"Once they hit their first stride early in the mid Nineties with `Perelandra', American progressive rock band Glass Hammer have delivered a consistently strong series of symphonic-prog albums, earning the well-deserved reputation as one of the premier modern bands playing in that style along the way. Two of their albums in particular, first 2002's `Lex Rex' and the epic double-set `The Inconsolable Secret' three years later are often considered modern symphonic classics (and fans of the group will happily argue back and forth amongst each-other about which of their numerous other releases over the years can join those two!), but 2016 finally brings not only the undisputed next album to join that duo, but one that is likely to become the defining Glass Hammer album of their entire career to date.
`Valkyrie', a lyrically rich concept work telling the tale of a loving couple separated by war and a soldier's eventual emotional and mental struggle upon returning home is ripe for a lyrically and musically dramatic interpretation, and the group completely convey the trauma and turmoil with great sincerity and empathy - certainly a grounded story a world away from the fantastical elements so often found on progressive rock albums! But while fans and progressive music listeners only aware of the type of style Glass Hammer play in would be right to expect another grand symphonic work to match the story, what will likely surprise everyone is just how modern sounding this `retro prog' band is throughout the disc. It's still instantly recognisable as the Glass Hammer their fans know and love, but this is hardly some mere vintage prog re-enactment. `Valkyrie' sees the band experimenting with little traces of elegant cinematic grandness, Post Rock, jazz-fusion, psych-pop, electronica and even hints of heavier rock, making for a work with a rejuvenating, eclectic and contemporary edge that has all the musicians sounding completely refreshed and determined to impress.
With previous singer Carl Groves away from the group again for now, the time is perfect for three of the most important contributors to the Glass Hammer sound to reclaim their throne. Taking the well-deserved leading lady spotlight once again and delivering a career best performance is Susie Bogdanowicz, and far from being just a lovely singer with a pretty vocal, as always she brings true spirit, powerful conviction and a dramatic heart that puts most of her fellow contemporary prog ladies in check. It's also a delight to discover GH founding members, bass player Steve Babb and keyboardist Fred Schendel, taking equally as many of the lead vocals again too (especially the latter). They might not quite have the bigger vocal ranges that past singers such as Groves, Jon Davison and others had, but they've been singing on Glass Hammer discs since the beginning, and their voices have always been full of personality and character, making this something of a `homecoming' vocally for them, and a real joy to hear for long-time Glass Hammer fans. The two other players are now long established in the group and must be well on the way to be part of what can be considered the `definitive' Glass Hammer line-up - Aaron Raulston's drums rumble with such variety, depth and purpose, solidifying him as the best and most complex drummer to ever be a part of the band, and gifted guitarist Kamran Alan Shikoh once again finds way to delivering equally ravishing and subdued performances, reaching in some surprising directions here we've never heard of on previous Hammer discs.
Launching right from the start into delirious proggy excess balls-and-all (or as politely as prog can do `balls-and-all!'), `The Fields We Know' bombards the listener with plenty of what Glass Hammer do so well - up-tempo and lively colourful instrumental flashes racing in all directions alongside catchy vocal passages with the perfect mix of whimsy, warmth and drama. It makes for an energetic opener that instantly calls to mind their `Lex Rex' album, with moments of dreaminess and little playful call-outs to Genesis, all backed to Steve's rumbling bass leaping about loud and proud - is there seriously a better bass player active today performing this type of prog music who always sounds this good?! Next up, `Golden Days' is sprightly and warm to match the wistful lyric, full of Fred's always sublime zippy keyboard solos and embracing Susie and Fred vocals with glorious multi-part group harmonies, but a Pink Floyd-flavoured electric-piano come-down and grinding brooding guitars to end on hint of approaching darkness. `No Man's Land' is mostly comprised of several lengthy instrumental passages, including a booming synth introduction, manic jazz-fusion twists, loopy percussion twitches and seamless bursts up and down in tempo, an unsettling edge to an eerie droning spoken-word-like interlude and a distortion-heavy stormy climax the final destination.
But even when the band isn't charging headfirst into a dozen different proggy directions there's still wonderful things to discover. Instrumental `Nexus Girl' bristles with slinking electronics, programmed beats and Post Rock-flavoured chiming guitars behind the whirring synths, and the simpler Steve-sung title track `Valkyrie' is dreamy and drowsy psychedelic pop that eventually rises in power. Alan's chugging heavier guitars and Steve's mud-thick menacing bass make `Fog of War' rumble with a toughness, and the track holds one of the most joyful and unashamedly poppy choruses the band have ever delivered with a strong crossover appeal (well, if the rest of the track wasn't Prog dialled up to 11!).
`Dead and Gone' effortlessly moves between melancholic, hopeful and mischievous! Sad piano and a treated haunting vocal from Susie cry ethereally from beyond throughout, but creaky Mellotron-slices, humming organ and life-affirming guitars lift the track in hope and victory, but still with a looming tension. It's a nice showcase for Kamran too, who's guitars offer everything from weeping strains, infernal snarling bites and cutting jazz-fusion fire all in under ten minutes - and just dig that darkly grooving finale from the fellas!
The pristine `Eucatastrophe' is a heart-breaking Susie-led ballad, the chiming classical guitars throughout reminding of the final moments of Genesis' `Dancing with the Moonlit Knight', and it's one of the most precious and sobering moments on the disc before the piece dashes into tougher E.L.P-flavoured keyboard flare. The opening acoustic guitar reflection and pin-drop still piano of final track `Rapturo' show just how well the band deliver quieter, sedate moments, the rest of the carefully focused piece going on to soar with Anathema-like reaching guitar shimmers and a dignified powerful vocal send-off from Susie that makes for an album closer unlike any to appear on a Glass Hammer before.
A widescreen masterclass example of current progressive music that perfectly fuses vintage and modern sounds with an equally on-point balance of subtlety and bombast, Glass Hammer have completely set the symphonic-prog standard of the year with `Valkyrie', their most ambitious, mature, grandiose, vocally exquisite and instrumentally rich work to date. Long-time fans will absolutely adore it but also likely be very surprised as well, and newcomers to the group could not pick a better place to start exploring their wondrous music. Crackling with warmth, variety, inspiration and overall progressive music excellence, it is very possibly the greatest musical statement of Glass Hammer's near 25-year career so far, but indisputably one of the finest and most essential prog discs of 2016." - ProgArchives