ever reliable Fred Schendel, and new guitarist David Wallimann really adds in some nice shred guitar solos. Overall, a nice job covering a classic tune. "Sun Song" is a pretty bombastic yet majestic piece, featuring some strong lead vocals from Carl Groves (Salem Hill), Steve Babb's sinewy bass lines, no shortage of synth sounds from Schendel, and some seriously rocking guitar solos from Wallimann. Listen closely as well for some absolutely gorgeous violin & cello melodies from The Adonta String Trio on this one as well. The Pixie Jon Anderson again makes a guest appearance on the exquisite "Life By Light", a gorgeous number with uplifting lyrics and plenty of 70's styled prog elements (mid-70's Yes come to mind), and the band then switches gears and lurches into the 16-minute epic "Ember Without Name". This one is a much heavier piece at times, with crunchy guitar riffs and searing leads, as well as pounding stick work from drummer Matt Mendians. Schendel is all over the place on this one, throwing in oodles of Moog, Hammond, and Mellotron sounds at the listener. To say this one has a sort of present-day Spock's Beard meets Kansas feel would not be out of line one bit, as the band takes you through a lengthy journey that becomes an exciting experience. "Into Thin Air" is the other huge epic on the CD, this one clocking in near the 20-minute mark, and proves to be a great vehicle for the melodic vocals of Groves as well as the strings of The Adonta String Trio. Despite some very good moments, including some sweet violin-keys-guitar unison lines, this one tends to drag on just a tad too long in spots, and lacks some of the cohesion that the rest of the songs here exhibit. Nontheless, it's still a charming number that works for the most part. The closing tune "Rest" is a real haunting piece, and ends the album on a real majestic note. With sorrowful strings, Groves' tender vocals, and sparse keyboard textures, "Rest" shows that Glass Hammer knows how to effectively show restraint as well as bombast.
Culture of Ascent might not be giving Glass Hammer fans anything really new or unexpected, but what they have given once again is spectacular, melodic, and sophisticated progressive rock music of the highest caliber. The packaging is outstanding, the production excellent, the musicianship stellar, and the lyrics thought provoking without being melodramatic or overbearing. Once again, Babb, Schendel, & Co. have delivered another stunning collection of winners here. Love them or not, there's no denying that Glass Hammer have a real passion for what they do, and each and every time out it really shows. That's good enough in my book.
1. South Side Of The Sky (9:24)
2. Sun Song (9:33)
3. Life By Light (7:29)
4. Ember Without Name (16:33)
5. Into Thin Air (19:14)
6. Rest (6:30)
Total Time: 78:43