Lord of the Rings, Rock On!
A music consideration of Lord of the Rings
by Amy Sturgis (I Voted for Mayor Gamgee)

The author's home on the web can be found here.

“Amy,” my friends say to me – that’s what my friends call me: Amy – “Amy,” they say, “we’ve read The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion until we can recite them verbatim. We’ve watched Peter Jackson’s films until our eyes bled. We’ve even dragged out those old Rankin-Bass and Bakshi movies to view. We’ve played the games and collected the action figures. But alas, our J.R.R. Tolkien itch still has not yet been scratched. Where do we go from here?”

“Don’t forget Tolkien’s other Middle-earth works,” I reply. “After all, there’s Bilbo’s Last Song, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, and Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-Earth, not to mention of course the twelve-volume History of Middle-Earth series, as well. Hours and hours of reading enjoyment, complete with maps, charts, genealogies, appendices, and footnotes!”

“Amy,” my friends then say, “you are a jerk.”

Well, some of my friends say that. The others can recite the aforementioned History of Middle-earth texts verbatim, as well.

But you, dear reader, I will let in on a well-kept secret. There’s another way to experience Middle-earth, and the best part is that you can dance to it. We all know about Howard Shore’s award-winning soundtracks to Peter Jackson’s film trilogy. Less well known but equally impressive are Stephen Oliver’s Music From the BBC Radio Dramatisation of The Lord of the Rings, and the album some hoped might become the soundtrack for Jackson’s movies, Music Inspired by Middle Earth Featuring David Arkenstone. Furthermore, The J.R.R. Tolkien Audio Collection and Donald Swann’s The Road Goes Ever On give us a good sense of how the Master himself imagined Middle-earth to sound. (These and others are readily available from The Tolkien Shop and elsewhere.) But such odysseys are just the tip of the musical iceberg.

From German doom metal to Italian folk, from country/western to prog-rock, from Led Zeppelin to Nickel Creek, J.R.R. Tolkien has left his indelible mark on world music. A quick glance at The Tolkien Music List proves that the amount of Tolkien-related tunes in circulation today is nothing short of overwhelming. But never fear: I have a short and sweet list of recommendations to share, and Leonard Nimoy’s “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” is not among them.

Much of Tolkien music can be divided neatly into two main categories: those that adapt Tolkien’s own written verses to music, and those that use Tolkien’s texts as inspiration for original compositions. In the former group artists run the gamut from those seeking a certain aesthetic style (James A. Stark’s James Stark’s Harp and vocals classical harp and vocals come to mind) to those trying to create an authentic “Middle-Earth” effects Broceliande’srustic sound includes the tramping of feet during the “Hobbit Walking Song,” for example). From this rich tradition, several “must hear” artists have emerged.

For example, I would not be surprised to learn that Italian bard Giuseppe Festa along with his band Lingalad, actually lives in Middle-earth and only visits our own less remarkable realm for the concert season. He sings about Tolkien’s world as if he felt it beneath his feet, or could reach out and touch it. His Voci dalla Terra di Mezzo/Voices from Middle Earth is the only CD I've had that has never left the player since purchase. The entire album has an organic, natural feel; the sounds of birds and water are as key to Festa’s storytelling as those of guitar and flute. His vocals are understated yet soulful, emphasizing the awe, melancholy, hope, and staggering power of Tolkien's vision. Most songs adapt Tolkien’s verses from The Lord of the Rings, though the album has a few instrumentals (including the breathtaking "Small Moon's Glade") and one Tolkien-inspired original song ("Lingalad").

In short, Festa understands Tolkien’s work. He grieves and triumphs with the characters. "Beside the Fire" is angst-ridden and yet heart-breakingly hopeful. "The Grey Wayfarer" burns with loss and regret. My favorite track is "Tom Bombadil," which captures the relief, security, and warmth of Bombadil's welcome sanctuary. The sensitivity and simple joy of this performance amazes me. Pay attention at the end, and you can hear old Tom go off whistling alongside the waters of the Withywindle.

It’s understandable why Festa and Lingalad are now in demand to perform at Tolkien-related events around the world. Listen to this album and you'll know you’ve walked in the footsteps of the Fellowship. And don’t miss Festa’s other work, either: listening to his music is the next best thing to wandering the forest yourself.

Moving along, it seems the Danes love Tolkien even more than Germans love David Hasselhoff. The Tolkien Ensemble, the reigning rulers of Tolkien music, now have three albums to their credit with a fourth underway. An Evening in Rivendell and A Night in Rivendell, also sold jointly as 24 Songs from the Lord of the Rings, and At Dawn in Rivendell together comprise a must-own set for Tolkien fans. Christopher Lee, last seen as Saruman in Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, even appears as a guest performer on the most recent album. Moreover, the CDs include illustrations from The Lord of the Rings drawn by HM Queen Margrethe of Denmark.

The group arranges and performs Tolkien’s verses in a classical style, but individual songs range from the operatic ("Galadriel's Song of Eldamar") to the folksy ("There Is An Inn, A Merry Old Inn"). With three albums of material, not every track can be a winner. Sometimes the performer's accent is a bit thick (“Gollum’s Song”), the arrangement seems ponderous or overdone ("Lament for Theoden"), or the pacing lacks life ("Lament for Boromir"). But when the ensemble does it right, the songs are revelations. Galadriel's "I Sang of Leaves" is spine-chilling splendor at its best. "Gandalf's Song of Lorien" captures the gravity and passion of Tolkien's lore. "A Drinking Song" is toe-tapping fun. The triumphs far outweigh the misses. It is clear that composers Casper Reiff and Peter Hall truly love the material, and they invest the time and effort to make the characters’ voices consistent and believable. Their best track is "Sam's Song in the Orc Tower." It's so haunting it follows you around after one listen, and it may well be one of the single best interpretations of Tolkien's verse ever recorded.

And there’s so much more. The Russian symphonic orchestra Caprice creates an altogether otherworldly effect with soaring, ethereal vocals and instrumentation in Elvenmusic and Elvenmusic 2: The Evening of Iluvatar’s Children. If Galadriel were here today, she would be singing with Caprice; in fact, I’m not convinced she isn’t. Hailing from The Netherlands, The Hobbitons offer the earthy and authentic pub sing-along flavor of Songs from Middle Earth. They focus attention on some of Tolkien’s less-celebrated but enchanting verses such as the charming “The Man in the Moon Came Down Too Soon” and the chilling “The Mewlips.” Andi Grimsditch’s remarkable interpretation of “Eärendil” alone makes his Argentine album Tolkien Song Cycle, Vol. 1 worth the cost of purchase.

But what happens when Tolkien-inspired musicians plug in the guitars, set up the drums, and let down their hair? Not all of those who love The Lord of the Rings choose to adapt Tolkien’s own words; many prefer to pen original lyrics to expand on Tolkien’s themes or explore particular elements of his myth. Certainly great diversity exists within this group, from Kevin Henry’s Country/western concept album

Bilbo’s Great Adventure to the Celtic/New Age flavor of Mostly Autumn’s Music Inspired by the Lord of the Rings. But where classical and folk styles dominate the world of Tolkien adaptations, the majority of musicians with original Tolkien-inspired albums well, they just want to rock. Tennessee has much to be proud of in Chattanooga’s Glass Hammer . Recently and deservedly named “America’s leading prog-band” by Background Magazine, Glass Hammer first entered the scene with Journey of the Dunadan, which focuses on the character of Aragorn and boasts the unforgettable ballad “The Way to Her Heart.” A decade later, the band followed with another Tolkien-inspired classic, The Middle Earth Album. Half of this CD creates the experience of a sing-along in the Prancing Pony in Bree, complete with the shouts and catcalls of Hobbits, Dwarves, Men, and various other colorful patrons enjoying their ale. Even the studio tracks that comprise the second half of the concept album carry through the reality of the Middle-earth setting. The band balances introspective works such as "As I Walk" and "Mithrandir (This Fading Age)," which reflect on the bittersweet experience of the Fellowship and its allies, with raucous drinking songs such as "The Old Troll and the Maiden" and "Dwarf and Orc.” Only a band who knows and loves Tolkien as well as Glass Hammer does could so successfully laugh with The Lord of the Rings while simultaneously paying it such respect.

I remain impressed with how Glass Hammer sneaks in genuine regret and longing without ever losing the pace of this The Middle Earth Album, which begs the listener to party like it's 1442 Shire Reckoning. Hint 1: if you buy this from the Glass Hammer site, consider the companion collector's edition "The Making of A Glass Hammer Adventure," as well. And stay around to see what all the fuss regarding Shadowlands and Lex Live is about! Hint 2: if you can see this band perform live, do it. There’s nothing like singing yourself hoarse to “The King’s Beer.” You’ll thank me later.

Fans of British hard rockers Magnum won’t be surprised when I praise front man Bob Catley’s passionate, uncompromising vocal style. He won my appreciation with “Fear of the Dark,” an Éowyn-centric song from his solo CD The Tower. Then his concept album Middle Earth came along and quite literally rocked my world. The lyrics alone make this work a standout achievement. Add Catley’s voice to descriptions such as “Like the sun setting on my shoulder/ Galadriel is the embers of the night/ And there can be no other… Galadriel is the tender autumn light/ She is the end of summer,” and you have an addictive combination.

Driving, merciless beats and gutsy guitar work help the music keep pace with the remarkable writing. Catley alternately takes on the perspective of Hobbits, Dwarves, Elves, and Men, leading the listener from the Shire to Gondor with mesmerizing, and at times heartbreaking, intensity. At the heart of this album is a serious examination of characters’ relationships (Frodo’s trust in Gandalf in “Where You Lead I’ll Follow,” for example) and motivations (the desperate will of those who defend Helm’s Deep in “City Walls,” for instance). Like all good Tolkien music, Bob Catley’s work is an illumination of and education on Middle-Earth and its meaning. You won’t read The Lord of the Rings the same way again after listening to his work.

I have a hard time imagining Tolkien himself as a headbanger, but Blind Guardian’s brand of German doom metal is eerily appropriate for retelling the story of Fëanor from The Silmarillion. In Nightfall, the band captures the despair, pride, and rage that followed from Morgoth’s theft of the Silmarils and fueled the terrible Oath of Fëanor. This music is not for the timid, but let’s be honest: neither is The Silmarillion itself. When Blind Guardian sings “Insanity reigned/ And spilled the first blood/ When the old king was slain” or “Full of hate/ Full of pride/ We screamed for revenge,” you feel the anguish down to your toes.

The title track, which describes the Darkening of Valinor, is one of several particularly complex and well crafted standout songs. In it the band thoroughly gets into the skin of the tragically flawed protagonists, and thus effectively draws the audience into the conflict. The album ends as it begins, on a dark and disconsolate note. I wouldn’t recommend this for your wedding reception or bat mitzvah party, but it does wonders for making Tolkien’s vision come wildly, even brutally, alive. Even if you’re not generally a fan of the music style, give this one a try.

There are a number of other noteworthy albums I should mention. Alan Horvath’s new acoustic rock concept album The Rings Project features some unforgettable, wrenching moments, especially with “The Grey Havens.” The prog-rock band HobbitHobbit has followed Rockin’ the Shire with a second theme CD, All for the One, that’s almost compulsively singable. With tunes like “The Psychopathic, Chronic, Schizophrenic Gollum Blues,” the Brobdingnagian The Bards’ Memories of Middle Earth offer a most entertaining listen. And don’t forget Bombadil and Quickbeam, the pioneers of Tolkien rap, who together form the one and only Lords of the Rhymes.

Now armed with my picks of the very best Tolkien-themed concept albums out there, adaptations and originals, you are ready to rap, rock, two-step, waltz, and even polka your way there and back again. Trust me on this: it’s a long walk to Mount Doom, and you don’t want to forget your discman.

You don’t need to carry that big, heavy ring, though. You’d best leave that with me.
- I Voted for Mayor Gamgee