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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Bo Hansson: Music Inspired By Lord Of The Rings

BO HANSSON: MUSIC INSPIRED BY LORD OF THE RINGS (1972)

1) Leaving Shire; 2) The Old Forest & Tom Bombadil; 3) Fog On The Barrow-Downs; 4) The Black Riders & Flight To The Ford; 5) At The House Of Elrond & The Ring Goes South; 6) A Journey In The Dark; 7) Lothlorien; 8) Shadowfax; 9) The Horns Of Rohan & The Battle Of The Pelennor Fields; 10) Dreams In The House Of Healing; 11) Homeward Bound & The Scouring Of The Shire; 12) The Grey Havens.

«Inspired» is the right word. If all of these compositions pretended to the status of an actual sound­track to Lord Of The Rings, it'd be a Lord Of The Rings in which Frodo would be a som­nambulant lunatic, Tom Bombadil would be a decrepit old organ player, stoned out of his mind in a basement, Lothlorien would be the name of an opium den, The Battle of the Pelennor Fields would be carried out by Grateful Dead fans in a mosh pit, and «leaving for the Grey Havens» would be a euphemism for a heroin injection. But as it is, the music does not pretend to anything — it simply happens to be inspired by LOTR. And some elvendust and magic mushrooms.

In all honesty, these pieces of music that the Swedish multi-instrumentalist Bo Hansson put together for his first solo album do not have much to do with Tolkien, and the title might even be a little misleading: for one thing, people who have never joined the club of J. R. R. admirers, or people who actually find Tolkien's significant influence on 1960s-1970s music somewhat embar­rassing (remember Plant's lyrics for ʽRamble Onʼ, eh?) are quite likely to be turned off by the title, thinking that this is just some silly slobbering fanboy tribute. Tribute it might be, in name, but in actuality Hansson is too busy concocting his own magical mystical world to grovel and kowtow before somebody else's.

The world is not characterised by a staggering amount of diversity. It most closely resembles the efforts of Pink Floyd circa 1970-72, when they were already out of their wildest psychedelic / avantgarde phase, but were not yet ready to flood the world with their newly awakened social conscience, and were mostly content with exploring the possibilities for strange ambient beauty. Hansson, playing most of the instruments himself (Rune Carlsson is handling the drums, and a couple of additional sax and flute players are also available from time to time), sees himself as a mood-brewer: these are smooth, quiet, repetitive instrumentals that invite the listener to relax and soak in the atmosphere. The actual melodies are so straightforward and simple that you will be humming them in no time if you set your mind to it — much like Floyd's melodies, come to think of it — but the simplicity is meaningful and seductive enough to forgive the lack of flash.

Hansson's keyboards are the essential link: originally, he was a major Hammond player (as part of the late-Sixties duo Hansson & Carlsson), and here, too, the organ remains his instrument of choice, although he's also added the Moog to his inventory (whose first notable appearance is impersonating a nasty wight in ʽFog On The Barrow-Downsʼ). Whatever simple melody is play­ing at any given moment, there is almost always a quiet baroque (or pseudo-baroque?) keyboard «floor» under it, and together with Hansson's respect for the echo effect, these are his major world-building ingredients. He does not manage a sound as vast as Floyd do on their better tunes (like ʽEchoesʼ), but he is not hunting for that — his space is fairly well shut in, so if you want my Lord Of The Rings association, I'd say that the majority of these tracks should be stripped of their titles, sewn together and renamed «The Crossing Of Mirkwood, Pts. I-X», because that is exactly how it all feels to me — an endless, monotonous journey on a narrow forest path, barely looked over by some feeble rays of light: boring, perhaps, but also hypnotic in some strange, undescri­bable way.

Every now and then the music picks up the pace a little, but really, even ʽThe Battle Of The Pelennor Fieldsʼ, despite the quirky «treated» electric guitar part that presages Mike Oldfield, sounds more like a merry Celtic dance than a fierce combat between the forces of good and evil. «Evil», in fact, tends rather to be impersonated by «scary» fiddling with the Moog, from the already mentioned ʽFogʼ to ʽA Journey In The Darkʼ, while «beauty», be it ʽLothlorienʼ or the romantic gallop of ʽShadowfaxʼ, is associated with simple, clean, sometimes slightly jazzy electric guitar licks. All of it is very homebrewn and not a wee bit «epic»: as we get to ʽGrey Havensʼ, for the Grand Finale we are offered nothing but a stern couple of sliding electric licks (to mirror the movement of oars?), some quietly bubbling organ parts, and Carlsson's usual «muffled» percussion, to avoid any direct references to a «rock sound», if possible.

Considering how unassuming the music is, it is curious that it even managed to reach the ears of a large audience in the first place. Hansson originally recorded and released it as Sagan Om Ringen in Sweden in 1970, but later on, it caught the attention of Tony Stratton-Smith (the guy behind the success of Genesis), and by the time it hit the UK and US shelves in 1972, Hansson was already a minor celebrity in the prog-rock ranks. Maybe it is this quiet, ascetic nature of the album that made it stand out even back then, when most people were being so flashy and bom­bastic — anyway, it is a good thing that Tolkien's agents never let him carry on with the idea of adding voices to the record, because I believe that any singing here would have spoilt the overall effect. As it is, this is just one of those albums that will go down easy with a cup of camomile tea — not «stunningly beautiful», but «quietly becalming» in much the same way as something like Brian Eno's Another Green World, just on a less radical level. Thumbs up

3 comments:

  1. I discovered Bo Hansson a couple of months ago, specifically this album, from listening to some YouTube user's obscure prog rock playlist. I'll admit I was a bit disappointed at first, given the title -- when it comes to music and Tolkien, it'll be Howard Shore's score to Peter Jackson's films that always comes to mind. But this is, indeed, a good album, with some interesting Eno-esque music -- although I don't get quite the same "spiritual calm" that I do from Eno's work, nor are Hansson's pieces as memorable. Still, he's an artist I'm interested in exploring more.

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  2. Wasn't this the same Bo Hansson that wrote "Tax Free", which was famously covered many times by the Jimi Hendrix Experience?

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  3. Malx, yes, this is the one.

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