The Music of Glass Hammer: An Appreciation

Tolkien, Lewis, fantasy, keyboards, “big” music, and the Incarnation have shaped the musical vision of this American progressive rock group

A scratchy LP, probably on a phonograph player from the 1930s or so, begins playing and a man clears his throat. Horns and woodwinds slowly swell and unveil, coming into tune in the background, finding a place in the rotating spheres.

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to this evening’s performance, Babb and Schendel’s musical extravaganza, Lex Rex, a tale of the ancient world. The conductor is ready.  The actors and actresses are all assembled. So, without further ado, Lex Rex.

A gorgeous organ, something straight out of an early Genesis album, is followed by soaring Yes-like guitars. The two syncopate. Drums, voices, and bass join in. So, it begins, and the spheres rotate quickly now.

The Unbreakable Glass Hammer

I’ve been listening to progressive rock since a very tender age in the early 1970s. Albums by Yes, Kansas, and The Moody Blues were in abundance in our home and I’ve been an ardent fan of prog rock ever since. Even during the genre’s lowest moments of popularity, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I clung hungrily to every release by groups and artists such as Kevin McCormick, Marillion, Echolyn, and Spock’s Beard.

But I did not encounter Glass Hammer until 2002, ten years after the band was formed in Chattanooga, Tennessee, by multi-instrumentalists Steve Babb and Fred Schendel. My ignorance was not Glass Hammer’s fault. Through tenacity, perfectionism, and impressive marketing skills, the band sold their music in every venue possible, including on the various American shopping television networks during the early 1990s. Babb has told me that he and Schendel have, unlike many of their prog rock brethren, made money from their Glass Hammer releases from the beginning of the project’s existence. In fact, they’ve made decent money, and they have used it to expand their own sound and explore new musical territory.

Indeed, on the eve of releasing their fourteenth studio album, Ode to Echo (available March 11th), Glass Hammer are not only at the top of their own personal game, they’re confounding the odds.  At a time when even leading music magazines, such as Classic Rock, are predicting the death of rock, Glass Hammer is at its absolute best, selling music, and attracting the fans and attention they deserve. And they’ve done it not by compromising, either musically or lyrically, but by always bettering themselves, their art, and their relations with their fans.

I first heard about Glass Hammer from the deeply intelligent and gregarious author Amy H. Sturgis.  In the process of nerding out at a coffee shop in Princeton (during a conference for libertarians) over J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and all things mythic, Amy asked me if I knew a progressive rock band with the wonderful name of “Glass Hammer”?  I hadn’t.  The band is from her own state of Tennessee, and she knew them well. More importantly, they loved Tolkien. In the rock world, that might not mean as much as it might, as many bands—including hard rock giants Led Zeppelin—had loved Tolkien.

But Babb and Schendel love the stories of Tolkien and Lewis, and have written albums about Middle-earth, the Shire, Hobbittic bars, and Perelandra—as evidenced by albums titled Perelandra (1995), The Middle Earth Album (2001), and Shadowlands (2004). Additionally, Babb is openly Christian. In his lyrics, interviews, and public appearances and pronouncements, Babb never compromises his beliefs. Not shy about his religious beliefs or political views, he is a committed father and husband, attends Civil War reenactments, and has served faithfully in his church.

Lex Babb, Lex Schendel

After learning of Glass Hammer from Amy, the next album released by the band was their 2002 masterpiece, Lex Rex. Almost every Glass Hammer fan regards this album as either their best work or very near the top of the long list of their releases. Certainly, countless fans of progressive rock—both in America and abroad—now consider it a seminal work within the genre.

Its reputation is well-earned and richly deserved.  In particular, one must admire the story with such obvious profundity.  Rather than the mythic worlds of Tolkien or Lewis, the subject of almost every previous Glass Hammer album, Babb and Schendel recreate the world of Golgotha and the execution of the King of Kings on a tragically beautiful Friday afternoon at 3:00. There, a Roman soldier, a hero of the empire, discovers that all he had learned and believed about king and country was a mere shadow and foretelling of the eternal truths of the real king, the Lex Rex. The logos was not the empire, as the greatest stoic of his day, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, would later argue. The true Logos was the Incarnate Son of God, the enfleshed Second Person of the Holy Trinity, who is truly God and truly man.

Throw together an abundance of exquisite music and musicianship, odd time signatures, a host of moogs and organs and every other imaginable form of keyboard, a little bit of the atmosphere of vaudeville, and you have a brilliant, timely, and timeless piece of art.  Perhaps most importantly, in a move that echoes what Tolkien accomplished in literature, the story serves as Christian art, rather than as Christian propaganda.

Babb and Schendel had played in a number of other bands prior to 1992, and the two began recording what can only be described as progressive rock—then at its absolute lowest point in terms of popularity and commercial viability—around 1985 in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  Not surprisingly, each had grown up listening to and loving the music of Rush, Genesis, Triumph, Emerson Lake and Palmer, and, of course, Yes. Recording what they most cherished, neither thought there would be much of a market for the music. Looking back at their first years, Babb explained, in a 2006 interview with Classic Rock Society, his own ignorance of the situation:

I was very naive about the prog scene at that time. So naive, in fact, that we really didn’t know there was a scene. I thought that Fred and I could bring about the revival of prog, or at least introduce it to a new crowd. We figured, “Hey! A lot of brainy types read Tolkien, and brainy types listen to prog—let’s get the two groups together!” So we did our progressive rock thing with a Tolkien theme. To a certain extent it worked well.

The two found progressive rock—what they originally called “fantasy rock” in order not to turn away potential listeners—to be the right vehicle for their stories. “I enjoy writing in the grand style,” Babb has said. “The bigger the better.”

Distinctive Voices, Unified Voices

In 1994, Babb and Schendel, along with Steve’s wife, Julie, founded Sound Resources, a studio near Chattanooga in 1994 that focuses on producing commercials and jingles. It is, first and foremost, a commercial advertising agency. Armed with the latest studio equipment, the three encounter musical talent on a daily basis from the commercial side of Sound Resources. In addition to so many astounding things about Glass Hammer is the sheer quality of those who come and go with the band. A number of immeasurably talented folks come and go from Glass Hammer in no obvious pattern. For one album, this musician (and especially voice) is needed.  For another album, all of the voices are needed.  In this way, Glass Hammer is as much a project—always revolving around Babb and Schendel—as it is a group.  Currently, one of the three lead singers of Glass Hammer is Jon Davison, also the replacement for Jon Anderson and lead singer of the venerable progressive rock act, Yes. Davison is an excellent singer in his own right, but he does possess the uncanny—if not somewhat spooky—ability to mimic Anderson’s unusual singing voice perfectly.

Since Lex Rex, Glass Hammer has grown openly and increasingly Yes-like. This, in no small part, comes from the recruitment of Davidson on vocals.  While some critics point this out as a negative, Babb just laughs it off, noting his appreciation for the greats of progressive rock.  He never downplays his philio-pietistic love of Anderson and all things Yes. If anything, I suspect that for every criticism Babb dismisses, he might just throw a Yes flourish into the next album to playfully spite those critics.  It will be interesting to see if this Yes-like trend continues.

While I certainly like each Glass Hammer singer, my favorite singer has been the angelic Susie Bogdonowicz. She brings a certain humanity to progressive rock that probably cannot be praised highly enough. There’s no doubt that some of the criticisms leveled against prog rock have some basis in truth. Certain bands have encouraged the bizarre and long (keyboard/guitar/drum/etc.) solo, often notes chasing notes for no reason other than to chase notes. (And, yes, some prog musicians played before audiences while wearing capes and codpieces. One famous prog keyboardist even knifed his keyboard during a performance in the 1970s.) Yet most prog musicians are at the top of their game no matter what their instrument, and so it takes a very strong and confident voice to match the prowess of the instrumentation.

Bogdonowicz has shown that she can hold her own, in a perfectly feminine fashion, with the most testosterone-driven keyboard solo imaginable. No where is this more obvious than on Glass Hammer’s cover of Yes’s classic song, “South Side of the Sky” (from the 1971 album, Fragile). In what can only be considered heresy by nearly every die-hard Yes fan and by most progressive rock fans, I think that Bogdonowicz’s is voice is the voice to accompany this fierce opus. Bogdonowicz will be one of the three leads on Ode to Echo.

No one could pick up any Glass Hammer album and not feel that Babb and Schendel had not given everything they possible could have given.  These two throw themselves completely into their work. For example, Babb faithfully answers every email that comes to Glass Hammer, and he does so with good humor and intelligent wit and enthusiasm. Even in a genre full of perfectionists and obsessive compulsives—I say this as a fellow traveler!—Babb and Schendel are at the top of the list, and their fans love them for it.

It’s not just the music that Babb and Schendel take seriously.  Every aspect of Glass Hammer is carefully considered and expertly handled.  The packaging for the CDs is immaculate and artful.  Additionally, it’s clear as well that from the “making of” videos of the albums and extras on the CDs that the members of the band really respect and love one another.  Though mostly a studio project, Glass Hammer have played a few times live.  Not only are they brilliant live (much to their own surprise), it’s equally obvious that they appreciate their fans as much as their fans adore them.

In essence, Babb and Schendel have created not just a progressive rock project, but a dedicated community of good persons seeking what is true and what is beautiful.

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About Bradley J. Birzer 14 Articles
Bradley J. Birzer is Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies and Professor of History, Hillsdale College and author of several books, including noted biographies of J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Christopher Dawson, and Russell Kirk. His latest book is Beyond Tenebrae: Christian Humanism in the Twilight of the West (Angelico Press, 2019).