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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Bo Hansson: Music Inspired By Watership Down


1) Born Of The Gentle South; 2) Allegro For A Rescue; 3) Legend And Light; 4) Trial And Adversity; 5) The Twice-Victory; 6) The Kingdom Brightly Smiles; 7) Migration Suite.

Even after ʽRabbit Musicʼ, the furry bunnies from Richard Adams' novel still plagued Bo's mind so terribly that he had to dedicate his entire next album to the little guys, making this his second record completely «inspired by» a literary work. The original Swedish release was called El-Ahrairah, after the name given to one particular trickster rabbit in the book, but for the interna­tional market, it was apparently thought that a more explanatory title was in order — or perhaps  the record industry people thought the name sounded too Arabic for the eyes and ears of the Western public, and would trigger visions of hijacked planes and terrorist attacks.

Regardless, the album never charted even with a «safe» title, and its total lack of commercial suc­cess was one of the factors responsible for Bo's subsequent withdrawal from the music scene. Indeed, given that the age of prog rock's «coolness» was long gone, in 1977 you had to conform or combust, and it is quite evident from these tunes that Hansson had no wish whatsoever to set aside his personal muse and suck in any of the arena-rock, disco, or New Wave influences. In­stead, he just used up the last drops of credit he'd earned from the success of Lord Of The Rings to do the same thing as always — and then faded away.

The few tepid reviews I have seen of this album were mostly dismissive, with «nothing new» being the most often repeated motive. This is surprising, because, from a general point of view, ever since making his mark with the Tolkien tribute, Hansson had kept on making «nothing new» records on a steady basis, and if we are to maintain accuracy, El-Ahrairah actually sounds more different from Attic Thoughts than the latter does from Magician's Hat. For one thing, the com­positions tend to be a bit louder, angrier, and more relying on electric guitar playing than ever before — possibly to capture some of the dynamic spirit of the book, but possibly also because he wanted to brush away the illusion of creating «progressive elevator muzak», and put together some tunes that would force the listener to pay more attention.

Indeed, on the opening multi-part suite ʽBorn Of The Gentle Southʼ, the composer pulls all the stops — tempos, tonalities, moods shift constantly like the wind, going from slow soul-burning Floydisms to spinning polkas with psychedelic guitar solos to grand gospel passages to vicious blues-rock blasts to whatever else is imaginable. Whether all these ingredients are cohesive enough to form an impressive whole is up to you to decide; personally, I happen to feel that none of the ideas are given enough time and space to blossom properly, but then, I could probably say the same of quite a few classical concertos and symphonies, so let's just say that I find the suite easier to pay attention to (because of its dynamic jumps), but just as generally unmemorable as any average Hansson composition on the previous albums.

The best tracks, in my opinion, are ʽLegend And Lightʼ, where there is an interesting contrast between Bo's solo piano passages (merging music hall with avantgarde jazz) and the grand an­themic reso­lutions in the «chorus» parts, making the track a «teasing» experiment worthy of Zappa; and ʽThe Twice-Victoryʼ, whose main stately theme, slightly reminiscent of the spaghetti western style, is probably the most successful stab at grandiosity on the album — too bad it is never given enough time and space to bl... oh, okay, never mind.

Unfortunately, I am at the disadvantage of not actually having read the source novel (there's only so much fantasy that I can digest, which is not very much), so it is hard for me to understand how these musical themes truly relate to that entire rabbit business. Even more unfortunately, it is hard for me to visualise any concept to which this music, as a whole, would be applicable. There is Bo's usual strain of sorrow and melancholia stretching throughout the entire work (those are some fairly morose and somber rabbits indeed), but that is not nearly enough to blow one's mind — although I have to admit that out of all four albums, this is easily the one that tries to invoke the spirit of grand tragedy on the most regular basis. If only these invocations didn't usually end up sounding like «Pink Floyd lite», the album could have been 1977's dark masterpiece — as it is, it's more like 1977's dark coffee-table.

Bo Hansson did make one more record later on in his career: the Swedish-only Mitt I Livet came out in 1985, never got an international release, never came out on CD, and remains a little-heard ob­scurity (so I have no way of ascertaining whether it is in the same style or if he finally decided to make a transition to synth-pop). Twenty-five years later, he died, and to this day, he remains generally revered in a small circle of connoisseurs — a curious figure, capable of inspiring chi­valrous devotion and agonizing boredom, sometimes at the same time. Whatever be the case, he may not have written the best Tolkien soundtrack ever, but one thing is certain: he did manage to forever change my casual perception of rabbits.


  1. Nice review, as always! I really recommend reading the novel though. I know a lot of people who aren't fantasy fans at all, and still love this book.

  2. Just going to throw my two cents in that Watership Down really is excellent. Don't be fooled by the bunnies - it's really not much of a children's book. Check it out if you have the time.