image © Arion Records / Sound Resources 2004
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progressive rock with layers of female vocals
album review and artist reflections
review, interview and HTML © Russell W. Elliot 2004
live photos by Brian D. Tirpak, publicity photos by Bart Lindstrom
all images used with permission
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Last updated: 02 March 2004
Musical Discoveries editorial staff have been listening to the music of Glass Hammer since their debut album Journey of the Dunadan (1993) which included vocal contributions from Piper Kirk and Michelle Young. Michelle's work continued into Perelandra (1995) where she was joined by Tracy Cloud. Tracy's solo album Love Changes (1995) was one of the first reviewed in this publication. Our interview with Michelle Young and review of her solo album Song Of The Siren (1996) formed the basis of our first feature article. The singers' solo albums were produced in close conjunction with Babb and Schendel and issued either on the Arion Records label or recorded in their studios.
Glass Hammer released the limited edition Live and Revived (1997) again including Michelle Young's vocal and keyboard work. On To Evermore (1998) continued the band's development with Tracy Cloud and Kristy Sink noted for their backing vocal contributions. Chronometree (2000) (review) showed a marked improvement in the band's progressive sound with multiple Yes and ELP references sharply emerging in their sound. Choir passages first introduced Susie Warren and Sarah Snyder. Guest appearances by Arjen Lucassen (Ayreon review, Ambeon review, Star One review) will also interest visitors.
The band then changed directions with a folky sounding album inspired by Lord of the Rings entitled The Middle Earth Album (2001) (review) where principals Steve Babb and Fred Schendel continued to feature the voice of the now-married Susie [Warren] Bogdanowicz. Lex Rex (2002) (review) established the foundation for the band's latest album, Shadowlands (2004), which features more female vocal work than any of Glass Hammer's prior offerings. Indeed, Susie Bogdanowicz and Sarah Snyder, as well as Flo Paris and Bethany Warren, all make stunning contributions to the material. We caught up with Steve, Fred and Susie shortly after the album's release. Our interview with them focuses on the band's inclusion of female vocal parts within their material. We also review the album's five epic-length tracks here.
Shadowlands (Arion Records / Sound Resources (USA) SR1122, 2004) is a five track masterwork. Each of the numbers is dynamically arranged with vast keyboard and guitar solos throughout punctuated with crisp percussion. As with former Glass Hammer projects, one can not only expect sweeping tempo and texture changes but deleriously intoxicating vocal harmonies. The band is fronted with male vocals from Walter Moore, Fred Schendel and Steve Babb, yet the writers have stepped up the contributions from the female vocalists in this release. Featured are Susie Bogdanowicz, Sarah Snynder, Flo Paris and Bethany Warren, all pictured below.
The first female solo in "So Close So Far" features the stunning vocal work of Flo Paris although, as with several of the other female singers (and men as well) she is somewhat overcome by the instrumentals. The album includes a rich pipe organ recorded at the First Methodist Church in Waynesville, North Carolina and Fred Schendel's arrangements of the Adonia String Trio: Rebecca James, Susan Hawkins and Rachel Hackenburger. These arrangements perfectly compliment the rich progressive songwriting that adorns the entire album.
Clearly the standout track, especially from a female vocals perspective, is "Run Lisette." Here Susie's lead and Sarah's backing parts harmonize perfectly with the lush synthesizer melodies. A careful listener will also pick out a couple of Bethany's spots. The faster paced keyboard riffs and stunning string arrangements are especially enjoyable yet it is the female vocalizations harmonizing with the men that make the track so special. Susie's solo mid-song is most lovely, with equally sensual backing vocals. Harmonies that follow are rich, but regrettably do not adorn the arrangements to the degree that the instrumentals do. Our thoughts concurred with several of our international correspondents familiar with the album.
"Farewell To Shadowlands" continues to build tension with powerful keyboard-based instrumentals and vast guitar excursions. While several of the album's selections are reminscent of Yes, this number has the closese allusion to the 35-year veterans of progressive music. Layers of vocal harmonies swirl in and out of the arrangement. "Longer" continues with delivery of lush and soaring keyboard melodies and several tempo changes before the Yes-like vocal harmonies begin. The material is densly arranged with instrumentals male and female vocal parts encircling and blending into the mix.
The album concludes with the 20+ minute epic "Behind The Great Beyond," comprised of several distinct movements. The number begins with a classically arranged piano and string instrumental. Lush keys and powerful percussion join in the first textural change prior to a lovely (Steve Howe-like) guitar solos and subsequent male vocals. As harmonies develop, Susie's part becomes more prominent resulting in a number of featured parts and a lovely duet. While we enjoyed the build up of the melodies and vast string arrangements, we were left longing for more individual, especially Susie's, vocal work.
Our editorial staff, as with Glass Hammer's former releases cited in our introduction, was delighted with Shadowlands and the cooperation of Steve, Fred and Susie in our interview with them that follows. The numbers are the right length, the arrangements are lush and charismatically progressive. Complex progressive music normally takes listeners many plays to recognize the melodies and themes and this album is typical, albeit on the more complex side of the genre. The female vocal parts--leads and harmonies--need, however, to be produced substantially higher in the mix. The parts the four women sing perfectly suit their individual styles, but interested listeners will have to work hard to pull them out of the thick and at times flatly produced instrumentals.
Read further reviews, listen to soundbites and order the album from amazon.com here. Further photographs, album background and an electronic presskit with 'making of' video is available at the band's website. Glass Hammer have indeed gone farther with female vocal work on Shadowlands than ever before. This is truly a great album with only one criticism that we're sure the producers will address in subsequent releases.
Musical Discoveries: Tell us about the development of Shadowlands, particularly the trajectory you have taken from Lex Rex With the sound, the lyrics, the story.
Fred: A big decision was to forgo any type of major concept and just write some songs. It's sort of a collection of novellas instead of a novel with chapters. We didn't want to just make "Son of Lex Rex," but there was a conscious effort not to depart radically from that sound since it had worked pretty well.
How did you come to use the Church Organ?
Steve: We've always used the pipe organ sound via synthesizers. It was about time we tried the real thing! We were recording a choir last fall at a beautiful church about four hours drive from here in the mountains of North Carolina. The room sounded phenomenal, and the pipe organ was a newer creation with midi connections. The addition of midi to the traditional pipe organ was news to us, so we got permission to return for a Glass Hammer session.
We thought it would be as easy as hooking up the computer and running our midi files to retrack the original pipe organ parts. Otherwise, we would have just tracked an organ here in Chattanooga. I think we were both a little intimidated about actually playing it, not to mention having to relearn the parts.
Suffice it to say that we never got the midi to work, and we actually had to play the organ. Fortunately, I had the parts printed out and between Fred and me we were able to get two songs done. The difference between the real pipes and the synth pipes is pretty significant, and weíre spoiled now! So it was a worthwhile experiment. Next time we'll probably record an organ here at home though.
And what about the string arrangements?
Fred: It was always a desire of mine to score some string parts. I always loved what a good string arrangement could add to the sound of The Beatles or, say Jethro Tull. David Palmer did amazing things with some of their music between Aqualung and Minstrel In The Gallery.
We met a viola player named Susan Hawkins who plays on Shadowlands. We started using her talent on projects by other artists here at the studio, then found out she played with two other girls in the Adonia Trio. The rest, as they say, is history! Now that the experiment has worked, we want to try some really complex string stuff; maybe more of a real orchestral approach.
Tell us about the writing, the arrangements and the various singers on the new album.
Steve: Shadowlands vocally benefited from the fact that Fred and I have been working toward this sound for over ten years. It's an ensemble sound for the most part. Much of the scene in the early 90s was still about testosterone driven male fronted groups, or all girl dance / pop bands. Glass Hammer was begun on the premise that it would be different.
Iíve noticed lately what a fan I have become of Pre-Raphaelite art, especially when the subject matter is female, and often when both sexes are represented in some classical romantic scene. God created us man and women as partners. With Glass Hammerís sound, I have always tried to embody that idea. Iím looking for some sort of romance or passion through this music; something of 'the knight and the damsel,' or 'beauty and the beast.' I like contrast; something fragile and yet strong. Like a "Glass Hammer"! Get it?
Often, our music comes across very male, so I donít try to force a female part into it. But when I can, when the lyrics or the story line permit, I like to use a sweet, angelic voice--something a man cannot achieve. So ultimately, GH is a group that seeks to integrate the female voice when possible, more so lately than in the past because of the caliber of singers we are working with now.
Walter had more time to work with us on Shadowlands, so he has a greater presence than before. Flo Paris is new to the studio, and we thought her voice would work nicely for the first female solo on track one "So Close, So Far." She joined the band for several performances last year. Susie did a lot of doubling the male part an octave up on "So Close, So Far," and "Behind the Great Beyond." Recording that way gave us the option later to mix either the male or female part as the lead. It really thickened the vocal sound. This was a trick we learned with the NEARfest live group. Susie often doubled my part, and made me sound stronger! But then she also sings lead on half of "Run Lisette," and all of "Farewell To Shadowlands."
Susie, you've been singing with Glass Hammer for a few years now. How did you first get involved and how has your role evolved over time?
Susie: Steve and I met through a pageant we were both involved with. He was the music coordinator, and I was a contestant! After singing in his studio several times to record some demo work, Steve asked if I would like to sing for some commercials they were producing. About that time he began to manage and produce my first group Limousine. Shortly after, Steve and Fred invited me to sing a small part on the Chronomotree album.
With each album we've done since, my role has grown. I sang a good deal on The Middle-earth Album including lead vocals on "Mirkwood, Mithrandir, The Last Ship" and "No Crown For Balin." I had a solo on Lex Rex, and sang on several other vocal sections. Then, on this last album, I was able to contribute a great deal more, singing lead in several places, and back-ups as well. In the near future, Iíll also have a pretty big role in the upcoming DVD and on our Live at NEARfest CD.
Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself?
Susie: I was born and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, home to Glass Hammer. My mother was a piano teacher for many years, so I grew up with music all around me. My family was very musical, but very conservative, so the music I grew up listening to was mostly classical and high church. My first solo was in front of two hundred people at my church when I was six years old. Luckily, I have a recording of that song, so I can hear that sweet little voice again. In elementary school, I went to a private Christian academy and sang with the choirs there, and was trained in mostly classical music. I sang classical music most of my life until I became a teenager, when I ventured out quite far from my roots.
What else do you find yourself listening to these days?
Recently, when I have a chance, I listen to a lot of my friends' music. I know so many musicians that put out great work, that I really spend a lot of my "listening time" enjoying their stuff. Glass Hammer is at the top of that list. I know most artists don't listen much to their own work when an album is completed, simply because they have just heard it way too much. But I only get to hear very small sections, and usually unfinished, when I go in to record for GH.
The finished mix of Shadowlands has totally blown me away, and I can not stop listening to it. Apart from that, I really don't have a lot of time anymore to just sit and enjoy music. I sing for a lot of different functions, including church. So, a lot of what I listen to now is related to learning new songs that I will sing.
Are there any other recordings you've done?
Susie: I've had the opportunity to sing on so many recordings that I don't know if I could remember them all. I recorded an album with my old band, Limousine, but we never put it out. I also sang on an album for a pianist named Andy Tallent. But one that I'm really proud of--apart from Glass Hammer--is "A Remedy Raised", by the Eric Parker Band. The Eric Parker Band is a band that I sing for that raises money for an organization called Music for Missions, which helps support missionaries in Asia. We are currently working on a second album for Music for Missions right now that is a collaboration of several different artists that want to use their talents for this noble cause.
How did you get infolved in The Eric Parker Band?
Ericís albums are produced by Fred and Steve, and thatís how I got involved. He also played acoustic guitar with us last year at several concerts.
Tell us a bit about your solos on Shadowlands and about the arrangements with the other female singers.
Susie: Steve and Fred have always created beautiful melodies and vocal arrangements on all of their albums. But I would say that with the writing of this album, they really stepped up the role of the female vocalists in their music. Steve and Fred know my vocal range, what I can and can't do well, and I really feel they both wrote some beautiful parts for me to sing on Shadowlands.
Can you expand on that a bit?
On "Run Lisette" I take the lead on the second section of the piece, and get to sing some "float-y" parts towards the end. This was a fun song to sing, because there is so much going on vocally, especially towards the end.
I really love the vocal parts on "Behind the Great Beyond." I just melted when Fred played the melodies for some of the parts I got to sing. I love the movement of the line "... even if you wanted to wrap your head around just the sheer size of it all. Better ignore it instead." This theme carries out for the rest of the song, changing with tempo and instrument. I really enjoyed doing the duets with Fred on this piece--very poignant.
The song that I got to carry vocally was "Farewell to Shadowlands", but to me, what makes the vocals so sweet on this song are the harmonies that Steve and Fred sang. It just adds such a nice blend of tension and beauty.
One song that the other female vocalists get to shine on is "Run Lisette." Steve writes amazing choral lines, and there was plenty to sing on towards the end of this song, so just about all the girls--Bethany Warren and Sarah Snyder--also got to be involved.
How do you feel about progressive rock in general?
Susie: I think progressive rock is very important for musicians to discover. They need to see just how far artistically speaking they can take their art. The term "progressive" simply means to advance and spread out, so the genre of progressive rock can be very broad. At least to some people. It really is refreshing to have a form of music where the artists aren't interested in producing "dumbed down" music for the masses. Instead, art, creativity, and freedom are at the pulse of this genre of music.
Do you think the styel particularly suits the female voice?
Susie: Sure, why not? The female voice is a beautiful instrument. It can also be very powerful and moving. I'm not quite sure why there are not more female vocalists in progressive rock.
How do you like performing on stage?
Susie: I really love performing on stage. I've been doing it so long, that it feels like home up there. There really is very little in life like it. The energy that is transferred back and forth from the audience to the stage is electrifying and addictive.
So how was NEARfest?
Susie: It was magical. Getting to perform Lex Rex live for so many appreciative people was an absolutely thrilling experience!
Fred: One of the best times ever. It was a blast to perform for so many people that had a genuine interest in what we were doing. The people were incredibly supportive--to be able to get so much positive feedback was a tremendously invigorating gift for us. And also, we got a chance to meet a lot of our own heroes there, guys like Andy Latimer from Camel and Rich Williams from Kansas, who played a song with us, as well as more contemporary guys like The Flower Kings. It was just great.
Steve: The NEARfest organizers and some of our fans and friends put a choir together for us! Parts were scored for "Chronos Deliverer" (Chronometree), "When We Were Young" (Lex Rex) and "Heaven" (Perelandra). It was an amazing feeling to sing those songs with that much power coming from behind us, and to an audience that large and appreciative. Fortunately, we got a terrific recording of the show that we're mixing right now. We're aiming to have a release ready by this summer.
If you could change anything on Shadowlands now that it's been pressed, even if you think it's perfect, what would you do differently?
Fred: Never ask us a question like that! It's so hard to ever give up the album and say "OK, it's done, get it out of here!" There's always something to fiddle with. The only reason I think we release them is because we work on them so long we get sick of them and can't face them any more! Then we release it and start over on a new one. As for the things I still hear that bug me. There aren't too many on Shadowlands, but as to the ones that are there, I won't tell.
Steve: During the production phase, I kept thinking that I might add some additional vocal parts to "Farewell to Shadowlands." I never did, but every time I hear it lately I wonder if I should have done something more with it. But I truly have no regrets this time. Any thing I want to do differently can be done with different songs on a new album.
What are your plans for 2004 and beyond?
Fred: Well, we have a live DVD release we've almost finished. There is a CD of our NEARfest concert in the works as well. We have two ideas for studio albums--one is live and stripped down, and the other is huge and ponderous! Also, we've been asked to appear on a Colossus (Finland) project, The Odyssey, which will be comprised of ten international bands each doing a 25 minute song retelling sections of Homer's little poem of the same name. It's the most absurd, pretentious project ever, which I find wonderful.
Steve: When they asked us to do Homer, we just couldnít resist. I couldnít think of one good reason why we should, except for the fact that it sounds so over-the-top. Weíll take it very seriously mind you, but wow! The DVD will be great for the fans who have never seen us play, and the NEARfest show is just sounding great on tape. It'll make a killer CD. Beyond that, (God willing) we'll just keep making music!
We're particularly fascinated with the evolution in your use of female vocalists. Would you take us on a little retrospective through them?
Fred: Well, the unifying factor is that they are all very good! At least, in our opinion. Piper was a bit dark; kind of an alto. Michelle Young could do different styles but excelled at sort of a Kate Bush sound. Tracy Cloud and some of the others, like Sarah Snyder, are all generally high, clear sopranos Also, we must mention Flo Paris who did the solo on "So Close, So Far." She has more of an alternative style, which is different for us. She's a great songwriter and is in the middle of her own album project which is turning out great--you'll want to hear it!
Steve: Flo is a powerful folk singer and Iíd like to hear more of her in our music in the future. Though we may lose her in an upcoming move to California, she has promised to return from time to time and contribute. Susie--and she would admit this--is just a trooper. When I call her, sheís here and ready to work. She was a powerful pop performer with her previous band, and she's capable of captivating an audience in a way that no other member of GH has ever done. She had the star quality that many seek and never find, and it came natural. Yet ultimately she desired to be a happily married part-time singer, and full-time student seeking a degree. GH is the perfect world for her at this point, and sheís made an outstanding contribution as one of the core band members. This has really been obvious over the last year and a half with her work with the live GH group and on Shadowlands. We are very fortunate and very blessed to have talent like hers and Walter Moore's at our disposal. They are remarkable singers and great friends.
Can you expand on this and speak more about the future?
Fred and I are somewhat less talented in the vocal department, but our voices are not traditional ones, and we like that quality--when it works. Shadowlands really showcases the strengths of the four voices when they work together. The four of us sound right together, and you just shouldnít tamper with something that works that good. GH changes and grows with each album, and it is hard to say at this moment just where we'll go with it in the future. At this point I can tell you that I have no plans to change the core-group, and no plans to change the way we approach our vocals. When the part begs a female voice, it shall have one!
I have some specific ideas for Susie on one of our upcoming albums, and both Susie and Flo will have parts on our upcoming contribution to the Colossus project. One will play Athena, and another will sing the part of Nausikaa. Though with Flo moving soon, all this may change! I can certainly predict that new songs written exclusively for the female voice will be produced for GH albums in the future. Wherever we go with our sound, we hope our fans chose to follow. We certainly have more female fans than most prog-groups. I'm never sure of the reasons why, but maybe they just relate to us better than with other groups, and maybe that's because females have always had voice within our music.
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