hen most people think of rock and roll, undoubtedly among the first things that come to mind are love lost and found, dancing, swiveling hips, and, among the more cynical (or realistic), money. Next, of course, guitars, drums, maybe a piano. Then what long hair? Fuzzy sweaters? Biting the heads off of small animals? Probably.
Among the things few people think of as defining rock and roll are Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, historical fiction, and orchestral grandeur, but those can be part of pop music also, and sometimes a quite excellent variety of it. The rock group Glass Hammer, from Chattanooga, Tennessee, is a case in point. Their first record, the Tolkien-inspired concept album Journey of the Dunadan, released independently in 1993, surprisingly sold thousands of copies through the Internet, home-shopping TV networks, and the band's own toll-free telephone number.
The band's 1994 follow-up, Perelandra, featured epic-length tracks and impressively complex music creating an original mythos centering on a world called Evermore, with concepts inspired by C. S. Lewis, as the album's title suggests. The 1998 release On To Evermore continued the mythos while adding more guitar to the band's impressive keyboard virtuosity, and the 2000 recording Chronometree told a somewhat amusing story of a young man driven batty by progressive rock music. Last year's Middle Earth Album featured Tolkien-inspired music and was somehow "recorded live" at the Prancing Pony Inn in Middle Earth.
The idea of recording an album on Tolkien subjects as if it were being performed in Middle Earth affords a good sense of the cheerful intelligence and easygoing imaginativeness Glass Hammer typically display. Not your usual rock band by any stretch of the imagination. The two main members of the group, Fred Schendel and Steve Babb, both play a wide variety of keyboards, and they man numerous other instruments as well, including guitars, bass guitars, mandolin, recorder, and drums. Both also sing, and they invite other instrumentalists and vocalists to join in as needed. As Glass Hammer, Babb and Schendel have released seven albums, the latest of which is the brand-new disc Lex Rex.
As the Lewis and Tolkien themes of their previous albums suggest, Babb and Schendel make no effort to hide the spiritual ideas behind their work, and in Lex Rex these take the lead without overbalancing things toward somberness. The lyrics tell the story of the Roman centurion whose spear pierced Christ's side as He was dying on the cross. The album tells of the soldier's lifelong search for glory, the right and proper pursuit for a man of his time and abilities. In "Tales of the Great Wars," we learn that in his first experience in war, which he has always been told would be a scene of great glory, he sees nothing but "killing and much slaughter," and in his dreams he sees the faces of the men he killed. In "One King" we learn that the centurion has found no human being to be truly worth following, and "Further Up and Further In" tells of his disappointing experiences with a pagan priestess.
Later, in "A Cup of Trembling," he sees the Jewish Messiah and is disturbed by the impressiveness of this simple man, a carpenter's son. In "Centurion" and "When We Were Young," however, he ends up piercing Christ's side on the cross, no doubt dutifully following orders: "with glory in his grasp/(he slew the thing he sought)." He is heartsick over this, and Babb and Schendel express their sympathy for him in the line, "Poor man, he knows what he's done." There is a happy ending, however, as in the legend of Longinus, when the Centurion is redeemed after seeing Christ rise from the dead.
The composers make no obvious attempt to recreate or imitate the music of the period in which the story is set; instead, they use contemporary instruments and an abundance of appealing melodies to make the songs come alive for the listener. As in all their albums, the music is highly complex but always understandable, and the listener never gets lost or senses that the musicians are merely showing off. A good example is in the instrumental break in "One King," which begins with a fairly straightforward, attractive interplay between electric piano and guitar. This quickly flows into a much more complex but always comprehensible interchange among the grand piano, mellotron, synth, organ, guitar, and other instruments, with the bass and drums holding the rhythm sufficiently steady to enable the listener to concentrate on the main complement of melodies.
The same is true of the vocal interplay in the middle section of "Further Up and Further In." While the singers are engaging in this, the background music holds the rhythm steady without introducing new musical themes that would distract us from the central item of musical interest in that passage, the vocal lines. At the end of that same song, after a great crescendo of sound led by Hammond organ, a grand piano and recorder create a wonderful duet backed by strummed acoustic guitar and a throbbing bass guitar.
The album includes unusual time signatures; echoey voices; peppy, melodic, synthesizer runs; confident Hammond organ chords; grand mellotron; heavy fuzz bass holding it all together; vocal choirs; chirping guitar riffs in the higher registers; church bells; and much more. The rhythms are often unusual, but the percussion performances are fairly straightforward. In the beginning of "Further Up and Further In," for example, the complex rhythm is held firmly by a very direct and unpretentious beat from the trap drum set.
Also important to the album's overall effect are the vocal melodies, which are quite appealing, and the performances of which are pleasant and unforced. Neither Babb nor Schendel will ever be mistaken for a great singer, but the musical arrangements they create are sufficiently sophisticated to move the listener without requiring vocal virtuosity, as in the beautifully simple closing song, "Heroes and Dragons." In addition, the composers use additional singers for the parts they themselves are unable to execute well.
Babb and Schendel are astoundingly virtuosic keyboard players, notably in the classical-style grand-piano performances in the brief musical interlude "Music for Four Hands (And Temporal Anomaly)" and the opening of "Centurion." Rather than use an explicitly expressive, bombastic, Romantic style of performance, as many musicians tend to do in these solo spots, Babb and Schendel take a more baroque, mathematical approach that fits well with the themes of the overall composition.
Overall, the music is cheerfully complex, with moments of real, operatic grandeur, as in the crescendo in "Further Up and Further In" and the resounding, passionate passages at the end of "Tales of the Great Wars," "One King," and "A Cup of Trembling." Adding to the overall sense of good cheer are the occasional narrative bits, in which an amusingly pompous narrator, his voice distant and wobbly as if on a warped, beat-up plastic record, is backed by festive, cheap-sounding organ and realistic old-record scratches. The printed insert includes all the lyrics, and the artwork is eccentrically beautiful.
So, a cheerful, audacious, brilliant, musically ambitious album about the Roman centurion who pierced Christ's side on the cross. What says rock and roll better than that?