Monday, April 20, 2009

The New Arrival: "Wizards and Demons"

WIZARDS & DEMONS: MUSIC INSPIRED BY THE WRITINGS OF J.R.R. TOLKIEN [cd, Castle Music, 2003]

So, I only found out about this one thanks to my friend Jim Lowder, who sent me the link* (thanks Jim) to the Not Lame site, who seems to be the U.S. distributor for this cd, which actually dates back to 2003. Essentially one of those many attempts to cash-in on the success of the Peter Jackson movies, like several dvds of the same era (e.g., J.R.R.TOLKIEN: THE ORIGIN OF THE RINGS; AN UNAUTHORIZED TRIBUTE), it brings together fourteen obscure songs from extremely minor obscure English bands and presents them as a song-cycle retelling the story of LotR. All but one of these date from 1968-1972 (with the sole outlier coming from 1975). Unless you're an aficionado of hitless groups from that era, the only one of the groups included that you're likely to have heard of before is Uriah Heep, although Sally Oldfield might be vaguely familiar as Mike Oldfield's sister to those old enough to remember TUBULAR BELLS (aka the music from THE EXORCIST). The liner notes (by "Mr. Underhill") are full of information, but they mostly tell how such and such a group represented here was a brief pairing between (a) someone you never heard of from (b) a group you probably never heard of with (c) someone else you never heard of from (d) another group you've perhaps vaguely heard of a long time ago but have never actually listened to.

As for Tolkienian content, these songs fall into two categories: those with actual Tolkien references and those without. For the first (much smaller) group, it must be said that the level of Tolkien knowledge displayed is rudimentary, as if they'd heard the story described, or read it themselves once while self-medicated on the hallucinogen de jour. For example, Skip Bifferty's "The Hobbit" is mainly about "the human (sic) man of magic" who accompanies Bilbo on his journey, while Sally Oldfield's "Songs of the Quendi" (dismissed as "hippy warblings" by the liner notes) at least gets points for its Tolkienesque title and its taking a single genuine line from JRRT ("three rings for the elven kings", repeated many, many, many times), but any credit it scores for naming one of its subsections "Nenya" is pretty much wiped out by that bit's being preceded by another called "The Wam Pum Song".

The second, and larger, group, consists of songs the compiler thought could stand to represent things in Tolkien ("The Mutant", "The Tower" "Traveller"; their tenuous connections to THE LORD OF THE RINGS really exists only in the mind of the compiler.

So, as a Tolkien album this is a near-total loss, interesting only as a curiosity. However, as music it's pleasant enough, if not memorable: one of those albums that sounds better when you're not paying attention to it -- it would make decent background music for an rpg session, for example. From this point of view, the most interesting thing about it is how many tracks sound like better-known groups of the same era. I noticed that if you're not paying attention, one track sounds a lot like The Who, while another is clearly someone trying to channel Cream for all they're worth. So if you enjoy music of that era, you're not likely to clap your hands over your ears and run screaming from the room, though you might find yourself skipping over a track or two. But you're not likely to rush out and order a copy either, unless you're a completest.

For others, I'd recommend sticking to Nimoy's "Ballad of Bilbo Baggins", which at least has a goofy period charm, or the truly inspired filksong "The Return of the King, Uh-Huh" (Aragorn as Elvis) by Tom Smith, or the Bo Hansson instrumentals, or the Howard Shore soundtracks, depending on your individual taste(s).

--John R.


current reading:
THE MAYA by Michael Coe
HUMAN SMOKE by Nicholson Baker.


*link: http://www.notlame.com/V/A/Page_1/CDWIZARDS1.html

2 comments:

Pax said...

I really enjoy Howard Shore's movie soundtracks, but my all time favorite is The Tolkien Ensemble. Some of the music in the BBC productions is nice also...I like the version of the Lament for Gandalf in the Ralph Bakshi movie too. That's the great thing about Tokien; so much variety in the interpretations!

David said...

I might get this, if only to have a few of those Tolkien-reference items on CD.

My Mythcon paper on Tolkien-inspired music seemed to amuse the audience when, as I played the Sally Oldfield piece, I held up an additional finger each time the phrase "Three rings for the Elven kings" was repeated ...

Of course, the ultimate "heard of Tolkien, but don't know anything about him" musical reference has to be Led Zeppelin finding "a girl so fair" in Mordor. What the heck is she doing there??