The album rocks along admirably and represents an hour of entertaining progressive rock music.
In the movie The Fanatic, John Travolta plays a stalker who, when accused by his hero of stalking him, exclaims indignantly ‘I’m Not A Stalker. I’m A Fan!’. That phrase came back to me when observing Ainur’s dedication to the fantasy world of Tolkien. Lots of people (including myself) would put Lord Of the Rings amongst their favourite books, and amongst their favourite movies too. Lots of artists from Bo Hanssen to Mostly Autumn have been inspired to set those stories to music. Ainur, however, are not interested in those pesky hobbits! The band focuses exclusively on retelling the austere almost biblical tales from the early ages of Tolkien’s invented world, so long in the past that there wasn’t even a sun or a moon! War Of The Jewels is now the band’s fifth album exploring that period of the Tolkien timeline. You’d think they might tire of stories about Elves but their interest in Elves also stretches to one of the side projects of the band where they actually sing in Elvish. Yes, folks: Elvish.
Fantasy is of course very much an Anglo-Saxon brand of literature so I was further surprised to discover that Ainur are a bunch of Italians. Quite a large bunch actually since they number a round dozen plus a lyricist. As well as the usual guitars-bass-drums-keyboards combo, they boast three singers (two female), three string players, a flautist and a French horn player. The pieces I have heard from their first four albums, dating from the period 2006-2013, have a fairly laid back folk and Celtic feel to them, sounding almost like a continuation of Howard Shore’s soundtrack to the Peter Jackson films. After a gap of eight years the band are back with a new record deal and a very different sound. Gone are the folksy influences and instead we get much more of a progressive rock album edging into a progressive/symphonic metal territory at times. It makes for a much more interesting musical proposition.
The album opens with a spoken introduction, accompanied by ominous bells and percussion. It’s a good memory jogger for fans of Tolkien but the stories are so complex that there’s little chance of newcomers understanding what is happening (but it’s suffice to know there’s an awful lot of fighting and dying, betrayals, and world-shattering cataclysms). Luckily, the music stands on its own so don’t be put off if unfamiliar with the plot. The album proper starts with Wars Of Beleriand which acts as an instrumental overture introducing all the themes. Those themes adopt Wagner’s leitmotif model where each theme representing a person, object or event (rather appropriately since Wagner used leitmotifs most famously in his epic Ring Cycle which has its source in the very same Norse myths mined by Tolkien). Trying to work out what the fourteen themes in this seven minute track represent might be tricky but it’s a wonderful whirlwind of energetic progressive rock music, with wave upon wave of synths and crunching guitars. There’s a 70s feel to it that continues strongly into the next track Hell Of Iron – the first with vocals – that boogies along in a neat funky way. The vocals are shared amongst the different singers and the vocal interplay gives the album a bit of a rock opera feel at times. At times, we’re not that distant from Wakeman’s Journey To The Centre Of The Earth. But there are more modern influences including symphonic metal elements which makes some parts of the album sound like Andrew Lloyd-Webber is trying to write a musical in the style of Epica!
Leaving aside the short ballad, The Broaidress, the album rocks along admirably and represents an hour of entertaining progressive rock music. While many of the songs stretch to the seven or eight minute mark, there are often quite distinct sections within each songs. For example, a track like War Begins has an atmospheric slow start with female vocals before unexpectedly changing gear with a splendid riff that Tony Iommi would have been proud to have penned. That one works well but one or two others seem a little disjointed as a result of this approach. The climax of the album is the twelve minute The Great Battle (Or The War Of The Wrath). It opens with an excellent melody accompanied by piano, which is quite striking after the layers of synths so far. This builds up nicely before launching into a fast progressive metal section with touches of ELP and Rush before gently winding down to a close.
All in all, this is an intriguing album. It has some spectacularly good moments and will certainly appeal to a broad range of rock fans, especially those of a progressive bent. The band’s eagerness to tell the complex story has led perhaps to some overcomplexity in the song constructions too but it remains a fine effort. But, if the band continue to obsessively explore the less famous parts of Tolkien’s world, then I fear they will remain a minor footnote in the musical world. For their next album, I would love that the band give us some musical scenes from Lord Of The Rings which I believe would resonate with a larger public. With their undoubted musical skills, that would be something to look forward to.