The way I see it, there are two kinds of cheesy: the kind of cheesy which makes futile attempts at being serious art, thus becoming more trite and silly than it otherwise would have been, and that which is openly, unapologetically cheesy, often to humorous and enjoyable results. I’m happy to say that Chronomonaut falls in the second category.
Glass Hammer is a band that has been around a while, and their sound makes no secret of their love for classic prog outfits such as Rush, Yes, and Genesis. Their lyrics also draw a great deal from fantasy and sci-fi. So, basically, this is a band for serious nerds. If I had to describe their sound, I’d say it has an optimistic, melodic quality similar to that of Rush and Yes, but combined with the psychedelia and blues of Pink Floyd. Bassist Steve Babb has that nice punch I’ve observed in great prog bassists, such as Squire, Lee and Lake. The keys sound like a cross between Tony Kaye and Rick Wright-in fact, I’m almost certain keyboardist Fred Schendel has turned his Hammond to the exact same settings Kaye used on The Yes Album. Lead singer Susie Bogdanowicz adds a nice touch to the album, and drummer Aaron Raulston holds down a nice beat and doesn’t try to do too much at once (think Nick Mason). Despite these heavy 1970s influences, you hear some more 21st-Century-esque sounds here and there, especially on the instrumental “Clockwork.” So, while this stuff is extremely derivative, Glass Hammer absolutely has a recognizable sound.
Chronomonaut is a sequel to Glass Hammer’s earlier concept album, Chronometree, which chronicles the misadventures of Tom, a self-described “ultimate prog fan” who hears aliens talking to him through his favorite albums. Now, he has grown up, and Chronomonaut is about his band, The Elf King, and his rediscovery of his old love of prog. It’s the most deliciously self-deprecating concept in the history of prog! For example, Tom’s signature song is entitled “Roundabout The Court Of The White Satin Schizoid, Fifth Movement, Third Impression, Part One.” In short, these are prog fans who are perfectly aware of how much they love prog and how silly prog can be sometimes.
The opening track, unfortunately, is an intro track. “The Land Of Lost Content” features an epic guitar solo by Schendel (who is also the band’s guitarist, although he’s definitely more fond of keys), but it’s not much of a “song” otherwise. The first actual song, “Roll For Initiative,” is a two-part prog epic with lyrics based heavily on fantasy pen-and-paper RPGs (such as Dungeons & Dragons). I think it’s longer than it needs to be, but it’s a solid song and catches the listener up if he has not yet heard Chronometree. “Twilight Of The Godz” is the next chapter in Tom’s story, in which an old bandmate discusses The Elf King’s glory days, advising him not to get the band back together again, as half of them have joined “the great gig in the sky.” (As a side commentary, I can’t help but wonder if Tom, known as “The Elf King,” is an allegory for a very talented, very retro prog musician whose project is similarly named.) This is a very Floydian song, featuring smooth, atmospheric keyboards and the weird vocal effects made popular by “Welcome To The Machine.”
“The Past Is Past” is next, and it’s the quirkiest, most inventive track on the album. The ominous, lurking vibe contrasts with the optimism of the previous three tracks, and the saxophone adds a melancholy touch. In some bizarre way, it makes me think of classical music. I’m not sure why; I suppose one of the composers I like (Mussorgsky or Beethoven or somebody) used some of the same chords in their works, but I can’t think of which work or even which composer it is. Maybe it’s just a song that would sound good with an orchestra! The lyrics are written, oddly enough, from the point of view of the past itself, and they offer some profound observations on how some hold on to the past in the same manner as a much-too-old child still carrying a security blanket.
In “1980 Something”, Tom unwisely ignores his bandmate’s advice. It’s a very nice acoustic song about how his nostalgia takes him back-“like an old girlfriend,” as the liner notes suggest. “A Hole In The Sky” is a very melodic, funky track, reminiscent of Rush’s very underrated 90s albums. This is the point in the story where Tom makes up his mind to travel back in time. Having trouble selling The Elf King’s geeky, unpopular neo-prog to major labels, he resolves to pop back to 1971, where intends to get his band signed to a major record label in the prog-rock glory days. “Clockwork” is straight-up instrumental EDM, and oddly enough, it doesn’t sound at all out of place surrounded by Schendel’s retro organ and Babb’s funky Chris-Squire bass. More prog bands are embracing modern styles and adding progressive twists than ever before, and it’s an exciting trend.
“Melancholy Holiday,” my favorite song on the album, is next, and it tells how disappointed Tom was when he actually saw the past. The guitar tone reminds me of Robert Fripp in his prime, and the keyboards evoke both modern sounds and nostalgic moods. Bogdanowicz delivers her best performance of the album, singing a melody that is simultaneously vague and catchy. The song is moody, atmospheric and unlike anything else on this album. Glass Hammer did well to choose it as their lead single. “It Always Burns Sideways” features some Steve Howe-influenced guitar work as well as some grungy bits. In “Blinding Light,” Tom realizes the error of his ways and decides to continue forward in time, towards the future. It’s a great funk-prog track featuring some of Schendel’s best keyboard playing.
“Tangerine Meme” is aptly named-it sounds like a blend between classic psychedelic acts like Tangerine Dream and Pink Floyd and modern sounds and flavors. There’s also a decidedly 80s feel to it. If you heard it out of context, it would be quite the challenge to name the decade it came from! “Fade Away,” clocking in at just over ten minutes, makes a great closing track. It tells how Tom finally says goodbye to the glory days of the 1970s and accepts his fate. Like the first song, I am of the opinion that this one overstays its length just a bit, but it’s a solid tune.
I do have a few complaints. Steve and Fred are extremely talented musicians, but they aren’t great singers. Good, but not great. Susie Bogdanowicz is a very good singer, but she does not get as much time as I would like, and I think a lot of the songs would be better if she sang them. In addition, many tracks feature shorn section, which gets annoying at times. Having played in a jazz band, I certainly appreciate horn sections, but there’s really no way to capture their full energy on a recording. The mix also leaves a little to be desired. It sounds a bit thin and weak at times. Despite this, Glass Hammer have produced a very good record in Chronomonaut. It’s very geeky and very worthwhile, and I would highly recommend it to any nostalgic prog fan!