The Roar of Love

As a follow-up to my top five fantasy concept albums, covered in Mewsings a while back, over the next few entries I’m going to look at a few more fantasy albums I’ve come across recently (one of which I’ve been trying to get hold of for some time). These are slightly different in that they’re adaptations of (or inspired by) existing fantasy books, not original fantasies in themselves.

First up is The Roar of Love by a band called 2nd Chapter of Acts. Now, did you pick up on the subtle cultural signals tucked away in the band’s name to guess they’re a Christian group? I admit that, at first, this put me off buying the album. Then I told myself to stop being silly. After all, I don’t let the fact that I don’t ride a motorbike stop me from listening to Blue Öyster Cult, do I? (Nor does the fact that I don’t use drugs stop me from listening to Hawkwind; nor does the fact that I don’t use the word motherf—! stop me listening to Jane’s Addiction, either.) I was just a little wary of the music being a bit too happy, not to mention clappy.

The Roar of Love (1980) is inspired by C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. My mum read the entire Narnia series to my brother and me, a chapter at a time (with the occasional, magical, “Let’s read two chapters this time, shall we?” — she clearly enjoyed them as much as we did), and I loved them. Along with Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, they were the first proper fantasy books I read (or had read to me), and I was totally lost in their world. It was only when I was about eight or nine, when I bought a book about the Narnia series (it may have been Paul F Ford’s Companion to Narnia) that I came across the idea that the Narnia books were Christian allegories. This was a total shock to me, as I associated Christianity with school assemblies, the enforced singing of hymns (all of which but “The Lord of the Dance” I found dull), and, worst of all, school-visiting vicars with their “God is your best friend!” cheery-cheery vapidity. (I was only interested in the chap who danced with the Devil on his back.) In fact, I felt a little betrayed. I re-read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a few years ago, and was rather disgusted by how heavy-handed (not to say cack-handed) Lewis’s attempts to force the reader to feel religious awe for Aslan were. I fully intend to re-read the whole series — the through-the-wardrobe idea is, after all, one of the most magical symbols of entering the world of the imagination I know, perhaps not even second to entering the TARDIS — but I can’t help feeling Lewis’s tempering of the imaginative experience with such pointless (to me) didacticism is a little too much like the author placing an inappropriate hand on the (child) reader’s knee…

But, that aside —

The Roar of Love is fun. The music is, at times, sort of Yes-lite: full of energy, vocals in close harmony, lots of contrasting proggish sections going from classically-inspired to bombastic (light) rock to easy listening and funky pop. There was only one real trip-up moment for me (in the opener, “Are You Goin’ To Narnia”, which contains the lines “To meet the lamb that is a lion/I want to learn to love him too”), but that was more than made up for by the songs themselves being so very listenable. “Tell the Truth” became an immediate favourite with its “Turkish Delight” chorus. (It is followed by the funky guitars and soul-style vocals of a song, confusingly called “Turkish Delight”, about Edmund’s love for the White Queen. Soul, I can’t help feeling, is diametrically opposed to the fantastic. Nevertheless it will pop up again in another of the albums I’m going to cover.)

I’m always interested in how music can be used to capture the feeling of the fantastic, but I don’t think The Roar of Love is as concerned with conjuring another world as it is with just telling a story. The second track, “Lucy’s Long Gone”, covers the whole disappearance into another world with the line “I slipped right out of this world”, which doesn’t give it the awe, excitement and mystery I’d have liked. But the track does have a bouncy playfulness that reflects Lucy’s status as the youngest of the four children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — complete with circus-style calliope, at one point — which may be far more appropriate, anyway. Elsewhere, there’s enough lushness in the vocals to give the album a touch of the truly immersive feel of fantasy.

2nd Act of Chapters don’t do darkness, really. Even the track “Aslan is Killed”, though it has some lovely interweaving, almost fugal, vocal lines, doesn’t quite capture the devastating moment when Aslan is humiliated and sacrificed so much as provide a moment of sober reflection. But that’s more than made up for the truly uplifting mood of the album generally. Particularly “Witch’s Demise” with its chorus I at first misheard as: “And then He unmasked her/Then He cast her/to disaster/What a bastard!” (It’s actually “What a Master!” Oh, if only…)

Overall, great fun. It certainly captures the child-friendly fun elements of the The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe without overdoing the allegory.

Queen’s Queen II

Fantasy worlds created in childhood sometimes spill over into adulthood. Thus we have E R Eddison’s peculiarly childish naming scheme for the races in his otherwise sublime novel The Worm Orobouros (with Witches, Demons, and even Pixies being his warring nations of basically human warriors). Thus we also have Emily Brontë continuing to write poems about the invented lands of Angria and Gondal (which she and her siblings had worked on intensely as children) right through to the end of her life. And thus we also have the world of Rhye — or hints of it — a childhood fantasy world created by Freddie Bulsara and his sister, which crept into reality when Bulsara became Mercury, and Queen recorded their first two albums.

queen_ii

I’m picking Queen II (from 1974) as the fifth of my top five fantasy concept albums, but really I’m picking the fantasy concept album that might have been, had Freddie Mercury taken over the whole thing and expanded the handful of fantasy-themed songs on the group’s first two releases into a complete concept album. My fantasy fantasy concept album, you could say.

And what an album it would have been! Early Queen manage a misty-morning never-never sound that tints many of their non-fantasy songs with the fantastic (“Nevermore”, “White Queen”); they also manage an almost religious grandiosity with equal conviction (the epic “Prophet’s Song”, “Jesus”) — both essential elements in a full-fleshed fantasy. When actual make-believe enters into it, we get something as baroque and filigree as the Art Nouveau-esque “My Fairy King”, as operatic as “The March of the Black Queen”, or something in the straight-ahead rock leagues like “Ogre Battle”. There’s humour, (“she boils and she bakes and she never dots her i’s” from “Black Queen”) — something which can puncture the make-believe bubble unless handled properly (in this case, with sufficient bombast) — there’s lyricism, and there’s even something that sounds like it was inspired by Dungeons & Dragons (“Can’t go east cos you gotta go south” from “Ogre Battle”), though of course D&D wasn’t released till 1974 (and I doubt it reached England immediately), while Queen II was recorded in 1973.

Centrepiece of the whole thing must be “The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke”, a rendering in music of Richard Dadd’s intensely-detailed painting (and quoting from the peculiar poem Dadd wrote to accompany the picture, apparently in an attempt to prove it was a rationally reasoned-out subject, and not entirely produced by madness). At a mere 2 minutes 41 seconds, the song contains almost as many textures and details as the painting, and is one of the few examples of one work of art inspiring another of equal value.

Speaking of works of art inspiring others, there have been (I think) two fantasy novels written using Queen’s fantasy songs for inspiration. I read one, in the late eighties (I think), and can’t remember what it was called or who wrote it. And I don’t really want to. The secret of a successful adaptation from music to literature is, I suspect, not to be too literal. When I realised the plot of the novel was building up to a battle between two ogres, my heart sank. I remember glancing at another fantasy novel more recently which was inspired by Queen’s fantasy songs, but can’t remember the details, and the internet (in a brief search, I have to admit), seems equally disinclined. (I did uncover a video game, Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen, from 1995, though).

Well, that’s it for my top five fantasy-themed concept albums. I’m sure there are others, perhaps even betters. If I discover one, you’ll find it in a future Mewsings. Here’s the full five, which have been presented in no particular order:

Hawkwind’s Chronicle of the Black Sword

Ah, Hawkwind. Rocksters of Reality! Spacefarers of the Science-Fictional! Plunderers of Pulp! Barbarians of Blanga!

That’s enough of that. Let’s just say I like them, and The Chronicle of the Black Sword is one of my favourite of their many albums.

Those many albums… Sometimes I think Hawkwind aren’t so much a band as an anthology series, or an old pulp magazine. Weird Tales, say, or New Worlds. Pick up any lurid-covered issue of Weird Tales in its heyday, and you’d find a mix of stories by individually excellent authors, presided over and brought into some sort of unity by the vision of the editor, shaky-handed Farnsworth Wright (the “Tyrant Pharnabeezer”, to some of those who had to deal with his rejections), or, for New Worlds, (and quite fittingly in this case) the staunchly bearded Michael Moorcock. Pick up any lurid-covered Hawkwind album and you’ll find the same mix of authorial styles, presided over this time by chief Hawk Dave Brock (who has been called a lot worse than “the Tyrant Pharnabeezer” by those ex-members who’ve departed over creative differences, or been plain fired, but I think without him we wouldn’t have nearly so much — or as good — Hawkwind as we do. Hell, we wouldn’t have Hawkwind. Besides, I love his singing voice and thudding guitar).

Pick any two Hawkwind albums and play them back to back, and at times you’d be hard pressed to guess they were from the same band. You’ve got sixties druggy droning on their debut, a punk-like tightness in the Calvert/Charisma years, electronic trancy weirdness on It Is The Business of the Future To Be Dangerous, and oodles of straight-ahead rock (1980’s Levitation being a particular high point, for me).

chronicle-of-the-black-swor

Hawkwind's Chronicle of the Black Sword, cover by John Coulthart

The Chronicle of the Black Sword is mostly straight-ahead rock, with a few patches of moody instrumental, and the beautiful breathy synth lament “Zarozinia”. Having listened to the album a good few times since I bought it back in something like 1987 (it was released in 1984), I find it impossible to judge how well it works, as a fantasy concept album, in transporting you to its particular story world. Why? Because all I have to do is hear the deep whomping thrum of the electronic drone that opens “Song of the Swords”, the album’s first track, and I’m there, in Hawkwind/Moorcock/Elric land, and I stay there till “Horn of Destiny” at the end. (With perhaps a slight jar at “Needle Gun” which opens side two, because it’s Jerry Cornelius, not Elric.)

But Chronicle is just a taster of the full Hawkwind/Moorcock/Elric experience, to be found on Live Chronicles, a double album and DVD of the accompanying live show. (Which, I always kick myself to recall, I had the chance of seeing when Hawkwind put on a reprise of the show at Conspiracy ’87, but, at the time, I was too scared of the idea of going to a rock concert to do it!) Here we get songs from Chronicle of the Black Sword and Hawkwind’s back catalogue, as well as some new linking tracks, woven into the tale of doomed Elric Womanslayer and the final battle between Law and Chaos.

Cover to US release of Chronicle of the Black Sword

Cover to US release of Chronicle of the Black Sword

How I’d love a full studio treatment of the whole show! Because, like it though I do, Live Chronicles just doesn’t have the full thumping aural richness of its studio-based little brother, and in the case of a song like “Moonglum” (written, sung and lead-guitared by the wonderfully reggae-voiced Huw Lloyd Langton), this is a crime, because this sublime piece of tune-smithery hasn’t, as far as I know, ever been studio recorded.

Ah well. Perhaps I should put the full-studio Chronicles (a triple album, I’d like to think) down as my fantasy fantasy album, the one I’d most like to hear had it ever been recorded.

Or I could, if I hadn’t already reserved that slot for the last of my top five fantasy concept albums, which I’ll be covering in the next Mewsings…

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.