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.
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.