What is it about winter that ignites that inner spirit of adventure? I can’t tell you how many immortal memories I have of cruising through the barren winterscape of Colorado in deep December, freezing in my used Subaru as the decimating blues of Boris, Sabbath, or Zeppelin tore through those trusty speakers, a bona fide battle cry against staying inside. Blasting classic rock in the summer has its own juvenile pleasures too, of course, but there’s something invigorating about hearing power chords set against the vision of your once vibrant hometown now laid to its yearly hibernation. Is it the thirst for redemption? Is it the sheer excitement of a brand new environmental set of rules? Perhaps it’s the comfort in knowing that, like many of those rock songs being blasted by a confused adolescent for the umpteenth time this century, there’s a reliable sense of rebirth that comes with each returning season, a dependable refamiliarizing that never seems to lose its magic even after decades of knowing how these things go down.
Lord of the Rings. How much nerd can you fit into four words? To think that there was a time when one of the most macho bands in the world could lift lyrics directly from such a goofy fiction is astounding today. Plenty of artists from that era drank from the same stew that Zep did in their campaigns to make the geeky manly, but few went as all out as Bo Hansson did in their attempts to capture the spirit of Tolkien’s hypnotizingly epic universe. Full disclosure: I have never read Lord of the Rings, and my closest involvement with the series outside of the films is an acting turn as Gandalf in a middle-school production of The Hobbit. But I feel fairly comfortable saying that I understand the nature of Tolkien’s most famous works precisely because of the dedication of artists like Hansson, who conjure an atmosphere that, though teeming with possibility and wonder, is tempered through a thick smoke of dread, doldrums, and darkness.
When I initially learned of Music Inspired by Lord of the Rings and had been rotating it heavily for a few days, I dove onto Wikipedia to get some more contextual info on Hansson and was shocked to see the album tagged as “progressive rock.” It wasn’t because the description was entirely off, but because listening to Hansson, it hadn’t once occurred to me that this music might fit into the grand scheme of other Renaissance-touting shredders like King Crimson and, well, Renaissance. Music Inspired by Lord of the Rings feels so separate, so self-contained in its calm behavior that its aesthetic fixations on fantasy seem like mere tools for a much different quest.
Music Inspired by Lord of the Rings is Hansson’s chamber music for the mythologically minded. A collection as subdued as it is obvious, Hansson’s psychedelic visions from Middle-earth settle into an almost easy-listening stride across its smooth 40 minutes, a lucid stream of organs, violin, tambourines, and, of course, electric guitar. The instrumentation is minimal yet rich, inspiring a feeling of wanderlust while retaining its status as a kind of “background music” for a separate, more central conflict. Rather than seizing its journey by the reins, Music Inspired by Lord of the Rings hangs oddly still in the air, neither overexcited by the tasks at hand nor denying their significance. There is evil lurking at the edges of this music, in the shimmering auras of “Lothlorien” or the cascading guitars of “The Old Forest & Tom Bombadil,” a slight unease whose presence acts as a fuel for the forward motion of these tracks, a mystical conveyance to keep moving at all costs.
Whereas many of his contemporaries in the rock-and-roll-maestro field felt the need to enshrine their songs in a dense cacophony of arrangements, Hansson’s ambitions here are incredibly focused. Although straightforward in their composition, each of Hansson’s pieces conjure vivid, unfolding images of locations, characters, and the scenes they inhabit, standing as a genuine argument for the case of pointed simplicity over aggressive elaboration in storytelling. It brings to mind Jim O’Rourke’s The Visitor or Cameron Stallones’s work as Sun Araw in the way that the pieces exist simultaneously as a foreground and as a surrounding, welcoming themselves as both systems for deeper investigation and as a potential supplement to other personal ventures. Hansson distills the quiet moments of passage littered throughout Tolkien’s work, the slow accumulation of pondering and self-doubt that builds the foundation of any hero’s quest, and in doing so, weaves a new vision of a classically “epic” story as wondrous as it is meditative.
It’s a vision that transcends across settings and circumstances. These days, I’m living in Los Angeles, where the harsh winters of Colorado exist only when I venture home for Christmas, and there’s not quite as much to rebel against when the weather around me is basically as nice as it’s been all year. But that can’t keep December from exuding its usual moody charm, and in a climate where temperate doom still creeps in as I plow my Subie down the 101, it takes a mind like Bo Hansson’s to reclaim that hot-blooded spirit from those cold, wintry clutches.