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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
♥ 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.