Glass Hammer is set to release the third album in their Skallagrim Trilogy, entitled At The Gate. The first album of the trilogy, 2020’s Dreaming City, heralded a new, much heavier sound for GH, which is continued in At The Gate. The albums chronicle the sword-and-sorcery adventures of a hard-bitten thief named Skallagrim who finds himself locked in a desperate struggle with forces of evil. Through his struggles to find his lost love, he matures and gains much wisdom. In this final installment, Skallagrim has been cursed to live a thousand years seeking his love. When he finally does find her, he ends up sacrificing himself so she can be free.
At The Gate begins with one of Glass Hammer’s finest songs of their long career – the beautiful The Years Roll By. This song is in more of the “classic” prog style long-time GH fans have loved – a keyboards-driven melody with majestic vocals underpinned by Aaron Raulston’s excellent percussion and Steve Babb’s energetic and inventive bass. The inimitable Babb also supplies the pipe organ and keyboards on this one. Vocalist Hannah Pryor really comes into her own on this track, and Fred Schendel is outstanding (as usual!) on guitars.
Savage is up next, and it begins with a spare, unaccompanied guitar riff that soon explodes into a heavy groove. Pryor’s voice is perfect for this crunchy, metallic style, as she can really wail while maintaining a delicate tone.
North of North continues the interesting experiments GH has been doing with their instrumentals in the trilogy. It begins with a propulsive, Tangerine Dream-like synth riff that builds and builds. I hope they continue to explore this style of music!
All Alone begins as another crushing tune reminiscent of King’s X at their heaviest. The style fits the lyrics, as Skallagrim grimly mutters, “The dark is deep and blood runs cold, so cold. Don’t leave her there all alone.” The mood lightens when the melody transforms into a bluesy riff and Pryor sings, “Think how good you’ll feel when the battle’s won, no need to roam, you’ll take her home to stay.” I like the tension between the dark and light moods in this track.
All For Love is the most “proggy” song on the album, with lots of time changes, switching from major to minor keys, and furious guitar work from Reese Boyd. From the beginning, the tempo gallops along, leaving the listener feeling like he or she has run a marathon!
Snowblind Girl keeps the up the fast and furious pace, and Raulston really shines on this track. It also creates tension between the melodic passages sung by Pryor and the dark, chaotic instrumental responses.
Standing At The Gate is the most “difficult” song on the album, with discordant organ chords opening it and the rapid tempos continuing. GH alum Jon Davison has a nice cameo here on vocals.
After four heavy, blistering songs, the last two provide some welcome relief. In The Shadows and It’s Love are combined into a single track, and they contain some of the most beautiful music Glass Hammer has produced. In The Shadows evokes Radiohead at its most gentle and melodic. It’s a terrific song with simple instrumentation that like a balm after the frenetic and dense activity of the previous four. In it, Skallagrim has vowed to sacrifice himself for the sake of his love, and he is at peace with it: “There’s no life without you, there’s no life. If I walk this life alone, if I never find a home, there’s no life without you.”
In The Shadows segues seamlessly into It’s Love with some majestic organ work by Babb and the trebly, melodic bass that he is so good at. The production is open and inviting, as Pryor sings, “What you’re longing for is waiting in Heaven up above. There is no greater act then when one lays down his life, down for love.” It’s a truly beautiful moment, and one of Glass Hammer’s career highlights. The song ends with a coda that recalls the riff from Dreaming City’s A Desperate Man, which is nice way to tie the trilogy together into a unified work.
So, to sum up, At The Gate contains some of Glass Hammer’s most ambitious and challenging music. It is a tribute to their skill and talent that they pull it off so successfully. The album opens and closes with songs that sound like classic Glass Hammer, but with a contemporary feel. Looking back over their career, it is astonishing to me that a group of musicians are able to compose and perform such consistently excellent music over such a long period. Glass Hammer never fails to satisfy discerning prog fans, while exploring new and fascinating styles of music. They never stop evolving – here’s to hoping they continue for another 20 years!
You can order At The Gate here.
Here’s the video for The Years Roll By: