With the notable exception of Renaissance’s Annie Haslam, progressive rock has long been primarily a man’s world like its mainstream counterpart. Thus, whenever a woman does appear on a progressive rock record, the initial reaction is regrettably apprehension; wondering if she’s there as a novelty or as an integral, equal part of the music. Thankfully, on Glass Hammer’s new album “At The Gate,” The latter is entirely the case.
The veteran Southeastern prog band, co-founded and led by Steve Babb and Fred Schendel, has seldom been as pastoral as they are with this new release. A fair amount of that comes from the band matching its musical instincts with Hannah Hale Pryor’s warm, deeply expressive voice. This is Pryor’s second outing with the group, and this time through shows her far more comfortable than on her initial outing; unsurprising given her background is as a praise and worship singer. Making Pryor’s vocals all the more remarkable is her currently singing for two, as she and her husband are expecting their first child, a daughter, in November 2022. Imagine trying to record your singing parts with a baby kicking her in the ribs.
“At The Gate” is a pleasant mix of the new and old, with some portions embracing and pushing the modern prog rock envelope while others unashamedly party like it’s 1972, not 2022. This is one of Glass Hammer’s greatest strengths. They know chances are your average autotuned teenager will never grasp what they are about musically. Hence, they do what they do with the understanding that an audience is still yearning for exploration. You might as well play to them while letting the mainstream blissfully pass by.
The album is something of a soundtrack, concluding a three-album set musically fleshing out Babb’s fantasy novel Skallagrim. Knowing the story to enjoy the album isn’t mandatory, but it doesn’t hurt. Also tremendously beneficial is hearing the first two albums.
Enough of me; let’s hear a tune.
See what I mean? The song beautifully blends approachable melody and musical adventure, the band offering a perfect backdrop to Pryor’s sweet minus saccharine voice. It doesn’t bludgeon the listener, but it still rocks.
Ah, but there’s much, much more. “Savage” shifts from a tiptoeing cat intro to heavy organ followed by equally heavy guitar, with Pryor’s vocal adding the right touch of cautious menace to the mix. “North Of North” starts as near-trance synthesizer, then powers into crunchy hooks led by Schendel’s keyboard flourishes. The band’s heavier side shines on “All Alone” and “All For Love,” while “Snowblind Girl” starts thunderously and then pulls back just a bit into a delicious blend of prog and hard rock muscle. “Standing At The Gate” shreds, while the album’s conclusion of “In The Shadows/It’s Love” starts with moody solo piano and vocal before taking off into classic Glass Hammer goodness.
Glass Hammer will never be everyone’s cup of tea. Too loud, too adventuresome, and so on. That duly noted, for those with ears to hear “At The Gate” is a terrific musical adventure that, among its many strengths, is an album moms can give their singing-infatuated daughters to let them know cheap sexualization and garbage recipe pseudomusic is entirely avoidable. There is a better way.