Uriah Heep’s The Magician’s Birthday

Alright, so “The Magician’s Birthday” is only half an LP-side’s worth of fantasy concept album, but if you put all the fantasy-tinged songs on The Magician’s Birthday album together with the ones on the other Uriah Heep release of that year (Demons and Wizards), and use a bit of imaginative glue, you can stick together a good solid fantasy concept album right there. Not to mention the fact that you’ll end up with not one but two Roger Dean covers!
(I did say I’d be cheating a bit).
“The Magician’s Birthday”, based on a story by keyboardist/songwriter Ken Hensley, is a 10-minute prog opera about the weird and wonderful birthday party of a good magician, which is interrupted when an evil sorcerer arrives, demanding a duel. It’s got whimsy (an extended kazoo solo), grandeur (those transplendent harmony vocals on the outro), and good old fashioned hard rock (with an extended drum & guitar “fight sequence”). Compared to the otherworldiness of Jon Anderson’s Olias, and the epic fantasy of Mandalaband’s Wendor, this is more like a sumptuously-illustrated fairy tale, something by Lord Dunsany or a particularly optimistic Clark Ashton Smith, perhaps.
And it’s optimism that is the overriding note. There’s genuine hopefulness in Uriah Heep’s fantasy, as exemplified by “The Wizard” (from Demons and Wizards), a storyteller’s anthem (pipping Yes’s “Wonderful Stories” to the winning post, in my opinion), that manages to be both nostalgic for the never-never, and upliftingly positive. The moody “Tales” (from The Magician’s Birthday), is another song about storytelling, but with a darker tint, being told from the point of view of a group of immortals to whom man’s struggles are “just another tale”.
And Heep often use fantasy to address dark moods, but almost always with the sun shining through at the end (quite literally, in “Sunrise”). The good-versus-evil magical battle comes up again on Demons and Wizards’ “The Spell”, while the fantasy-tinged “Circle of Hands” (from the same album) is about watchfulness for an enemy who once sought to murder the dawn itself. (There’s that rising sun again.)
Heep manage to tell their stories in tightly-structured rock songs, always melodic (Hensley’s slide guitar often provides a beautiful addition to many of the songs), and lush (layered organ and harmony vocals), not to mention peppered with a liberal sense of fun (add to that kazoo solo the whistling kettle on “The Wizard”), which keeps the prog-wolves of dullness and overindulgence well at bay. The lyrics, often the most embarrassing part of any fantasy album, are also not only poetic but meaningful in a wider sense than the story they’re telling, which may be why Heep had so much commercial success while peddling fantasy tunes like these.

Alright, so “The Magician’s Birthday” is only half an LP-side of fantasy concept album, but if you put all the fantasy-tinged songs on The Magician’s Birthday (1972) album together with those on the other Uriah Heep release of the same year (Demons and Wizards), and use a bit of imaginative glue, you can stick together a good solid fantasy concept album right there. Not to mention the fact that you’ll end up with not one but two Roger Dean covers!

(I did say I’d be cheating a bit).

magicians_birthday

“The Magician’s Birthday”, based on a story by keyboardist/songwriter Ken Hensley, is a 10-minute prog opera about the weird and wonderful birthday party of a good magician, interrupted when an evil sorcerer arrives, demanding a duel. It’s got whimsy (an extended kazoo solo), grandeur (those transplendent harmony vocals on the outro), and good old fashioned hard rock (with an extended drum & guitar “fight sequence” in the middle). Compared to the otherworldiness of Jon Anderson’s Olias, and the epic fantasy of Mandalaband’s Wendor, this is more like a sumptuously-illustrated fairy tale, something by Lord Dunsany or a particularly optimistic Clark Ashton Smith, perhaps.

And it’s optimism that’s the overriding note. There’s genuine hopefulness in Uriah Heep’s fantasy, as exemplified by “The Wizard” (from Demons and Wizards), a storyteller’s anthem (pipping Yes’s “Wonderful Stories” to the winning post, in my opinion), that manages to be both nostalgic for the never-never, and upliftingly positive. The moody “Tales” (from The Magician’s Birthday), is another song about storytelling, but with a darker tint, being told from the point of view of a group of immortals to whom man’s struggles are “just another tale”.

demons_and_wizards

And Heep often use fantasy to address dark moods, but almost always with the sun shining through at the end (quite literally, in “Sunrise”). The good-versus-evil magical battle comes up again on Demons and Wizards’ “The Spell”, while the fantasy-tinged “Circle of Hands” (from the same album) is about watchfulness for an enemy who once sought to murder the dawn itself.

Heep manage to tell their stories in tightly-structured rock songs, always melodic (Hensley’s slide guitar often provides a beautiful addition to many of the songs), and lush (layered organ and harmony vocals), not to mention peppered with a liberal sense of fun (add to that kazoo solo the whistling kettle on “The Wizard”), which keeps the prog-wolves of dullness and overindulgence well at bay. The lyrics, often the most embarrassing part of any fantasy album, are also not only poetic but meaningful in a wider sense than the story they’re telling, which may be why Heep had so much commercial success while peddling fantasy tunes like these.

Mandalaband’s The Eye of Wendor

Above the city of Thôl Ænord rises the colossal statue of the king. Set in his crown is the magical red gem known as the Eye of Wendor. One day, creatures riding a dark, winged beast alight on the statue and steal the gem, and from that point the life goes out of the land. But the seer, Almar, has had a dream, prophesying a hero who will set things right, a man who will have been born at the very moment the Eye of Wendor was stolen, and who will be known by birthmarks under both of his arms.

eyeofwendor

Thus begins the (rather long) story in the booklet accompanying Mandalaband’s 1978 album, The Eye of Wendor: Prophecies. And it ends, “To be continued.” For, The Eye of Wendor: Prophecies was intended to be the first in a trilogy of fantasy-themed concept albums. The sequels were never recorded, but this first instalment has been reissued on CD twice since its initial appearance as an LP, and serves as a tantalising glimpse of what the full trilogy might have sounded like.

Mandalaband wasn’t a traditional gigging band, but an array of session musicians and a few names (Justin Hayward, Maddy Prior, Noel Redding, Paul Young, Kevin Godley, Barclay James Harvest) brought together by the writer/producer/engineer (now Egyptologist) David Rohl, recording it at Strawberry Studios between 1976 and 1978, for a mere £8,000. All this — a rock musical featuring guest vocalists — brings to mind Jeff Wayne’s excellent War of the Worlds, which was released the month after The Eye of Wendor came out on Chrysalis in May 1978.

wendor map

To say The Eye of Wendor is Tolkienesque is like saying butter is buttery. The names are Tolkienesque: the lands Andor and Wendor sound like Gondor, the Elf King Nimrond sounds like Elrond, and the sacred horn of the Galadrim recalls, well, Tolkien’s Galadhrim. The world is Tolkienesque, with humans living alongside Grey Elves and Dwarves. Some of the music was actually composed as part of a proposed soundtrack to The Lord of the Rings. But it escapes the “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter”-ness of, say, Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara, by on the one hand having at least a few of its own ideas, and on the other, by being music rather than fiction, which makes the similarities/influences less obvious.

Rather than the exotic, electronic and World sounds of Jon Anderson’s Olias of Sunhillow (reviewed in a previous Mewsings), Wendor goes for a more traditional sound, wedding rock guitars and pianos to orchestral strings and brass (apart from in the quirky mood-piece of the “Almar’s Tower” track). The result is a big, lush, rock-friendly wash of sound, which is more about adventure and emotion than the strangeness or wonder of fantasy, although there is a sense of melancholy nostalgia which is often the nature of Tolkienesque epics. And perhaps it’s doubly fitting, because the story is itself about a magical thing (the Eye of Wendor) that has been lost, and most of this album’s instalment of the story is backstory, retelling the tale of the days before the city of Thôl Ænord was built, which adds yet another layer of long-ago lostness to the already nostalgic air.

As musical storytelling, it’s quite effective, but I can’t help thinking it wouldn’t be able to be done today, not without a big fat tongue in the cheek — which is a shame, because how can you sing with a tongue in your cheek?

Jon Anderson’s Olias of Sunhillow

This month, Atomhenge release a newly remastered and expanded version of Hawkwind’s Elric-inspired progstravaganza, The Chronicle of the Black Sword, (which was, alongside Hawkwind’s Astounding Songs, Amazing Music, the first LP I ever bought), so I thought I’d celebrate by listing my top 10 fantasy-themed concept albums. Then I realised I couldn’t think of 10 fantasy-themed concept albums, let alone list only good ones, so here, over the next few mewsings, (and with a little bit of cheating) are my top 5-or-so, starting with Jon Anderson’s 1976 album, Olias of Sunhillow.
When the various members of Yes decided to take a break from the band and produce solo albums, Jon Anderson holed himself up in a studio with nothing but an engineer and four groups of instruments: drums (of various ethnicities), stringed instruments (including kotos, sitars, harps and guitars), a collection of “international bells”, and a stack of electronic keyboards. These four groups represented the Nagrunium, Asatranius, Oractaniom, and Nordranious — the four tribes of Sunhillow, a crumbling world on the verge of destruction. Three heroes unite to save Sunhillow. Olias builds a music-powered flying ship Moorglade Mover, with which the trio are to find their people a new home. (The other two heroes have slightly more ill-defined roles. Qoquaq is “a leader, fashioner of peoples”, which is vague but at least important-sounding. Ranyart, however, is “to guide the moments begotten light”. I wonder what he actually put on his c.v.?)
But the key instrument, binding together those four disparate groups, is Anderson’s ethereal voice, often layered many times, singing wordlessly or intoning the peculiar poetry of his lyrics.
The initial spark of inspiration was Roger Dean’s cover to Yes’s 1972 album Fragile (depicting a flying ship leaving a crumbling world), but to this Anderson added an enthusiasm for Tolkien, and the writings of proto-New Age prophet Vera Stanley Alder. In fact, there’s a dangerously strong tint of the New Age about Anderson’s first solo album, both in the optimistic whimsy of its fantasy, and the musical palette of soft, sparkling synths and “World” instruments. Thankfully, it easily escapes that particular doldrum of musical Hell through sheer energy. This isn’t music to attune your chakras to, it’s adventurous music, full of drama, uplifting melodies, evocative soundscapes, and a fresh unearthliness that makes it the only fantasy album I can think of which genuinely sounds like it could have come from another culture.

This month, Atomhenge release a newly remastered and expanded version of Hawkwind’s Elric-inspired progstravaganza, The Chronicle of the Black Sword, (which was, alongside Hawkwind’s Astounding Songs, Amazing Music, the first LP I ever bought), so I thought I’d celebrate by listing my top 10 fantasy-themed concept albums. Then I realised I couldn’t think of 10 fantasy-themed concept albums, let alone good ones, so here, over the next few Mewsings, (and with a little bit of cheating here and there) are my top 5-or-so, starting with Jon Anderson’s 1976 album, Olias of Sunhillow.

oliasofsunhillow

When the various members of Yes decided to take a break from the band and produce solo albums in 1975, Anderson holed himself up in a studio with nothing but an engineer and four groups of instruments: drums of various ethnicities, stringed instruments (including kotos, sitars, harps and guitars), a collection of “international bells”, and a stack of electronic keyboards. These groups represented the Nagrunium, Asatranius, Oractaniom, and Nordranious — the four tribes of Sunhillow, a crumbling world on the verge of destruction. Three heroes unite to save Sunhillow. Olias builds a music-powered flying ship, Moorglade Mover, with which the trio are to find their people a new home. (The other two heroes have slightly more ill-defined roles. Qoquaq is “a leader, fashioner of peoples”, which is vague but at least important-sounding. Ranyart, however, is “to guide the moments begotten light”. I wonder what he actually put on his c.v.?) But the key instrument, and perhaps the most weirdly fantastic, is Anderson’s ethereal voice, often multi-layered, singing wordlessly or intoning the peculiar poetry of his lyrics, which when read are pretty much nonsense, but suddenly make sense when sung.

The initial spark of inspiration was Roger Dean’s cover to Yes’s 1971 album Fragile (depicting a flying ship leaving a crumbling world). To this Anderson added an enthusiasm for Tolkien, and the writings of proto-New Age prophet Vera Stanley Alder. In fact, there’s a dangerous swerve towards the New Age in Anderson’s first solo album, both in the optimistic whimsy of its fantasy world, and the musical palette of soft, sparkling synths and World instruments. Thankfully, it easily escapes that particular doldrum of musical Hell through sheer energy (on the musical front) and sheer weirdness (on the fantasy front). This isn’t music to attune your chakras to, it’s adventurous, full of drama, uplifting melodies, evocative soundscapes, and a fresh unearthliness that makes it the only fantasy album I can think of which genuinely sounds like it could have come from another world.

Pixie Post, or Phantasy Philately

Today, Royal Mail release their Mythical Creatures stamps, six designs by Dave McKean:

mythicalstamps_mckean

Not being a stamp collector, I wasn’t sure whether to get a first day cover (which sounded like it might appreciate in value) or the presentation pack (which sounded more fun), so I stumped for both. The first day cover comes with the stamps stuck on a specially-designed envelope, and franked with a faun postmark, while the presentation pack has the stamps (unstuck) in clear pockets on a fold-out card with more Dave McKean designery inside, and some short pieces by Neil Gaiman on the mythical beasties in question.

My favourites have to be the dragon, the mermaid and the unicorn. They’re the simpler designs, both in content (just the creature in question against a misty-swirly background) and colour (each one being predominately one colour).

I was interested to read, on Neil Gaiman’s blog entry announcing the stamps, that one of the designs was going to be a banshee, till someone pointed out it might be thought letters bearing the banshee stamp were going to contain bad news. Did no-one point out that the 62p pixie stamp might be classed as snail mail?