OF RINGS AND SWEDES

How to approach Bo Hansson’s Lord of the Rings? Having played it so often over many decades, the chances of this reviewer listening dispassionately are about the same as Gollum opening a secondhand jewellery store.

Hannson Bo - LotR

It must be said that not everyone likes the Swedish keyboard player’s album. In its early days, MOJO: The Music Magazine had a mercifully short-lived column called ‘Lance Corporal Nutmeg’ where they slagged off an album deemed unworthy. ‘The MOJO All-Time Bottom 100’ if you please. Imagine the outrage I felt when I reached page twenty-five of the August 1996 edition to find Bo Hansson’s record fifth-columned. How very dare they!

But having exhumed Issue #33 from the archive, I find it makes interesting reading, mainly because it contains precisely zero insight into the music. Instead, journo Dave Rimmer (obviously the sibling of Arnold Rimmer of Red Dwarf fame) opts for the kind of lazy anti-prog clichés and snarky anti-hippy jibes that abounded in the eighties and nineties and still, sadly and stupidly, persist today.

By way of introduction, then, I’m reproducing the Mojo piece on Lord Of The Rings, omitting only the adjectives and vague, unsubstantiated put-downs.

It’s perhaps hard now to imagine an instrumental concept album inspired by the mythical quest of a hairy-toed burrow-dweller selling by the cartload. And especially not one written by an otherwise unknown Swedish organist. But sell this did. Enough to go gold in the UK and Australia.

It was released at a time when not only was Tolkien’s trilogy required generational reading, but keyboard virtuosity and instrumental concept albums were also very much the order of the day. Appearing in Sweden in 1970 and then two years later on Charisma in the UK, Lord Of The Rings had the distinction of pre-dating Rick Wakeman’s Six Wives Of Henry VIII, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and ELP’s Pictures At An Exhibition.

It’s a work consisting of Hammond organ (with) Moog flourishes, augmented by guitar. Keyboards, guitar and bass were all played by Hansson, with other Swedes contributing drums, congas, sax and flute.

Other than a superfluous final paragraph that introduces, for no obvious reason, a woman ‘born of hippy parents’ named Lorien, that’s it.

Twenty years later the Allmusic guide is much kinder, describing Hansson’s album as ‘one of the few progressive rock instrumental recordings that still holds up on repeated listenings’ and awarding it a generous four-and-a-half stars.

Mojo magazine - Bo Hansson

Hansson’s LOTR was recorded in 1969 and released in Sweden as Sagan Om Ringen in 1970, the year of debut albums by Gentle Giant, Hawkwind and Tangerine Dream, of King Crimson’s Wake of Poseidon and Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother. This was the simmering post-psychedelic melting pot from which progressive music was sending up multi-coloured bubbles of riotous creativity before the very (blurry) eyes of late-teen bedroom dwellers and alternative lefties-about-town. The Swede’s album deserves respect simply for being there at the beginning.

sagan om ringen LP

I wish I owned a copy of the Swedish original, but I don’t. Love the cover though.

So what of the music.

Although not attempting to tell Tolkien’s epic story in any literal sense, Bo Hansson’s album does feel like a journey. His tone poem invites the listener to wander through the fantasy landscapes of Middle Earth by conjuring textures and images via the synesthesia of music.

‘Leaving Shire’ provides a creepy, mysterious opening more Fanghorn than homely Shire, its guitar lines running over reedy organ. Suitably atmospheric scene-setting, that’s for sure. ‘The Old Forest & Tom Bombadil’ has a misty, other-worldly air before breaking into a folky Scandinavian canter that takes us towards ‘Fog on the Barrow-Downs’. Things get much more spooky here; shadows flit just out of sight while disturbing cries echo from the shadows.

Those shades coalesce into ‘The Black Riders’ and the chase is on: ‘Flight to the Ford’. Percussion and bass add depth to the keyboard currents and the treated guitar is like a surge of energy carrying us across the river to a temporary haven at ‘The House of Elrond’. But the journey is far from over. ‘The Ring goes South’ strides purposefully through this half-familiar terrain, a landscape where each hill is rooted in a different mythology and each wood is clothed in a cloak of almost-remembered design. The music slowly fades.

Hansson Lord Rings Back cover

Side two opens with ‘A Journey in the Dark’, conjuring deeply sinister emptiness for barely a minute before a different, arboreal breeze wafts out of ‘Lothlörien’. The melodies of an alien folk music (Elvish or Swedish?) are both stately and spacious. ‘Lothlörien’ transforms into the galloping ‘Shadowfax’ who thunders across the screen until ‘The Horns of Rohan’ signal ‘The Battle of the Pelennor Fields’ is imminent. While muscular, this conflict is far from chaotic. After a few charges and heroic deeds, it fades to silence.

The wounded have restless sleep. Like many of these pieces, ’Dreams in the House of Healing’ is brief, this one a melange of fragments like unquiet slumber.

More travels; we are ‘Homeward Bound’. It is a good walking tune that stays at much the same pace for ‘The Scouring of the Shire’.

The final journey is to ‘The Grey Havens’, a rolling organ-driven epilogue that rocks not like a metal band but like a boat on an endless ocean. This pensive waltz, pierced now and then by eddies and strange currents, provides an opium-dream conclusion to a quest both epic and brief.

Listening again, my biggest criticism of Lord of the Rings is a sameness in the musical timbres. The pervading texture is a foundation of keyboards with guitar passages thrusting forward periodically to lift the energy. As most of the percussion is restrained pattering rather than roaring drum kit, the music could not be said to ‘rock out’ at any point; even the faster sections have a somnolent quality. It is an album of evocations, of imaginings, of fantasies. Inviting for an afternoon daydream, or beguiling late at night, Lord of the Rings is a record of gentle ambition that delivers without flash or bombast, almost humbly, a set of evocative postcards. Which, some forty-six years on, is not such an insignificant achievement.

*

Bo Hansson

♥ This post should be considered Appendix A in the Lord of the Rings series.

It should also be noted that others have reviewed the almost-iconic Bo Hansson album. One fine example is by a fellow who appears to be attempting to create a new genre: orc-rap.

Bo Hansson Lord Rings 05

 

 

26 comments

  1. I bought this album when it came out in the UK, mainly ‘cos I was in thrall to Tolkien at the time. However it fell prey to my prog clear out a few month’s later when I fell for Neil Young and all things California. I haven’t heard it then since late 1972.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It still doesn’t sound much like Neil Young.

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  2. Quite appreciated the Gollum re-seller comparison Bruce, helped put the personal signifance of this one in perspective.
    And I plan on borrowing that term ‘somnolent’ and using it at the earliest possible convenience!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Be my guest, Geoff. Ideal for your next languorous post!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Y’know, I’m fairly intrigued by this one, Bruce. I dare say there are better proggy noodlings for me to investigate, but this one does appeal to me somewhat.

    Though I’m disappointed it doesn’t sound much like Neil Young! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, ya canna have everything, son.
      (This one’s quite easy to locate, which is a minor advantage! Though if you got yourself a Swedish copy, I’d have to set the Uruk Hai on you)

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      1. So, if I bag a Swedish copy you’re the last person I tell? Is that right?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. No, mate. You gloat. Loudly.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. This one’s unfamiliar to me. Will have to check it out…thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Think primitive Jean-Michel Jarre or ‘Meddle’ era Floyd and you’ll have the vibe. Hope you enjoy it!

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  5. This one was in my collection as well. Nice to see it placed in its historical context here.
    Re-listening on Spotify now!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great post that shows us that you have the right mind set to listen to this masterpiece. First Bo had a vision that no one else had to take on such a challenge. And two he allows us to sit back and listen to the music while we journey back in our minds and vision Middle Earth like we did while reading the books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. True enough. The ears and minds we bring to the listening (or reading) surely set the tone. Glad you enjoyed the post!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. […] APPENDIX A: ANNALS OF RINGS AND SWEDES […]

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  8. Excellent review and understanding of this highly misunderstood gem of an album.
    Seriously one of my All Time Favorites – actually will never get enough.
    Few artists achieve the ability to immediately move one’s soul and then hang onto it over a complete two-sided album.
    My only, only regret is the period’s sound quality, I’ve heard that there were attempts at reproduction quality – still like Nectar’s Remember The Future, the “dated” recording abilities kind of add to the flavor of the music and the times – back then appreciation was held for creativity more than state-of-the-art recording.
    It’s nice to know that the Rock God himself, Jimi Hendrix, was in awe of Hansson.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very pleased to have done justice to a much-loved album, OO. Do you like the other Bo Hansson albums too? (Myself, I’m very fond of the second, ‘Magician’s Hat’).

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  9. Ahhh, sorry Bruce I missed this first time around. Thank you very much for the mention of my efforts.

    It’s obviously a really important one for you because of your quest to get it, for me, hearing it a bit later (because I’m so damn young!) I wished I liked it better than i do, possibly because I compare it, very unfairly, with similar synth/soundtracky stuff that came later that I heard before it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No question that the personal influences the listening, is there? What you describe is probably accurate and something all music fans sometimes experience. For example, I’ve always struggled to get the huge love some have for The Kinks albums, having only really heard them later. I’ve also noticed that, as I follow a particular genre or style – both forwards and backwards in time – my reactions can change. I enjoy making the effort to try to contextualise what I’m listening to in terms of what else was happening at the time, thus explaining my love of UK psychedelia. But of course, I’d never over-think any of this. 😖

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No absolutely not, no overthinking here at all folks!

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  10. Currently Stateside for a couple weeks enjoying time with the much-missed family. As per my usual on such visits, I spent one afternoon at my favorite used CD/LP store — CD Cellar in Falls Church, Virginia. While thumbing through the stacks, I came across a CD copy of this one and, remembering it from here, had to part with the US$3.99 required to take it home. Have only listened once so far — on headphones while concurrently watching a muted American Football game on the big-screen TV — and was not displeased. Won’t pretend to have explored its nuances, but can confirm satisfaction at the purchase… and bonus points as my Tolkein/LoTR-loving son thought its existence and my ownership of it cool. Thanks (again).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing the ‘update’ Vic. I’m chuffed to have helped in bringing pleasure to two generations of Furies.
      Reading your response and recalling the album myself reminds me that I really really want to write about Bo’s second album, which I much prefer and is that small, treasured five-star category. Is it too early for New Year’s resolutions?

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  11. It’s in CB’s collection. .

    Liked by 1 person

  12. […] Sweden in 1972, and the following year everywhere else. Some of the pieces were leftovers from Lord of the Rings, but these are jewel-encrusted brooches rather than rusty cast-offs. The three short pieces […]

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  13. It’s always been a great favourite of mine. There are many things that I like about it, but two strong reasons that it works for me. The first is that it is made out of a love for the story; it is, indeed, music *inspired* by Lord of the Rings as it claims, and I think you can hear that in the tracks. The second is that it doesn’t impose strict interpretations on the passages it chooses to interpret; there is plenty of space for the listener’s own imagination. I actually like the limited instrumental palette, and I am very fond of the languid repetitions and the re-quoting of motifs. I like the music so much that I would include Hansson’s ‘Fog on the Barrow Downs’ in my top ten modern instrumental tracks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. High praise indeed, and deserved. I recall that you know Hansson’s second album? It’s probably my favourite.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Magician’s Hat? Yes, I have that too. Also a lovely piece of work.

        Liked by 1 person

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