October 10, 2021

If you have a Tolkien-loving prog fan in your life (and hey, that’s a Venn Diagram with a sizeable intersection I’m sure we can agree!), then here’s this year’s Christmas present…

If the name Dave Brons is familiar to some contemporary prog aficionados, it may be from his work with Celestial Fire – the superb project helmed by Dave Bainbridge (Iona). This album draws upon those connections with contributions from two fellow Celestial bandmates: Bainbridge himself on production duties as well as some keyboards, and Sally Minnear providing some vocals. This is very much showcasing Brons front and centre, however, with his lyrical and highly virtuosic guitar style in evidence throughout this largely (but by no means exclusively) instrumental album.

If the title rings a bell, it is because it comes directly from JRR Tolkien’s poem in The Lord Of The Rings: ‘All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost / The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost’ – all of which gives a strong hint that this album is entirely themed around Tolkien’s epic. Taking fourteen important plot points as inspiration for its fourteen tracks, the album actually takes off deep in Silmarillion territory, with The Song Of Illuvatar and Eä dealing with the very creation myth of Middle Earth. Indeed, it is not until the sixth track, The Shire: A Long Expected Party, that we take up with the central plot of the trilogy itself. What of the music however? Strong themes and concepts are fascinating, but can only take you so far in the substantially instrumental world that we inhabit here.

The key touchstone here is Celtic-themed prog, a not wholly unexpected influence from the repertoires of Iona and Celestial Fire. This Celtic feel also works to great effect in conjuring up the Middle Earth atmosphere, partly because the magnificent film soundtrack has helped to imprint that Celtic feel in our minds in relation to Tolkien’s world. This is evident right from the first two tracks, with an echo of Iona in evidence from the kick-off, and the six-minute Eä mixing a guitar and wordless vocal section with some pleasingly traditional-sounding instrumental work. There are even a few very welcome hints of the half-forgotten Horslips here and there, which can only be a good thing (and indeed put me in mind how much common ground is shared by the Irish mythology of The Tain and The Book Of Invasions and Tolkien’s own creations). A theme is also established of short linking narrative passages in between tracks (and occasionally within them) taken directly from Tolkien’s pen, which works perfectly in terms of setting your mind’s expectation for the sound picture about to be painted by each piece.

With Dave’s guitar being such a feature, and such a strong weapon in his musical arsenal, it would be an easy trap to fall into if the album were to overdo this and become over-saturated to the point of sameyness. Thankfully, he is sage enough to sidestep this, and a significant number of passages here forego the electric six-string magic altogether in favour of piano and other keyboards, together with some lush orchestration. This gives the big, expressive solo excursions far greater impact when they come along, as the ‘too much of a good thing’ temptation is shunned.

Highlights abound throughout the album, but some personal standouts for me include the beautifully building Awakened By Starlight, the grand pomp of Into The Perilous Realm, The Shire with its party jollity coming over like the calm before the gathering storm, the highly evocative The Pass Of Caradhras and the stunning one-two emotional finish of The End Of All Things and the final elegiac mix of triumph and melancholy White Shores And A Swift Sunrise, as Frodo takes his journey to the Undying Lands. A special mention must go to The Ring Bearers, a brilliantly effective piece of composition which simultaneously evokes the plodding, life-draining struggle to Mount Doom together with the life-affirming camaraderie between Frodo and Sam, leaving the listener’s mood as both weary and yet triumphant at the same time. This is mature composition at its most notable, and one of the things which lifts the album. The Riders Of Rohan is also welcome, with its changes of pace between considered introspection and breathless careering of the great horses.

The thing which is hard for me to judge is how this would impact someone unfamiliar with the source material. As a lifelong devotee of the books, the astonishingly good radio adaptation and, later, the triumph of the films, I cannot divorce the music from the theme in my mind. It certainly conjures it exceptionally well. I would imagine, however, that there is enough variety, melodic strength and great musicianship here to satisfy someone coming to it from a purely musical angle. To help along anyone with a casual knowledge, there is even the neat touch of a map with the locations of the tracks noted on it, which I do like the idea of!

A big thumbs-up as well for the album title quoting the source poem accurately: a long-standing bugbear among many Tolkien lovers has been the repeated tendency to misquote it as ‘Not all who wander are lost’ – a small thing perhaps, but the sort of thing which irritates certain people immensely (guilty, your honour)! At around 67 minutes, I can’t help but imagine how glorious this would be as a lavishly packaged double gatefold vinyl, with another ten or so minutes added – but I’m looking back longingly at another era there, rather fittingly like Bilbo reflecting at Rivendell…

If you have a Tolkien-loving prog fan in your life (and hey, that’s a Venn Diagram with a sizeable intersection I’m sure we can agree!), then here’s this year’s Christmas present. They won’t be disappointed. Tell them Bilbo sent you…