"We both wanted to rock out, so we started coming up with those kinds of pieces and it made us all feel great so we just kept going." Glass Hammer and the making of Dreaming City

 Glass Hammer.
Glass Hammer.

Hurricanes and pandemics couldn’t keep Glass Hammer from releasing the heaviest and most diverse album of their career, as Prog discovered when we spoke to the band in 2020 about Dreaming City...

If this year has proved anything, it’s that making plans is an absolute mug’s game. That’s been particularly true for musicians all over the planet, most of whose touring and promotional escapades have been abruptly curtailed. You have to feel for Glass Hammer, in particular. The Tennessee prog veterans have been enjoying a strong run of creative form in recent times and these DIY underdogs are more popular than ever, so the release of new album Dreaming City should have been a walk in the progressive park, followed by a noisily attended lap of honour. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other ideas. Coinciding almost perfectly with the album’s release, brutal tornadoes tore through Glass Hammer’s home town of Chattanooga in
mid-April, decimating miles of homes and businesses and injuring 19 people.

So when Prog enquires how things are going for the band’s core duo of Steve Babb and Fred Schendel, not to mention their families, we’re mainly checking that they’re all still in one piece. Fortunately, the answer is yes.

“We were lucky. We’re all okay. One big tree came down from our neighbour’s yard and took out our fence, but that’s about it,” Babb reveals with an audible grimace. “The storm was 1,500 yards wide, and we were supposedly right on the outside of it. But if you drive about three minutes across the freeway, it’s like a bomb went off. It’s a 20-mile long path, where all these beautiful homes were, and there’s just nothing there. I didn’t want to complain about it too much, but it happened right on release day. So it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, now what?’”

Presumably, the ‘now what?’ turned out to be a global pandemic!

“Yeah, right! So now all the non-essential business are closed, so our recording studio’s just sitting there [Babb and Schendel co-own a studio and produce records across multiple genres]. They’re opening up the state of Tennessee but our mayor won’t open up Chattanooga. We’d like to make a living again, but at least the album’s finished and it shipped. My wife handles most of that and she managed to get everything sent out. We had no WiFi, TV or anything for about 10 days, so a lot of time we were using our iPhones as hotspots. It was crazy, if you could’ve seen us packing and getting all this stuff out! But people have it now and they love it, so it’s all good.”

Glass Hammer
Glass Hammer

In the face of genuine adversity, Babb admits to being comforted by the fact that Glass Hammer have just made one of the finest albums of their career. Although not exactly a radical departure from the band’s recent run of great records, Dreaming City is noticeably heavier and more diverse than any previous album. Eagerly embracing a more old-school heavy metal vibe on songs like the title track and The Key, while venturing further into dark, ambient electronica on The Tower and even skittering, industrial rock on A Desperate Man, it’s an album full of subtle shocks and brave leaps forward.

“The sound of it all has been evolving for the last three albums,” says Babb. “On Valkyrie [2016], we put a three-minute instrumental electronic piece called Nexus Girl right in the middle of some typical Glass Hammer stuff. People really went crazy for it, so we thought, ‘Wait a minute, maybe we’re onto something!’ On Chronomonaut [2018] I thought ‘Let’s try it again!’, so we started playing with some Tangerine Dream-like ideas and Fred did brass arrangements to give some of it a Chicago feel, and people responded well to that. At the same time we also got the idea that we really wanted to rock on the next album.”

The sheer thunderous bombast that erupts several times during Dreaming City is perhaps the record’s most startling revelation. Glass Hammer have written a few killer riffs in their time, but this is the first time the Americans have strayed this close to the Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin blueprint.

“To be honest, neither one of us is really a fan of progressive metal as such, but I’m an old-school fan of Rush, of A Farewell To Kings and Hemispheres, and things like Ozric Tentacles, that heavy, spacey stuff,” Babb states. “We both wanted to rock out, so we started coming up with those kinds of pieces and it made us all feel great so we just kept going. I do have a background in metal to some degree. Also, Fred’s a great rhythm guitar player. That’s him doing most, if not all, of the rhythm playing on this album.”

Almost by accident, Dreaming City is undeniably tailor-made for a certain breed of prog and metal fans, inspired as it is by the Michael Moorcock and Robert E Howard novels that Babb absorbed as a youth. A concept piece that takes place in the same world as 2005’s The Inconsolable Secret album, it follows a troubled, sword-wielding warrior who must battle his way through “a spectrum of horrors” to rescue his lost love.

“I knew I wanted to do a concept about a desperate man. I thought I might give it
a Western motif, but everybody talked me out of that,” Babb chuckles. “Then I suggested swords and sorcery, and everyone was like, ‘Ooh, that’s very cliché!’ and I said, ‘Fine, let’s do it, let’s embrace the clichés and just run with it!’ [Laughs] With prog rock, you hear all the clichés about elves and wizards and all that stuff, so I just wanted to go with that. I wanted a story about a guy with a sword who’s an anti-hero. That’s not typical Glass Hammer to me, really. With us it’s usually about the happy ending. But things don’t always end happy! So he has hope at the end, but whatever he’s been looking for has not been resolved.”

Does that reflect a darkening of your own worldview? Glass Hammer have always been a predominantly positive, almost hippie-like band, in terms of outlook.

“Well, it’s definitely my view of something. There’s personal stuff entwined in it, of course. Just personal situations that have happened. As for what’s going on in the world, you probably know that most of us in the band have been or are Christians, so yeah, I do believe in happy endings, but I just don’t know if you find it in this life, so maybe that’s where this is coming from.”

Back in the depths of fantasy, Dreaming City definitely looks the part, too. Its artwork was once again created by Polish artist Michaeł ‘Xaay’ Loranc, who designed the band’s current logo and whose work has adorned every Glass Hammer album since 2014’s Ode To Echo. This time, Babb had a very specific vision in mind.

“I told Michael I wanted it to look like one of my old Elric [The Elric Saga – Michael Moorcock’s series of fantasy novels] paperbacks and give it that feel,” he notes. “I always give this guy tons of ideas and he says ‘Yeah, I get it!’ and then he gives me something completely different and blows me away. We do this little dance and we both pretend that he’s gonna do what I want him to do, and then he does what he wants anyway! [Laughs] I did say I wanted this scarred-up, rugged-looking guy and the sword and the city, and he did do all of that, so I’m more than happy.”

Having maintained their status as a self-sufficient entity for nearly 30 years, Glass Hammer have nothing to prove at this point. Steve Babb jokingly observes that he knows that his band’s audience is almost entirely “guys between the ages of 45 and 65”, but he also acknowledges that recent years have seen the size of that audience steadily grow. Sticking to your guns apparently does pay off eventually, tornados notwithstanding.

“Yeah, from what I understand, as far as our sales are going, there’s a brand new audience that’s just discovered us,” Babb grins. “I’m not sure what’s happened but something has! We kinda reinvent ourselves every few years and I’ve wondered if continually doing it under the name Glass Hammer is a good thing, because the whole thing’s changed over time. But we don’t want to start launching a new band every two or three years when it’s just me and Fred doing the same stuff. It seems to be working just fine right now.”

Glass Hammer
Glass Hammer

Assuming that the world is up and running again some point soon, Babb and Schendel are looking at a brighter future than ever before. Dreaming City sounds like the culmination of many years of hard work and experimentation, and the response from fans has already been overwhelmingly positive. Sadly, plans to perform on this year’s Cruise To The Edge were scotched along with everyone else’s 2020 touring plans, but Steve Babb sounds undeterred and genuinely excited about the way his enduring project is progressing.

“Fred and I work together just about every day, either on our music or someone else’s, and we had a discussion about the great response to the record. He’s happy with what we did and I am too. I’ve told other people that we deserve the right to be wishy-washy about this, but as it stands now, we want to keep building on this, with a heavier sound. These new songs are really good, so we’ll be putting some of them into the live show, when we finally get to rehearse again!”

Sneaking out one of the year’s greatest records by the skin of their teeth, and with tornados whistling in their ears, Glass Hammer have once again proved that the DIY ethos is alive and well in prog. They’ve also provided us with the ideal means of escape from the ongoing drudgery of lockdown and social-distancing: a big, bold and bombastic concept album with swords, sorcery, towering melodies and massive riffs. As Steve Babb cheerily concludes, it was all definitely worth the effort.

“We worked on this thing for months and months and then suddenly the Yes cruise was cancelled, I’d already given the order for the CDs and the T-shirts were being made, so what was gonna happen? For about a month we were on the edge of our seats! So I’d say it was a monumental effort on our part to get this album out, but you don’t want to talk about that too much because we’re not doctors or nurses. We’re not heroes! We’re just struggling to make a living like everyone else.”