Glass Hammer’s 14th studio album is something of a minor nostalgia trip for aficionados. Only multi-instrumentalists Steve Babbs and Fred Schendel remain from the band’s earliest incarnation, and said fans tend to disagree on the question of their ‘best ever’ vocalist. Ode To Echo deals with this very pragmatically, by featuring every vocalist ever to appear on a Glass Hammer album.
Lead vocals are mostly shared between Jon Davison (taking time off from his Yes duties), Carl Groves and Susie Bogdanowicz, with welcome appearances from Walter Moore and original female vocalist Michelle Young. This brings a pleasing extra layer of aural diversity to the album, and opener Garden of Hedon certainly benefits from the extra textures of these different voices.
This and the lengthy, jazz-tinged Misantrog represent Glass Hammer at their best: punchy riffs, a bit of odd-time, quirky guitar interludes, various piano and keyboard sounds flitting in and out, almost playful vocal hooks, and the heavier sections balanced with richness and space.
In a first, lyrics come from an outside source. GH fan and Oathsworn author Robert Low offered Steve Babbs an unused poem from his book, Crowbone. The resulting track is by turns lilting, menacing and triumphant, with Kansas’ David Raglan contributing some juicy violin playing. With more multiple voices, I Am I is a highlight, as different feels and time signatures alternate with scant regard for the listener’s expectations. It’s jaunty, then urgent, then dark, with some great rhythm section muscle. Representing a two-way conversation, it typifies the theme of the album, namely preoccupations and obsessions with the self.
Before closer Ozymandias, we get a few musical detours. The Porpoise Song is a strange little track, prompting (perhaps deliberately?) distinct comparisons with mid-period Beatles – smooth poppy 60s psychedelia, immediately followed by the album’s most fragile and haunting song, Panegyric, with its tentative piano and lone female voice. One of the longer songs here, Ozymandias itself is an anti-climax. Despite its promising, Gentle Giant-esque intro, it doesn’t possess the momentum or majesty its length and title suggest.
Ode To Echo successfully showcases the breadth of Glass Hammer’s talent and the variety of their songwriting. But it is less immediate and more finely textured than their last few releases. It is a very diverse collection indeed, and fully digesting the whole may require time and effort. But then, would those aficionados have it any other way?