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.
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.
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?