How about a review from an outsider instead of die-hard Glass Hammer fans you know won't give a bad review. I am not a Glass Hammer fan. Well OK, I am now.
First, understand that, like all complex music - including classical, jazz, and progressive/symphonic rock - you need more than a few listens before you can fairly review it, good or bad. It's an investment of time of course, but often pays off big dividends. IF is a case in point. Didn't care for it? It would be hard to believe most would not glean at least moments of pleasure from even the first few listenings, but give this one a chance (9 to 12 spins at least), and you won't be sorry.
This is a Masterpiece.
IF is a concept album featuring the wayward journey of someone lost, seeking his way. Understanding that is a first step. Beginning his search with "Beyond Within," which starts with a heavy Emerson-esque organ and various, mostly aggressive passages, before a softer piano/synth accompanies our wayward son asking:
And what does dwell within me
And how does my song come to be
Am I the final meaning
A cosmos self-contained?
Immediately you will be struck by the similarity to Yes, in timbre, instrumentation, arrangements, and especially the voice of Jon Davison. This has been reviled with phrases like "shameless rip-off," but keep listening.
The similarities in style are impossible to ignore, but let's pretend for a moment that Yes was an entire Genre instead of a single band. Would other bands offer music within this genre and be free from criticism, as long as they didn't sound like the actual compositions, but only played in the same style?
That's what we have here, a contemporary progressive rock band playing in a similar, even retro-similar style, and yet managing to create new, original music, using past aural devices from bands of the Prog-Rock heyday - ELP/Keith Emerson, King Crimson, 70's Genesis, and especially Yes.
And of course, the bottom line is that this is good - no great - music.
Obviously, Glass Hammer's music could not exist in its present form if Yes had not come first. It's like Jimi Hendrix creating "Little Wing," and Stevie Ray Vaughn covering the piece years later, starting out sounding almost indistinguishable from Jimi's version, but then taking it beyond, morphing the tune into a Stevie Ray piece. Is it a cover? Of course. Is it original? Not really. Is it great guitar playing? No question about it. Is it pleasurable listening? If you liked the original, you should appreciate the new take. But Glass Hammer has actually taken the "Yes Genre" to new heights.
Having listened to most of GH's back catalog, I can tell you that they've always featured superior musicianship. They've usually offered tight arrangements. Most albums have at least some very strong compositions, with skillful tugs at the emotions from one extreme to the other. Recording quality has shown steady growth. But none of the past GH recordings have featured all these things at once, in abundance, from start to finish.
And the topper, not one of them has even come close to the strong lead vocal performance of Jon Davison, the missing piece in GH recordings, and if truth be told, in most NewProg.
As much as I admire some of their work, singers like Neal Morse, and vocalists featured in bands like Spock's Beard, Dream Theatre, Porcupine Tree, and others are simply no match for Greg Lake, Peter Gabriel, or of course, Jon Anderson.
Davison's problem is similar to the band's as a whole, he sounds so much like Anderson, comparisons are inevitable. But he's not Jon Anderson, he's Jon Davison, and he turns in a simply stunning vocal performance which, clone-like vocal timbre aside, should be judged on its own merits.
IF you choose to listen to IF with this in mind, you will hear an incredible musical achievement, and discover a first-rate listening experience.
Track 2, "Behold the Ziddle," leads us through a darker land, yet does so with upbeat rhythms and a touch of humor:
See the man with the grinning face that never smiles
He's been watching you back all the while
And thinking thoughts that are just a little sideways
Your conclusion may be that you make your own decision to wander into darkness.
Yet, with "Grace the Sky," you may suspect you've always had wings, you just need to be shown how to fly. This shortest of tracks may take a bit longer than other passages to reach you, but if you "let your colors grace the skies," you may find there are wings to carry you home.
"At Last We Are" is not an immediate hook either, full of characteristic tempo changes, fast runs and a wide range, but subsequent listenings will find you anticipating the "shining King, who, laughing welcomes us home at last, for at last we are."
If there were not a sixth track to go, you might think of the fifth, "If the Stars" as a climactic ending. A beautiful 10-plus minute song, this one has a wonderful hook in the catchy chorus:
If the stars should then appear
One night in a thousand years
How would man believe and adore
If the light of the city of God was shown there
Would they believe?
This chorus is utterly sing-along-able, unlike most of the vocal portions, which are rendered in a free-verse style with grace, beauty and artistry. Again, this style can be an acquired taste, but I can promise you will be happy you acquired it.
Realizing that our wayward's journey is not over, yet wondering how the band could possibly top "If the Stars," you're in for quite a treat, and an emotional roller coaster.
"If the Sun" is a phenomenon. Starting with a long instrumental prelude, featuring interplay between organ and guitar parts, adding some vocalese and other layers which come and go, you may enjoy the tight musicianship, but you will not have a clue what the band is about to put you through.
As the vocal section begins with piano, adding subtle acoustic and electric guitar, percussion, then continuing to build, finally the question is asked, "Where does this road lead..." in a tight, melodic series of verses, sensing our journey's end, giving us the song's first of several recurrences of the line, "If I thought I heard your name upon the wind I could aspire"
Then begins the soft middle portion, often compared to the mellow center section of "Close to the Edge" from Yes, yet having its own charm and emotional content, as we find our wanderer awakening high on a mountaintop, not knowing who led him there, who carried him. This soft, gorgeous passage is accompanied first by organ alone, then adding brilliantly improvised bass lines, and building layers until he hears the growing voice of the one who will sing him home, and realize he's been found.
Now a joyful piano, synth, bass and drum introduces a whisper on the wind, but the music takes yet another twist as a more aggressive passage shows us our traveler is unable to answer the call, brilliantly rendered with deft acoustic guitar lines weaving, until the majestic crescendo:
You can call it anything that you desire,
but I can't ignore,
I am gonna make a run for it
Or with broken wings I'll fly
But wait, it's not a crescendo yet. You can't imagine how this peak could escalate even further, but Davison's soaring voice continues to ascend, and if the hairs on the back of your neck are not standing up by now, check your pulse, you're probably dead:
Hoping he'll see, hoping he'll see
This damaged fragment of life
Is struggling homeward at last...
WOW! After journeys and trials told and untold, we've finally returned home. Okay, now it's surely over. But no, he continues to soar ever higher:
I can see it
And it's beautiful
So at last I return home!
The climactic feel is maintained for a while, then - like a movie that's touched you so deeply, you don't yet want it to end, you don't want to leave this world, but you know it's not quite over - the band eases you out with a rhythmic, flowing section.
It's just as well because you're emotionally spent by this time. Even this final section alone would make a great song, with more emotional appeal than most entire albums, but after what you just heard, it's just the ticket to ease you home.
My advice, take this journey.