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January 2, 2004

2003 Tolkien Music Roundup
Chris Seeman

I’ve been performing a little experiment. Each December for the past three years I’ve been keeping a close watch on the hit counters for the Tolkien Music List website, to see how the release of the Peter Jackson films has affected internet traffic (taking this as an index for the impact of the movies on Tolkien fandom generally). Of course, Tolkien-inspired music is not everyone’s cup of tea, so its popularity may not be altogether representative. But the results have been interesting. Despite the media deluge brought on by the films, they register as only isolated blips on my hit counter, doubling traffic for about a week or so and then tapering off to previous levels. From the vantage point of music, then, the films represent “episodic” intensifications of interest rather than a sea change.

This perception would appear to find reinforcement in some other “hard data.” If one tabulates the number of Tolkien-inspired musical works recorded or published each year from 1962 to the present, a statistical landscape becomes discernable. Apart from a few isolated symphonic works by a lone American composer in the early ‘60s, it is not until 1967 that Tolkien’s writings broke onto the musical scene (preeminently with Donald Swann’s “The Road Goes Ever On” song cycle). Mirroring Tolkien’s emergent world popularity, an average of seven or eight songs/albums per year appeared from the late ‘60s through the late ‘80s. During the next decade, the numbers began to increase steadily but dramatically, from 22 in 1990 to 74 in 1997. None of this, of course, had anything to do with Peter Jackson. But when news of the projected cinematic trilogy hit the streets, the volume of Tolkien-inspired music began to skyrocket, jumping to 128 in 1999, and peaking at 185 in 2001. Interestingly, though, this trend has not continued. The number drops to 98 in 2002 and to 51 this past year. Rather like the hit counter on my website, the release of the films has temporarily stimulated a rise in the frequency of musical works devoted to Tolkien’s mythology, and is now returning to something more like what it was during the mid-‘90s, before all the hype. Conclusion: for all their grandeur and scale, the films are mere transient waves in a pre-existent sea of Tolkien enthusiasm that was there long before and will remain long after Viggo, Elijah and company have left the silver screen.

Enough of the big picture. What’s been going on in the world of Tolkien music this past year?

Quite a bit, actually. Even though dwarfed by the orgy of 2001, no fewer than twenty-one Tolkien-inspired albums were released in 2003, along with twenty-nine individual songs. No lack of listening pleasure here.

So, a few of this year’s highlights by genre (asterisks = my personal nominations for best of this year’s offerings):

CLASSICAL
• The Evening of Iluvatar\'s Children (*): Second in a trilogy of CDs by Russian ensemble Caprice. Blows away the Tolkien Ensemble with its versatility, its “faeric” beauty and its sheer daring. Get it!
• The Return of the King: Howard Shore delivers a satisfying crescendo to his opus, with full development of the themes he has been building up over the past three years.
• Rings - Il Decimo Anello: Italian pianist Arturo Stàlteri has put together a wonderful selection of instrumental sketches of Middle-earth. Great background music.

CELTIC/FOLK
• Memories of Middle Earth (*): Texan duo Brobdingnagian Bards have assembled a Tolkien concept album of celtic-inspired melodies that avoid cliché and kitch. Definitely worth a listen.
• The Ring vol. 2: Danish multi-instrumentalist Kim Skovbye returns for the second half of a two-part celtic/folk project dedicated to Lord of the Rings. “The Ring” is an elaboration on an earlier instrumental CD Skovbye recorded based on The Hobbit entitled “There and Back Again.”
• “Get The Halfling!” Dutch celtic group Omnia have created a hilarious parody of the Uruk-hai from the movies with this song off their new album “3.” A must hear.

NEW AGE
• Enchanted Journey: Debut CD of California-based Everstar. A bit overdone in places, but a decent effort for the mood-music inclined.

HIP HOP
• “Stealing Like A Hobbit” (*): Dr. Demento-esque filker “The Great Luke Ski” rewrites Eminem’s “Cleaning Out My Closet” to the Frodo-Gollum thing. Great stuff!
• “Nine-Fingered Frodo:” The second single released by Lords of the Rhymes is only available as a sound file, but hopefully this is the first step on the way to a full-length album by Quickbeam and his posse. Right on!

ELECTRONIC/INDUSTRIAL
• Lord of the Rings Modulator: Haven’t actually heard this double LP by the band Force Field, but the reviews say it’s a powerhouse.
• War Of Sound (*): Unique electronic album themed to the Ainulindalë, enhanced by sampling from Martin Shaw’s reading of The Silmarillion. Very primal and elemental sound.

ROCK
• All For The One (*): Two very enthusiastic thumbs up to Texas-based pomp-rockers “Hobbit” for this long-expected opus. The ULTIMATE Tolkien celebration album. One of my top-ten Tolkien albums of all time.
• “Helm\'s Deep:” Murder 1 is no stranger to Tolkien, but the present piece departs from their usual assault for more complex melodies and lyrical maturity. Ready for more!

METAL
• Elven Tears: Austrian Summoning-inspired Falagar (who records under the name “Rivendell”) delivers his second official Tolkien-inspired release, setting Tolkien’s verse to a variety of arrangements.
• Sword\'s Song (*): Finnish fantasy metallers Battlelore have released their second Tolkien-inspired CD hard on the heels of their debut album. Sword’s Song continues the musical and lyrical approaches of their earlier work. Keep up the good work, and long live MERP!
• Lost Tales: Two leftovers from Summoning’s previous release “Let Mortals Sing Your Fame” make up this mini-CD. The material is up to the high standard listeners have come to expect from this legendary duo, but devoted fans will be impatient for more.


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